The feeling of belonging to a gender, masculine or feminine, has different meanings: first, a biological meaning that refers to primary and secondary sexual characteristics; second, a sociological meaning that has to do with the real and symbolic roles that society attributes to men and women; and finally, a psychological meaning that considers the ensemble of traits belonging to either gender.
As early as 1897, in his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, Sigmund Freud showed interest in the masculine/feminine dichotomy from two different, complementary perspectives: that of bisexuality and that of psychosexual development. He continued his study in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905d), and then further refined his thinking in an article, "Feminine Sexuality" (1931b) and in lecture 33, "Femininity," in his "New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis" (1933a ).
Freud upheld the notion of a bisexuality that involves, in every human being, a more or less harmonious and more or less accepted synthesis of masculine and feminine traits. In developing his hypotheses, he was unable to relinquish the idea of biological bisexuality, even though he attributed a dominant role to the interplay of oedipal and preoedipal identifications.
In Freud's view, the opposition between masculinity and femininity is preceded by other pairs of opposites—active/passive, phallic/castrated—that pave the way for it. Furthermore, in his view femininity does not appear until after the reorganization of the psyche that occurs at puberty. This conception of masculinity and femininity comes from the fact that Freud based his theory of sexuality on the prevalence of the phallus for both sexes. The opposition between masculinity and femininity thus tends to become blurred, since both sexes are united in the same repudiation of a femininity that is equated with being deprived of the penis. Only masculinity is identifiable; femininity can only be understood in terms of the negative. Its development remains vulnerable to disturbances resulting from the after-effects of the earlier masculine period—that is, the regressions and fixations of the preoedipal stage. Freud thus envisioned the masculine/feminine dichotomy as an alternation of periods in which one or the other of the elements has the upper hand, including the libido, which pursues masculine or feminine aims in sexual life.
Freud himself acknowledged that he was not entirely at ease in his approach to the questions of feminine sexuality and bisexuality. He has often been criticized in this area, notably with regard to his equation of femininity with passivity. Currently, psychoanalytical studies of gender identity and early parent-child interactions have made possible a better understanding of the relationships between masculinity and femininity and their origins.
Masculinity and femininity are rooted in the intimacy of the earliest interactive bonds between parents and the child. The processes of "psychobisexualization," a term introduced by Christian David, are established very early on, based on the child's instinctual oppositions, which are modulated by the adaptive capacities of the mother and father. Each parent presents to the child his or her own opposition between masculine and feminine, in a manner that differs according to the baby's sex. This abundance of interactive material further informs the oppositions already active within the infant (presence/absence, active/passive, phallic/castrated, good/bad), paving the way for the masculine/feminine opposition, which only appears, as such, in the oedipal stage.
Other authors have considered the question from the more archaic perspective of psychic envelopes, which also contain a dichotomy capable of grounding the opposition between masculine and feminine.
In any case, it is the baby that solicits the parents in one register or another, and not necessarily the father in his masculine aspects or the mother in her feminine aspects. The father and the mother, through regressive identifications, enter into communication with the child, incorporating varying amounts of their own masculine and feminine components. The child discovers the difference between the sexes within these interrelationships and internalizes, in variable proportions, the ensemble of both masculine and feminine components, to establish the basic framework of his or her own psychic bisexuality.
Masculinity and femininity are situated at the crossroads of, on the one hand, interactions in the here and now, and on the other, maternal and paternal transgenerational filiations.
See also: Activity/passivity; Castration complex; "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; Conflict; Dark continent; Female sexuality; Feminine masochism; Femininity; Femininity, rejection of; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Gender identity; Homosexuality; "New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis"; Penis envy; Perversion; Phallic stage; Phallic woman; Psychology of Women, The. A Psychoanalytic Interpretation ; Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary father; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Difference between the Sexes"; Termination of treatment.
Chiland, Colette. (1999). Le sexe mène le monde. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.
David, Christian. (1975). La bisexualité psychique, élément d'une réévaluation. Revue française de psychanalyse, 39 (5-6), 713-856.
Freud, Sigmund. (1931b). Feminine sexuality. SE, 21: 221-243.
——. (1933a ). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
——. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.