During the third major developmental stage described by Freud, called the phallic stage, the child’s psychic energy is invested in the genital organs and the pleasure that is received through organ manipulation. It is also during this period that some of the most profound psychological changes in the child’s personality development take place.
As children develop a fairly sound identity of themselves as individuals, they are faced with increasingly sharpened conflicts with parents. The child develops feelings that grow in magnitude to form a complex of interrelated emotions and behaviors termed the Oedipus complex for males and the Electra complex for females. The ultimate importance of this stage is in the resolution or working through of these conflicts and the subsequent development of appropriate gender role identification. Freud believes that the entire dynamic process of child-parent interaction and the resolution of Oedipal and Electra conflicts provides the framework for the basic construction of the superego.
The Oedipus complex takes its name and meaning from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex in which Oedipus kills his father and marries a woman who is, unknown to him, his biological mother. On learning of this transgression, he punishes himself by gouging his eyes out. Freud believes that the desire to possess the mother sexually is characteristic of all males during the phallic stage of development. Parallel to the biological changes that take place during this stage, the male seeks the primary and original love object, the mother, and begins to see the father as a competitive force for the love and affection that only the mother can give. The male child’s feelings of inferiority are compounded by the results of a comparison between his and his father’s genitalia.
Although the wish to possess the mother physically and psychologically is unrealistic in terms of societal taboos, the male child pursues these irrational desires and eventually is forced to confront his father over who will be the primary recipient of the mother’s attention. During this subtle yet profound confrontation, the male child eventually recognizes his father’s outrage at his motives and becomes fearful that the father will punish him (through castration) for his incestuous behavior. This fear takes the form of what Freud called the castration complex and specifically results in castration anxiety for the boy. In other words, he fears his father will castrate his sex organs, which are now the focal point of his maturational and psychological growth.
This fear (which remains at the unconscious level) is so strong that the male child eventually abandons these obviously intolerable thoughts about his mother and realizes that the necessary gratification can be obtained only through identification with the father and through the vicarious satisfaction obtained through father-son interaction via mother-father interaction. It is primarily through this process that (1) the beginnings of the superego come into being, because the resolution of the Oedipus complex represents a recognition of societal and tribal mores and values, and (2) the child identifies with his father, leading to successful procreation on the child’s part and, indirectly, fulfillment of a very general instinct. The Oedipal conflict is thus resolved.
Freud described a comparable Electra conflict for females but did not elaborate. Many Freudians believe that the process is much more complex for girls than the Oedipal situation for boys. For girls, initially, the young female child does not realize there are any distinct differences between the sexes. Through experience (physical and social/emotional contact with both parents), she realizes she does not possess the same organs the male does. A sense of inferiority over this results in what Freud called penis envy. Penis envy amplifies and intensifies her love for and attachment to her father, and there is a corresponding rejection of her mother. The girl is assumed to unconsciously hold her mother responsible for her lack of a male sexual organ. The dynamics of how gender identity is thought to be formed within the psychoanalytic perspective is shown in Table 1.
However, the girl is thought to realize eventually that the incorporation of a penis is physically impossible and that direct gratification of her desire for one must be channeled into identification with the mother. Freud was much less explicit in detailing the process of the resolution of the Electra conflict than in specifying the course of the resolution of the Oedipal conflict.
The distinction Freud made between the experiences for males and females during the phallic stage of development is often cited as a chauvinistic view. Whereas the male is concerned with the expression of his sexual desires through the manipulation of his genitals, the female is described as being preoccupied with the inferiority of hers. Although both sexes come through the conflict with the same eventual developmental outcome (development of the superego and a gender role), the characterizations of the male and the female through the process have very different connotations.
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