Melancholy Femininity and Obsessive-Compulsive Masculinity: Sex Differences in Melancholy Gender

Meg Jay. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 8, Issue 2. Spring 2007.

An object-choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person, had at one time existed; then, owing to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object-relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it onto a new one, but something different, for whose coming about conditions seem to be necessary. The object-cathexis proved to have little power of resistance and was brought to an end. But the free libido was not displaced onto another object; it was withdrawn into the ego. There, however, it was not employed in any unspecified way, but served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object [Freud, 1917, pp. 248-249].

Is there a way in which gender identifications or, rather, those identifications which become central to the formation of gender, are produced through melancholic identification? More particularly, it seems clear that the positions of “masculine” and “feminine,” which Freud (1905) understood as the effects of laborious and uncertain accomplishment, are established in part through prohibitions that demand the loss of certain sexual attachments and demand as well that these losses not be avowed and not be grieved [Butler, 1995, pp. 167-168].

A decade ago, Butler (1995) put forth the notion of melancholy gender, a compelling and original theory of the reproduction of gendered identifications (see also Butler, 1990). In this, Butler draws heavily on Freud’s (1917) “Mourning and Melancholia” to reason that a special relationship between melancholy and gender is produced by a heterosexual culture. Most centrally, Butler theorizes that, because of the prescriptions and proscriptions of compulsory heterosexuality, same-sex object choice and same-sex erotic love are foreclosed as possibilities. Butler argues that such foreclosures function like losses in that they signify the closing off of what might be otherwise available through bisexuality. Further, she suggested that in a heterosexual culture these losses are unrecognized and so can never be mourned, leading to unresolved grief and a melancholic identification with the same-sex lost object. To Butler, gender is that melancholic identification. In a heterosexual culture, “we are what we cannot have” as we settle for being personally what we cannot have sexually: men cling to a masculine identification because they lose their chance for experiencing erotic love for other men and women take on femininity because they cannot experience erotic love for other women.

A product of the humanities, melancholy gender bridged disciplines by becoming one of the most influential psychoanalytic theories in gender studies as well as one of the most recognized psychoanalytic concepts in the feminist lexicon; and, of course, Butler’s theory has sparked dialogue amongst analysts (Phillips, 1995; Hansell, 1998; Moi, 1999; Dimen and Goldner, 2002). Yet, despite their popularity, poststructural theories such as Butler’s have been criticized for dealing more with “theoretical mirages” than with the lives of everyday individuals, largely because sex differences and individual differences that we see in lived experience are not theorized (Moi, 1999, p. 46). While never purporting to be true for everyone, melancholy gender provides no way of understanding what both clinicians and researchers already know: that gender is not always melancholy.

Although melancholy gender is a brilliant general theory, it does not, oddly, theorize the well-known sex difference in depression. Specifically, how does melancholy gender help clinicians and researchers understand why, in empirical studies and consulting rooms around the world, women are more depressed than men? One of the most cross-culturally consistent findings in both the depression and the gender literatures is that women are at least twice as likely to be depressed as are men (Weissman and Klerman, 1977, 1992). According to the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study, the leading risk factor for unipolar depression is being female (see Weissman and Klerman, 1992 for review). Clinical depression currently affects over 60 million women and, in turn, the individuals who share their lives (Culbertson, 1997). In the home, male and female children of a depressed mother are three times more likely to become depressed, and also have an earlier onset, a longer recovery, and a higher recurrence rate of depression themselves (Downey and Coyne, 1990; Blumenthal, 1994). In the marketplace, only heart disease, the leading cause of death in women, accounts for a greater number of hospital and sick days than depressive disorders (Blumenthal, 1994). In terms of gender identity, femininity may place some individuals at risk for depression while masculinity has been found to serve as a protective factor against depressive symptoms (Tinsley, Sullivan-Guest, and McGuire, 1984; Whitley, 1985).

With limited success, countless explanations for these sex differences have been explored, from hormones to cognitive style to personality to oppression (see Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Wolk and Weissman, 1995 for reviews), and so I would not expect melancholy gender to be able to offer itself as the definitive answer. At the same time, I do think the theory would appear more relevant if it were consistent with what we know about women, men, femininity, masculinity, and melancholy. As it is written, however, melancholy gender is not easily reconciled with these sex differences because the theory seems to assume that all gender identifications are equally potentially melancholic. This makes melancholy gender appear less useful to academic and clinical psychologists and, perhaps more importantly, it limits the logic of the theory itself. As a theory in the humanities, melancholy gender is not forced to consider empirical evidence or clinical theories that would complicate its claims and, as a result, it is not as nuanced as it could be.

When reading the theory of melancholy gender, while keeping in mind gender-related differences in depression, I inevitably wondered whether there was anything about foreclosure of same-sex object-choice that was relevant especially to female development; however, I found this question difficult to answer. Given the way foreclosure is and is not defined by Butler, it seems, at best, most relevant to male development and, at worst, too opaque to locate. The best way to answer this question then, in my view, is to examine the gendering of loss and foreclosure: that is, to differentiate between loss and foreclosure of same-sex object-choice as a (likely) difference in female and male development. Recall Freud’s (1917) argument that melancholy’s sine qua non is unavowed loss that cannot be effectively grieved and that this unresolved loss can lead to a melancholic identification with the object in an effort to preserve the relationship. In melancholy gender, Butler uses foreclosure as a proxy for Freud’s unavowed loss, employing these terms interchangeably. In contrast, I shall argue, first, that foreclosure and loss of the same-sex object-choice are not necessarily the same. Then, using psychoanalytic feminist theory (Rubin, 1975; Dinnerstein, 1976; Chodorow, 1978, 1979; Fast, 1979; Benjamin, 1988, 1995; Flax, 1990; Elise, 1998, 2000), I shall also show that unavowed loss is a common feature of female development, while preemptive foreclosure is more typical in male development.

My general aim is to add nuance to the theory of melancholy gender by considering sex differences in the relationship between gender identifications and the development of melancholy. In the sections that follow, I address sex differences, loss, and foreclosure by creating an interdisciplinary dialogue, inspired by empirical and clinical findings from psychoanalytic, feminist, and developmental literatures. Like Hansell (1998), I do so not to suggest that melancholy gender is wrong, but to argue that melancholy gender would be more powerful were it more informed by psychoanalytic and psychological understandings of the gendering of depression. Central to my argument is the claim that, because Butler does not make a distinction between unavowed loss and preemptive foreclosure, the theory of melancholy gender speaks at times to the little girl and at times to the little boy, ultimately never fully resonating with clinical and empirical material about either. In contrast, research and clinical evidence suggest that melancholy femininity is a more likely material reality than is melancholy masculinity. By arguing that girls are positioned to develop melancholy femininity while boys are positioned to develop obsessive-compulsive masculinity, I shall suggest why this may be so.

Melancholy Gender and the Problem with Foreclosure

For if we accept the notion that the prohibition on homosexuality operates throughout a largely heterosexual culture as one of its defining operations, then it appears that the loss of homosexual objects and aims (not simply this person of the same gender, but any person of that same gender) will be foreclosed from the start. I use the word “foreclosed” to suggest that this is a preemptive loss, a mourning for unlived possibilities; for if this is a love that is from the start out of the question, then it cannot happen and, if it does, it certainly did not; if it does, it happens only under the official sign of its prohibition and disavowal [Butler, 1995, p. 171].

Butler draws on classical psychoanalytic theory to think through the relationship between sexuality and gender identification. Using theory advanced by Freud principally in “Mourning and Melancholia” (Freud, 1917), Butler argues that gender identification is founded on, and is the expression of, forsaking the same-sex object choice. Such a closing-off interrupts our inherent bisexuality such that identification with heterosexuality expresses but one aspect of our sexuality. What is lost or repressed through the early formation of a heterosexual identification is the loss of possibilities, the loss of what could have been.

To Butler (1995), because this process is a loss of possibilities that is generally unacknowledged in culture, “this ‘loss’ might be better understood on the model of foreclosure” (p. 165). Butler suggests that heterosexual culture creates a dichotomy between male and female, and between masculinity and femininity, dictating that what one can “be” and what one can “have” are different. Thus, a boy ought to desire the feminine and be the masculine; for him, gender identity rests on the foreclosure of desiring men. In this way, sexual and gender identification represent a loss of possibilities, or more precisely a foreclosure of same-sex love objects in childhood. Because early childhood homosexual attachments are never-quite-realized, they are never-quite-lost. It is precisely this sort of loss that can never be mourned or resolved, thus leading to melancholy or depressive symptomatology and creating an unconscious tie between heterosexuality and melancholy.

For Butler, melancholy is most bound up with gender because this foreclosure creates gender. Recall Freud’s (1917) assertion that individuals respond to unrecognized loss with unresolved grief or melancholia as well as with an identification with the lost object: “when it happens that a person has to give up a sexual object, there quite often ensues an alteration of his ego which can only be described as a setting up of the object inside the ego” (p. 29). This identification allows individuals to hold onto objects that they have otherwise had to forsake. Thus, according to Butler, in a heterosexual culture, abandoning the same-sex object choice without mourning will result in an identification with the same-sex object in an effort to preserve the relationship in some way. Gender is that melancholic identification; it is the sign or the symptom of a forsaken and unmourned homosexual object-choice. Given these conditions, “what ensues is a culture of gender melancholy in which masculinity and femininity emerge as the traces of an ungrieved and ungrievable love …gender itself is here understood to be composed of precisely what remains inarticulate in sexuality” (Butler, 1995, p. 172). Gender is an expression of what has been given up but not grieved.

Retracing Butler’s assertions, and her use of certain psychoanalytic texts, we see how she reasons that heterosexuality is a melancholic compromise and how gender is a symptom of this melancholy. Butler highlights and problematizes the way in which cultural heterosexuality prescribes object-choice, thus limiting the possibilities potentially available through multiplicity, continuity, and bisexuality. Because this notion is consistent with both poststructural theory and psychoanalytic theory, it forces an unusual but useful dialogue between the two.

The Problem with Foreclosure

This dialogue, however, at times seems limited by one of the central concepts of Butler’s (1995) theory: foreclosure, for which she draws on both Lacanian and feminist usage (p. 171). Foreclosure is a psychoanalytic concept thus far most utilized by Lacan (“Forclusion”), and it is one that can be and has been understood in different ways (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973). In Lacanian texts, foreclosure refers to the defense mechanism employed in psychosis. According to Lacan, foreclosure is a failure to move from the symbiotic relationship with the mother to the symbolic order, via the name-of-the-father, in which signifiers stand for the signified (i.e., father’s name begins to represent father who is not always present and hence the beginning of language, authority, rules, and the Oedipal). The result of foreclosure is that the child remains in a desire-for-the-mother, psychotic state devoid of signifiers in which that which is not signified (i.e., represented in language) can only exist as hallucination (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973; Grosz, 1990; Leavy, 1990).

In Freudian texts, Verwerfung, or repudiation, is likely closest to Lacan’s foreclosure, but it does not necessarily denote what Lacan meant by it; according to Laplanche and Pontalis (1973), other Freudian terms (e.g., Ablehnen, or fend off; Aufheben, or suppress; Verleugnen, or disavow) do. Also, contemporary theory uses foreclosure to suggest a splitting off of, or an interruption in, meaning making that ought to emerge through the dialectic between reality and fantasy (e.g., in Goldberg’s [1987] distraction as a dissociative disguise, Green’s [1975] blank psychosis, McDougall’s [1974] foreclosure of the psychological, Ogden’s [1985] psychopathology of potential space).

Common to the disparate uses cited here is the notion that foreclosure may refer to the negation that something has happened or that something will happen. It is not clear what Butler (1995) meant, or may have meant, by foreclosure as her footnote (p. 171) makes explicit that she is drawing on both Lacanian and Freudian usage. Yet, it seems relatively certain that she did not intend to use foreclosure in the strictly Lacanian sense to suggest that same-sex object-choice is unsymbolized and relegated to the psychotic realm. Rather, she seems to use foreclosure in two ways, meaning both same-sex object-choice that must never be and same-sex object-choice that must never have been. On the one hand, homosexual objects and aims are “foreclosed from the start,” “preemptive lossfes],” “unlived possibilities,” “from the start out of the question,” and what “cannot happen” (p. 171). On the other hand, Butler also discusses same-sex object love as an “unreal loss’ (p. 165) that “if it does [happen], it certainly did not” and “if it does [happen], it happens only under … prohibition and disavowal” (p. 171).

This both-and strategy in defining foreclosure has consequences for understanding the relation between femininity and melancholy. It obscures the mutative dynamic in the theory of melancholy gender-the giving up of the same-sex object-choice-by allowing it to teeter discursively between a preemptive foreclosure and an unavowed loss. Probably accurately, this uncertain boundary between foreclosure and loss represents the way in which the mind lacks a literal definition of loss; nor is it inconsistent with the varied ways psychoanalytic literature uses the term. Nevertheless, I would claim that using foreclosure in melancholy gender to denote the disavowal of both the prohibited might-be and the prohibited has-been obscures the developmental differences between females and males.

Although Butler did not set out to distinguish among the various sorts of foreclosures and losses produced by compulsory heterosexuality, such distinctions, I shall show, can illuminate the reasons why melancholy femininity is more likely than melancholy masculinity. In the sections that follow, I use psychoanalytic feminist theory to argue that, in societies in which women mother, it is more common in female development that same-sex object-choice and desire will be experienced and lost, while it is more common in male development for same-sex object choice and desire to be disallowed from birth. This difference leads to different outcomes in female and male development: unavowed loss and melancholy femininity in women and preemptive foreclosure and obsessive-compulsive masculinity in men.

Unavowed Loss and Melancholy Femininity

Mothers are and have been the child’s primary caretaker, socializer, and inner object; fathers are secondary objects for boys and girls. My interpretation of the Oedipus complex, from a perspective centered on object-relations, shows that these basic features of family structure entail varied modes of differentiation for the ego and its internalized object-relations and lead to the development of different relational capacities for girls and boys [Chodorow, 1978, p. 127].

Insofar as the discourse of melancholy gender vacillates between preemptive foreclosure and unavowed loss, it fuses female and male experiences of sexual and gender identity development. But this melding contradicts what psychoanalytic feminist theorists claim to know about gender development (Rubin, 1975; Dinnerstein, 1976; Chodorow, 1978, 1979, 1994; Fast, 1979; Benjamin, 1988, 1995; Flax, 1990; Dimen, 1991; Goldner, 1991; Elise, 1998, 2000). Melancholy gender would be a stronger theory if it allowed for these sex differences in lived experience rather than seeing preemptive foreclosure and unavowed loss as rough equivalents. My central argument is that melancholy and gender are especially likely to become entwined in female development because gender is reproduced not only by culturally compulsory heterosexuality (as Butler suggests) but also by the predominant family organization in which women mother (Chodorow, 1978, 1979).1 Women’s position as primary caretaker uniquely positions the little girl to endure the two preconditions of melancholy vis-à-vis the mother-unavowed loss of same-sex desire and an ambivalent identification (Freud, 1917)-placing girls and women especially at risk for melancholy gender.

Unavowed Loss of the Mother as Erotic Love Object

Chodorow (1978, 1979) emphasizes that women’s mothering has profound intrapsychic and intersubjective implications for the construction of gender, such that unconscious meanings and developmental experiences of gender and sexuality, within a heterosexual division of labor, tend to differ for girls and boys. Although all available parents likely play a role in pre-Oedipal bisexual fantasy, both girls and boys take the mother as the primary love object, and this dyad or “nursing couple” may be understood as a very powerful prototype of sexual intimacy (Elise, 1998, 2000). As culturally compulsory heterosexuality and Oedipal stage losses put an end to this relationship, girls lose the pre-Oedipal relationship with the mother in a painfully important way: although they may build on the attachment to their mothers, girls lose the primary oneness with the original object just as they lose the likelihood of recuperation through an erotic or all-consuming attachment with someone like her (Rubin, 1975; Chodorow, 1978). In contrast to Oedipal, heterosexual attachments severed by the incest taboo (i.e., mother-son, father-daughter) which are said to serve as the template for future culturally-sanctioned heterosexual relationships, the mother-daughter homosexual attachment is most often left to serve as the template for nothing erotic, making heterosexuality a compromise formation (Chodorow, 1994; Elise, 2000). Thus, contrary to Freud’s (1905, 1925) suggestion that object-choice and even reality testing are firmly rooted in object refmding, object finding is often not so clearly a refmding for girls.

This movement of object-choice from mother to father, and from homosexual to heterosexual, has been called a circuitous path (Freud, 1931), a bitter loss (Lampl de Groot, 1928), Paradise Lost (Elise, 2000), and one of the greatest ripoffs of all time (Rubin, 1975). We can understand here how the mechanism that Butler describes in melancholy gender-unavowed loss that becomes internalization of object that becomes gender identification-produces an identification with femininity. Because heterosexuality in women does not allow for a pre-Oedipal refinding, the little girl has little recourse except to internalize the lost object. Consequently, this object will likely never be fully recuperated through any other relationship or relinquished through any mourning process.

In the girl’s development, the shift of the love object from the mother to the father (and later to his replacements) is a loss that is unavowed in a heterosexual culture, not, as Butler claims, an unrecognized never-was. Much attended to by psychoanalytic thinkers, this idea, that girls experience and lose pre-Oedipal same-sex erotic love, is not acknowledged within a culture that circulates compulsory heterosexuality. That is, the loss of the pre-Oedipal same-sex erotic love for the mother is withdrawn from both personal and cultural consciousness because it has no place within the heterosexual matrix. This withdrawal prevents the loss of same-sex love from being fully recognized or grieved: “melancholia is in some way related to an object loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss” (Freud, 1917, p. 245). Ironically, even the theory of melancholy gender-a theory about unavowed loss and the blindspots of cultural heterosexuality-forgets the reality of this experience. In this way, Butler overlooks that girls and women are uniquely positioned to develop melancholic gender identifications, or melancholy femininity.

Ambivalent Internalization of the Mother as Identificatory Object

This unavowed loss of and identification with the same-sex love object sets the stage for, but does not guarantee, melancholy femininity in female development. It is important to note here that, following Freud’s logic, nothing about loss and identification is inherently melancholic; in fact, loss and identification are largely how the ego is built out of its objects (Freud, 1923). Although Butler does not incorporate this point into her theory of melancholy gender, Freud (1917) clearly communicates that an ambivalent identification, the importation of love and hate, results in a melancholic identification. As he says in “Mourning and Melancholia,” the “conflict due to ambivalence … must not be overlooked among the preconditions of melancholia” (Freud, 1917, p. 251).

Using clinical evidence to mark the differences between mourning and melancholia, Freud (1917) found that only the latter entails disturbances of self-regard, which, in turn, was key to the development of melancholy. Self-debasement is an act of aggression against the internalized other, Freud concluded through clinical listening. In this way, loss, ambivalence, and internalization work together to generate depressive symptoms and elements of melancholy: sadness, lowered self-regard, anhedonia, and even self-destruction. The depressed individual has lost an object she was ambivalent about and, after internalizing this object, becomes ambivalent about herself. This is how the shadow of the object falls upon the ego.

Thus, the potential melancholy of femininity can be further understood if we consider the ambivalence that may accompany an identification with the mother and with women. In cultures in which women are the primary caretakers, mothers represent passivity, object status, monstrosity, intrusiveness, and lack of desire while fathers represent otherness, excitement, rationality, liberation from mother, and connection to the outside world (Dinnerstein, 1976; Contratto, 1987; Benjamin, 1988). The co-incidence of the development of gender identity and the struggle for personhood means that, for girls, gender and development are fatefully intertwined (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, 1975) and “separation-individuation thus becomes a gender issue” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 104). That is, at the same time as the little girl wishes to get away from mommy, she learns that she is like mommy; this recognition of likeness can injure her subjectivity because being like daddy is seen to be the path away from mommy. Hence the oft-cited depression and loss of exploratory interest seen in girls during the rapprochement phase that has been attributed to recognition of anatomical difference (Mahler et al., 1975; Roiphe and Galenson, 1981) begins to be better understood by Benjamin (1988, 1995) as resulting from prescribed femininity and proscribed masculinity.

I would take this argument further and suggest that femininity becomes melancholic, at least in part, because the internalization of the feminine places the little girl not just in a disagreeable, one-down position but in an ambivalent, double bind: on the one hand, she internalizes the mother as her only route to preserving same-sex love yet, on the other hand, this feminine identification may reduce her to passive object status. She is supposed to identify with mother (and the feminine) not simply because society tells her so. She wants to and needs to identify with her mother just as she wants not to and needs not to. Everything about this situation is a problematic contradiction: one of her most significant early acts of desire and agency-keeping the mother for herself while she is told that she must let go of all women-creates an identification with a position that lacks subjectivity and independence.

A Note about Preemptive Foreclosure and Obsessive-Compulsive Masculinity

[G]irls in a contemporary society develop a personal identification with their mother, and … a tie between affective processes and role learning-between libidinal and ego development characterizes feminine development. By contrast, boys develop a positional identification with aspects of the masculine role. For them, the tie between affective processes and role learning is broken [Chodorow, 1978, p. 175].

Taken together, then, we see how the two preconditions for melancholy (Freud, 1917)-unavowed loss and ambivalent identificationmay be prominent in female development, and how this positions girls and women for melancholy femininity. While this may make heterosexual boys less vulnerable to melancholic gender identifications, it does not mean that they fare overwhelmingly better than do girls. I want to suggest, briefly, that if unavowed loss makes women more vulnerable to melancholy femininity, then preemptive foreclosure makes men more vulnerable to a sort of obsessive-compulsive masculinity. Again, I propose that the reasons for this gender difference have to do with the difference between unavowed loss and preemptive foreclosure. According to Freud’s (1917, 1923) theory of identification, preemptive foreclosures are not internalized-losses are. So, when identifications are understood to be the products of unavowed loss, and when unavowed loss and preemptive foreclosure are understood to be different, one wonders, “How do boys turn preemptive foreclosure of same-sex erotic love into gender identifications?”

In a heterosexual culture in which women mother and in which fathers may be physically or emotionally absent, boys tend to take mother, not father, as their first love. For males, then, heterosexual object-choice is often experientially continuous from the pre-Oedipal through the Oedipal stages (Freud, 1933; Person, 1988), while same-sex object-choice is more likely to be preemptively foreclosed, at least consciously. Because preemptive foreclosure is a useful concept when considering male development, I want to, at this point, differentiate between foreclosure in the conscious mind and foreclosure in the unconscious mind (Hansell, 1998).

Consciously, homosexual love is, for boys, preemptively foreclosed in development and in culture because homosexual erotic experience is typically not fostered in their early development. Short of Lacan’s psychosis, however, no foreclosure exists in the unconscious, where all possibilities are preserved simultaneously (i.e., father as boy’s love object, mother as penetrator with penis). While unconscious and preconscious homosexual fantasy might create, to some extent, longing in girls and women (since it harks back to the pre-Oedipal relationship with the mother), same-sex desire, both conscious and unconscious, frightens many boys and men, because it has rarely, if ever, been a part of culturally sanctioned male development. This foreclosure creates a real split between the contents of the unconscious and the conscious mind. This split results in a conflict, which, when it nears awareness, produces anxiety.

Put simply, whereas loss yields sadness, foreclosure generates anxiety. The anxiety that accompanies conscious preemptive foreclosure of same-sex object-choice in male development is then defended against by heterosexuality or, more precisely, by hetero-masculinity. Given that homosexual object-desire can never be preemptively foreclosed in the unconscious, obsessive-compulsive masculinity aims to keep homoerotic strivings out of awareness for the self and for others. That is, hetero-masculine thoughts and behaviors are intended to cover up the same-sex object-choice, which was preemptively foreclosed consciously but preserved unconsciously. Hence, one function of masculinity’s obsessive-compulsive control is to mask homosexuality and homosexual attachments that are otherwise unattended to (as well as to ward off negative Oedipal desires that cannot be processed).

This defensive structure suggests why males’ performance of straight sexuality is a preoccupation and a repetition (Barrett and Whitehead, 2001), dependent upon obsessive and/or compulsive public enactments such that boys and men “tend to feel only as masculine as their last demonstration of masculinity” (Beneke, 1997, p. 5). This performativity has been described by various masculinity theorists as pathological insecurity (Kimmel, 1987), brittle bravado (Corbett, 2001), compulsive heterosexuality (Pascoe, 2007), and marketplace manhood maintained by gender policing (Kimmel, 2001). We can further understand this sort of police-state gender maintenance by recognizing that the splitting often required by hetero-masculinity may be behaviorally enacted but intrapsychically motivated. We see this relationship at work in boys and men in a variety of ways: when the “sense of well-being depends on a frantic drive to control [their] environment” (Kimmel, 1987, p. 101), when play is burdened by “rigid and paranoid vigilance” (Corbett, 2001, p. 14), and when behavior is subject to “constant, careful scrutiny” (Kimmel, 2001, p. 275).

My idea of obsessive-compulsive masculinity is reminiscent of Slater’s (1961) positional-versus personal-identification (also see Chodorow, 1978). A personal identification, motivated by love and attachment and facilitated by warmth and engagement, allows flexibility, permitting one’s ego to adopt a wide range of the traits and values of another. While we can imagine that this would include attitudes and qualities that are gendered in society, personal identifications involve also modifications of these internalizations, making qualities of the ego more about developing the self and preserving its objects than about social mimicry. Positional identifications (Slater, 1961), on the other hand, are motivated by fear and envy, and they evolve in the absence of support and involvement. Such identifications consist of characteristics that, suggestive of another’s role rather than of another’s self, are easily and literally copied. Thus, envying his bigger but absent father, and fearing contamination by his mother (and his unconscious same-sex desire), the little boy adopts a rigid and vigilant hetero-masculine position. In my view, this sort of gender identification, whether understood as obsessive-compulsive, or positional (Slater, 1961;Chodorow, 1978),orparanoid-schizoid(Sweetnam, 1996), is more likely to describe masculinity than femininity.


The link that Butler makes between the loss of same-sex desire and a resulting gender identification is a stunning insight, and one that shows promise for providing a better psychoanalytic understanding of the relationship between gender identity and depression. At the same time, the clinical application of the theory is somewhat limited by the language of melancholy gender and, I argue, by the vague use of the word foreclosure. Most importantly, Butler discusses foreclosure of the same-sex object-choice as poststructural theorists often discuss power: as a circulating influence that operates abstractly in everyday life. Butler does not consider how such foreclosure may manifest differently in girls and boys within a gendered division of labor. In failing to do this, Butler’s description of coming to terms with foreclosure feels a bit like filling a dance card, with some choices (i.e., same-sex objects) unavailable. At times, it is unclear how exactly such foreclosure would result in identification and melancholy.

A consideration of developmental sex differences suggested by psychoanalytic feminist theory (Rubin, 1975; Dinnerstein, 1976; Chodorow, 1978, 1979, 1994; Benjamin, 1988, 1995; Elise, 1998, 2000) adds nuance and material relevance to melancholy gender in a way that allows the theory to resonate with what we know empirically and clinically about gender and depression-namely, that women are more likely to be depressed than men. I draw on this literature to argue that, because of the mother’s role as pre-Oedipal object, girls are more likely to experience something more like unavowed loss of same-sex desire, while boys are more likely to experience something more like preemptive foreclosure of same-sex desire. In an effort to hold onto this lost object (and all others like her), girls may internalize the same-sex object (and all those that she represents) as a feminine identification; at the same time, the gendered division of labor makes this identification ripe for ambivalence as an identification with mother stands for monstrosity and passivity while an identification with father stands for agency and excitement (Dinnerstein, 1976; Benjmain, 1988, 1995). In this way, girls are particularly positioned to experience, as part of their development, Freud’s (1917) two preconditions of melancholy: unavowed loss and ambivalent identification.

Because of their preemptive foreclosure of same-sex object desire, however, boys are vulnerable to a sort of obsessive-compulsive gender. This vulnerability comes about because heterosexual and masculine identifications are not internalized through loss and so they function as rigid, positional identifications, rather than flexible, personal identifications. Furthermore, the preemptive foreclosure of same-sex object-desire places consciousness in conflict with unconscious, polymorphous gender and sexuality, such that anxiety, rather than melancholy, may characterize heterosexual masculinity. The result is that straightness and maleness serve as behavioral and emotional performances that police, and cordon off, masculinity (Corbett, 2001; Kimmel, 2001).

Of course, I do not intend to suggest that all women and men follow the trajectories I have outlined, that all women suffer from melancholy femininity and all men are driven by obsessive-compulsive masculinity. Women or men might experience melancholy gender or obsessive-compulsive gender, or both at different times. We can imagine that boys who are allowed to experience, lose, and internalize same-sex object-desire for their fathers may have a less rigid and anxious sense of their own gender (Isay, 1989; Corbett, 1993; Kimmel, 2001), and perhaps one that is more melancholic especially if the masculine identification is an ambivalent one. Similarly, there are all sorts of ways that girls and women might construct a less melancholic or more multiple gender (Dimen, 1991; Goldner, 1991; Harris, 1991), such as via a less traditional household (Chodorow, 1978), a welcome identification with father (and men; Benjamin, 1988), or a less ambivalent identification with mother (and women; Contratto, 1987). In fact, in an empirical work (Jay, 2007), I pursue exactly how the latter works-that is, how ambivalent attachment mediates the relationship between femininity and melancholy in women-finding that ambivalence is one mechanism that drives the relationship between femininity and melancholy whereas the relative lack of ambivalence attenuates this link.

Perhaps as proof that the internalization of same-sex objects need not be melancholy, as I close this paper, I find myself thinking of the words of one of my less ambivalent and less melancholic internal objects. As an explanation for any male (and usually sexist) peccadillo, my very old, very Southern grandmother always says, “Men come into this world loving women and they go out of this world loving women.” This sentiment generally prompts a great deal of eye-rolling among the younger generations in the family because, in addition to the obvious assumption of heterosexuality, my grandmother seems to be overlooking bad behavior. More recently, I have come to realize that, in her own words, my grandmother is offering the folk wisdom version of what I and other psychoanalytic feminist theorists have argued: that the mother’s role as the pre-Oedipal love object has a profound, and different, impact on the intrapsychic and interpersonal development of boys and girls. My grandmother might enjoy knowing that here I have suggested that, very often, “women come into this world loving women and go out of this world loving men” and that this matters with respect to melancholy gender.