Psychodynamic explanation for gender development - Gender

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Psychodynamic explanation for gender development


Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is an explanation of gender development that sees gender identity and gender role as acquired during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (3—5 years), where the focus of the libido (sexual energy) is on the genitals. In the earlier oral and anal stages children are seen as bisexual, as different gender identities do not exist for boys and girls. In the phallic stage boys experience the Oedipus complex, where they develop an unconscious sexual desire for their mother and dislike and fear their father, who has access to the mother. Boys overcome the Oedipus complex by identification with the father, acquiring his characteristics, so that the father is incorporated into his own personality, permitting a boy a sense of male gender identity. Girls simultaneously experience the Electra complex, where they develop an unconscious sexual desire for their father and loathe their mother who has access to the father. The Electra complex is overcome by identification with the mother, similarly acquiring her characteristics, so that the mother is incorporated into a girl’s personality, allowing her a sense of female gender identity. Failure to resolve the Oedipus and Electra complexes would, Freud believed, result in homosexuality.


Fig 10.4 Freud developed the psychoanalytic theory of gender development

Focal study

Freud (1909) developed his theory of gender development by performing a case study of ’Little Hans’, a 5-year-old boy with a phobia of horses, especially ones with black bits around their mouths, which Freud interpreted as horses being representative of the boy’s father (the black bits being his moustache). Therefore Hans was actually scared of his father, not horses, which was seen to fit the concept of the Oedipus complex, whereby Hans was fearful of his father castrating him because Hans desired his mother. Hans was also seen to have overcome his Oedipus complex by having two fantasies, one where a plumber came and exchanged his bottom and ’widdler’ (penis) for larger ones and a second one where he fathered several children. This fitted Freud’s theory of gender development, as Hans was seen as having identified with his father and therefore internalised his male gender to gain a sense of male gender identity.


• Hyman (1921) reported that 22 of 31 female manic-depressive patients were diagnosed as suffering with an unresolved Electra complex, with 12 of the 22 having regressed to an earlier stage of psychosexual development, providing support for Freud’s theory.

• Snortum et al. (1969) reported that 46 males exempted from military service for being homosexual had more close-bonding and controlling mothers and rejecting, detached fathers than a comparable sample of heterosexual men. This supports the idea that males who fail to resolve their Oedipus complex by identifying with their fathers become homosexual.

• Wiszewska et al. (2007) got females to rate the attractiveness of pictures of different kinds of men and assessed the quality of their relationships with their fathers. The researchers also compared the similarity of the images females found attractive to those of their fathers, finding that women who were well treated by and had close relationships with their fathers were attracted to men resembling their fathers physically, supporting Freud’s idea of the Electra complex.

Positive evaluation

Image Freud’s theory was an early attempt to explain gender development, and although far from perfect, has value in creating interest in the area and for stimulating interest and research that has led to a greater understanding of gender development.

Image Although other explanations of gender development are better supported by research evidence, Freud’s theory does have some research support and it is a common experience for boys to be closer to their mothers and girls to be closer to their fathers for a period of their childhood.

Negative evaluation

Image Freud’s study of ’Little Hans’ was subjectively interpreted to fit the idea of the Oedipus complex. The boy’s father, who supplied Freud with the details of the study, was a supporter of Freud and therefore biased. Even if Hans did have an Oedipus complex, it does not prove that this is universal to all boys.

Image Freud’s ideas are difficult to assess scientifically — concepts like the libido, Oedipus and Electra complexes are impossible to measure and cannot be tested in any empirical way.

Image The incidence of homosexuality in those raised by one parent (same or different sex) is no different to that in those raised by two parents, refuting Freud’s beliefs about the origins of homosexuality.

Practical application

Although refuted by many, the theory does form the basis of Freudian psychotherapy, where therapists explore clients’ childhood relationships with their parents to try to gain access to the unconscious mind and the origin of adult behavioural problems.