I have been writing an essay about the Freudian concept of penis envy for a course I am doing. Basically, Freud thought that, on seeing little boys, little girls are immediately envious and want one of their own. At about the same time, little boys, on seeing naked little girls, fear that they too might get castrated like that if they are not careful. So, girls think they’ve been castrated and boys think they might be. Still following? Of course, it all sounds completely mad, but….well, it isn’t.
There are plenty of women all over the place putting up what psychoanalysts call ‘a phallic defence,’ that is, pretending to be men, using their minds and bodies in what they perceive to be a masculine manner, despising other women (for they too have been castrated) and competing aggressively with men. Equally, there are plenty of men we all know who behave as if castration might come at any moment, fearful of putting themselves forward, petrified of women and always cowed by authority. Or, indeed, they might buy a flash car and shout a lot in order to put up a phallic defence themselves because they feel castrated. They are also likely to be misogynistic.
I was describing all this to a long-suffering friend of mine who has three small sons. I expected him to dismiss the whole thing with a wince (he ‘sacked’ his analyst), especially when I said that actually fathers often make castration threats one way or another. My husband once said to my son; ‘Stop sucking your thumb or I’ll cut it off.’ Thinly veiled if you ask me. Instead, my friend laughed and said; ‘I couldn’t get the boys to behave in the bath the other day and I said; “Mummy was naughty once and look what happened to her!” It worked. They were petrified.’
The theory can sound very loopy but it does inevitably crop up in life because it’s all about life (and death) after all. The most obvious one to observe is all the Oedipal stuff. My son was once dawdling on some nightmarish long walk of my husband’s (why do posh English people think it’s morally good to go on long walks?) and my husband got annoyed and said; ‘Hurry up or you’ll have to sleep in the shed.’ A bit later my son overtook my husband on the mountain path and shouted; ‘Now you have to sleep in the shed and I will sleep in Mummy’s bed and be King.’
Anyway, there I was last Wednesday in a restaurant in Bagni di Lucca telling my eleven year old daughter all about my essay. We’d been getting burnt at the pool (incredible though this may seem in England’s freezing monsoon) and were eating crispy pizza at Ilario’s. I was in a good mood, having finally wrapped up this dissertation thing, and she very indulgently asked what it was about. ‘Well, darling,’ I explained, ‘little girls want to have a penis like little boys.’ Now, she has seen the odd penis in the home environment and I don’t think she was any too impressed by this thought. I should have mentioned earlier that these desires are Unconscious and basically symbolic. I mean, we don’t actually, like, really WANT one…I don’t think. So, my sunburn stinging, crickets humming and the bats swooping into the street, I droned on and on, helped by another carafe of house white until she finally said: ‘Mummy. I don’t want to talk about penis envy any more. I don’t want a penis. I want an ice-cream.’
That shut me up. I ordered an ice-cream and I didn’t say a word about the phallic significance of ice-creams. Anyway, it came in a bowl. AND I didn’t mention Melanie Klein or good breasts and bad breasts and how Klein thought penis envy was secondary, a turning away from the breast to a breast-substitute, the penis. Not a word from me. I clamped my mouth shut and just watched her eat her ice-cream and occasionally glower at me to make sure that her crazed mother really had shut up and wouldn’t say ‘penis’ again.
At least, for the rest of the evening.