Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Femininity is a construct influenced by cultural attitudes and shaped by historical and ideological forces. However, unlike masculinity, in which boys become detached from their mothers and feminine influences and learn to be men, femininity results from both nature and nurture, as little girls usually derive their first feminine ideas from their mothers. Patriarchal social structure has been dominant throughout history, with specific places and times adhering to different ideas of femininity. Despite the fact that some countries have been deemed more feminine than others, the dominant male power structure is usually in effect. Women’s ideas about their own femininity develop within and in response to a system of male dominance.
While feminism seeks the social, economic, and political equality of women and men, femininity describes qualities associated with being female. Traditionally, these qualities have been viewed as weakness, passivity, and submissiveness. Research indicates that from the earliest societies into the twentieth century, feminine gender roles were specifically different from masculine roles, with the weight of that tradition increasing year by year. A clear influence on American ideas of femininity in the twentieth century was the nineteenth century Victorian distinction between the public and private spheres. The domain for most women at that time was the home; the love and devotion with which they...
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Status (Psychology and Mental Health)
Further complicating the feminine ideal for women is the bombardment of images in advertising, films, popular music, the fashion industry, books, television, and magazines. Each one imparts to women the femininity required to attract men or to be a superb mother. Also, feminine stereotypes of extreme dimensions of body height and thinness—largely unattainable to the average American woman who stands five feet, four inches tall and weighs 140 pounds—strongly influence women, many of whom diet rigorously and develop serious eating disorders. Beauty products have presumed a connection with femininity and, along with the fashion industry, have redefined the concept. Cosmetics and the latest fashion advertisements assure women that using such products will make them beautiful, stylish, and ultrafeminine. Tanning lotions and beds, piercings, implants, cosmetic surgeries, and feminine hygiene products are all proclaimed as necessities for an ideal femininity. These products cost women hefty sums of money and present health risks from infections, chemical reactions, botched surgeries, and cancer.
In considering the effects of femininity on feminism or vice versa, some women claim feminism, which includes struggling desperately to be successful in the business world, has been detrimental. Women with families, determined to “do it all,” or at least prove their worth to the world, who put in long hours at work and even longer hours at...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Barry, Kathleen, and Daniel Walkowitz. Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007. Interesting account of the airlines’ decision to hire glamorous young women as flight attendants, who set new standards for the feminine ideal. Includes lengthy accounts of the flight attendants’ union activism to prohibit exploitation and sex discrimination and the airlines’ rigid employment policies.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. The next edition of the best-selling book that rocked the consciousness of women in the 1960’s. Friedan, women’s rights leader and founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), pleads with women to ignore what society tells them and find their own fulfillment.
Mac an Ghaill, Maírtín, and Chris Haywood. Gender, Culture, and Society: Contemporary Femininities and Masculinities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Studies connections between gender, culture, and society; examines femininity theory, masculinity theory, and gender during rapid social change.
Mead, Margaret. Male and Female. New York: HarperPerennial, 2001. Originally written in 1949, Mead’s book uses her studies of seven Pacific tribes as a departure point into an investigation of twentieth century maleness and femaleness in the United States.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth:...
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Femininity (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
Freud refused to put forward a definition of femininity: "In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is . . . but sets about enquiring how she comes into being" (1933a , p. 116). He posits a primary bisexuality as the starting point for this process.
In Freud's view, the genesis of femininity differs from the genesis of masculinity because its linearity is interrupted. In the pre-oedipal phase, the girl's libido, instead of taking the opposite-sex parent as its object, as the boy does, is directed at the mother as object. This period is difficult to investigate because of the "inexorable repression" (1931b, p. 226) that overshadows it.
Therefore, the development of girls' sexuality is studied in an indirect way based on the process that the boy undergoes. In the early stages a similar path is traced: "the little girl is a little man" (1933a, p. 118), with the clitoris being interpreted in the phallic phase as a miniature penis. Then there are two shifts in perspective, shifts in which there is an explicit moral imperative. The girl has the duty of turning from the mother to the father (1939a [1934-1938]): the zone of sensitivity moves from the clitoris to the vagina, and there is a change of object to the father.
Reconversion is made possible by the differential impact of the castration complex on boys and girls. In boys, the castration complex puts an end to the Oedipus complex. But for girls, the castration complex makes the Oedipus complex possible.
The girl sees her mother as castrated, while her love is "directed to her phallic mother" (1939a, p. 126). This gives rise to a penis envy that later radiates beyond the desired object to imbue the woman's psychic life with envy and jealousy. The girl then chooses the father as object because he possesses the envied organ, and this new libidinal orientation is superimposed on the orientation of the mother as object, without replacing it entirely. The woman often transfers her early relationship with her mother onto her male partner. The need to anticipate from someone else what the woman once wanted to possess herself makes her dependent in a way that leads both to masochism (with the castigation she receives relating to her position in coitus) and to narcissism (which is expressed in her greater need to be loved than to love). Presenting another perspective in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), Freud stated that following puberty, women, "especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment" that exercises "a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism" (p. 89).
Although the texts that present a synthetic view of femininity are focused on lack, Freud's incursions into mythology and literature emphasize something beyond the phallic stage in girls. This something is a place in the female body characterized by its internal nature (the "jewel-case") or by disorientation, as in the sense of the uncanny. The woman then appears not as an externally definable form but as a "hollow space" (1916-1917a [1915-1917], p. 156) that can receive what penetrates it. The spatial disorientation is coupled with a temporal disorientation, in which the representation of femininity becomes confused with the notion of birth linked with the fear of death, as if the third of the Fates had come to embody a femininity that governed all of destiny. Freud's study of femininity thus diverges into a theoretical synthesis derived from phallic logic and a representation of femininity that mythologizes woman as a placehether of birth or deathhere the processes of life are played out for every human being.
The idea of taking a foreign element into the self appears as the crossroads where the representations of psychoanalysis intersect with those of female sexuality. When Freud noted how the transference configuration enabled a repressed element to be taken in, he usually gave an examplelisabeth in Studies on Hysteria (1895d) or Irma with her dream about the injectionf a patient struggling against accepting a proposed solution or repressed representation (1900a). Recourse to these terms had a clear impact on the paper "Negation" (1925h), because acceptance into the ego enabled repression to be effectively lifted.
Freud noted the conjunction between such acceptance and the outcome of female sexuality in "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c), where he referred, in connection with the mother representation, to the discovery of the "cavity which receives the penis" (p. 218). In the moment of affirmation associated with the lifting of repression, the psychic apparatus has to receive the repressed element just as the female "hollow space" has to receive the penis. This correlation reappears in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), where Freud describes the man's refusal to accept the cure from the psychoanalyst as his rejection of femininity. Does a refusal of this kind arise from the fear of losing masculinity or the fear of invasion occasioned by opening the self as a "hollow space"? Two different definitions of femininity clash at this juncture.
Post-Freudian psychoanalysis both extended and revised Freud's lines of approach to femininity. The phallic primacy attributed to both sexes became a matter of dispute. Karen Horney asserted that the girl discovers vaginal sensations early on. As a result, recourse to the penis takes on a defensive significance. Ernest Jones did not consider woman as a form of failed man, and he related female anxiety not to castration anxiety but to aphanisis anxiety, the fear of losing her internal sensitivity. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel challenged the passive concept of the vagina. She saw the vaginal aim of incorporation as conferring a capacity for mastery, as with anality.
Conrad Stein sought to define a specifically feminine outcome by positing "castration as a negation of femininity." He argued that insofar as masculinity carries a "symbolic representation of itself," it is a guardian of identity. In contrast, the female pole, situated close to being, is governed by a tendency toward "destruction of the self's identity," which, when it gives rise to anxiety, "is negated by the act of regarding woman only as a castrated being." The risk of destruction to which the woman is exposed leads to a focus in the analysis on the dimension of invasion (André; Schaeffer).
Is there a fundamental difference between masculine protest and feminine protest organized around a receptive hollow space? In accordance with some of Michèle Montrelay's theories, François Perrier emphasized the girl's relationship with her mother, in which her fantasy involvement does not involve risking a part of herself but diving in head first. To reduce the risk of being sucked in, the girl appeals to the male organ, on which she confers investigative properties. Penis envy is thus governed not by rejection of femininity but by the girl's desire to orient herself in this space.
Wladimir Granoff examined the tendency for theory to construct femininity in negative terms. He regards femininity as a defense that resembles the child's decision to prefer the father to the mother. In this view, thought needs to turn away from femininity to construct an intellectualized universe. This turning away resembles the son-in-law's prohibition against turning toward his mother-in-law in Freud's analysis and is related to Freud's invitation to explore, beyond classical Greek culture, cultures that have been repressed by "turning from the mother to the father" (1939a, p. 114).
Because the female genital opening is feared as a place of absence, pubic hair has been ascribed the function of a veil, though it can equally well belong to fantasies surrounding fertility and growth, reminiscent of Demeter (Schneider). Marcel Detienne's observation concerning the dual character of the founding sites of Greek cultureEleusis is the counterpart of Athens"an be used to inform the study of femininity. Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]), drawing on Aeschylus's Eumenides, belongs in the mythical tradition that began with the founding of Athens. Accordingly, it pays tribute to Athena, a virgin born without a mother. It might well be appropriate to unearth those underworld entities that Athena proposes at the end of the tragedy, to lead "Into the earth/The cavern timeless as the tomb."
See also: Activity/passivity; Castration complex; Dark continent; Female sexuality; Feminine masochism; Femininity, rejection of; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Gender identity; Masculinity/femininity; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Object, change of/choice of; Penis envy; Psychology of Women. A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, The; Sexual differences; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes."
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