Phallic Mother

views updated


The so-called phallic mother is a mother who is fantasmatically endowed with a phallus. Among the male child's earliest sexual theories, he believes that all people have the male genital. By substituting the phallus for the organ that the child thinks the female is lacking, he tries to protect himself from the castration anxiety that arises from the primal fantasies of the mother. The fear of the phallic mother imago tacitly affirms the threat of castration, while at the same time defensively negating it along with all its oral and anal pregenital foundations.

A theory of the phallic mother existed in Sigmund Freud's work from his earliest formulations on the sexual theories of children (1905d, 1908c), and it played a constant role throughout later developments regarding the questions of feminine castration and the maternal penis (1909b, 1910c, 1923b). From 1905 to 1927, these questions were structured by the continuing Freudian exploration of fetishism. The fetishist fears castration excessively, and finds protection from it in a chosen object that serves as an equivalent for the maternal phallus. Further, Freud emphasized the role of the maternal phallic imago in masculine homosexuality (1910c) and its variations in feminine sexuality (1931b, 1933a [19323], 1937c).

Echoing the pioneering works of Freud, Sándor Ferenczi (1913, 1923) described the sexual organs of the mother both as a cavity and as penile. In another attempt to relativize the exclusive predominance that the Viennese gave the phallus, Ernest Jones (1927,1932) made a case for a partial and secondary castration, an early identification with the mother that allowed for later orogenital bonds. Karl Abraham (1922)anticipating Melanie Klein in this regardproposed a "bad mother" as the bearer of the infant's sadistic projections.

Still following the direction indicated by Freud (1910), Melanie Klein marked a shift by locating the site of castration in the oral relation to the breast/penis, which served as a prototype for all others. She believed that within the framework of the pregenital stages of the oedipal conflict, the baby projected onto the maternal breast the destructive drives of its own penis (1926, 1927, 1928). According to Klein, the formidable weapons of the phallic mother are an absent breast that threatens the child's survival, an orally intrusive breast, a devouring mouth/vagina, and an anally penetrating phallus.

According to Klein's theory of early stages of the oedipal conflict, several key concepts are inseparable from that of the phallic mother: the symbolic analogy between breast and penis, projective identification, and the infantile sexual theory of the combined parent-figure (1932). The last term refers to the fantasy that the castrating mother is endowed with the paternal penis, which was incorporated during intercourse; thus it represents the mother and father in a menacing combination.

Today, understanding the investment in the imago of the phallic mother is clinically useful for understanding the pregenital basis of castration anxiety as related to early scenarios of triangulation. Nevertheless, care must be taken because "the relation to the phallic mother is not prior to castration, but rather signified through it" (Green, 1968). In other words, the archaic imago of the phallic mother is expressed in a secondary cultural image only retroactively. Thus there is a great risk of confusion between stages of development and regressive forms if the fantasy of the phallic mother is not understood as an attempt to translate into adult language (secondary process) the phenomenology of the enigmatic early years (primary process).

For Freud, it is the male genital organ alone that plays the central role for both sexes, and any account of this role privileges the masculine. The Freudian view of feminine sexuality, organized around penis envy, has given rise to countless polemics right up to the present day. These ongoing epistemological debates are what gives the question of the phallic mother its historical and cultural substance.

Sylvain Missonnier

See also: Ego ideal/ideal ego; Femininity; imago; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood ; Memory; Phallic woman; Primary identification.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.

Green, André. (1968). Sur la mère phallique. Revue française de psychanalyse, 32, 1, 1-38.

Klein, Melanie. (1928). Early stages of the Oedipus conflict. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, 167-180. Reprinted in The writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 1. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Marbeau-Cleirens, Béatrice. (1987). Le sexe de la mère et les divergences des théories psychanalytiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.