The emergence and development of gender roles have always intrigued psychologists interested in these psychological constructs that actively shape the reality of human life. The vital importance of gender roles to human social experience is the reason why most theories of development offer at least a partial explanation for their evolution. Of such theories, Sigmund Freud’s theory of gender identity development seems to offer the best explanation of gender roles, providing a coherent system of beliefs and assumptions about the process.
The development of the boy parallels the plot in Sophocles’ famous play, Oedipus Rex, where the man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. This development was described as the Oedipus Complex under which the boy develops affection for the feeding breast, later transplanted toward his mother. This, in turn, results in the resentment of the father and jealousy.
This can go as far as culminating in the child’s desire for the father’s death. However, this feeling that in normal individuals is suppressed later on can re-emerge in dreams or literature. The Oedipus Complex is defined as “the unconscious antagonism of a son to his father, whom he sees as a rival for his mother’s affection”, paralleled by the Electra complex in girls (Tiscali Reference).
It can go as far as culminating in the child’s desire for the father’s death. However, this feeling that in normal individuals is suppressed later on can re-emerge in dreams or literature. The Oedipus Complex is defined as “the unconscious antagonism of a son to his father, whom he sees as a rival for his mother’s affection,” paralleled by the Electra complex in girls (Tiscali Reference).
The resolution of the Oedipus Complex for a boy comes in the form of “identifying with his father, breaking with his mother, and gaining a mature gender identity which is inevitably described by Freud and his followers as a male who has accepted all things strong and aggressive and rejected all things pliant and receptive” (Kerr 2000). Although scholars continue to dispute this theory and the very existence of the complex, it nevertheless coherently explains why the boy is willing to identify with the father and pick up his mode of behavior. It also correctly pinpoints the importance of the relationship between parents and children for the formation of gender roles. Quite often one can notice that boys who experienced antagonism with their fathers or lacked communication with representatives of their gender when they were young demonstrate a different perception of their gender role.
Girls’ development of gender identity is closely related to the relationship with parents as well, once again including both parents into this count. Girls are ascribed with the Electra complex that forces them to develop an attachment to their fathers so as to share his power. However, the father’s denial to share power leaves girls “develop the feminine characteristics of passivity, obsession with beauty, and timidity which will make them attractive to men” (Kerr 2000).
In fact, this picture of development may be typical of our society that is patriarchal in nature; in matriarchal societies where women hold power, the complexes could have taken a different shape or could have been non-existent. However, this model accurately reflects the balance of power in our society that leaves it most typically in the hands of men. Women, in many cases, feel that to share power they need to find a way to the heart of the man, which may parallel the development of the Electra complex even if the analogy of ‘penis envy’ seems overdrawn and too direct (Kerr 2000). However, interpreted more broadly, as the envy of power with which men are endowed in our society just by virtue of their masculinity may prove indeed an effective explanation of gender identity development.
Another effective part of Freud’s theory is the idea that a human move through a series of stages in one’s psychosexual development. In each of these stages, an individual requires enough gratification of sexual urges. If “we do not receive an appropriate amount of gratification – receiving either too little or too much – we may become fixated in a particular stage”, which will result in disorders and psychological problems (Science Museum, 2004). The sequential successful move from one stage to another corresponds to an intuitive understanding of any development process in which transition to the next stage is only possible after the successful completion of the previous one. In healthy, normal individual such a move is invisible to the inexperienced eye; however, with a disorder, it comes to the fore.
Thus, the Freudian theory offers a coherent explanation of the stages of gender development. Pinpointing the formation of gender roles to certain stages, it explains the need for gradual movement from one stage to another. Understanding of gender identity formation regarding children-parents relations connects it to the stereotypes present in society and family situation, explaining many deviations in children whose family experience was unusual.
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