Generational Psychological Positions

According to Raymond Williams, any useful cultural analysis begins with identifying patterns and their relationships with other patterns, ‘which may sometimes reveal unexpected identities and correspondences in hitherto separately considered activities’ (Williams 2011: 67). When comparing the changing patterns of feeling of gender in the three generations of women and men with psychoanalytic theories of gender and heterosexual development in mind, an interesting and ‘unexpected correspondence’ between generations and theories emerges: the oldest generation seems to be best explained by the Freudian Oedipal model, with its emphasis on psychological gender complementarity in the patriarchal family and the importance of the split between feelings of identification and feelings of desire (Freud 1925). The middle generation has a better match with the gender identity model, where processes of individuation-separation in connection with asymmetric parenting lead to gender differences in the development of intimacy and autonomy (Chodorow 1978). The youngest generation fits best into the gender ambiguity model, which questions the idea of two traces of development and sees difference and sameness as a continuous tension in psychic life of gender as well as in the modern family (Benjamin 1995).[1] The three psychological models were formulated during or in the aftermath of the childhoods of the three generations, and even if the fits are not seamless, the relatively better match between the models and the childhoods from the same period is notable.[2] This indicates that it is not only the theories that have changed as a result of critical work, but also the gendered psychologies they set out to describe. My claim is not that the Oedipal constellation was not present for the younger generations or that issues of separation-individuation were not relevant for the oldest. Not everyone in these generations fits into the same psychological models. As we have seen, there are important differences depending on social class, and definitely also on the many particular ways in which mothers and fathers transmit gender to their children. Therefore, there are always a variety of outcomes. But as has been consistently argued in this book, individual variation does not prevent social patterning across these variations. What emerges is an affinity between the generational patterns of gendered psychologies and the different theories of gender psychology. This suggests that the different psychological constellations and tensions described in these theories have had different impacts in different historical contexts. It also suggests that the reason these theories developed as they did was that they caught the contours of a changed generational pattern of the times in which they were formulated: new structures of feelings related to gender. Seen through a theoretical lens, the generational feelings of gender could be described as follows.

As boys, the men in the oldest generation came to identify with their fathers and direct their love towards their mothers. Masculinity is constructed outside shared recognition with their mothers (Corbett 2009). The phallic idealisation, as well as the fear of humiliation we see among them, carries traces of both the pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal father, but the organisation of male sexuality as a ‘want’ appears to be more clearly Oedipal (Freud 1925). The split between sexuality and tenderness may be seen both in the sentimentalised image of the mother, the asexualised figures of the women they marry, the denial of their own dependency and weakness, and maybe also a fear of homosexuality. The women in this generation project sexual drives onto men and idealise their fathers as the good object. This idealisation carries traces both of identificatory love and forbidden erotic desire, yet it does not give them access to the position of becoming a subject of desire. Their own sexuality is only indirectly visible and some of them directly disown it—it is only among some of the middle-class women that we may see some traces of the ‘want to be wanted’ (Dimen 2002). The ambivalence towards their mother may have an Oedipal imprint, the deception of having to return to her world. To be too active (like the egoistic sisters) outside the female sphere appears to be both forbidden and guilt-ridden. The problems inherent in this ‘normal femininity’ of the Oedipal model, the scar it leaves on self-esteem and the masochistic acceptance of not being allowed to be a subject of desire could explain the tendency towards bitterness that is never allowed to really disclose itself.

For the middle generation, gender complementarity has become less stable and psychological gender issues seem to circle questions of sameness and difference in relations and identities. The main problem for the men of the middle generation seems to be safeguarding an insecure masculinity, which makes them obsessed with gender difference. What fits less well compared with the gender identity model is that there are few traces of a father as a symbol of freedom and autonomy. Nor do the men in our sample separate themselves abruptly from their mothers at the intersubjective level, and there are also much less disidentification with femininity than the gender identity model suggests. However, in the intrapsychic world, femininity seems to be more threatening. This leaves this generation of men with a tension between an intersubjective embrace of feminine values and an inner fear of them as being able to destroy an insecure masculinity. When it comes to sexuality, it has a more defensive character than of an Oedipal ‘want’. Whereas the Oedipal organisation of male sexuality in its mature forms also includes a moral dimension of protecting women, the sexual organisation in the middle generation sometimes appears to be less mature because it lacks Oedipal integration. Instead of the protecting man and the innocent child-woman, we get a culture of boys hunting women as prey. If we turn to the women of this generation, the unclear borders and relational conflicts between mothers and daughters are conspicuous, but we do not see much of the mutual intimacy and closeness that is also an important point in the gender identity model. However, the traditional gendered subjectivity, more capable of intimacy than autonomy, the close relationships with female friends, the acceptance of the reproductive female body and the intensity in the conflicts with the mother may all reveal that the women still have deep emotional same-sex attachments. The father emerges clearly as the liberator of the daughter from the mother’s control, but the emotionally more muted relationship between fathers and daughters, compared to the stronger idealisation in the older and the more warm relationship in the younger generation, reflects the model’s claim that the relationship with the father never becomes as intense as the relation to the mother. Also, the mark of instrumentality in the heterosexual relation and in sexuality may indicate that the father (as well as male lovers) is a supplementary choice emotionally. The women in this generation seem to have far fewer problems in degendering the qualities they identify with in their fathers than the men have with the qualities they identify with in their mothers. An obvious explanation for this may be the cultural gender hierarchy; however, it might also be connected to a more secure basic gender identity that stems from the mother-daughter bond. The women interpret these new psychological qualities as a more modern way to be a woman, as different from their mother’s way, but not as something masculine. They may feel more or less attractive as women when they are young girls, but they do not question whether they are women or not.

In the youngest generation the identificatory love, especially for the father, is evidently present in both women and men, without jeopardising their attachment to their mothers. The father is not important as a liberator—this is a role that the mother now manages well—but he represents the exciting ‘difference’ compared to the more taken-for-granted ‘sameness’ of the mother, as Benjamin (1995) suggests in the model of gender ambiguity. For the men the identification is with the father’s positive masculine qualities, whereas the warm relationship described by the women may indicate that the father for them rather is important by giving a possible, but not always gained, access to the position of being ‘a subject of desire’ (Benjamin 1995). The mother tends to be more taken for granted, yet both sons and daughters also see her as an independent subject and identify with both her ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities. Thus, we see contours of the more over-inclusive patterns where both mothers and fathers can be ‘love objects’ and ‘like subjects’. The crossgender identifications are used to formulate important parts of the selfpresentation as well as to elaborate on sexual relations (Benjamin 1995: 126; Corbett 2009: 213), which suggests the possibility of a male generational bond beyond defensiveness as a source of enjoyment of play, competition, excitement, desire and mutual recognition between men. This matches our youngest generation and may constitute the psychological background to opening up to homoerotic impulses: love and identification with parents of either sex are no longer so clearly separated. We do not see the same playfulness in the female generational bond, however. In the model of gender ambiguity, the post-Oedipal gender complementarity also preserves a certain emphasis on Oedipal difference, both in women and men of this generation, especially in connection with bodies and sexuality. In the youngest generation gender has become more mul- tiple—‘different moments of the self’, as Dimen describes it (2002: 57). As we have already seen, this does not necessarily or magically remove traditional gender practices, yet these practices seem to be based less on a feeling of gender in the youngest generation compared to the two older generations. Maybe it is convenient that the woman do more of the housework and care for the children, but it is neither because housework is particular feminine nor because it is unmasculine.[3]

There may be more tensions in the psychological position of gender ambiguity than are identified through this rather optimistic theoretical lens, and the intertwinement of multi-gendered subjectivities and other societal structures has no definite outcome. It might lead in the direction of making inequalities appear as equalities, as Hanne Haavind (1984a, b) has argued (see Chap. 1), and might generate new frustrations in a generation that thought gender had lost significance in most areas of life. The point here is not to judge the different constellations of gender as more or less successful or recommendable, but to draw attention to how different generational feelings of gender express processes of social transformation. In contrast to either narratives of liberalism or theories that make a story of decay out of the move from a strong Oedipal character to the narcissist character of modern society (see Kohut 1977; Lasch 1979), my intention has rather been to stress the historical specificity of psychological tensions and potentialities in each generation as a dynamic formation that is shaped by the past and the present of one generation, and changed further in future generations. In this sense, the story has no beginning or end and will always be open to new ways of organising life and new feelings of gender.

  • [1] As I was finishing this book, I came across a new article by Nancy Chodorow (2015), where shealso argues for the existence of generational narratives in psychoanalytic feminist thinking aboutmasculinity. She describes them in connection with second-wave feminism as pre-second-wave,and second-wave and post-second-wave theories, and names their masculinity models according tothe classical narratives of ‘Oedipus’, ‘Glory of Hera’ and ‘Wrath of Achilles’. The point I am makingin this chapter is that these shifts in theories not only reflect the theoretical and political thinkingof academic generations, but also indicate that processes of gender socialisation empirically mayhave changed in these generations of women and men.
  • [2] A further point could be that the theories also come from different places: Freud’s from CentralEurope; Chodorow’s and Benjamin’s from the USA. The elements of misfit seen between theNorwegian generations in my sample and the theories might be related to this. However, psychoanalytic theory has always also been part of a cross-national community, which complicates thequestion of origin.
  • [3] The different class composition of the generations in our sample may also be part of the picture.The two first models—which have been criticised for being reserved for middle-class/bourgeoisfamilies—seem in our case also to cover working-class and rural families, as long as they share thesame family pattern of male provider and female carer. However, the more fluent and over-inclusive
 
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