Psychodynamic Gender

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The psychodynamic approach emphasises the importance of change and devlopment in behaviours. It believes this development is mainly driven by unconscious forces.

The most famous psychodynamic explanation is Freud's psychoanalytic theory - this can be used to explain gender development

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Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud proposed we move through a number of age-related stages of development, encountering different conflicts along the way. These conflicts need to be resolved at each stage, to ensure healthy psycholoical development

Establishing our gender identitity is part of this healthy development, and should occur around the age of five

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Stages of development

  • Oral stage (up to one year)
  • Anal Stage (1-3 years)

At these stages, gender is said to be flexible (children are, essentially bisexual), and there are no clear differences between girls and boys, as both seek pleasure through the mouth, and then the anus.

Up to the age of three, children have no real sense of being pasculine or feminine. When the move into the

  • Phallic stage (3-5/6)

Their understanding of gender begins to develop. During this period, the child seeks pleasure from playing with their own genitals. At the same time, they pay attention to others' genitals and so become aware of the physical differences between females and males. This is the start of them developing gender identitity

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Oedipus Complex

According to Freud, the main force behind a child's gender developmenet is their relationship with their parents. 

The Oedipus complex describes the conflict all young boys experience when sexual energy ('libido') is directed into the phallus and a boy develops a passionate desire for his mother. The conflict arises as boys will want to possess their mother for themselves, but see their father as a rival who stands in their way. As a result, boys become jealous of their fathers and begin to wish their father dead.

But boys fear their father, and as a consequnce, they develop castration anxiety. This occurs because boys are afraid  that their father will discover their desire for their mother, and will punish them by removing their prized posession; their penis.

Boys recognise their father is more powerful as they have a bigger penis. The father is likely to have already reprimanded his son for playing with himself- perhaps boys believe their mother has already been castrated by their father as their mother is without a penis, and so the threat appears real. The conflict for boys is between their lust for their mother and their feelings of hostility toward their father.

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The way boys and girls resolve the conflicts they have with their respective parents is to identify with the same sex parent (called identifying with the aggressor).

By identifying with the same sex parent, not only do they develop a superego (which allows them to adopt the morals of their parents) but they also adopt the same sex parent's gender identity and role. For example, a boy who has resolved his Oedipus complex will have a strong sense of male identity becuase he has adopted his father's male characteristics. This may explain why five and six year olds, at the end of the phallic stage, may appear to behave in similar ways to their parents. 

Freud would enforce a boy who has not fully resolved the complex, perhaps due to the absence of a father, would be confused about his sexual identity.

Freud stated that boys use the defence mechanism of repression to push their desires for their mother and hostility toward their father into the unconscious. This reduces the tension between a son and his father, allowing the son to identiy with the father. In doing so, boys also reduce the threat of castration.

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Electra Complex

Freud was less clear on girls' gender development, but his predeccessors proposed the Electra Complex, as an alternative to boy's Oedipus. When they're in the phallic stage, girls are also said to experience a conflict between a desire for their opposite sex parent and resentment to the same sex parent.

The reason why girls resent their mothers is because they realise males have penises and feel cheated because they don't have one. Girls believe they have been castrated already, and blame their mother for this, as she does not have a penis. Girls desire a male penis, as they are symbolic of male power.

According to Freud, girls experience penis envy, yet when they discover they cannot have one, they substitute their desire for a desire for a baby.

Girls want their father to provide this baby, and so they lust after their father. But girls are anxious at their mother finding out about these feelings. While boys fear aggression from their father, girls fear losing their mother's love. This is the conflict that needs to be resolved.

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Having solved the conflict, girls identify with the mother. It is this process of identification that results in the girl adopting the female identity and assuming female characteristics.

Girls also identify with their mother, although Freud argued that their motivation was not as strong, so they develop a weaker gender identity. This lack of motivation is due to girls not being as fearful as boys -  she believes she has already been castrated, so this is not a threat, meaning the girl doesn't identify with the mother as strongly as the boy identifies with the father.

By identifying with their mother, girls retain their mother's love. It can also be argued that by internalising the mother's role, the daughter is unconsciously hoping still to attract her father in the same way her mother does.

Freud believed that women are sexually inferior to men; he viewed male development as the norm, and female development as deviant.

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Absent Parents

Freud wrote in a time when most children lived with both parents, but he did theorise of what owuld happen in the case of families where one parent was absent. He suggested such children would be unable to experience the Oedipus/Electra complex, and therefore could not resolve the conflict necessary to develop a healthy gender identity. For example, he argued boys without a father wouldn't develop a masculine identity and would therefore become a homosexual. 

Rekers and Maoray (1989) offered support for his ideas - they investigated a sample of boys with gender identity disorders and found in many cases their father was absent or left before the age of 5. Even where fathers were around, they were described as psychologically remote.

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Through the Oedipus complex, the boy actively identifies with the father, whereas in the Electra complex, the girl passively identifies with the mother.

Gender roles develop along the same lines: the boy leaves behind the passivity of his bisexual phase, becoming active and dominant; the girl assumes the passivity of the bisexual stage, becoming quiet and submissive.

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Freud (1909)

Wanted to demostrate the existence of the Oedipus complex. A boy called Hans had developed a phobia of horses. Freud asked the father to write and tell him of his son's development so he could intepret in terms of his psychoanalytic theory.

It displayed that Hans was particularly afraid of large white horses with black blinkers and black around the mouth. He was terrified to leave the house as he belived that horses may bite him/fall down on him.

Freud described Hans' phobia as an outward expression of his unconscious castration anxiety. His fear of horses was really a displaced fear of his father - since Hans's father wore dark glasses (like blinkers) and had a beard (like a dark muzzle). According to Freud, Hans's fear was particularly strong as his mother was pregnant. This made Hans very jealous and his fear of horses falling down was actually an unconscious desire to see his father drop down dead.

Critics have questioned the evidence provided by this case study. It's hard to generalise - other boys may not show the same anxiety and Hans. Freud was also accused of interpreting the case to support his theory. He never met Hans, so it was very unreliable. It also later transpired Hans had witnessed a horrific horse and cart accident just before his phobia - classical conditioning a more valid explanation?

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Psychodynamic Critics

One test of gender development would be to consider cases where children grow up in household without two parents in the traditional mother and father roles.  

Green (1978) studied the sexual idetntity in children living in atypical households. The study involved 37 children from 3-20 years. They were from households where the parents were homosexual or transexual. Various measures of the children's gender identity were used: toys and clothing preferences, occupational preferences and roles assumed in role plays. All except one child showed typical gender preferences and roles. 

This displays the development of secure gender identity doesn't seem to depend on the presence of two parents acting in the traditional 'mother' and 'father' roles.

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Evaluation of the Psychodynamic approach

  • If psychodynamic theory is correct, we would expect sons of strict or harsh fathers to develop stronger masculine gender identities than other boys. But research shows the sons of more liberal and supportive fathers who have more secure gender identities (eg, Mussen and Rutherford, 1963)
  • Malinowski's (1927) study shows the Oedipus complex was a Western phenomenon rather than a universal one. He found boys in these islands still developed a masculine gender, despite being disiplined by their mother's brothers rather than their own fathers.
  • Freud didn't give an adequate account of females' gender development, implying the theory is too subjective, arising from his own male perspective rather than a more objective viewpoint. Freud himself was unhappy with the Electra. Some critics also disliked the notion of infant sexuality, as it seemed unlikely young children would have the kind of feelings described by Freud. 
  • The pschodyanmic approach suffered from the issue that it is unscientific. It is difficult to generalise from, lacks reliable evidence and is not objective enough.
  • Most children understand gender long before four or five, and evidence shows gender identity develops gradually.
  • The Oedipus complex arose from self analysis (Masson, 1985) so wasn't objective
  • Golombok and Fivush note most gender researchers don't take this approach seriously
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Analysis of the psychodynamic approach

  • Biological explanations would support the idea that anatomy is destiny, and the idea gender development is driven by nature. But they would question the validity of unconscious forces that can't be easily tested. They wouldn't recognise the role of family experiences in the way that the psychodynamic approach does.
  • SLT would agree that parents can have a large influence on the development of gender, but they would disagree that same-sex parent needs to be present for healthy gender development. SLT would sugest that young children can learn from other same-sex role models, aside from their parents. This would explain why most evidence show that children from single parent families develop normal gender identities (Golombok et al). SLT would also question whether gender develops at a certain stage in childhood, and would argue development depends on environmental experiences rather than maturation.
  • The Cognitive developmental theory would agree with Freud that gender develops in stages, but would argue it develops gradually over time, rather than in 'one fell swoop.' They would also argue there is evidence that children develop awareness of gender as young as three, rather than five or six. The cognitive approach would also emphasise the conscious component of gender, criticisng that psychodynamic focuses too much on the unconscious.
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Other Psychodynamic theories

Various neo-Freudians have reinterpreted aspects of Freud's theory of gender development.

  • Horney (1933-67) argues girls aren't envious of the penis itself, but of the male position in society. The penis is a symbol of male power.
  • Erikson (1968-74) questions Freud's assumptions males are superior to females. He says girls don't experience penis envy, and are very positive and secure about their own bodies. He even suggests males experience womb envy, desiring a woman's ability to create. Men channel their energies into active pursuits, whilst women are more content to be inner-directed.
  • Chodrow (1978) enforces that gender begins in infancy and focuss on the early mother-child relationship for gender identity. The mother sees herself and her daughter as similar, and hence identifies with her daughter more. This results in her mother behaving to her daughter in ways that encourage closeness. She behaves to her son in a way that promotes individuality, leading him to be seperate. Female identification continues as the daughter grows older, and leads to the child developing a self concept that includes ideas of mutual caring and responsibility. Males grow and distance their own identity futher from that of the mother, rejecting all things feminine.
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