C.G. Jung, The Red Book
“Life is born only of the spark of opposites,” said Jung (CW 7, para. 78). Though summarizing Jung’s complex psychological observations into a few key concepts is impossible, the notion that psychic life is based upon pairs of opposites is certainly a central idea. Perhaps the most important pair that Jung discussed in his writings was the “supreme pair of opposites” that Jung referred to as the syzygy — masculine and feminine. He felt that each of us has both a masculine and feminine aspect, and that developing both of these parts of ourselves is important for psychological health.
Although Jungian analysts such as myself continue to use the term “the feminine” to stand in for a certain set of psychological attitudes and values, it is a problematic term. Jung was writing in the first half of the twentieth century when beliefs about sex roles were quite different than they are today. Though Jung was arguably less of an outright misogynist than some of his peers, nevertheless much of what he writes about women is down-right cringe-worthy now. So when I do use the term, I always find myself hedging and even apologizing. And yet I can’t quite get away from it.
For purposes of psychological discussion, the term “the feminine” retains some descriptive value. It is messy, misleading, sometimes inaccurate, and ever-changing. But I would argue that it does serve to denote certain aspects of human experience – common, of course, to both males and females — and we all tend to know more or less what these are. It may be that we associate these attitudes and values with that which is female due purely to social conditioning. It is not my aim to sort that out here.
So what do I mean when I use the term “the feminine” in a psychological context?
The feminine denotes emotionality, intuition, moodiness, instinctiveness, softness, receptivity, changeability, relationality, and mediality. In general, these values tend to be discounted or devalued when measured against “masculine” qualities. Feminine values are manifested by both men and women, just as masculine values are.
The devaluation of the feminine is another main theme in Jung’s writings. He saw that as a culture, we are out of balance. Both on a personal and collective level, the feminine is undervalued, and this leads to psychic and social dysfunction and suffering. This Western tendency to brutally repress the feminine has a long history. Several stories from Greek mythology relate how female earth deities are vanquished and relegated to the depths by solar masculine gods. Depth psychologists understand the extractive economy of modern Western capitalism to be a manifestation of a cultural attitude that is too one-sided due to the relegation of those qualities associated with the feminine.
Wherever the feminine appears, it will likely be devalued and discredited regardless of who expresses it. According to Jung, the goal of psychological development is wholeness. This means that if we begin life more attuned to “feminine” values, we will need to develop our “masculine” side and vice versa. Jungians have noted the tendency for women to take on more “masculine” roles after midlife, and for men to become more “feminine” around the same time. Indeed, this is a common theme in many fairy tales.
My father was typically “masculine” throughout most of his life. He worked in business and focused almost entirely on practical things. He had little access to his feelings, and did not bother to cultivate his nurturing side. Now however, he cares for my ailing mother with endless patience, tenderness, and sweetness. He is indeed fully immersed in his “feminine” side these days, and has been for many years.
Recently, my father and I took my mother to the emergency room after she had a fall. It distressed me to see the ER doctor discount and disregard my father as we discussed my mother’s condition. In addition to being her primary caretaker who knows everything about her mental and physical health, my father is completely cognitively nimble. Even so, the doctor addressed all questions to me instead of him, despite the fact that I did not have most of the information he was seeking. While it is plausible to ascribe the doctor’s reaction to ageism, we learned later that the doctor made a note in the chart that my father was “overly reactive.” This could not have been further from the truth. My father was as usual polite, measured, and diplomatic. I believe that the doctor devalued and dismissed my father and perceived him as being overly reactive – hysterical — because my dad was embodying the feminine in the room as he cared for my mother.
In emergency rooms and boardrooms everywhere, in modern dreams and old stories, we see the feminine rejected and devalued. For decades at least, we have seen teenagers rejecting the feminine, with boys often feeling pressured to enact a hyper masculinized role, and girls desperately trying to change their female bodies. For boys, few things could be worse than being perceived as feminine or sissy. Young men must violently cut themselves off from their feminine sides. As carriers of the feminine by virtue of being female, women are often affected by this collective disparagement. For teen girls, the nearly universal hatred of their female bodies is perhaps at least in part an example of the collective repression and denigration of the feminine acted out in the personal sphere. As the receptacle of the feminine, the female body is especially despised and/or objectified. Anorexia and bulimia can be seen as acts of violence against the female self, efforts to forestall the inevitable development of a fully womanly form.
In the past decade or so, increasing numbers of teen girls have taken even more drastic steps to divorce themselves from their female bodies. I am referring to the unexplained trend in teen girls identifying as transgender and seeking medical transition. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of teens presenting to gender clinics over the past decade or so. Before 2006, many more biological males presented than biological females. In 2006, that ratio flipped, with many more girls presenting than boys. Researchers do not have a solid explanation for why this is occurring. These young natal females often decide to take testosterone to lower their voice, grow facial hair, and redistribute body fat. Many will bind their breasts, a practice that can result in compressed or broken ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, back pain, compression of the spine, damaged breast tissue, damaged blood vessels, blood clots, inflamed ribs, and even heart attacks. Some will choose to have their breasts surgically removed. Girls are having these surgeries as young as 15.
When one listens carefully to the voices of young women who transitioned as I have in my psychotherapy practice, one hears the familiar story of hatred of the feminine. While the cheerful stories in the main stream media celebrate transitioning young people as finding their “authentic selves,” nothing appears to be further from the truth for those who share their journeys back to claiming their own cut-off feminine selves. Instead, it is an ancient story of the female body being reviled and tortured into conformity with some rigid, unrealistic ideal.
“I was 15 when I first experienced dysphoria, although I had been insecure about my body since middle school,” writes a young woman in a blog post here. “I began to wonder if I was trans, and I had been “born into the wrong body” – I hated my breasts especially, but also felt uncomfortable with being female and being perceived by the world as female.”
Blogger Maria Catt writes about her rejection of the feminine in the following way. “Femininity and I had been duking it out since I was 11 and the girls in my grade started giving blowjobs to boys and it has felt the whole twenty years since that femininity was kicking the shit out of me. To transform from an androgynous kid at 11, praised for being a tomboy, into a big-bootied 13 year-old who had to take the train across the city every morning and afternoon in a school girl getup was fucked up. To this day I have not recovered. Add to that the list of sexual trauma and gas-lighting which is now the norm for women in their teens and twenties and I responded in a sort of extraordinary way- I created a fantasy self who was a dude. I thought pretty constantly about who I could be and what I could do if I weren’t trapped in my body.”
“In the last analysis,” wrote Jung, “most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.” (Jung Speaking, p. 89). The hubristic belief that one can change one’s sexed body into its opposite is itself an artifact of a culture that is dangerously out of touch with the feminine. The continuance of the human race depends in large part on our sweet surrender to our embodied instinctual selves. Sex, childbirth, and nursing are the wonderfully messy, juicy processes through which human life is created and nurtured. They are functions of the mysterious instinctual aspect of life that proceeds autonomously, miraculously regulating the biological processes that sustain us.
This is the realm of the psyche governed by the fearsome Mesopotamian goddess Ereshkigal who was known as Queen of the Great Earth. Ereshkigal is not a nice goddess. When her beautiful, upper world sister comes down for a visit, Ereshkigal has her stripped naked and killed, then hangs her corpse on a peg to rot. Ereshkigal’s energy is the archetypal, universal dark aspect of the feminine associated with death and decay. It is this aspect of the feminine that we come to know in part “through the lower brain acitivities that regulate peristalsis, menstruation, pregnancy, and other forms of bodily life to which we must submit.” (Sylvia Perrera, Descent to the Goddess, p. 24). This dark aspect of the feminine is especially reviled and feared in Western culture.
Imagining that we can, with surgeries and injected synthetic hormones, subvert the deep wisdom of the instinctual, Ereshkigal part of our psyches is evidence of just how divorced we are from those instincts. It is the arrogant assertion of supremacy of science and technology over the silent perfection of our animal bodies. When we align with this goal, we are indeed cutting off ourselves from our own inner source of nourishment and wisdom. It is an act of violence against our very natures. “It felt like I was burying a piece of myself,” confessed one young transman who had been on testosterone and had had a mastectomy.
Valuing the feminine is a task for us all, man or woman. As a society, we ought to make it easier for young people of both sexes to accept and value the feminine within themselves. After going off testosterone, Maria Catt reconnected with the lovely, daily moments of tuning into and valuing her own feminine self. She described this in the following way:
“You notice other people’s reactions to you. People consider you safe enough to tell you their problems. You get to smile at kids you don’t know.”
May we all have permission to find and celebrate both our masculine and feminine selves.