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Social and psychological dimensions of gender power: peculiarities and mutual influence
Sharov Konstantin Sergeevich

PhD in Philosophy

Senior Educator, the department of Philosophy, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University

111401, Russia, Moskovskaya oblast', g. Moscow, ul. 2-Ya vladimirskaya, d. 15, korp. 4, kv. 30

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The object of the study is the system of gender-power relations in the society. The subject of the research is the social and psychological aspects of the process of establishment of thegender power system, their basic characteristics, as well as the degree and limits of mutual influence. Methodology includes research methods of power introduced by M. Foucault, L. Althusser, and J. Butler; psychoanalytic approaches of S. Freud and J. Lacan; structuralist method of analysis of communicative practices of M. Castells. The novelty of the study consists in the theory of passionate attachment introduced by the author, in which it is argued that the system of gender power in society is based on the psychological mechanism of interpellation and subjection of male psychics by women. The following conclusions were made: 1) gender self-identification and socialization are associated with the Oedipus complex and Lacanian mirror stage; 2) since the time of ancient matriarchy, the female symbolic power has become an archetype of consciousness; 3) the gender power is being built on a subject-subjective basis, as well as form a blurry and often unclear system of decentralized relations in the society; 4) structuring of the system of gender power relations and gender roles by women is realized with broad involvement of the sphere of the symbolic.

Keywords: passional attachment, subjection, interpellation, gender roles, gender power relations, gender power, Gender, symbolic, Edipus complex, socialisation



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Michel Foucault for the first time shewed that there is a division of relations of power into direct physical and indirect physical, i.e. symbolic. In this article, I propose to focus on the study of indirect gender symbolic power to identify the mechanisms of distribution of masculine and feminine power relations in the society, as well as to investigate the mutual influence of the social and psychological dimensions of the relations of power in the formation of systems of gender power.

Symbolic power is a subject of research of not only Foucault, but also M. Castells and P. Bourdieu. Manuel Castells, for example, believes that the support and dissemination of symbolic power is based on symbolic violence, i.e. the substitution of one symbolic code in the human mind by another code different from it [1]. Symbolic violence is also defined by what the researcher calls a “gaming social practice of the total symbolisation” [1, p. 38].

Pierre Bourdieu considers symbolic power to be a main social constructor, by means of which programming and reprogramming processes are carried out (including neurolinguistic ones), that do not necessarily need to be reflexed and inspired by such an institution of power as a state [2]. The erosion of state power prerogatives broadens the range of ways and mechanisms of manipulating public consciousness within the framework of the relations of power. At the same time, social communicability turns the process of managing the public consciousness into a subject-to-subject process without objects to which the power would attain directly. Metaphorically speaking, all subjects of the relations of power, are held by the power of one force.

Gender symbolic power is being built just like that. It is possible to put forward a reasonable hypothesis that the situation in the history of gender relations in the society was mainly different from what is traditionally described by the majority of feminist authors. We may hypothesise that historically a man is always trying to escape from the power of women: in the family, in the relationships, at work (if his boss is a woman). It can be assumed that a most part of our culture, many works of art and literature, were created by men not only through the process of sublimation well described by Sigmund Freud, but also in an attempt to escape from the symbolic power of women fixed as a mental archetype since the ancient matriarchy. Within the concept of gender symbolic power being developed by the author, everything takes its logic place: psychological resistance, which is provided by a man, if a woman places him in a subordinate position, using her power, gives him an opportunity to create culture along with the psychological mechanism of sublimation. Thus, a viewpoint according to which a man is supposedly a cultural creature while a woman biological, is somewhat artificial [e.g., see: 3]. In the end, culture is formed by the both genders, but in most cases women can be represented as catalysts for this process, and men as actors who implement it; although, of course, there are many exceptions in the history of culture and social development.

Symbolic power of the feminine

Symbolic power of the feminine is being implemented in a multi-faceted socio-political space that has the property of communicability, thence we have a political implication of symbolic female power. It is likely that in the social space, a man is trying to destroy the permanent dictate of the female power that has existed since the days of the ancient matriarchy. For this purpose, he is creating another space of power, the power that is developing by a subject-object mechanism, and if one follows a Michel Foucault’s point of view, the direct physical power. The history of human society gives us many examples of how men can succeed in forming such a power system in the gender field. What is given to a man by his nature, namely greater physical strength and endurance in comparison with a woman, can become a basis of the construction of his anti-female power relations. This construction is undertaken in order to enfeeble the psychological inversion of masculine Ego often carried out within female strategies of the implementation of social power.

In the process of human society development, men often tried to escape from the symbolic power of women since the period of matriarchy. At many Church Councils, there were agitated debates where the question was discussed whether a woman has a soul; moreover, after the completion of these Councils, profound metaphysical treatises were written, they were devoted to a problem whether a woman is a human being at all. The witch hunting, the witches executions at the stakes lasted from the end of the 14th century almost until the beginning of the 18th century; and this may be considered an evidence of the psychological uncertainty of men in their own gender social statuses in relation to women, in the system of gender power relations, the uncertainty that was clear enough for an independent observer at least during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

For men, the culture can present a field for the development and implementation of anti-women stereotypes in the social consciousness. Women are often depicted as the cause of all the evil in the world: the first story in this series is a masculine interpretation of the Biblical narration of Adam and Eve.

Many cultural stereotypes, legends, fairy tales, ballads and epics of a number of peoples, shew the moral failure of women, their sinfulness, malice, falsehood, pettiness, inconstancy and infidelity. In confirmation of the inviolability of their laws, the ancient Romans used the expression “female frivolity” as its semantic antithesis [4]. Similarly, in modern times, many men tend to disgrace the competence and sense of honour in women. In the puns, jokes, sayings and anecdotes of many ethnic communities, we can find derogatory criticism of women who are accused by men of squabbling, wrangling, unpunctuality, mind limitation, lack of inborn talents and even utmost stupidity.

But in contempt of all male endeavours to codify these symbols in the culture, the man still understood that it was not enough to gain the symbolic power. Thence did socially loaded arguments appear in favor of the idea of women’s incapability in labour relations. The mythological nature of such arguments can be confirmed at least by the fact that there are a huge number of men who not only do not boast any labour achievements, but also shew a high degree of incompetence in the professional sphere. This could serve a basis for a myth of men’s labour inability, which would ultimately also be unfair.

Masculine social myths creating is aimed at the identification of the male with the significance, strength and invincibility, while the female part of humanity is associated with the submission, subordination and second-class place acceptance. Many cultural traditions related to the manifestation of the power of women, a man if he cannot eliminate them from the culture, tries to re-consider and give them a new patriarchal explanation. E.g., a tradition to let a woman pass ahead of a man when entering a room, the man is now trying to “logically” justify and re-consider to his favour. In the era of a primitive savagery (the existence of which is rather problematic in itself), at the entrance to the cave, a man let a woman pass ahead of him because during the people’s absence in the cave, a predatory animal, for example, a lion, could have entered the cave, sat there and watched when his potential prey would have come around. Therefore, it is just in a desire to avoid his own risk that a man let a woman pass ahead of him.

Gender communication in the context of gender power

During its formation, the space of social power is being filled with social actors, institutional forms, socio-cultural traditions, marginal fragments, etc., by women while all this is permeated by social communications. It is the communication that enables women staying in a psychological shadow, to construct a network of gender power in the society in such a way that they are almost not perceived as dominant social actors.

Gender communication in power relations is dictated by women and imposed on men, with the use of the mechanisms of the symbolisation of social space. The symbol, as noted by Ernst Cassirer, is deeply archetypal and identical to the structures of consciousness [5-6]. Symbolic existence, if we look historically, is inseparable from human existence. Women, on the expropriation of cultural symbols, gradually constructed a coherent system of gender power relations with the progress of the social development, while the field of gender communication became clearly defined by these symbols. This was typical for many scopes of social life: women symbolised everything from language to fashion. On the closer examination, the symbols of masculinity and manhood were strongly re-coded and re-interpreted by women and thus they lost a significant proportion of phenomenological independence. In the sphere of personal relationships, these female artefacts gradually began to play the role of referents to punishment and reward, crime and feat, life and death, and even the existence and non-existence of the male Ego .

One regards women for nothing as creatures capable to confuse everything in contrast to the “transparent” men. With the help of total symbolisation of the social, there was a construction of symbolic power, the strongest and most effective power, which was demonstrated by Foucault [7]. Historically, women did not allow any ambiguity in the formation of such power; why do we need power if it does not work correctly, “as it should”? The social symbols helped women to avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, equivocacy, doubts in their social discourses. In this regard, the gender symbols of power are adequate to the mental code of the participants of power relations in the society. Women succeeded in the use of the capability of the symbolic space for constructing their systems of gender power relations. Nowadays, thanks to the female historical work, the re-definition and re-designation of social phenomena, there is nothing left in the society that cannot be potentially symbolised.

But what about the man? Could he not have just refused to accept the imposed relations without opposing the female power system by his own power system? In order to understand this male passivity in the construction of the systems of gender power relations, it should be emphasised that despite the fact that the rules set and dictated in the framework of power relations, are absolute and rigid, the forms of the application of the law, are relative and formal. As Pitirim Sorokin pointed out, “the social relations are never subject to the free choice of the parties concerned. They are limited by many conditions and are subject to the requirements of supersensitive values...” [8, p. 497] This duality of social relations, from Sorokin’s viewpoint, is explained, first, by the negative restriction of relations contrary to legal laws, and second, the positive stimulation of duty, sacrifice, love, altruism and good will [9]. At the same time, considerations of benefit, utility, pleasure and happiness in the male consciousness, are unobtrusively built by women, mainly with the help of the second way of the representation of social relations Sorokin writes about.

Female strategies in gender power structure

The female power system can be defined as a socially summarising practice with the dominance of the game. Niklas Luhmann calls such a system of power “the practice of multiple symbolism” [10]. According to Sorokin, this practice of multiple symbolism corresponds to the idealistic cultural system the basic premise of which is that “the objective reality is partly supernatural and partly sensuous” [8, p. 431]. The practice of reproduction of gender power relations in the society covers the super-sensuous, rational and super-rational aspects, without leaving aside the direct sensuality, understood by Foucault as sexuality. The practice of female multiple symbolisation in the sphere of power relations, involves the dynamic re-distribution of symbolic codes, as well as their abolition and resurrection.

Pitirim Sorokin believed that the culture built with the aid of multiple symbolisation, originated in the Western society not earlier than the 16th century, i.e. the period of Reformation and secularisation. We can hypothesise that this culture is unlikely to be born in the society without the embodiment of female power strategies along with male ones.

The current situation in systems of power relations, despite the apparent difference of our global society of the 21st century from that of the 16th century, is none the less quite similar to the situation that took place during the Reformation in the regard that the gender power formed by women, is not a set of formal apriorisms, but the structure of the historical and cultural situation in which we are living and learning. Foucault notes that the “archive” of our historical knowledge does not represent dead letters, but the language that forms our modern existence [11]. In the sphere of the formation and sustainment of power relations, everything achieved by women throughout the history of human society existence, works also today to some extent, although in different modifications.

Starting with the institution of family and psychological sphere of personal relations, which are traditionally symbolised by women as the “Holy of holies” of our entire existence, the network of decentralised gender power is spread by women to almost all social relations. Russian researcher I. A. Malkovskaya notes that the symbolic violence carried out in the horizontal of social programming and self-programming in the process of interactive relation with discourses of various types smoothly moves into the vertical of the social control and violence [12]. Indeed, gender symbolic communication carried out as an interpersonal communication, can be transformed into political and other forms of power. Male resistance to the social power of women was also historically formed in the depths of the male opposition at the family and marriage level in the form of repressive behaviour, threats, beatings, home violence and attempts to fully subdue women. Moreover, in order to legitimise his “unseemly” actions, the man, as we described just above, in some historical periods, tried to portray women as weak, derogated, good-for-naught creatures capable for nothing but motherhood, unfit, stupid, irrational, prone to many serious and reprehensible vices, etc.

These masculine stereotypes of female nature, therefore, have no serious social or cultural justification. They are nothing more than a male re-engineering of history of the human society which in modern times degenerates into a re-engineering of the system of social relations and, in particular, the system of gender power. Despite the fact that many men would like women to be really good-for-naught, the reality often demonstrates the opposite.

Passional attachment as a psychologic basis of gender power

The symbolisation of the social, as we have seen, is often a guarantee that both sexes can achieve their goals in the society. With the help of symbols, a woman codifies the male in culture and society, but at the same time symbolises the female as a human ideal, to which a man can aspire, but can never achieve. The female symbolism re-constructs the male Ego and simultaneously with the change of the male subjectivity involves him in the power relations in which the dominant is always shifted towards the female.

Nevertheless, a question remains not fully clarified, to what extent a man is willing to enter these relations of power. Even if he does it against his will, he must have a certain motivation for his behaviour as a recipient of power. Without such personal motivation, such symbolic relations simply could not be built, because we should not forget that power, especially women’s gender power is a set of relations, but not an object-oriented vector.

Louis Althusser in his work “Ideology and ideological apparatuses of the state” suggests that the subordination of the subject takes place through language as an effect of a powerful voice calling an individual [13]. In the well-known metaphoric example offered by Althusser, a police officer hailing a passerby in the street, and at that moment the passerby is turning and recognising that it was he who was hailed. How to consider this gesture of the passerby: voluntary or forced? Apparently, neither one nor the other. In this symbolic exchange, in which recognition is offered and accepted, there is an interpellation (a term proposed by Althusser), a social or symbolic request, which is directed to the discursive production of a social subject by the system of power. It is noteworthy that the author does not answer the question why this passerby turns around, understands the voice as addressed to him and accepts the subordination and normalisation caused by this voice. Why is this individual turning around? Is he really guilty, and if so, how did he become (or was he made) guilty? Is it necessary to take into account the considerations of human conscience within Althusser’s theory of interpellation?

At the first glance, it seems that Althusser’s questions have little in common with the issue of gender power. But with a more detailed study, not only the analogy becomes obvious but also the methodological usefulness of the Althusser’s approach to explain the common design of the systems of gender power relations. Despite the fact that a woman is not a policeman in the street, and her man is not an accidental passerby, it is a women’s symbolic call to the consciousness of men that is the trigger that starts the whole system of unwinding of the spring of institutionalisation of gender power in the society.

In order to understand how self-consciousness may become a foundation on which a man gives a woman himself the opportunity to build a power relationship, the most appropriate way would be to consider the theory of subordination introduced by American scholar Judith Butler based on modified views of Foucault and Althusser. This researcher believes that in the psychology of power, the key point is the concept of passion [14] which is explained as a sense of devotion to the submission. Developing Butler’s views further, we may say that in the psychological dimension of gender power, there is the passional attachment which is characterised by social force; e.g. the passional attachment is the feeling of attachment of a child to his/her parents. Butler, complementing the Foucault’s theory of power that considers power as an action aimed not only at subordination, but also at the formation of the subject, uses a special term “subjection” to denote a subordination. This term, according to her, allows to understand power in its double valence of subordination and production of the subject’s personality.

Utilising Butler’s logic, it is easy to deduce that a man is passionately (in a passional way) bonded to his subordination to a belovéd woman. It is likely that the ultimate responsibility for the subjection of men in the society may be born by women as is lies with them, whatsoever paradoxical this hypothesis may seem. Men’s attachment to subordination is produced by the work of power constructed by women, and this part of the action of power is manifested in psychological effects. Men and women in the system of gender power, represent subjects of power relations being constructed. Women’s power in the society, as we have seen, is not an object and represents the subject-subject relations.

The power understood in the Foucault’s sense as a simultaneous subordination and formation of the subject, in the gender field is ultimately embodied through the passionate attachment of a man to a woman, to the one on whom he is fundamentally dependent in a psychological context. Even if this passional attachment is negative in its ethical colouring, without it a man would experience psychological difficulties in his self-identification, since the process of his subjectivity creating would be incomplete. Although passional affection is not a political subordination in itself in an usual sense, it can become one. The formation of a man’s primary passion for a woman makes a man potentially psychologically vulnerable on the building of the entire system of gender power relations. Moreover, the situation of primary dependence may well determine even political power, and the regulation of the subjects of power becomes one of the tools of their subjection.

So, if we assume that the male psychics is formed within the framework of passional attachment to a woman [e.g., see: 14, p. 72-90], then his subordination turns out to be a central moment in all the formation of the masculine and in the socialisation of the male.

The psychological subordination implies obedience, voluntary or involuntary. A woman does not force a man to anything, she just plays his desire to survive in terms of individuality, on realising in an individual sense (in mutual love), and socially in terms of gender (realised in mutual children). If we think about the theoretical side of the psychological mechanism of passional attachment, Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of a “child unborn yet” does not seem so far-fetched. From his viewpoint, a man strives for a woman unconsciously and even against his will, because he is pushed to this by the universal Will to continue his kind [15]. However, we can’t say that Schopenhauer has fully approached or anticipated the idea of gender relations of power constructing, since his concept of Will does not seem to have much in common with our theory of passional attachment: the latter gives a man a sense of freedom (even illusive), but the Will, from the viewpoint of the German thinker, gives only a sense of slave dependence.

For men, it is sometimes better to exist in a female subjection than not to exist at all, i.e. not to exist in a psychologically comfortable space. Is it not thence that all the usual passionate words of a man to a woman exist: “I can’t live without you”? And it’s not that men are entirely liars or extremely prone to florid expressions of seducers. I think that in most cases they are sincere; if a woman does not yield to the “pleas” of a man, though he will not die, he will still receive a serious mental trauma. It is very seldom when a woman says to a man: “I can’t live without you”. If she says so, she will be accused in a violation of gender stereotypes, and especially by her lover; but when a man utters these symbolic words, he “decides his fate” and does not transgress stereotypes. Perhaps, the passional attachment, I dare say, for men is the final stage of realisation of his own Ego , the final step of his socialisation.


This vision of the problem of gender power relations construction in the society, is implicitly connected with the Freudian concept of the Œdipus complex and Lacanian stage of mirror in self-identification. The attitude of a mother to her son and a son to his mother leaves a big imprint on the relationship of an adult man with women. The child cannot help but love because his love for his mother is connected with the vital necessity. A child’s attachment to his parents is not an act of his/her free will, but a forced manifestation of feeling. But the attachment of a man to a woman is a voluntary step, a woman does not force him to love herself, so this is a free and true passional attachment, voluntary submission of his Ego to the will of the woman. And the more painful love for a man and the heavier its bonds, and the more hopeless the situation of his subjection – the more freedom he has. In love, his freedom is absolute, because he can break up the relationship at any moment, but in reality to do this for a man is often difficult.

Even when a man understands that his object is not worthy of him, when he is indignant, he is inclined to say: “I could not love such a thing”. The statement acknowledges the possibility he rejects, establishing his I as based on this expulsion, fixed in a firmly imagined impossibility. Thus, as Wendy Brown argues, the male’s Ego is potentially threatened by the spectre of reviving and almost impossible love, and it is doomed to play this love unconsciously again and again, constantly reviving, renewing and forcing out this scandal, this impossibility, transforming this threat in the sensibility of own I [16].

The schematics of the psychological subversion of the male Ego is somewhat like this: “I could not be who I am, if I did not love, and to be myself, I have to continue to deny the drama of my existence, and unconsciously to play it again and again in my present life and experience of the most horrible, inhumane sufferings”. Since, as we suggested, the male psychics can be formed in the final form under the influence of the female gender power, to completely break this power network, a man may only by dematerialising a part of his I . A man achieves a partial annihilation of his Ego and reaches catharsis through this, liberating himself forever from painful slavery by neurotic repetitions of unrealised scenarios of tragic love. Turning against itself, the psychics of a man in this model turns out to be a necessary condition for the man’s survival. In this psychological dialectical denial of himself, a man disintegrates from the system of power relations, acquires himself and through the tragedy of his existence finally becomes a psychologically matured adult. By the way, to a certain extent this idea helps to explain the increased infantilism in the modern Western and Russian society, when the average age of psychological maturation begins to exceed the age of physiological maturation by more than 10 years.

Thus, the power of a woman is incarnated through the male subjection. For a man, to desire his own subordination is necessary in order to remain himself and to be completely socialised. It is no coincidence that in novel “Wuthering heights”, main character Heathcliff, having met his belovéd woman, Catherine Linton, for the last time shortly before her death, the woman for whom he has been suffering for all his life, but who turned his life into a nightmare, threw the words to her face: “I love my murderer!” In the same way, many men, speaking metaphorically, love their murderers: being free, they give up their freedom; being reasonable, they refuse their reason; being independent, they become servile only for the sake of their passional affection.

What does it mean for a man to take that form of gender power inspired by a woman: regulation, prohibition, command, imperative? A man does not simply need the recognition of a woman as his Other, and the form of this recognition is not simply granted in his subjection in relation to the female. It is rather that a man is psychologically dependent on the female power in the psychological formation of himself as a person and social individual (social actor). In this case, the position of men is to deny and re-actualise this dependence. In the final form, the male I arises from the condition that it rejects its formation in dependence which, in its turn, is a condition of its own possibility.

We see that the social and psychological spheres become not only closely intertwined in the formation of systems of gender power relations, but also mutually affect each other. Gender identity and socialisation are inseparably linked to the Œdipal complex and Lacanian psychological stage of the mirror. The development of the theory of passional attachment introduced by the author, may allow us to evaluate the degree and limits of mutual influence of the social and psychological in the construction of gender power in the society and to identify their fundamental characteristics, the main of which are the following:

- the presence of an interpellation request addressed to the male psychics by the female,

- building of systems of the gender power relations by women and on their basis gender roles is performed with the broad involvement of the sphere of the symbolic,

- since the ancient matriarchy, the symbolic power of the female became set as an archetype of consciousness,

- relations of gender power are built on the subject-subject mechanism and form a blurred, fuzzy and often implicit system of decentralised relations in the society,

- many men’s cultural discourses have historically been built as an opposition to the symbolic women’s decentralised gender power, as an attempt to break out of it,

- the practice of reproduction of gender power relations in the society covers the super-sensuous, rational and super-rational aspects, including the direct sensuality understood as sexuality,

- in the psychological maturing, the passional attachment associated with the Œdipal complex and Lacanian stage of the mirror leads to the subjection of the male psychics, in which the man finally realises himself as a social being and becomes a social actor; this is the main basis for the reproduction of gender power relations in the society.

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