Gender and Feelings

Feelings of gender are also products of intrapsychic and intersubjective relations. From an object-relational perspective, gender involves both sexual object choices and the emergence of a gendered self, which again has multiple constitutive components that may vary from individual to individual and also over time. Gender is a ‘soft assembly’, as Adrienne Harris has called it, constructed, assembled and maintained differently in different persons (Harris 2008: 40). Chodorow (2012) suggests four components that are often central: the psychic creation of bodily experience, the experience of intrapsychic and intersubjective self-other relations, the transference of linguistic and cultural categories, and the affective tonalities explicitly connected to gendered fantasy content. These components will come together in each individual’s personal animation of gender, ‘with a characteristic emotional tonality and an organization designed to manage and contain particular anxieties and defenses’ (Chodorow 2012: 146). Relational feminist psychoanalytic theories maintain that gender is a cultural as well as a personal construction (Layton 1998; Chodorow 1999). It is seen simultaneously as an effect of discursive positions and as elements of each individual’s sense of self and his or her specific relationships with others. The personal images of gender gained through relational experiences, and the emotional qualities that are invested in them, do not necessarily conform to dominant cultural norms. Continuous and ongoing identity work is necessary to make the inner and the outer world connect (Nielsen 1996, 1999; Chodorow 1999). Every psychological formation of gender is unique, but it is also the case that a shared social and historical context may create social patterns in gendered subjectivities— between or within gender groups—because the society and the kinds of families where subjectivities are created are gendered in historical and cultural ways (Layton 2004; Roseneil 2007). As Chodorow (2012) formulates it, gender development is characterised by clinical individuality, universal psychic processes and social patterning.

The move towards thinking in terms of processes of identification rather than of identity mentioned earlier has been prominent in gender theory over the last 25 years. In particular, constructing gender identities in a binary system with different developmental routes for women and men has increasingly been seen as outdated, also in versions where they are not understood as universal, but historically contingent stories (Chodorow 1978; Nielsen and Rudberg 1989). The focus is not on gender identity as a specific content, but rather on processes of identifications, which may more often than not traverse biological and cultural gender dichotomies. In addition, relational psychoanalyst feminists today question the presumption that internally consistent gender identities are possible or even desirable. However, the rejection of the binary gender identity model has in this strain of thought not led to a dismissal of ideas of development or the significance of gender differences in such developmental processes. As Jessica Benjamin (1995) has argued, if the category of identification is seen as relevant for theories of gender, it must also be taken into account how such gender categories take hold in the psyche. The question has rather moved from taking difference as the point of departure to seeing how difference is constructed, not only culturally, but also personally. In Benjamin’s words, the notion of psychologically ‘coming to terms with [sexual] difference’ has given way to exploring the ways in which perceptions of the body and the sense of self and others ‘come to figure difference’ (Benjamin 1995: 49). This places the question of gender differences in a relational space, which also includes how gender was built into the parents’ own psychic worlds:

Any term that a child learns is learned in the context of the parent’s unconscious and her or his own particularized femininity and masculinity, which is itself emotionally cast, shaped by fantasy, and includes many elements of affective tonality and context that the parent has built into gender. (Chodorow 2012: 145)

The generational perspective makes visible that gender also emerges in same-sex relations, not only within the gender polarity. For instance, a women’s positive or negative experience of her body may be organised around reproductive issues or sexuality, or both. A man may feel his ‘masculinity’ threatened when confronted with powerful women or because he feels inadequate in relation to other men, or both (Corbett 2009; Chodorow 2012). By locating the formation of sexuality and gender in a relational space, ‘sexual difference’ in fact becomes less absolute and more complex than when differences lead back to a single principle of binarity, whether based on anatomy (Freud) or commanded by language (Lacan). The relational roots imply that even though personal gender identities will always have multiple components and represent some kind of psychological compromise formations, they are not always or necessarily defensive and pathogenic symptoms of splitting and repudiation of otherness, which is the dominant perspective in poststructuralist accounts (Butler 1990; Goldner 1991; Corbett 2009). Gender identities may, depending on the way they are culturally constructed and personally formed, be more or less hurtful, and in benign cases they may contain pleasurable elements that people may want to hold on to (Benjamin 1995; Layton 1998; Harris 2002, 2008).

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