The Gender Ambiguity Model: Sameness and Difference

The third model is Jessica Benjamin’s re-interpretation of the preceding two models in her book Like Subjects—Love Objects, which was published in 1995. She argues that psychoanalytic theory should decentre its theory of development by conceiving of development as continuously and ongoing reconfigurations of earlier positions. Benjamin questions both the idea of more or less fixed personalities (cf. the concept of identification instead of identity), as well as the androcentrism of Freud’s model and the gynocen- trism of Chodorow’s 1978-model, which make either men or women the more privileged subjects in development. Benjamin’s main point is that the binary opposition between desire and identification—between difference and sameness—are not sustained in the developmental process. Especially in the early stage of separation-individuation she finds that the father of both girls and boys becomes an important object of iden- tificatory love, which cannot be attributed solely to his role as a liberator from maternal power. The father (or some other significant person who is not the mother) represents the child’s first experience of ‘difference’ compared to the ‘sameness’ of the mother; he becomes ‘the knight in shining armour’, as Margareth Mahler describes him. However, the mother remains an important figure of identification, power and attachment for both boys and girls. She may also be the agent of separation when she enters increasingly differentiated interactions and mutual recognition with the child, but the person outside this dyad has a unique role in the development of agency and desire: ‘Identification with a second other as a “like subject” makes the child imaginatively able to represent the desire for the outside world ... the new feature associated with this phase, its legacy to adult erotic life, is identificatory love ... [and it] remains associated with certain aspects of idealisation and excitement throughout life’ (Benjamin 1995: 57-58). For girls, the identificatory love with the father is an important psychological basis for becoming able to be a subject of desire and to gain a sense of autonomy over her own body and self. For boys, it may also have narcissistic and homoerotic overtones that confirm the achievement of masculinity. In this phase where love objects can be like subjects, the child does not need to choose between the mother and the father or follow conventional rules of gender differentiation. Benjamin suggests that children use crossover identifications to formulate important parts of their selves, as well as to elaborate fantasies about sexual relations; for instance, the father can be an object of homoerotic love for the girls (Benjamin 1995: 126, 129). This ‘over-inclusive’ phase of gender identification is refigured by the gender complementarity of the Oedipal phase, where identificatory love is split up into love and i dentification, and the fantasy of object love comes to compensate for the narcissistic loss of the identification with the opposite-sex parent and the love of the same-sex parent. Envy, feelings of loss and resentment may lead to both repudiation and idealisation of the other sex now (p. 66). However, this is not necessarily the final outcome of gender identity development. Benjamin adds the possibility of post-Oedipal complementarity that may integrate the Oedipal complementarity with the identificatory love from the pre-Oedipal phase. Whereas the Oedipal form of gender complementarity is a simple opposition based on splitting, the post-Oedipal form is instead constituted by sustaining the tension between sameness and difference in a way that can make the oscillation between them pleasurable instead of dangerous. Benjamin suggests that this becomes possible if the Oedipal gender split is transcended by a symbolisation that opens up for more mature reflections on gender. This symbolisation may be fascilitated in a historical period of constant reconfigurations of gender (confer the point of Adkins 2004b discussed in; see also Chap. 1). The ‘familiar’ in the other can then be found by returning to the earlier phases where the child experienced identificatory love with both parents and to the transitional space of play with different nominal gender positions. Here development includes the ability to return without losing the knowledge of difference (Benjamin 1995: 74-75). Post-Oedipal complementarity may in this way regain some of the multiplicity and mutuality denied by the Oedipal form, but that exist within the line of gender development. Thus, according to Benjamin, it is not necessary to search for subversions of the gender dichotomy outside of the gender system. A more flexible identificatory capacity may be part of the story and loosens up gender as a fixed form as it ‘reworks its forms, disrupting its binary logic by breaking down and recombining opposites rather than by discovering something wholly different, unrepresented or unrepresentable’. Thus, the meaning of gender may be changed from within, not by radically deconstructing the whole idea of difference.

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