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Benjamin, J. (2004). Deconstructing Femininity: Understanding “Passivity” and the Daughter Position. Ann. Psychoanal., 32:45-57.

(2004). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 32:45-57

II. Psychology of Women: Theoretical

Deconstructing Femininity: Understanding “Passivity” and the Daughter Position

Jessica Benjamin

In this essay I try to show the consequences of the way Freud (1933) posed and solved “the riddle of the nature of femininity” for our view of both sexuality and gender. I consider how the problem of “excess” generates the split between activity and passivity that Freud—for all his warnings against equating them with gender positions—still took recourse in. Here I am following up on some of my ideas (Benjamin, 1988, 1995a, b, 1996), of how the complementarity of gender is the effect of splitting. I show how Freud's own interpretation of femininity as the turn toward a passive attitude in relation to the father can be read as the expression of the oedipal boy's attitude. It expresses the oedipal boy's need to locate an object that can contain excitement and can hold the place of passivity. This projection of passivity into women, most particularly, into the figure of the daughter, might explain the connection between the hysterical daughters whom Freud first encountered and his later notion of the daughter who must switch her love to the father in order to be feminine.

I contend that femininity is not a preexisting “thing” that is repudiated by the male psyche; rather it is constructed by it. The daughter position, in which the girl functions as container, helps shore up a masculine self threatened by oedipal loss, exclusion, or overstimulation. We might say that the daughter position is in a double sense the solution to the problem of sexual passivity as we find it represented by Freud, and correspondingly expressed in the male psyche. Perhaps this is another way of showing why it is impossible to speak of femininity as a “thing,” separate from masculinity, for the two are truly constructs created in the same moment, for the same purpose. Finally, I close by suggesting another possible processing of passivity in an intersubjective economy based on working through rather than repudiating experiences of excess.

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