June 21, 2007
Mary Ann Travis
For two decades after World War II, a distorted view of the Freudian Oedipus complex prevailed in American culture -- especially in father-daughter relationships -- confining women to narrow, sexual roles.
A 1950s teenage American girl dressed in a strapless prom dress descends the family home's curving staircase, holding onto the railing to steady her teetering stance in too-high heels. She tentatively looks for approval from ...? Not her date. He can wait. It's her father. She yearns for his whistling acceptance of her looks and her erotic appeal.
And, according to prevailing cultural and Freudian psychoanalytic thought at the time, if dad is fulfilling his proper role, he gives his daughter his approval and she grows up emotionally healthy, making a smooth transition from little girl to young woman.
Kind of weird, huh? That's what Rachel Devlin thinks, too. Devlin, associate professor of history at Tulane, has written Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters and Postwar American Culture, published in 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press.
In the book, Devlin writes about the alarming rise in girls' juvenile delinquency from the 1940s and into the '50s and '60s and the distortion of psychoanalytic theories -- especially the Oedipus complex -- to control what was perceived as girls' bad behavior. The book shows the mid-century power, influence and wholesale acceptance in the United States of Freudian psychoanalysis, re-imagined from Sigmund Freud's original ideas about the struggles children go through to repress their sexual feelings toward parents.
To push against the corrupting influence of the emerging teenage subculture -- and to fashion a stronger position for fathers in the family -- psychoanalysts offered a disturbing explanation of girls who were hostile, disobedient and uncooperative: The girls were not sufficiently Oedipally connected to their fathers. Devlin explores female identity and independence, generational conflict, media fascination with the lives of teenage girls and the roles their fathers played, and the rising wealth of post-World War II American consumer culture.
In this period -- 1941 to 1965 -- girls had access to better schools with almost universal compulsory secondary education, new social freedoms, cultural prominence, commercial influence and a place in the nation's vision of its future.
Yet, they were held back by the eroticization of the father-daughter relationship, Devlin contends. Not all scholars agree with Devlin. Some think she's making too much of innocuous interactions between fathers and daughters. "I think the assumption has always been that fathers and daughters don't really have that much to do with one another," says Devlin.
That fathers, the men in gray flannel suits, were emotionally removed and psychologically distant from their families is a common assumption about 1950s American men. But what Devlin finds portrayed in the iconic movies and novels of the period -- Baby Doll, Imitation of Life, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause, Lolita, Lie Down in Darkness -- are highly charged, explosive father-daughter relationships. Girls were looking for and needed the sexual approval of their fathers.
The most-read, best-selling Freudian psychoanalyst of the period was Helene Deutsch, who wrote The Psychology of Women. Deutsch, one of Freud's most influential followers, believed in feminine masochism, that women's greatest achievement lies in childbirth.
Deutsch's impact on psychoanalytic circles was enormous, says Devlin. Deutsch advocated that women's only fulfillment was through their relationships with men -- their fathers and then their husbands and then their Oedipal relationship with their sons.
"Deutsch had a huge influence," says Devlin. And now Deutsch has vanished from psychological texts even though her book was the textbook of her time. And that's not surprising, says Devlin, who has found that books about girls get discredited quickly. That's because what's been written about girls is often ideological and political. "It's rejected 10 years down the line. People look back and they go, oh, that was really sexist," says Devlin.
Boy books like Catcher in the Rye deal with values like independence and strength of character, and they last as classics. Boy icons endure, while girl icons like Shirley Temple "don't last because they're so invested in male approval," says Devlin.
Bobby-soxers in tight sweaters, padded brassieres and full -- or pencil-thin -- skirts with cinched waists, hanging out in their own bedrooms, on the phone, slamming the door to parents, isolating themselves from the family -- that's the teenage-girl culture Americans came to know and loathe or admire in post-World War II America. A 1944 Life magazine article -- "Teenage Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own" -- is typical of the time.
And the black press in magazines such as Ebony and Jet printed cover photos of debutante girls to show their "beauty, accomplishment and allure," says Devlin, as middle-class African-American girls moved forward the social aspirations of their families.
The media interest in adolescent girls led to concern about the proliferation of girl gangs and rising juvenile delinquency among girls. Girls caught in the act of truancy, shoplifting, vandalism or running away from home were sent to their own juvenile courts. High School Hellcats is a film based on the misbehavior of a 25-member girl gang implicated in a shoplifting ring in Tacoma, Wash.
"This shockingly true story shows how young girls from good homes went terribly wrong," reported Women's Home Companion magazine in 1955. In New York, the Wayward Minor Court for Girls or "Girls' Term" was established as a "socio-legal tribunal," using the latest psychiatric methods to diagnose and rehabilitate "the sexually promiscuous girl, the runaway, the undisciplined, defiant youngster, the neglected girl," reported the New York University Law Quarterly Review in 1946.
Court-appointed psychiatrists attempted to get to the bottom of the underlying cause of girls' misbehavior and explained it as a problem of paternal failure. The analysis that rebellious girls were not sufficiently Oedipally attached to their fathers was a way to control the girls and attempt to re-integrate them into the family, says Devlin.
The patriarchal bent to this way of thinking instituted an allegiance to fathers that gave them a strong role to play in the family, without the requirement to be a harsh authoritarian. Lipstick loomed as a symbolic rite of passage.
Girls who wore the bright, red lipstick of the day with the approval of their fathers were on the path to fulfilling their womanhood. Other girls, whose fathers forbade their wearing lipstick, were having their sexual development arrested. Psychoanalysts invariably advised fathers to allow their daughters to wear lipstick, says Devlin.
After Sigmund Freud, the Austrian originator of psychoanalysis, visited the United States and went back to Europe in 1911, he said, "America is a mistake." Freud suggested that introducing psychoanalysis to Americans was a disaster because it was "instantly seized upon, popularized and bastardized," says Devlin. Freud could already see that Americans were twisting his theories out of shape. Three decades later, Freudian psychoanalysis had so permeated the American psyche, there was almost "a religious acceptance" of it, Devlin says.
The Oedipus complex, as defined by Freud, describes the sexual-relationship development of boys and girls as they grow into men and women. (Oedipus is a legendary Greek king who, according to myth, killed his father and unknowingly married his mother.) According to Freud's theories, both boys and girls have their primary identification or fixation with their mothers from the time they are infants to age 5. The Oedipus complex itself doesn't appear until age 5 or 6 when boys become attracted to their mothers, and they want their fathers out of the way.
Conversely, girls become attracted to their fathers. The latency period for both sexes, when sexual drives abate and are not at the forefront of consciousness, is between the ages 6 to 12. Then at adolescence, sexual drives reappear.
Girls' Oedipal feelings for their fathers re-emerge. According to Freudian theory, says Devlin, "Girls want their fathers' sexual attention, and they are competitive with their mothers." Boys, on the other hand, repress Oedipal feelings for their mothers and reject them. "What's important [in this way of thinking] is that girls can stay in an Oedipal state indefinitely, whereas boys grow out of it," says Devlin.
In the 1910s and '20s, European psychoanalysts saw the Oedipus complex in both boys and girls "as something that was dark, as a stumbling block, as a subconscious desire that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of their relationship with their parents -- that is the incest taboo," says Devlin. Freud's view was that these Oedipal urges haunt people and they need to be overcome. In the period right after World War II, American psychoanalysts took the warped stance that the problem with teenage girls in this country was that they were "not entering into enough of an Oedipal relationship with their fathers," Devlin says.
In a dining room scene in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, as the family is about to sit down to eat, the character "Judy," portrayed by actress Natalie Wood, attempts to kiss her father hello. He shoves her away and slaps her, saying she's too old for that sort of behavior. This being the 1950s, Judy then naturally wants to run away from home. She hangs out with boys, played by actors James Dean and Sal Mineo, who have their own family hang-ups and "shrinks" to analyze them.
Rebel Without a Cause shows adolescents struggling with family dynamics, much of it through a Freudian lens. Who can forget James Dean's dad -- Jim Backus -- emasculated, wearing an apron? Judy's relationship with her father is sexualized, says Devlin, as are the relationships of other teenage girl characters in most of the "serious" literature and films of the era. Girls were seldom seen as separate, independent human beings with other attributes besides their sexuality. And there's the problem, in a nutshell, says Devlin.
By 1968 the Freudian stranglehold on American culture loosened as feminists came out swinging in fury against the restrictive, limiting roles assigned women. Feminists excoriated Freud's theories. Metaphorically or in reality, they burned bras in protest. Marjorie Leonard in 1966 was the first psychiatrist since the 1930s to mention that a girl could -- and should -- move beyond an Oedipal relationship with her father. Leonard, a psychiatry professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, wrote in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, "It takes a mature man ... to be able to offer his daughter desexualized affection at the crucial stages in her development."
Devlin says that in the late 1960s cultural attention shifted from teenage girls to young adults. The sexual revolution began. The counter-culture arrived with the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, blue jeans and flowers in the hair.
"What happens is that the Freudian ideas about fathers and adolescent daughters recede, but their influence remains," says Devlin.
It is possible today to see teenage girls wearing T-shirts that say "Daddy's Little Girl" -- but highly unlikely for a boy older than 2 to announce on his clothing that he's a "Mama's Boy." In America's rich consumer culture -- spawned at the end of World War II and expanded exponentially in the last half century -- fathers find it desirable to spoil their daughters.
The father-daughter relationship nowadays is more "commercially oriented and less psychoanalytically informed" than during the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, says Devlin. But girls' independence remains an issue. Devlin points to lavish "Sweet 16" parties as documented on MTV as examples of fathers spoiling their daughters today.
She says that her Tulane women students immediately and almost uniformly understand the phenomenon. In their own lives or the lives of their friends, they have experienced or observed fathers showing their love by buying material things for their daughters -- and girls dressing up to please their dads.
Devlin hopes that her book prompts readers to re-examine father-daughter relationships in the past and today. There's useful insight to be gained, she says, about obstacles women face as they struggle to become fully realized human beings. The search for an authentic, feminine self -- never easy -- has every reason to go on.
Mary Ann Travis is senior editor in the Office of Publications and editor of Tulanian.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org