In “Boys and girls: The development of gender roles,” Beale gives us revealing overview of Freud’s personality theory. Beale point out both strengths and weaknesses of his answer to the questions of “Why” and “How” in gender development, but still leaves a chance for a reader to make up her/his own mind about whether or not to accept Freud’s theory. It is relatively easy, however, to find oneself torn between openheartedly going along with Freud’s idea about the existence of a dynamic system (or libido) in us, and reacting against the ease and assurance with which Freud writes about castration fear in boys and penis envy in girls. Freud’s view of personality as a dynamic system of psychological energy is a very complex, yet insightful approach to the development of personality.
The nature of the id, ego, and superego, and the psychosexual stages that these three structures focus on during a course of one’s development, give a plethora of reasons to believe in the existence of a critical period in gender development. Freud’s theory suggests that the way in which the id, ego, and superego evolve and the way in which they proliferate in the first six years of a child’s life will influence the child’s emotional attachment to her/his parent of the same sex and, as consequence, the child’s gender identification. I would agree with Freud’s statement that children undergo a certain emotional crisis after becoming aware of their genitals. It must be somewhat frustrating for, e.g., a three year-old to realize that reaching a pleasurable emotional state does not necessarily have to originate from her/his mother. Unable to cognitively create an explanation to a new, unexpected flow of circumstances and feelings, the child is most likely to end up confused. This confusion will inevitably provoke anxiety, and the anxiety will build up an emotional tension. However, I would dare to argue at this point that the reason for a child to seek identification with one of the parents might come not from castration fear in boys or penis envy in girls, but rather from the child’s belief that the person of the same sex (father for boys and mother for girls) will know how to protect them from the tension. If we perceive male and female infants’ cognitive development to have the same starting point, then it is find to accept that boys and girls will react so very differently (according to Freud) to the awareness of their own genitals. If boys have reason to fear castration, why would girls not fear penis “implantation,” instead of envy (as Freud proposes)? I am not questioning in this paper whether girls and boys go through an emotional crisis around age of three, but rather whether there is a reason for us to believe that girls necessarily have to play out their confusion through envy, whereas boys have to play out their confusion through fear. Perhaps it could be argued that majority of children are genetically predisposed to act in that particular way in order for nature to secure the existence of human species.
It is not Freud’s belief about the id, ego, and superego that raises our eyebrow, but rather his rigid sex-based generalization of gender development. His generalization seems to underestimate the impact of genetics and broader social cues, and to overestimate children’s cognitive capabilities during the preoperational stage and the impact of the child-parent relationship on children’s gender development. There is no doubt that Freud gave us some priceless insight into human personality development. However, by postulation that development of one’s gender in the particular way he describes is inevitable, he leaves us, on this verge of the 21st century, very little reason not to contradict him.