A Critical Analysis of Freud, Psychoanalysis, and Femininity

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Table of Contents

  • An Overview of Freud, Patriarchy, and the Gender Binary
  • Criticism Surrounding “Penis Envy”
  • Criticism Surrounding the Superego and the Oedipus Complex
  • Conclusion

It goes without saying that Sigmund Freud remains influential in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. He is the founding father of psychoanalysis and gave the world a critical understanding of how an individual’s childhood has an enormous influence on their adult life that in turn, shapes their personality (McLeod, 2018). His ideas are reflected in the way we think, talk, suffer, and heal. It helps shapes the way we ask questions and seeks answers. Even critics of Freud postulate theories in Freudian terms as a resource for their criticism (McLeod, 2019). While his findings are a huge part of psychology, neuroscience, and culture, many of his ideas and the research they are grounded in are catastrophically wrong (Dvorsky, 2013). This paper will justify that while Freud’s influence on modern culture is profound and long-lasting; he was simply a product of his time, making his theories problematic. This paper will touch on the validity and criticism of his theories but will focus specifically on how his research remains outdated but more importantly damaging and dangerous to certain segments of the population. This paper will review Sigmund Freud’s perspectives on female sexuality and homosexuality and how they are deeply misogynistic and parallel patriarchal notions of the Victorian era (Cherry, 2009). Overall, this paper will show how the application of Freudian theory to femininity and women today is flawed.

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An Overview of Freud, Patriarchy, and the Gender Binary

To this day, the 20th century is still considered Freud’s century as there is no denying that his work impacts the entirety of mental health treatment today. He remains influential in how people think about personality and the mind. Freud is best known for his discoveries and theories related to the unconscious mind, dreams, infantile sexuality, libido, repression, and transference (Unknown, 2008). However, Freud, being a product of his time, operated under the gender binary, the classification of gender into two distinct forms of masculine and feminine. Freud’s time used terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, presuming a person’s gender based on their biological sex. Freud disregarded a person’s body, identity, and expression. His theories paralleled society’s attitudes towards viewing sex as a binary concept with two rigidly fixed options, male or female, solely based on a person’s reproductive anatomy and functions. Furthermore, he focused primarily on the biology of men and disregarded female genitalia and bodily functions as a means of perpetuating a culture of prejudices against women. The gender binary perpetuates the belief system that cisgender women are to act in a way that is feminine while men must behave in stereotypically masculine roles. Freud’s research fueled gender roles and mirrored the systemic idea that women were secondary and did not measure up to the normality of being a man.

Criticism Surrounding “Penis Envy”

Freud’s views of women were rooted in a culture of many prejudices about the capabilities of women especially fueled by the highly repressive Victorian society he grew up in. Women, in particular, were forced to repress their sexual needs and research in this time rarely acknowledged that females even had sexual needs and desires in the first place. This biased outdated understanding of women and gender became the basis of his research. He felt as if they were restricted by their biology, existing to solely serve their purpose, childbearing (Grubin, 2002). He believed women experienced what he called “penis envy”, a stage of sexual development where females realize that they do not have penises and are as a result was thrown off course for the remainder of their lives (Grubin, 2002). Karen Horney criticized this theory and rebutted with the suggestion that men are adversely affected by their inability to bear children and instead have “womb envy” (Cherry, 2009). Freud condescendingly responded that a woman analyst such as Karen Horney was so consumed by her penis envy that it interfered with her research and clouded her judgment. He felt her theories emerged as a result of the very thing he based his theories on (Cherry, 2019).

Criticism Surrounding the Superego and the Oedipus Complex

The unconscious element of the brain does not exist and function exactly the way Freud has postulated, but it is without a doubt that it in fact does exist (Mcleod, 2018). He invested his time in further developing his understanding of the brain by compartmentalizing the brain’s functions, breaking them down into individual parts – the ego, id, and superego. He referred to this as the psychic apparatus (Mcleod, 2018) and considered them to be the three essential parts of human personality. He postulated that the id reflects your unconscious and serves as a pleasure principle, helping a person to survive. The ego develops from the id during infancy and it satisfies the needs of the id in a safe and socially appropriate way. It navigates and functions as a reality principle, operating between both the conscious and unconscious mind. Lastly, the superego develops during early childhood and operates on the principle of morality. It functions in a way that motivates people to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner (Mcleod, 2018). Thus, the dilemma of survival remains that inner human conflict is inevitable because each element of the psychic apparatus are incompatible with the other two (Mcleod, 2018). 7

The focus of criticism regarding femininity is directed at the concept of the super-ego. The super-ego is hypothesized based on a child internalizing their father figure but to better understand how the concept of the super-ego is subject to criticism for its sexism, it is important to have a full understanding of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex of the psychosexual stage of development refers to a child’s feelings of sexual desire toward their opposite-sex parent and jealousy or hostility toward the same-sex parent (Zakin 2011). He assumed boys felt that they were competing for the attention of their mother, and a girl feels as if she is competing for her father’s attention and affections. While children are not conscious of this, their behavior reflects these feelings (Zakin, 2011).

Freud theorizes that a super-ego is formed due to the end of the Oedipus complex – the fear of castration, also known as castration anxiety. Essentially, boys abandon the urge to compete with their father out of fear of castration and instead vow to find a sexual desire for themselves similar to their mothers. However, it would not apply to females that they would be able to also form a super-ego the same way, because they have nothing to fear since castration anxiety does not apply to them (As they are deemed as already being castrated, having not been born with a penis (Zakin, 2011). So, how does a female form a super-ego? Freud theorized that for girls, castration does not resolve the Oedipal Complex as it does for boys, but instead leads girls to enter that phase. Meaning, a girl begins to desire their father and envy that they have a penis while resenting their mothers for not bringing them into the world with one. Simply put, the Oedipus complex ends for boys because of castration anxiety, whereas it begins for girls because of penis envy (Zakin, 2011). Girls did not internalize their father figure as strongly as boys did and as a result, have less of a super-ego than boys do. Freud concluded that a woman’s superego is not able to attain neither the strength nor the independence that men do (Zakin, 2011). Freud only pursued male genitals and castration anxiety as models for both sexes while disregarding the existence and purposes of female genitals (Slipp, 1993).

This fuels the dangers of this theory, as it depicts women to be more animalistic than men, unable to think as strongly as men do, and born simply to breed and serve men (Blunden, 1998). It prohibits the notion that women are entitled and capable of choice and growth and denies them any sort of individual identity (Blunden, 1998). What Freud has claimed to be biological, instinctual, and inflexible to change, really just reflects specific cultural causes as this is what society expected of women, particularly middle-class European women, at the end of the nineteenth century (1998).


While Freud remained confident about his research and the theories he devised, he often admitted that his views on women were inadequate and that his theories were likely incomplete (Cherry, 2009). While he wrongly felt that women came to secondary to men, that women were inferior to men, and that women were controlled by their sexual functions, it is impressive that he managed to deduce what he was able to regard women and their sexual desires. He was from a time that it was rare to even acknowledge that women had a sexual desire in the first place.

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