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Not So Complex: Understanding the Oedipal and Electra Complex

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory on human sexuality introduces the Oedipal and Electra complexes as a psychological approach in understanding the origins of sexual orientation. Most people disagree with his theory and throw out the concept of the Oedipal and Electra conflicts altogether. This is because many are misinformed about the subject or do not completely understand it. Both the Oedipal and Electra complex play a vital role in the psychoanalysis of human behavior and appear in myths, fairy tales, and contemporary films. Freud believed that the experiences during childhood were important predictors of later adult personality.

Each of us, he said, passes through five psychosexual stages during the first twelve or so years of life: the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency and Genital stages. Freud also believed that movement through all five stages is motivated by strong biological drives, but he also suggested that if a child’s needs are not met or are overindulged at one particular stage the child may fixate and a part of the personality may remain stuck at that stage (Huffman 453). Even of they make it throughall five stages, people may return (or regress) to a stage at which earlier needs were badly frustrated or overgratified.

During the phallic stage (from three to six years of age), the major center of pleasure is the phallus (penis) for boys and the clitoris for girls. Children develop a desire for the opposite-sex parent and a wish to displace the same-sex parent. This attraction creates a conflict, the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls, that must be resolved. In Freud’s view, young boys desire their mother and unconsciously want to replace their father, but, recognizing the father’s power, they fear he will punish them by castration.

This castration anxiety and the Oedipus conflict are resolved when the boy represses his sexual feelings for his mother, gives up his rivalry with his father, and begins to identify with him (Rathus 284). In the case of young girls , Freud believed they desire their father and unconsciously want to replace their mother. Unlike the young boy who develops castration anxiety, however, the young girl discovers that she lacks a penis which causes her to develop penis envy. The Electra conflict is resolved when the girl suppresses her desire for her father, gives up her rivalry with her mother, and identifies with her (Rathus 285).

Freud based his name for these complexes on characters in Greek mythology. King Oedipus was destined, by the oracle of Delphi, to “kill his father, marry his mother, and have children men would shudder to look upon” (Hamilton 381). And Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, was said to have induced her brother to kill their mother. Many people consider the psychosexual stages of development the weakest part of the Freudian Theory. Nevertheless, these concepts appear in ancient myths and classic fairy tales, as well as the most contemporary art, film, and literature.

There seems to be a onnection between Freud’s theories and the artistic imagination. For example, Freud suggested that Shakespeare’s Hamlet appeals to audiences because it reflects our own latent Oedipal conflict (or Electra complex for women). Hamlet supposedly delays avenging his father’s death because he must kill a man who did exactly he himself unconsciously wanted to do- kill his father and marry his mother. Another example is the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. The psychiatrist at the end of the movie explained the murder scene in the shower as a result of “having an Oedipal problem with his mother”.

As for the Electra Complex, have you noticed how often the main female character in fairy tales is a young princess living alone with a doting father ( and sometimes even a wicked stepmother )? Where is the mother in such Disney classics such as Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid? In the recent Hollywood comedy, a young (Beverly Hills) princess lives alone with her indulgent father (her mother having died during a routine liposuction). All these movies might tap into the Electra complex because the mother is absent and the heroine has her father all to herself.

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