The Oedipus complex revisited
C. George Boeree
Erskine: "The bath scene was wild for me because that looks like my
bath growing up. My relationship with my mom — I was insanely close
to her, and as soon as I was starting to turn into a woman, we
started to fight more and I felt like I was losing her love, in my
mind. Because I was like, I’m becoming a woman, so now I’m not your
"We’re slut-shamed in the beginning and instantly start to hate
ourselves, hate our vaginas and then hate women. So we wanted to
show that reflection in our mothers, how you sort of turn against
your mother at that age because you’re kind of turning against
yourself — your mom is a reflection of yourself. So I feel like that
scene is something that you would be saying now, Anna, to your mom.
It’s sort of like a love letter, a rewrite apology".
(from the an interview in the New York Times of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle,
the creators of the sitcom "Pen15")
Can we understand the Oedipal (and Electra) complex better if we
turn it "inside out", and view it as an extension of self-loathing?
Prior to puberty, boys tend to identify with their fathers and girls
with their mother. This seems natural, inasmuch as we tend to
identify with those who are in the same category as we are, and in
fact are "better" exemplars of that category. Few kids identify with
the family dog.
So perhaps, as the quotes above suggest, girls start to turn against
their mothers around puberty because they are turning against
themselves: I hate my preadolescent body/I hate my post-adolescent body; I
hate my stupid girlishness/I hate my awkward, so-called
maturity; I want sex/I don't want sex; sex is gross/sex is exciting exciting;
(Isn't "I hate myself" a common teenage complaint? And suicide a not
At the same time, she becomes more attracted to her father: he is
male (and not a disgusting female, like me); but he is safe (cause
he's my father, and a good man, and not like stupid boys). She may
idealize him: He is so smart, so handsome, so masculine, so mature,
so kind and loving. I want to be just like him - or I want someone
just like him (when it becomes clear that I can't have him, and/or
he really likes/loves/has sex with mom - yuk!) At some point, she
has to begin liking herself as a developing woman. And like boys/men
Boys, too: Dad is great - and I don't hold a candle (or penis, to
use Freud's unfortunate metaphor) to him. Mom is safe: she loves me,
even though I am a pimple faced skinny boy-child. She is a real
woman - not like the nasty, condescending girls in school. And she
has boobs! I want her/someone like her. But I realize she's taken -
by that hairy, grouchy man, I call dad, no less - and yet she
loves/has sex with him. At some point in his teenage years, he has
to begin liking himself as a developing man. And like girls/women as
well. "I want a girl, just like the girl, that married dear old
dad". Or I could "leave the building"
(And isn't drug addiction, alcoholism, withdrawal, gaming,
risk-taking, and destructiveness, a common hazard of adolescence?)
There's some generalization as well: Do girls prefer male teachers?
Do boys prefer female teachers? Do, in fact, male teachers prefer
girl students, and female teachers prefer boy students? I have
certainly seen this pattern in college professors. The attraction to
young students on the part of male teachers (and other authority
figures) is legendary. The fact that that attraction is often
reciprocated should not be a surprise, either.
Which brings up another point: Kids mature later than in the past.
They are still struggle to find (really, to create) themselves as
college students. Few can picture themselves as mature, adult, in
their middle twenties. Get married? get a job? a career? have kids?
No way - not till I'm old, like 30 or 40, maybe. Compare that with
our grandparents/great grandparents, who were working in their
teens, got married in their teens. Being a mature adult was simpler
then. Even a 15 year-old could grasp it: I'll marry a girl/boy just
like mom/dad, and I'll do what my mother does - keep house and raise
children- or my father does - work on the farm, at the factory, in
the bakery, whatever.
The castration anxiety and penis envy that Freud introduces are
certainly no more than metaphorical. In a fundamentally sexist
society like ours (which is perhaps deeper than just social?), men
have an advantage of power (size, strength, opportunity...) over
women. The worst thing that can happen to a teenage boy is to be
seen as female in some way: queer! homo! Or just less than a man:
loser! weakling! One symbol of this is the "bottom" in homosexual
relations. In many societies, it is acceptable to be a top, but not
a bottom. In fact, a top is clearly a manly man, since he dominates
other so-called men! (There are no gays in Afghanistan, one of their
leaders once said.)
And if a woman diminishes your sense of masculinity, with put-downs,
lack of respect, "pretending" to be superior, that requires a
response: put her down psychologically or physically. You are bigger
- and therefore smarter, more talented... than she is. It's the
natural order of things (which becomes a dominant "meme" in a many a
society). And the women who accept this order will love you, because
that's what "real" women do.
For women, they too recognize the power differential, and it goes
without saying that a young woman who is smart, talented, strong,
etc would envy that power, symbolized by the penis. Unless you
surrender your feminine side (your "anima") by becoming a career
woman in a "power suit" or become a lesbian - especially of
the so-called "butch" variety - you will inevitably find yourself
subordinate to men, or an "old maid" (isolated from the problem).
Many (most?) women may "surrender" to the situation by becoming
pretty or sexy, or by aligning yourself with a man who is clearly
successful, a "catch". In this way at least you are "better", more
powerful, than other women. And you do love your masculine man
(often one who began attracting you as the proverbial "bad boy"),
who may indeed love you back. If he's not enough, your need for love
can be satisfied, to one degree or another, by babies or cats.
If you recall, Freud believed that homosexual men and women are "stuck" in the oedipal stage. The American psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, himself a gay man, gave his support to the idea. Many gay men are, according to stereotype, very attached to their mothers, more like little boys than "real"men. Many lesbians, again according to stereotype, are strong admirers of their fathers. Not to confuse this with the way that boys and girls can manipulate their opposite sex parents - all children manipulate their parents to one degree or another. Rather, these kids imitate their opposite sex parent, try to become more like them, even to the point of adopting their behaviors, interests, speech patterns, and dress, and becoming "butch" or "campy. Although there is no doubt a lot of stereotyping here, this pattern has been noted by many homosexual men and women I have spoken to in confidence.
Is this situation inevitable? Probably, if the power differential is also
inevitable. But I would prefer to think that, especially as the
world begins to reward intelligence, talent, persistence, etc, in
place of physical power, social status, and wealth, things will even
out. More women are going to college and entering careers than ever
before, many men are getting used to women in positions of
power, and many men and women are getting comfortable with the fact that who we are sexually attracted to has little to do with our social roles. If a culture can begin to minimize not only power
differentials between the sexes, but also minimize competition and
the fundamentally capitalist mind-set of our present society, I
belief progress is possible, albeit not easy.
(Please note: It is in no way my intention to lay judgment on women, men, gays, lesbians, housewives, spinsters, teachers, mothers, fathers, or any other category of people.)
© Copyright 2020, C. George Boeree