Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

An emotionally charged work intended to enrage the reader, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise analyzes the way in which female-dominated child-rearing arrangements lie at the roots of masculinity and femininity. Dorothy Dinnerstein argues that the “human malaise,” the deeply pathological and fundamentally life-threatening attitude that the species has toward itself and nature, arises from the same sexual arrangements that are intended to alleviate the pain of that malaise. The division of labor into male and female spheres, responsibilities, and privileges, in other words, is both the symptom and the cause of the sickness of humanity. More frightening, perhaps, is the idea that men and women accept this division. Explaining why they do so is Dinnerstein’s primary goal. From the outset, then, her book is profoundly feminist: It begins with the assumption that current gender arrangements must be changed and that without such a change the human species will succeed in committing collective suicide.

The book’s title captures these primary assumptions. The mermaid symbolizes a treacherous femininity, the lure of a deadly, underwater darkness. The masculine minotaur represents unnatural lust in all of its mindless, greedy power. Together, the two images evoke the ambiguous position of humanity as a species in the animal kingdom, while signifying Dinnerstein’s more specific focus on the cancer of gender. She claims that “until we grow strong enough to renounce the pernicious prevailing forms of collaboration between the sexes, both man and...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Along with Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978) and Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), The Mermaid and the Minotaur helped to shift American feminist thought toward an analysis of the psychological roots of gender. Previously, insulted by Freud’s negative attitude toward women and his discussion of penis envy, a number of feminists had rejected psychoanalysis altogether. Thanks to Dinnerstein and others, feminists have begun to look more closely at the importance of sexuality and desire. Furthermore, whereas earlier feminists had focused on the material and institutional dimensions of women’s subordination, psychoanalytically informed works such as The Mermaid and the Minotaur challenged women to consider the impact of family arrangements and child-rearing practices on human mental and emotional development.

In conclusion, a key aspect of Dinnerstein’s contribution is the attention she gives to early childhood relationships. Unlike Freud, who stressed the role of the father, her focus on the mother’s role provides deep insights into the psychological effects of child-rearing arrangements long accepted as natural and necessary. To be sure, some critics have suggested that Dinnerstein overstates her case, in effect “blaming the mother.” Other critics have questioned her emphasis on biology, arguing that the meaning of motherhood is culturally variable. These critics question the decisive split between nature and culture which underlies Dinnerstein’s argument. Finally, given the depth of the pathology Dinnerstein describes, some have wondered if having men participate in child rearing is enough of a solution. Perhaps this idea reasserts the idea of men as heroes, urging them to come to the rescue of humanity. Despite these criticisms, however, The Mermaid and the Minotaur provides a provocative discussion of the destructive potential of gender and a compelling argument for the transformation of existing sexualarrangements.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. A further investigation of the role of primary female child care in gender identity and personality development.

Brennan, Teresa, ed. Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1989. A collection of essays that may help the reader situate Dinnerstein within a larger context of feminism and psychoanalysis.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Provides an analysis of gender similar to Dinnerstein’s, although it is less bleak.

Flax, Jane. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A consideration of major developments in recent critical thought with a discussion of Dinnerstein’s contribution to feminism and psychoanalysis.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Draws on Dinnerstein’s work to consider the effects of women’s mothering, but it has a more positive appraisal of motherhood and the virtues associated with it.