Freud and de Beauvoir on gender difference
If one looks at the history of society, one will find that women have almost always occupied the status of second-class citizens. They were granted fewer liberties and agency, and as such, were looked at as inferior. When people in power sought to find out why this was, the argument always seemed to boil down to a single culprit: biology. This led to a slew of misconceptions about women, the most prominent of which was hysteria, an umbrella term for neurosis or abnormal actions that were observed in women.
It was believed that hysteria was the result of a ‘floating womb,’ and that men could not be victim to this disease because they lacked wombs and the ability to procreate. It is perhaps this thinking that led Freud to automatically point at genitals (again, the biological makeup) of women as the root cause of their inferiority in his Femininity lecture. Likewise, with The Second Sex, de Beauvoir herself also showed that the biology of women (in this case, their ability to reproduce) played a role in their inferior status of the “Other” in society.
Despite taking the biological route, however, both philosophers’ theories are indicative of another force that takes precedence in shaping ones sexual life. Freud (albeit indirectly) and de Beauvoir’s works show that it is not so much the biological framework of our bodies as the power of society itself that is inescapable. When detailing the development of girls, Freud initially seems to be suggesting that girls are inferior not merely because of their biological makeup but because of society.
He tells us to be wary “of underestimating the influence of social customs, which similarly force women into passive situations” (Freud, 144). However, as his argument proceeds, this is a claim that becomes shrouded in ambivalence as Freud’s claims seem to leave little room for societal explanation for the development of femininity. For Freud, passivity and aggressivity are the defining traits of each gender. He argues, “when you say ‘masculine’, you usually mean ‘active’.
And when you say ‘feminine’, you usually mean ‘passive'” (Freud, 142). That is, in his thinking, men are always the pursuers, and women are always the pursued. In this way, Freud automatically places women in an inferior category- they are objects to be pursued without the ability of taking destiny into their own hands. Although he goes on to advise us against the usage of these terms because they “serve no useful purpose,” (Freud, 143) he seems to be working contrary to his advice because he adheres to this terminology.
Freud cites the way that sex cells work as evidence of the inherent passivity of females: “the male pursues the female for the purpose of sexual union, seizes hold of her and penetrates her” going on to say that this indicates that “the characteristic of masculinity” has been reduced to “the factor of aggressiveness” (Freud, 142). Furthermore, when girls take on aggressive tendencies, he regards these as “exceptions,” rather than as a result of societal or environment causes (Freud, 145).
In this way, it can be seen that although Freud hints at the possibility of escape from biological pre-determinants, his evidence ultimately shows that one cannot escape the predispositions of the bodies that they are born into. In Freud’s further investigations of the development of femininity, he again continues to inadvertently make arguments that counter any possibility of societal effects on ones development. He states, “sexual life does not emerge as something ready-made” (Freud, 402).
However, he fails at asserting this in that the root of every deviation in female development can be traced back to a biological cause: the lack of a penis. For Freud, “the discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl’s growth”. He argues that women envy the penis because they automatically know it to be the “far superior equipment” (Freud, 151). This turning point, in turn, allows for three possible lines of development: neurosis, masculinity complex, and normal femininity.
While these are all deviations that could certainly be explained in terms of environment, Freud goes the route of explaining them through the use of biology. Neurosis, he argues, happens as a result of the woman being so traumatized by the inability to ever get her own penis that she completely shuts down. In the case of the masculinity complex, Freud describes it as the girl being resistant to the inherent inferiority of her clitoris. Instead, she becomes more aggressive. To this, Freud says that the “predominance of the constitutional factor seems indisputable” (Freud, 162).
In this way, it can be seen that for him, if a girl exhibits masculine traits it is due to biological as opposed to environmental reasons. Likewise, femininity, for him, is also predetermined by ones “constitution,” although “a girl who is destined to become feminine is not spared” the disappointment of not having a penis (Freud, 162). For Freud, there seems to be no way to escape this “penis-envy,” not even when a woman develops her femininity in a manner that is expected of her.
He believes that this jealousy of the penis perpetually pervades the life of all females to the point that their lack of a penis forces them “to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority” (Freud, 164). Although Freud attempts to claim that ones bodies do not pre-determine ones sexuality, his actual arguments prove the opposite. His arguments rest heavily on the idea of penis envy, a condition that is theoretically impossible for women to escape, since penises are not in their genetic makeup.
Although Freud was arguing more for nature than for nurture, the manner in which he formed his arguments indicates both his ambivalence and the possibility that, however unconsciously, society is a strong, inescapable force. Freud was looking at the behavior of women through the lens of 1930s society. In this time, women were generally seen as housewives, and they were expected to be very conservative as well. This societal vernacular impacted Freud’s perception of women and his theories on their development, against his conscious knowledge.
As de Beauvoir cites in her novel, “he writes: ‘The libido is constantly and regularly male in essence, whether it appears in man or in woman'” (de Beauvoir, 39). This view of his comes off as slightly misogynistic and shows that despite being extremely progressive in terms of his theories, he was still a product of the society that he was born into. Furthermore, this view automatically puts women beneath men in that Freud seems to be suggesting that women cannot be truly sexual beings.
He even regards girls who masturbate a lot as “liv[ing] in a masculine way” (Freud, 157). In making masturbation taboo and in expecting women to be less sexually liberated than men, Freud was proving himself to be a product of his society. He automatically assumes that women are innately inferior, which causes him to deduce that the desire for a penis is one that haunts women for the rest of their lives, even to the point that “they are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority” (Freud, 164).
He even goes on to attribute the joy that women felt at the birth of a son to their desire for a penis, never taking into account the fact that male heirs are needed to continue the family name in patriarchal societies. In this way, it can be seen that Freud never seems to fully take into account that it is the way that society behaves towards both sexes that ultimately determines their status. His obliviousness to these other factors further serves to reflect that society plays a larger role in ones conception of sexuality, to the point that it becomes ubiquitous.
Interestingly enough, de Beauvoir also went on to cite the realization of the penis as an important moment in the development of girls. However, she takes a different approach in both the way that this realization affects girls as well as in that she allows room for transcendence from ones biological body. Where Freud assumed that upon the sight of a penis, “woman feels that she is a mutilated man” (de Beauvoir, 41) de Beauvoir argues that it is the way that society reacts to the boy’s penis that constructs this inferiority: “if the little girl feel penis envy it is only as the symbol of privileges enjoyed by boys” (de Beauvoir, 43).
Societal reactions to penises imbue the boys with a sense of pride that girls cannot have in the same way. The boys are proud of their penis that is “once himself and than himself” (de Beauvoir, 48) whereas the girl has nothing of the sort. This, de Beauvoir argues, is what causes the girl to “make an object of her whole self,” which in turn leads her to view “herself as the Other” (de Beauvoir, 48). For de Beauvoir, the term ‘object’ is similar to Freud’s passive/active dichotomy- girls are objects that are objectified and looked at as beneath men, whereas men are subjects, exerting their power over women.
Furthermore, the idea of the ‘Other’ for de Beauvoir is the idea that women are a separate, inferior entity than that of man. These dichotomies only become evident when girls see the treatment that the boys receive because of their penises, not the existence of the penises themselves. It then becomes a perpetual cycle: “The woman who is shut up in immanence endeavors to hold man in that prison also,” that is, the woman who is victim to immanence, or the feeling of trapped in ones body, goes on to impose the same societal ideals on her daughter (de Beauvoir, 717).
In this way, it can be seen that de Beauvoir feels that it is society that has played the larger role in shaping sexuality. However, this is not the only means through which de Beauvoir reasons that biology can render woman inferior to man. De Beauvoir also approaches this situation from a reproductive standpoint. In her attempt to detail the history of women she goes back to the nomadic era, to a time when civilization had yet to develop and contraceptives had yet to be invented.
Women were deemed a burden because “the extravagant fertility of women prevented her” from actively participating in the advancement of civilization (de Beauvoir, 62). Since contraceptives were yet to be invented, women could not control their fertility. In this way, woman was victim to the biology of her body- “she was the plaything of obscure forces” which in turn rendered incapable of providing the necessary manual labor. Men, on the other hand, were able to help the group prosper “by means of acts that transcended his animal nature” (63).
Unlike women, he was able to transcend his biological pre-determinants by providing for his group by hunting and building infrastructure. Since it was the men that were ultimately providing for the women, they were given a status of superiority while women were given the status of inferiority as they delved further into immanence. She sums this up nicely when she says, “Man’s design is not to repeat himself in time: it is in to take control of the instant and mold the future” (de Beauvoir, 65).
While it is woman’s nature to give life and to continue on in this perpetual cycle, it was man who is building the world that the woman and the children she bore would grow up in. This, de Beauvoir argues, is the origin of the ideology that has permeated through all of society, placing woman beneath man. However, one must take care to note that women were slaves to their biological processes in the nomadic era. De Beauvoir goes on to argue that the case is different today.
While de Beauvoir argues that woman’s genetic makeup was inescapable in nomadic times, she argues that the inferiority of women is due more to society than to biology. Although biological pre-determinants are what set the precedent for the patriarchal societies that we currently live in, it is society as a whole that has continued to perpetuate these ideals. De Beauvoir argues, “It must be admitted that the males find in woman more complicity than the oppressor usually finds in the oppressed” (de Beauvoir, 721).
That is, de Beauvoir believes that the societal ideology behind what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ has perpetrated the feminine psyche to the point that they have become complicit. Furthermore, “woman cannot be transformed unless society has first made her really the equal of man,” (de Beauvoir, 728). For, when a girl “is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification” (728).
If society were to change its conceptions of what characteristics pertain to each gender, then this would not be an issue- girls would be able to behave in a less prissy manner without being looked at as out of place. In this way, it can be seen that de Beauvoir viewed society as a bigger obstacle than biology. While both Freud and de Beauvoir certainly take biology into account, it can be seen that it is in fact society that is truly inescapable.
Freud showed this inadvertently in the manner that he argued his case, although it must also be noted that he did actually acknowledge the role of society in the development of ones femininity. However, it was de Beauvoir who took it one step further by explicitly stating the ways in which society affects ones conceptions of femininity and masculinity. While the biology of the bodies that we are born into certainly play a role in who we become, de Beauvoir is instrumental in showing that it is ultimately society that perpetuates the relationship dynamic between different groups of people.
However, she was not a pessimist; she did believe that both could be transcended. De Beauvoir even offers a light of hope towards the end, when she speaks of the transcendence that is possible when woman can use contraceptives and abortion, as well as redefining her roes when “she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal-” (de Beauvoir, 718) a possibility that Freud may never have foreseen, given that he saw women as indefinitely inferior to men due to their biology.