Feminism and ‘gender narcissism’

Editor’s introduction: Named after the mythological figure Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with himself, the modern concept of the ‘narcissistic personality’ is familiar to most of us. We see it in both men and women in varying degrees, and in the worst cases we call them Narcissistic Personality Disorders.

Most instruments designed to test people’s score on narcissism scales tend to rate males (as a group) as more narcissistic than females. Yet intuitively most impartial observers would rate women as equally if not more narcissistic than males. Why do we get these skewed findings; is it really a fact that males are more narcissistic than females, or might it be that the instruments and their factor structures are biased in favour of finding male-preferred expressions of narcissism?

Whatever the case it’s an anomaly worth exploring, and one psychoanalyst has added a theory of narcissism that might help to broaden the conversation. Gerald Schoenewolf proposed an alternative called Gender Narcissism (article below), a gender neutral construct that brings a female profile of narcissism more sharply into focus. Explored through the lens of psychoanalytic concepts the hypothesis of female gender narcissism resonates with insights from the men’s movement, and we can only hope future researchers begin to study it along with other expressions of female narcissism (the posture of ‘victim narcissism’ for example) and incorporate them into the testing instruments.

The following essay was published in 2010, and is republished here with permission of the author. – PW


General Characteristics of Gender Narcissism


Although I had written previously about gender narcissism (1989, 1991),* I had not systematically studied the topic. In reexamining the psychoanalytic literature and reviewing the histories and psychodynamics of a group of gender-narcissistic patients, I was able to corroborate the basic theories of classical psychoanalysis, including the much-debated theories of female development, as well as delineate the characteristics and manifestations of gender narcissism.

In selecting patients for the study, I looked for the following features:

1) Inferiority/superiority feelings about one’s gender;
2) Excessive concern about one’s genitals;
3) Envy of or disgust toward the genitals of opposite sex;
4) Resentment of one’s gender role and envy of the role of the opposite sex;
5) Bitterness about feeling castrated or cheated (females), or rage about feeling psychologically castrated (males);
6) Fears of castration (males) or annihilation (females);
7) Oedipal guilt;
8) Idealization (grandiosity) about one’s own gender and devaluation of opposite gender;
9) Idealization of mothers and devaluation of fathers.

One of the first things I noticed, upon selecting 30 patients for the study—16 males and 14 females—was a link between gender narcissism and sexual psychopathology. All 30 reported severe problems in their sexual relationships.

In contrast, those 20 patients selected at random for the control group (10 males and 10 females) reported fewer sexual problems and showed much less gender narcissism. Among this second group were cases whose narcissistic issues generally revolved not around gender but other issues such as intelligence, height, or basic self-worth.

Female Narcissism

All of the 14 females in the study voiced resentments about being female, about the female role, or about their female reproductive organs, which I traced to castration and masculinity complexes. In contrast, the control group of females expressed considerably less resentment about gender issues.

Typically, gender-narcissistic females would complain that their femininity was a “handicap,” the role of wife and mother was “demeaning,” and their reproductive organs were “disgusting” or “a monthly pain.” One borderline stated angrily about her genitals: “I wish I could just have them cut out of me and be done with it.”These negative attitudes had apparently been introjected from their parents. If their mothers had harbored similar feelings of resentment about their femininity, these attitudes were passed along to the daughter through verbal and nonverbal messages (i.e., devaluing the daughter’s looks, discouraging her sexual curiosity or masturbation, bemoaning femininity and the feminine role, or favoring a son over the daughter). The daughters then unconsciously devalued their own femininity but did not blame it on their mothers, with whom they were too attached, but on their fathers, who were often passive or distant. All maintained intense relationships with their mothers, more intense than with any other person.

They reported a generalized anger about what they saw as “men’s attitudes toward them,” which contrasted with the more positive reports about relations with men of women in the control group. Some of the former made no distinctions between “good” and “bad” men, while others, utilizing the defense mechanism of splitting, saw some men, generally heterosexual men, as all-bad (inherently sexist) and some men, generally homosexual men, as all-good (nonsexist). At the same time, they generally idealized women, citing their moral superiority. I interpreted this as their projecting negative judgments about their femininity onto men while erecting a narcissistic armor of female grandiosity. Many gender-narcissistic women made men the scapegoats for their inner conflicts about their femininity, vocalizing sentiments that have become common among militant feminist circles such as, “Men are the cause of all the problems of women.” Thus, they were competitive with men, rather than cooperative, wielding the attitude expressed in the song lyric, “I can do anything better than you can.”

Five of the gender-narcissistic females were homosexual, three were bisexual, two were heterosexual, two were prostitutes, one was a strip-teaser, and one was abstinent. All maintained intense friendships with women. In contrast, all of the females in the control group were heterosexual. The former tended to have relationships of the narcissistic varieties described by Kohut (1971)—idealizing or twinship models. Either a younger woman would idealize an older one, particularly her aggressive femininity, and thus feel special by being close to her, and have the experience of being initiated by her into the realm of womanhood; or two women of equal age would idealize one another and feel as though they were two superior and special women (in particular, superior to men). There was often a vengefulness in their exclusion of men from their intimate lives (one noted that she had fantasies of her father jealously and angrily watching her make love to another woman), and a resentment of traditional women who were openly receptive to men and to the roles of wife and mother. I had the sense that since they were prevented by their mothers from bonding with their fathers and men, they did not want any other women to do so.

Those who had sexual relations with men often chose passive men whom they could control, only to complain about their passivity. I interpreted this as a way of reversing roles and enacting resentments stemming from their castration and masculinity complexes. If they had lesbian relationships, each could likewise act out her masculinity complex, one by playing the masculine role and the other by identifying with the one who was playing it. Their sexuality, whether oral or manual, consisted primarily of mutual clitoral masturbation, which had the symbolic meaning of asserting their clitorises, and thereby gratifying their clitoral narcissism. This symbolism could be traced back to memories, fantasies, and dreams about discovering the differences in male and female anatomy and feeling deeply cheated and disappointed, without getting adequate soothing from either parent; of being discouraged from masturbating (hence becoming fixated in such masturbation); and of having their femininity disparaged by both parents (as when a father, feeling excluded by mother and daughter, reacted by constantly teasing the daughter about her body). There was an additional aspect of their relationships of wanting not only to exclude men but to make men feel jealous of them (left out) and show them that their penises and their masculinity were unneeded. This represented a reversal of the envy they felt toward men.

Some women could only relate to men in conditional ways. One used strip-teasing to elevate her low female self-esteem. She could show off her body while keeping men at a distance, thereby asserting her femininity and receiving affirmation from men while acting out rage by emotionally castrating them. This vocation also represented an act of spite at her mother, who had called her a “slut” whenever, as a child, she had made infantile sexual overtures to her father. Prostitution served a similar purpose for two females, enabling them to make men pay for sexual services while emotionally rejecting them. Another woman, whose religious views prevented her from being lesbian, acted out her penis envy and female grandiosity by retreating from sexual relations entirely, rationalizing that it was a “dirty business” and she was above it all. A therapist by profession, she worked primarily with younger women, whose complaints about their husbands served to reinforce her rationalization for remaining abstinent. Invariably, she would encourage her patients to leave marriages rather than try to resolve them.

All female narcissists voiced sentiments of penis envy, while only three of 10 control cases did so. Penis envy could be deduced from a resentment of men, envy of their roles, and revulsion toward penises. Penises were seen not as attractive objects of pleasure and procreation, but as unattractive and frightening. One obsessive-compulsive had an obsessive fear of men’s penises and of rape that took the form of agoraphobia. Along with this penis envy was an accompanying aversion to playing the traditional female role of giving birth to and nurturing children. This role was seen as making them subservient to a man, of forcing them to be penetrated by “his arrogant cock,” to bear and nurture “his” children, which would symbolically mean submitting to their fathers and competing with their mothers. Any such thoughts aroused primitive fears of maternal annihilation.

Gender-narcissistic females also generally had more painful menstruations. Twelve of 14 reported severe cramps and/or headaches accompanied by feelings of resentment about their femininity. The severe menstruations were related to their resentment about playing the female role of giving birth and nurturing “his” children. Only four of the ten control cases reported menstrual pain, and only occasionally. I interpreted severe menstrual problems as a somatization of gender narcissism.

Whatever their sexual orientations, all had histories that matched the profile described by Freud and others with regard to the development of castration and Oedipus complexes. Their mothers had bound them to themselves and prevented them from forming relationships with their fathers or other men. Sometimes these mothers were overly affectionate, so that there was an undertone of incest in their relationships with their daughters.

Sometimes they were anxiously protective, masking an underlying animosity and competitiveness (the result, perhaps, of their own unresolved Oedipus complexes). Sometimes they were openly hostile or competitive. Invariably they were controlling of their husbands and their daughters. When fathers were in the picture, they were generally passive men or hostile. When the girls turned to Father (or surrogate) during the oedipal phase, Mother, through verbal or nonverbal cues, interrupted that turn. Mothers would draw the daughter to themselves and confide in them about problems with Father (“All men care about is using you for sex.”) Father would retreat passively or angrily from the field of competition, yielding to Mother. Hence, there was an unspoken barrier between Father and daughter. The daughters would end up despising the fathers for allowing this to happen, while repressing their anger at their mothers (sometimes developing reaction formations). I note here that a number of feminist psychologists have stressed that separation from mother is not necessary, even harmful (see Gilligan, 1982), a position with which I strongly disagree.

In a many cases siblings figured into the equation. An older or younger brother would be favored by one or the other parent. He would, of course, have an organ that the girl did not have, and he would be given favored treatment. If he was older and he was competitive and rejecting of her, she might then grow up hating him and displacing that hatred on men in general. If he was younger, she would feel resentful that he had taken her mother’s attention away, and conclude that it was because he was a male and had an organ she did not have.

Nearly all of the gender-narcissistic females either had rejected entirely the role of motherhood and opted instead for a career, or had waited until after they had established a career to have children. Their resentment of the motherhood role was transformed into an obsession with “equality” in their relationship with their husband, and a demand that he share in the childrearing. In the case of lesbians, one woman usually played the masculine role and the other the feminine role. The one who played the feminine role did not resent nurturing a child since she was not doing it for a man but for a woman (symbolic of Mother).

In their relationships with me, father, mother, and sometimes sibling transferences were prominent. The mother transference was evident in their fear of being controlled by me. The father transference was demonstrated in an extreme ambivalence toward me as a sexual object. One day they might be seductive, the next they would eye me in a fearful way. Upon analysis, they often admitted that they feared that I was going to use or rape them. Their ambivalence had to do with alternatively wanting to submit to the rape (and get it over with) or to repel it. It was difficult for them to conceive of a warm, trusting relationship with a man. This was related to a deep, infantile craving to bond with Father and equally deep fears of incest, maternal annihilation, and their own repressed animosity. When talking about their histories, it was much easier for them to talk of their anger at their fathers than at their mothers. They had a need to idealize their mothers (harking to fixations during the rapprochement stage), whom they felt they would be betraying by opening up to a male therapist. Many would struggle with all of this and be overwhelmed; then one day they would disappear.

Their female narcissism had the two components found in all narcissism—grandiosity and rage. In working with them, I had to be very careful to serve as a self object, mirroring and joining them with regard to their idealization of their own femininity and their feeling that they were victims of male oppression. If I said or did anything to the contrary, it would arouse the deepest wellsprings of rage and bitterness. I would suddenly find myself in the “enemy camp” and unable to dig my way out of it. In that case, the patient might quit therapy in a huff, castigate me, or threaten to report me for violation of ethics, sexism, harassment, etc. My few successful cases involved women with a lesser degree of gender-narcissism. Generally gender-narcissistic females avoid male therapists and instead look for female therapists who suffer from a similar gender narcissism to whom they can form collusions.

*Schoenewolf, G. (1989). Sexual Animosity Between Men and Women. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. (1991). The Art of Hating. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.


Above essay from: Schoenewolf, G., Gender Narcissism, chapter 4 in Psychoanalytic Centrism: Collected Papers of a Neo-Classical Psychoanalyst, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012)

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