The Electra complex is an ambiguous psychiatric concept which attempts to explain the maturation of the human female. It is said to be the female counterpart to the Oedipus complex in males. Its name comes from the Greek myth of Electra, who wanted her brother to avenge their father Agamemnon's death by killing their mother Clytemnestra.
Carl Jung proposed the name Electra complex for Sigmund Freud's concept of the "feminine Oedipus attitude" in young girls. According to Sigmund Freud, the girl is originally attached to the mother as well; however, when she discovers that she lacks a penis during the phallic stage the daughter becomes libidinally attached to her father and imagines that she will become pregnant by him, while becoming more hostile towards her mother. This is due mostly to the idea of "penis envy": that the girl is envious of her father's penis and wants to possess it so strongly that she dreams of bearing his children. She believes that the pregnancy would replace the missing penis which she envies and would allow her to gain equal status with the father.
This leads to resentment towards her mother, whom the girl believes caused her castration. According to some radical psychologists, the male psyche is the dominant entity in human relations. This may be due in part to the belief that females have a weaker superego, where morality is developed and values internalized. This judicial component of human personality is developed during the phallic stage. A dominant view of the male psyche may also be rooted in the habits of a social system, such as those descended from patriarchal cultures and family systems. In later life, so the theory goes, the girl will grow into the character type that her mother has developed as a means to attracting a man similar to her father.
Furthermore, if there is a perversion in the development of females or if their aggression is somehow stifled, resentment can in turn be displaced towards the dominant male (the father) or patriarchal cultures in general. Some say this explains lesbianism and feminism (though this is not universally accepted, as it may unsupportedly assume that women loving and/or supporting equality for other women requires an animosity toward men).
Feminist objections to penis envy theory behind Electra complex
Some feminists generally regard this theory as sexist. The assertion that women suffer from penis-envy is generally attributed to the Victorian assertion that male sex organs are somehow better than those of females. Others believe that, due to the extensive privilege of the males compared to females, at the time it was true: women wanted these rights, and after the success of the women's rights movement, this penis envy was reduced.
Continuing on this line of thought, while penis envy has been reduced, it has not been wholly eliminated, as many cultures are still perceived to be heavily male-dominated in certain aspects of society (as salaries will tell). The psychosocial ramifications still have the potential to produce the complex. Even if society as a whole gravitates more to equality, the individual homes in which children are raised would have a very strong influence, perhaps more than the rest of society depending on how much a child is exposed to it. If a child is raised in a very sexist immediate family, neighborhood, or culture (less likely in schools, being an accountable government institution), the influence of sexist values could still affect them.
Feminist theory has mostly rejected Freud's concept of penis envy by:
- dismissing psychoanalysis as a project of masculine mastery,
- essentializing femininity thus reclaiming difference as an asset,
- using psychoanalysis and simply ignoring it, for example by adopting a version of the Electra complex or an alternative identificatory pattern (e.g. Hélène Cixous), or
- adopting/developing more progressive rereadings of Freud, like those of Jacques Lacan (e.g. Juliet Mitchell, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler).
These theories are highly controversial and are continually subject to much heated debate. While fashionable for a number of decades, the theory lost mainstream acceptance during the 1960s and 1970s. It has since gone mainly rejected or ignored by mainstream academia. A modern counter to this idea is offered, known as the Westermarck effect in which imprinting during childhood prevents incestual sexual attraction. However, there are some psychologists who still subscribe to the Electra complex theory. Supporters of this theory blame its loss of mainstream acceptance on a rise in socialist and neo-liberal ideological stances that occurred around the same time, though there are capitalists and conservatives who also reject the Electra Complex theory.