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 little girl....

"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; etc.

(Isn't "I hate myself" a common teenage complaint? And suicide a not uncommon consequence?)

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 as well.

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