In her work “The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender,” Nancy Chodorow presents a strikingly cogent and serviceable theory on the formulation of gender roles. The basic premise of her theory is the ubiquity and availability of the mother in relation to the general absence of the father. Children then in turn identify more readily and easily with the mother due to her constant presence. This identification with the mother is presumed equal between boys and girls in the pre-Oedipal stage. The major shift that takes place is when the boy realizes his mother lacks a phallus and is therefore Other; he must now assume the phallus that his father has in order to possess his mother or any other woman. It is here that Chodorow introduces an interesting mechanism into the Freudian argumentation: due to the fact of the relative absence of the father, the boy must define his masculinity in negative relation to his mother. In other words, the boy creates his idea of masculinity by excluding everything from his ken that his mother is, and including everything that she is not. In contrast to this, girls, in their process of gender association, never have to go through this process of differentiation. From here, a theoretical line could easily be drawn that women’s gender identification is therefore more embedded in their psyche, and, in order for it to be examined, the gender identification of women needs to be more fully excavated.
Chodorow sets forth two terms that clarify these different functions of gender identification: personal identification and positional identification. Personal identification is the identification process a person goes through when he or she associates with another’s personality, behavioral traits, and general persona. Positional identification is the identification process that a person goes through when he or she identifies with another’s role, not necessarily their values or attitudes. From this premise, girls will go through the personal identification process–the mother is around, the girl can associate with personal characteristics–and boys, due the relative absence of the father thus their inability to associate with his general characteristics, will necessarily go through a positional identification process.
I would like to touch briefly on what I consider to be an ironical trope, if you will, at play here. The boy, in a pre-Oedipal state, exists in perfect communion with the Other; he is yet aware of undifferentiation: his bliss is certain. Then his Oedipal shock occurs. He realizes his mother is different than he, and he must gain the phallus–and the discourse which surrounds it–in order to obtain his mother or a like being. From here the irony occurs; for in order to gain the power to regain the thing he has lost, he must deface that which is his original desire. To wit, to win again the pleasure of the Other, the boy must do all things to distance himself from it. This is the Janus-like quality of fetish: the approach to the Other by virtue a mechanism that allows contact with it, and then anxious recoil once the contact has been made. This mechanism is also at work in Karen Horney’s essay, “The Dread of Women.” Chodorow touches on the same idea, stating that since femininity in relation to masculinity for a male represents a time of pre-development, therefore a femininity to a male represents a regression of sorts.
This trope I contend is the fundamental mechanism of discourses that seek to maintain power and is manifested often even in artistic formulations. Expressions of distance to the Other which is sought to be transversed by an act of mortification of the subject or the objectification of the Other–or both simultaneously–are pervasive; a Petrarchan sonnet is a perfect example. These tropes then form a circuitous loop between modes of artistic representation and political societal formulations of power, each providing premise and validation for one another.