Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Girls to Women and a Film Series

Girls to Women: The Role of Mothers including the role of mothers in the sexual development of daughters is one aspect discussed at the Film Series "Women in Crisis" which is cosponsored by the USF Dept of Women’s Studies and the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies. It is currently running Feb 2009-Apr 2009 select Thursdays at 6:00p.m. in Room 104 of the Behavioral Sciences Building on the Tampa campus of USF.

There are three oft-neglected general developmental achievements I would like to highlight: The capacity to cope: 1. with frustration 2. with a growing sense of separateness and with Otherness, and 3. with loss. Then I will address these more specifically re: female children and their mothers. Lastly, I will refer to a few points of the films in the Film Series "Women in Crisis." Self psychologists might describe these capacities as seeking to constitute a cohesive or stable Self and to maintain self esteem. Included in the consolidation of Self is the ‘who I am,’ including sexual and gendered Self.

Coping with frustration includes self and mutual regulation. The infant and mother respond to and influence one another’s responses. Attunement to the other is variable, but a good enough mother (Winnicott) must first be a container of overwhelming affect, handling an infant’s screaming and flailing without becoming anxious, angry, avoidant, or retaliatory. Her soothing of the infant is a capacity that becomes internalized for the infant in self soothing behaviors, where thumbsucking e.g. temporality abates the need to be fed or held, particularly when an infant has already had the experience that needs-will-be-met in a timely enough fashion. Containing affects, impulses, drives without having to split into e.g. all good or all bad, is a developmental achievement. Later, the ability to contain contradictory tension without splitting (e.g. into male and female) fosters empathy, creativity, and relationship.

The relationship between mother and child is inevitably fraught with frustration and, therefore, contentious. Women as primary caretakers are the infant’s first love, first witness, and first boss (Dinnerstein). Mother prohibits, frustrates, refuses, and excludes. When there is contention between mother and child, what is sought is RECONCILLIATION (relationship and connectedness) not union! A child’s fear is not of merger or of being engulfed as much as it is dread of mother’s power, especially her wrath/aggression, and of the child’s own aggression, particularly when anger is so intense as to be experienced by the infant or small child as painful or disorganizing.

Coping with Separateness and Otherness (and the flip side with Connectedness) include the developmental achievements of Intersubjectivity and of developing a moral compass, a Golden Rule, conscience, superego, morality. Recognition of separateness also requires coping with loss, because to recognize the Other as separate means the Other is no longer under the infant’s magical omnipotent control.

The developmental achievement of recognition of Otherness, of the mother as a subject in her own right and not merely as an object of needs fulfillment --the beginnings of intersubjectivity-- is facilitated in part when, in this culture, the child is excluded from the parental bedroom and when the child recognizes that mother has other dyadic relationships which do not include the child as the center of her universe.

More importantly, though, this recognition now creates triadic experience in which there are 2 who participate, one who observes. This experience as both participant and observer can be utilized later for self reflection. An INTERNAL TRIANGULAR SPACE (Aron) comes to be, such that one can begin to integrate the idea of self as both a subject and an object. This achievement is useful for relationship, eventually facilitating both empathy, and the ability to integrate Other as both subject and object, creating a bridge of identification such that splitting --e.g. gender polarities: only girls do this or boys that-- is not necessary. Either/or eventually develops into more complexity, more integration; both in identity and multiplicity, which cushions loss.

Children must learn to be in mutual relationship, that is, recognize that two subjects having their own desires, must learn to negotiate both their needs being met. While the child may require that mother allow the child to do it ‘all by myself’ or that mother admire and share the joy of the child’s first steps or finger paintings, it is also required of the child that the child recognize --learned through gradually increasing doses of frustration-- that mother too has her own needs which require her to be sometimes unavailable to the child. A child must eventually learn to wait, to share, and to find compensation in the joy of self competence when mother is unavailable.

Both female and male children cope with separation from mother by imitating mother --or by imitating characteristics assigned to the feminine-- to master separation anxiety, where ‘being’ mother = ‘having’ mother (Coates).

Being in relationship well with an Other requires empathy and mutual recognition of subjectivity, in which a moral conscience plays a role. Moral choices and dilemmas are negotiated as early as 18 months. Morality, in part, begins with impulse control, and this achievement requires aid from the outside Other /mother. A toddler is capable of empathy , as well as can struggle with a moral dilemma. One conflict to be negotiated is self versus other and self with other.
Dependency and connectedness to others are no longer seen as regressive and infantile; we now recognize that connection helps develop a superego and a sense of autonomy and mastery. These depend on the capacity to regulate the self and one’s impulses, learned early in life through containment by and guidance of the good enough mother.

Aron says something about the primal scene and its imagined ‘combined parent figure’ (Klein), the latter which privileges neither heterosexuality nor genitality, but from which the infant is excluded/deprived while it seems to the infant that the parents share everything. This exclusion is both narcissistic injury and relational deprivation. This ‘combined parental figure’ is a metaphor for whole and part, separate and conflated. Aron writes that the polymorphous sensualities of the ‘combined parental figure’ and the primal scene are metaphors that pave the way for an experience of multiplicity and to development of bisexual awareness. Again, it is a developmental achievement: to contain excitement without splitting into male and female, and to be able to hold 2 contradictory ideas in mind at once without splitting. This allows us to regulate our feminine and masculine selves, again, compensating for the loss of possibility that one can be and have everything.

Early development is replete with losses, not the least of which is coming to terms with not being able to be all and have all. Children must be able to tolerate grandiose omnipotence (needed to foster creativity) without getting carried away by the conviction of such beliefs, e.g. that one can control everybody. Likewise, one cannot be everything. There is not limitless possibility (Blos). One must learn to tolerate self-limitations (Kubie) by symbolic transcendence , e.g. of gender differentiation, through a range of integrated identifications used imaginatively, for when one employs a “unitary” gender identity (Dimen and Goldner) it necessitates splitting off, and repression of, opposing tendencies which insist upon a pathological accommodation or compliance with the rules of a 2 gender system. (ala Foucault, where 'normal' ideal of gender is socially instituted and reified).

Post modern and post structuralist deconstruction/destabilization of the human subject, including that gender is socially and culturally determined, insist that there exists a multiplicity of genders and to claim one gender identity obscures what is within and between individuals (Benjamin). Aron advocates a tension or balance between the two, that is, instead of abandoning identity for multiplicity, he advocates the need for both. While a unitary cohesion is necessary to stave off fragmentation and the fear of going crazy, it should not be so inflexible as to silence different voices of the self. What is called for instead is the need to accept, tolerate and enjoy the confusion, contradiction, flux, even chaos, of multiplicity of gender while maintaining identity.

Benjamin notes that gender splitting requires one part of the self to disavow another part, and, moreover, requires the suppression of similarities, leading to the construction of polarities. Gender is the coming to terms with difference. Goldner notes that these polarities make for a traumatically compliant false self, while Gallop (1982) says gender is the failure to reach the Other. Theoretical –nominal and cultural--gender must be held in tension with psychological—subjective-- gender and not fall to gender polarity, for this culturally constructed dichotomy further constrains possibility.

Children, then, must negotiate the wish to be both anatomical sexes, as well as the wish to possess attributes culturally polarized as EITHER/OR, either feminine or masculine. Stephen Mitchell notes that sexuality is a central organizer of a child’s experience for a number of reasons: Early on, body sensations serve to organize experience. Bodily contact, as well as body openings and boundaries, are well-suited to represent human longings, conflicts, and compromises. Bodily sensations, when too intense and are not sufficiently contained, can come to represent affect, conflict, and confusion. And what is accessible or inaccessible comes to represent privacy, exclusion, and secrecy, such that sexuality may become a vehicle to overcome isolation. Sexual desire then becomes configured in the context of the losses of early childhood, including those of relationship.

Specific to mother and daughter, Freud formulated that the little girl was angry at mother for not gifting to her a penis. Now we know conflict with mother is not about anatomy but about love and hate toward a much needed other, as well as conflict about dependence and its frustrations. One both loves/depends on and resents/is frustrated by mother, so ambivalence toward mother is inevitable, creating conflict e.g. 'The child feels bad for hating the mother she also loves and depends on.' But Mother is also admired, emulated, and idealized, and when daughter can see herself as like mother, this identification bolsters her self esteem and her sense of competence. This is true as well for her sense of bodily agency and sexuality. The girl must internalize an identification with her mother having sexual agency in her own right, an identification which includes managing the conflict with her own aggression and with mother’s feared aggression. Ambivalence toward mother as the loved and feared bearer of sexual privilege is evident in literature and fairy tales (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Snow White).

Will this internalized mother, whose predecessor is the external mother, support and enhance the girl’s development? If mother is condemning or rejecting of the daughter, her sexuality, or of the girl’s choice of love object, e.g. as in homosexuality, then the necessary internalization of needed parts of mother is hindered or made more complicated. Will the girl be able to tolerate the internalized aggression of the mother? Will she be able to develop sexual agency in her own right? Does the girl see mother as a vital agent with her own sexual desire with whom the girl can identify -- ie does mother have pride and pleasure, and passion, in her sexual and procreative functions? Are body and bodily functions experienced as a source of pride and pleasure, especially the uniquely female functions such as menses, sexual gratification, or pregnancy? Sexual development in daughter, in part, depends upon the external mother’s affirmation of the daughter’s body and the internalization of mother and the mother-daughter relationship. These internalizations affect body image, valuation of self as a woman, representation of her own genitals and their functions, as well as affect her experience of her own sexuality. If mother is hated, then the girl child hates herself or her femininity. The more a mother imposes her will and causes frustration without compensatory gratification --e.g. fostering a joy in autonomy and in connectedness-- the more conflict and ambivalence.

Coping with Separateness and otherness: While learning that one is not the center of one’s mother’s universe is a blow to a child’s narcissism and grandiosity, a child has some compensatory restoration to her self esteem: developing e.g. pride early on in competencies, such as language and toilet training, and about ‘I can do it myself.’ As most primary caretakers are women, the first person/ Other with whom a child identifies is a woman. Mother is usually the first Other with whom a child has a sensual experience and loves, the first person the child contests, and first person recognized as Other. The daughter both learns to be like an other --an other who is a woman-- and be her own person.

Daughters, like all infants, first love/desire a woman, regardless if object choice is one day to be heterosexual. Mother, through gentle ministrations of hygiene on infant’s genitals, is, to children, the first seducer. Even heterosexual girls wish to be close to/possess Mother. The sensual memory of mother’s body must be integrated with her own pleasure such that women can feel simultaneously both the subject and object of desire. But mothers can be ambivalent about their own bodies and those of their daughters. Girls need mothers approval /permission/ encouragement / support to become fully sexual women. Many young women, on first sexual experience, expect or fear the internalized mother’s disapproval. Mothers need to both protect their daughters, keeping premature sexual experience and overstimulation at bay, and inform their daughters about their genitals and their capacities.

Women need to integrate sexuality and aggression into their identities as women. Person and Ovesey state that gender is used as a SYMBOLIC RESOURCE AND RELATIONAL STRATEGY. Gender is not an entity, but, instead, is protean, a vehicle to aid coping. Gender does NOT unfold along its own developmental pathway but is created by relationships, conflicts, desires, and losses. (Goldner:) Gender is constructed as a mechanism to establish, maintain, or deny crucial attachments.

The loss of the possibility to be both sexes is confirmed for the girl by menarche, the onset of menstruation. But while omni-potentiality is lost, menarche can bring closer connection to mother by confirming earlier information provided by mother and by enhancing identification with mother. Women may again turn to mothers for support when they marry, are pregnant, during childbirth, or raise children.

Film Series "Women in Crisis"
Discomfort or anxiety about aggression toward mother and about sexual desire is noted in fairy tales, mythology, literature, and film. e.g. Snow White can disavow her own sexual agency, be pure as the driven, white, snow, and she can denounce her own aggression toward mother, and her dread, by projecting it instead into the Queen witch goddess step mother whose innocent victim Snow White becomes. Persephone, kidnapped to the underworld of sexuality does not have to acknowledge her own desire; Hades can have all the sexual agency. And Athena can remain a virgin, denouncing sexuality, while still dispensing of all her female rivals, like Arachne, or even Medusa.

Wide Sargasso Sea, on April 16, 2009 is a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre, a story like Snow White, about a young woman who cannot find happiness ie take her place as sexual partner until the witch mother, that is the mad, -- mad because she is powerfully sexual,-- first wife is vanquished. The same dynamic exists in Rebecca where the unnamed narrator must compete with the memory of the powerfully sexual first wife Rebecca before she can take her place as partner to her husband.

In Eve’s Bayou, which kicked off the film series on Feb 12, included a mother who was not seen as sexual agent by the older daughter Cicely, and Cicely had a confused time of negotiating her own desire. Eve, viewing the primal scene of father with mistress, comes to confuse the power of her own aggression with magic –voodoo.

On Mar 5, Maria Full Of Grace showed Maria’s mother, constrained by poverty and culture, as unable to recognize her daughter’s subjectivity. Consequently, pregnant Maria, at great risk to herself, leaves all family connection for a foreign country that offers a better opportunity for Maria to effect her dreams/desires.

On March 26,2009 Notes on a Scandal shows Cate Blanchett as an art teacher struggling to sort out her own desire, in part, perhaps, due to her cold and rejecting Mother.

Volver on April 2, 2009 shows a Mother who leaves her grown children through a death of sorts, and a grown daughter Penelope Cruz, blind to the molestation of her own daughter, remedies this through murder.

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