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Men and Masculinity

Freud

It was the work of the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), more than anything else, that disrupted the apparently natural object "masculinity" and made an enquiry into the process of its construction possible.

Freud's ideas about masculinity developed in three steps. The first came in his initial statements of psychoanalytic principles: the idea of continuity between normal and neurotic mental life, the concepts of repression and the unconscious, and the method that allowed unconscious mental processes to be read through dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, and symptoms. Freud understood that adult sexuality and gender were not fixed by nature but were constructed through a long and conflict-ridden process. The Oedipus complex, an emotional tangle of middle childhood involving desire for one parent and hatred for the other, was the key moment in this development. What precipitated the oedipal crisis, for boys, was rivalry with the father and terror of castration. Here Freud identified a formative moment in masculinity and pictured the dynamics of a formative relationship.

In his theoretical writing, Freud complicated this picture. Homosexuality, he argued, is not a simple gender switch, and "a large proportion of male inverts retain the mental quality of masculinity." Freud suggested that masculine and feminine currents coexist in everyone. Adult masculinity was a complex, and in some ways precarious, construction. In his longest case history, the "Wolf Man," Freud pushed behind the Oedipus complex to find a pre-oedipal, narcissistic masculinity that underpinned castration anxiety.

In a final stage, Freud developed his account of the structure of personality, in particular the concept of the superego, the unconscious agency that judges, censors, and presents ideals. The superego is formed, in the aftermath of the Oedipus complex, by internalized prohibitions from the parents. Freud gradually came to see it as having a gendered character, being crucially a product of the child's relationship with the father, and more distinct in the case of boys than of girls. This provided the germ of a theory of the patriarchal organization of culture, transmitted from one generation to the next through the construction of masculinity.

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