The Gender Identity Model: Autonomy versus Intimacy

The second model challenges the Freudian idea that psychological gender differences are non-existent before the Oedipal phase and offers another interpretation of the Oedipal drama. A central reference here is Nancy Chodorow’s book The Reproduction of Mothering, which came out in 1978 and where she argues that differences in masculine and feminine personalities are better explained by early object-relations than by the Oedipus complex.2 What is achieved in the Oedipus complex must be seen as building on what happened in the pre-Oedipal period, not least during the process that Margareth Mahler has named ‘separation- individuation’, which starts in the second year of life. This process coincides with the age when the child learns its nominal gender and thus early gendered representations of the body and the self become intertwined with psychological tensions between freedom and safety, autonomy and intimacy. The argument has two elements. The first is that if the mother is the primary object, the separation is more ambivalent for the girl because [1] [2]

she and her mother are of the same gender, and is more abrupt for the boy as he is of a different gender. Femininity will be constructed in the generational dimension: the girl is little, the mother is big, but they are of the same kind. This gives the girl’s gender identity a safe ground, and her subjectivity becomes more clearly relational in its character and with good capabilities for intimacy and empathy. However, the development of autonomy and establishing psychological borders between herself and others may become restrained. For the boy, on the other hand, separation takes place in the dimension of gender, which implies a more dramatic relational cut-off from his primary identificatory object. This may give him a better capacity for autonomy, but constrains his relational capacity. Chodorow summarises the gender identity development in a way that emphasises the advantages for the girl and the problems for the boy: ‘growing girls come to define and experience themselves as continuous with others; their experience of self contains more flexibility or permeable ego boundaries. Boys come to define themselves as more separate and distinct, with greater sense of rigid ego boundaries and differentiation. The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate’ (Chodorow 1978: 169).

The other element of the gender identity model is the sociological framing of the separation-individuation process in the post-Second World War family arrangement (white, middle-class) family, where the mother is the primary carer for the child and the father is a more distant figure. For the boy, the establishing of a masculine identity becomes more precarious when he does not have a model at hand to show him what masculinity implies. He does not know exactly what a man is; he only knows that a man is not a woman. Thus, masculine identity becomes abstract and negatively defined, and based on a repudiation of femininity. He will fear and denigrate everything connected with the feminine— closeness, weakness, care—and deny its existence in himself. Care may be received as long as it takes the form of service and does not turn him into a baby. For the girl the problem is rather that the closeness she has with her mother also makes her vulnerable to the mother’s psychological conflicts, which again stem from the mother’s own restricted agency. This means that the already ambivalent relation between mothers and daughters—where the girl both wants to stay close and have freedom— may become more strained and conflict-ridden. In this setting, for both boys and girls, the father comes to represent autonomy and freedom, a link to a bigger and exciting world. Thus, in relation to the psychological capacities for intimacy and autonomy, the two genders seem to start at opposite ends and this one-sidedness may build weak spots into their gender identities: for women intimacy may be grounded in anxiety of conflicts and low self-esteem, while for men autonomy may be a kind of omnipotence where his own dependency is disowned and projected onto unworthy “others”. In both cases, other persons are not recognised as subjects in their own right.

  • [1] 2 Dinnerstein (1976) and Benjamin (1988) are, in somewhat different versions, other examples ofthe second model. Nancy Chodorow’s and Jessica Benjamin’s views on gender and developmenthave many parallel features. In the 1990s they both abandoned the idea of two separate lines ofdevelopment and put more emphasis on gender as a personal construction (see Benjamin 1995;Chodorow 1994, 1999, 2012). When I use Chodorow’s (1978) book as an example of the secondmodel and Benjamin’s (1995) book as an example of the third model, it is only these specific books
  • [2] have in mind, not what the authors’ views were earlier or later.
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