“Women never bought Freud’s idea of penis envy: who would want a shotgun when you can have an automatic?”
― Natalie Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography (2000)
Image Source: Copyright Adamanska
When I first read about Sigmund Freud’s theory of Penis Envy in a woman’s girlhood psychosexual development, it caused a lot of feminine outrage in me. In The Sexual Theories of Children (1908c), Freud theorises that when the little girl realizes that unlike her brother she does not possess an external set of genitalia she decides (albeit subconsciously) that she would rather be a boy ie. penis envy. And this envy is stemmed not on the situation of boys in general, but on the possession of the male sexual organ in itself. The girl reproaches her mother with not having given her one and turns away from her to take the father as a object of love and desire. The desire for a penis is replaced by the desire for a child by the father which eventually is carried over into a wish to have a baby, and it may find expression in the act of giving birth to a baby (especially a boy).
I don’t agree with Freud’s theory but I have to admit that I do envy the male penis – not the appendage – but the power, the ease, the advantages that comes with being male. Men don’t have to choose their careers over their children. And as much as the feminist movement has changed society and as much as women have been liberated, we continue to subscribe to many ancient notions of what it means to be male and female. The penis continues to award men with ambition and drive, and women, because they lack the symbol of masculine power, continue to live as second to men.
Freud was a man made from the patriarchal culture in which he lived and his theories on the feminine mind and how he considered women to be inferior to men is now often dismissed as misogynistic and outdated. And for all the controversy and debate his ‘studies’ and theories caused, eventually even Freud himself admitted that his understanding of women was limited.
“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”
-From Sigmund Freud: Life and Work by Ernest Jones, 1953 (1)
Well, I’m a woman myself and even I have to admit I often find the nature of the feminine logic to be in turns either exasperating or amusing. Maybe what Freud just couldn’t figure out for certain was how women can get away with not stating what they want in exact terms yet somehow reserve the right to get angry when they don’t get it. And through an unknown universal loophole; this anger is completely justified.
But that perhaps is what makes us so fascinating. And not a little bit scary.