Who is asking the question?
The question was originally asked by Freud to Marie Bonaparte, whom he was analyzing. Traditionally, all important enterprises were conducted by men. They were the observers who defined the world. That is meaningful, because in general, we have lived in a phallocentric culture where everything has been constructed from a male’s point of view. Most “great thinkers” who conceived of and defined the world have been males.
Consequently, as Glocer Fiorini (2022)
points out, the subject studying an object has traditionally been male, and the object being studied has been female. That renders the male as the active subject who desires, and the female as the passive object being desired. The female and her perspective have traditionally been thought of as “unknown,” “different,” “mysterious,” or “other.” If the observer is a male, it follows that he would think of females in this way, and think of his own perspective as the known established model.
As a result of a hegemonic culture where everything has traditionally been conceptualized from a male’s point of view, women have also tended to share a phallocentric ideology and have perceived themselves as passive objects of desire. This book demonstrates that there is a powerful change occurring now. Women are adopting more active roles, perceiving themselves as human beings with desires and agency. They are re-conceptualizing culture through their own experiences and asking their own questions. From their perspective, they are no longer “the other” nor “a mystery.” And while “women (and men), want to be loved,” they also want to love and to sublimate and have their own ideals.
Today, many criticize Freud for his apparently misogynistic theories. However, everything should be understood in its cultural context. Freud was avant garde when he articulated his theories almost a hundred years ago.
What is a woman?
Today, psychoanalysis is reexamining its conceptions of “women.” Freud proposed the contradictory ideas that anatomy is destiny and that gender identity is something culturally attained through the resolution of the Oedipus complex (Glocer Fiorini, 2017
). On one hand, Freud’s oedipal theory accentuates a binary theory by taking the subject to a masculine or feminine position via a heterosexual outcome. On the other hand, he goes beyond this masculine–feminine binary. In “The Psychogenesis of Homosexuality in a Woman” (Freud, 1920
), he maintains that the subjective gender construction involves
three variables: somatic sexual characters, psychic sexual characters (masculine or feminine attitude), and type of object choice (homosexual or heterosexual). He maintained that these three variables mix in different combinations.
Today, most new theories are in line with Freud’s (1920) notion. Anatomy is always culturally signified and is seen as only one variable in the subjective construction of gender. Culture has a strong binary reference, but people are increasingly conceptualizing their gender identity as non-binary and having characteristics traditionally associated with the opposite gender.
: Many theorists consider that while being female refers to being born with a particular anatomy, being a woman or being feminine are subjective social constructions. Each individual develops her own singular notion. In her opening remarks at the last International Psychoanalytic Association meeting, Julia Kristeva paraphrased Simon de Beauvoir as follows: “We are (biologically) born female, but ‘I’ (psychosexual conscious unconscious) become (or not) feminine” (Kristeva, 2019
There is a difference between “woman” and “feminine.” The latter concept is based on the masculine–feminine dichotomy. It is a cultural and psychoanalytic notion which can apply to women, to men, and non-binary gender identities. We can talk about “feminine” aspects of men. In this way, the concept of the feminine is not universal, and it is necessary to deconstruct it through a non-binary model.
While adhering to the notion that being feminine is a subjective construction, theorists vary in the role that they attribute to anatomy in the development of gender identity. Kristeva stresses the notion that “the body – far from being a solely biological fact – is a psychosomatic construction that takes form as the speaking subject emerges in its relationships with the paternal and maternal instances” (Kristeva, 2017
, p. 68; Balsam, 2022
). The body does not exist in a vacuum. It can only be conceived as the person emerges within the subjective relationship with its maternal and paternal objects.
Balsam (2022) stresses the importance of the female body’s capacity to engender life. She thinks there is a cultural fascination with it, and she maintains that those subjects who possess a female anatomy will have to take this into account as they deal with themselves, interact with others, and develop their subjective gender identification.
Butler, on the other hand, challenges conventional notions of gender identity and maintains that being a woman is unrelated to anatomy. According to the author, gender identity is performative. It is continuously redefined by performing certain behaviors, which are in turn related to the place occupied in society (Butler 1990
Today, most authors understand gender conceptions as related to social constructions. Those social constructions are informed by conscious and unconscious identifications. They are also the product of the history of the places women and men have occupied within their families and societies. Once the infant is born, it is assigned a masculine or feminine gender. Even before conception, it is the object of the projections and expectations of all
the ideals and values that its parents and culture have about gender stereotypes. Laplanche (1997)
refers to these projections and expectations as “messages of gender assignment.” The child gradually understands who she is and what others expect from her.
A study done 30 years ago with a newborn baby in a nursery illustrates the extent to which gender characteristics are assigned. The baby was first dressed in light blue, and both men and women observers said it looked “powerful and wise.” The same baby was then dressed in pink and the same observers said it looked “pretty and delicate.”
Parents contribute to the child’s gender identity through the way they relate to the child in reference to its gender and through the identificatory object they provide.
Subjects born with a male anatomy can be feminine, be women, and have maternal feelings and attitudes. That is especially relevant for gay men and transgender women. Subjects have the right to identify themselves with a particular binary or non-binary gender.
What is to want?
We can talk about two types of desires. The first concerns sexuality and drive. The second concerns “want/wills” which refers to sublimated desires related to creative work and the ideal of how to be in the world. That latter meaning is particularly relevant today as women are developing new self-ideals.
As for sexuality and drive, women want passively to be loved. They also want to actively love. As for want/wills, just like men, they sublimate their desires and pursue their own ideals and projects.
Kristeva maintains that Freud’s classic question does not refer to “desire,” but to “want/will.” “It’s the pillar of the choice of an ethical life. It refers to the relationship of the feminine to the ideals of life, and to life itself, inseparable from cultural ideals” (Kristeva, 2019).
The notion of “will” has an immediate connection to “agency.” To have agency is to own your will. Ellman (2022)
discusses how women have been historically identified with a passive role, and are now struggling with their ambivalence about having agency.
Each woman is a unique human being and wants something different
The new psychoanalytic theories conceive of the feminine – and gender notions in general – as something that transforms itself. Gender ideals change within the cultural context.
A woman’s sexual desires will include her psychic sexual character and her choice of object. Traditionally there was no freedom of choice regarding desire – not from the sexuality dimension nor from the “will” dimension. From the sexuality dimension, it was inconceivable not to follow the anatomical mandate and have a heterosexual object choice. From the “will” dimension, it was unimaginable to have ideals outside of being a wife and mother. Today, women can explore those two dimensions. They can aspire to different gender identities and to new professional ideals.
The specific desires of a woman are shaped by the interaction of her drive, family, and social culture. The social cultural context is a convergence of her race, social class, and religious beliefs, among other things. Today, as we challenge traditional hegemonic concepts and attempt to be more appreciative of each person’s unique values and backgrounds, we are paying closer attention to those social variables.
Although each woman is different, we can still conceptualize “women” as a heterogeneous collective group.