Who’s that Girl? Who’s that Boy? Clinical Practice Meets Post-Modern Gender Theory (Book Review)

Author:  Layton, Lynne
Publisher: Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998
Reviewed By: Jan Haaken, Winter 2000, pp. 15-17 

An Interview with Lynne Layton

Lynne Layton’s Who’s that Girl? Who’s that Boy? Clinical Practice Meets Post-modern Gender Theory (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1998) won the Association of Women in Psychology 1999 book award. Jan Haaken interviews Dr. Layton about her book, and the issues it raises for psychoanalytic clinical practice.

Haaken: In your book, you describe your struggles as a feminist and a psychoanalytic clinician in coming to terms with the post-modernist movement in cultural studies.

Layton: Post-modernism is not a unified thing; there are many different versions of postmodernism. The version I find valuable and elaborate in my book is the one critical of some of the tenets of the Western Enlightenment, such as the idea that reason is the essence of being human, that objective truths exist that are independent of particular interests or power differentials, that history always moves in a progressive direction. In this spirit, I interrogate that aspect of psychoanalytic theory, particularly gender theory, that tends to support a sexist status quo. I also look at the ways that psychoanalytic theory can be used to challenge that status quo.

Haaken: My own take on the post-modern critique is that this philosophical movement is itself a symptom of societal fragmentation and the loss for many people of cultural anchors for personal identity. As you point out in your book, some post-modernists romanticize fragmentation and fluctuating identity states. In clinical practice, how would you distinguish between pathological and healthy “fluidity” of the self?

Layton: Yes, there is a version of postmodernism, with which I take issue in the book that does indeed romanticize fragmentation and confuse it with fluidity. What I have found in my clinical practice is that clients who have had traumatic events connected in some way with gender tend to look like they have a kind of gender fluidity. For example, a female may talk about always having felt male or she may have a sense of herself as sometimes male and sometimes female. In my experience, such patients tend to define male and female in rigidly dichotomous ways, and their seeming fluidity is no more than an oscillation between their highly stereotyped versions of masculinity and femininity. At the very least, a healthy gender fluidity would entail the capacity to transcend rigid associations of one set of attributes with masculinity and another with femininity.

Haaken: Your book creates a conversation between feminism and post-modernism, on the one side, and psychoanalytic clinical practice on the other. Basically, your project seems to be one of bringing politics into psychoanalysis without sacrificing the complexity of subjectivity, and without reducing identity to these constitutive elements. Would you agree with this assessment?

Layton: While I find crucial the work that has been done on taking into account the subjectivity of both patient and therapist, and the intersubjective space created between them, I wish that more theorists would include gender, race, class, and sexual orientation in their understandings of subjectivity. In my view, the very way that people attach and express their agency (or don’t) has everything to do with these identity elements, each of which is constituted within a particular historical moment, with particular historical antecedents, and within a particular power structure that values some genders, races, classes, and sexual orientations more highly than others. Gender, for example, is lived quite differently depending on one’s race, class, and sexual orientation. When white women founded women’s liberation, they created an agenda for “women” without realizing they were speaking largely for the interests of white upper middle class heterosexual women--and calling them the interests of all women. Women of color, as well as lesbian women, were some of the first to point to the fact that they were also women, but they lived their gender quite differently. Living a gender “properly,” in terms of what your social class and race expect a proper man or woman to be, has many psychological costs.

For example, as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings made clear, white women may constitute their gender in accord with the virgin/whore split, but black women have no such “luxury.” Historically, dominant white culture has considered them sexually promiscuous until proven otherwise. Psychically, black women have had to contend with such stereotypes. It seems clear to me that cultural hierarchies constitute racial, gender, class and sexual identities--and these are the building blocks of subjectivity

Haaken: Could you give an example of how this might manifest itself in psychotherapy?

Layton: A patient who has had a history of gender trauma told me this story: A guy in his law firm, whom my patient considers macho, is overheard talking on the phone with his crying son. The guy says to his son, “pull down your pants.” He then asks, “What’s that between your legs? “A penis,” the boy replies. “That’s right. So stop crying.” My patient was introducing his own conflict over a masculinity that requires constant vigilance against anything that he would register as feminine. This well exemplifies the postmodern idea that masculinity and femininity are not opposites but rather that the valued member of the pair, masculinity (stoicism in the face of pain), becomes what it is and gets its value from repudiating or splitting off what characterize

Haaken: Conflicts over masculinity-the extent of rigidity, the object relational matrix of representations associated with it, its defensive structure, and so on-are also shaped by other aspects of social identity. How do you see race and class as shaping this dynamic picture of masculinity?

Layton: I refer to the gender structures that have the most cultural clout as dominant masculinity and femininity. In Western societies, dominant masculinity is organized around autonomy and repudiation of dependency; femininity is organized around submissive self-effacement. I believe that everyone struggles psychically with these dominant positions (rejecting them, trying to incarnate them, and so on), but people in different races and classes struggle with them in very different ways. The dominant positions are white and upper middle class. Other versions of femininity and masculinity circulate in the culture and contend psychically and culturally for dominance.

Haaken: Psychoanalysis has often been criticized, even before the post-modernists took up this line of critique, for its tendency to universalize - to assume that its own culturally derived theories of the self, of intrapsychic structure, of the family, characterize human experience more generally. By introducing the idea of dominant positions, you seem to be acknowledging broad cultural patterns, on the one hand, and opening up space for “non-dominant” positions on the other. Yet you also seem to be saying that there are some prototypical conflicts that are universal.

Layton: From my perspective, the danger is in universalizing the way that conflicts are experienced. Dependency conflicts may be universal, but their social and intrapsychic elaborations are not. What I and others are doing is showing how these various conflicts are interwoven with race, class, sex, and sexual orientation.

Haaken: Much of what you are describing has been incorporated into some clinical training programs under the rubric of multiculturalism. While multiculturalism encompasses a broad range of positions, it often differs from post-modernism in assuming that there are “core,” stable identities that emerge out of different communities of experience, whereas post-modernists place emphasis on the unstable, fluctuating and fluid aspects of social identity. Do you see these two movements as contributing in different ways to psychoanalytic clinical practice?

Layton: First, I’d say that postmodernists place emphasis not so much on instability as on the way that so called “core” identities are co-defined by one another (as I described earlier with respect to masculinity being not much more than the splitting off of attributes deemed feminine). Blackness and whiteness are hierarchically interrelated pairs: again, dominant culture legislates that if white women are virgins, black women must be whores. What whiteness repudiates is projected out as the definition of blackness. What blacks affirm as the “core” of blackness will always be related in some way to their history of a relation to whiteness. Mainstream multiculturalism does not capture that complexity. Neither version of multiculturalism, however, has had much of an impact in the psychoanalytic literature. There is a great deal of literature on sexuality and gender. But beyond Kimberlyn Leary’s, Cheryl Thompson’s, Neil Altman’s, and a few other people’s work on psychoanalysis and race, there is very little. In part, this is because whiteness isn’t considered a race! When relational analytic theorists talk about the subjectivity of both analyst and patient, they often assume a white, middle-class subject as their norm.

Haaken: Your book also cautions therapists about the costs of these exclusions. Part of what is remarkable about Who’s that Girl? Who’s that Boy? is how skillfully you navigate through some complex theoretical terrain, and how artfully you bridge the worlds of clinical practice and cultural theory. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Layton: Thank you. Clinicians know a lot more than postmodern academics about how psyches and their relation to other psyches work. I hope that books like yours and mine encourage clinicians to open themselves up to what academics do a lot better than we do: understand the way that culture and psyche are inextricably related.

Jan Haaken is professor of psychology at Portland State University and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Portland, Oregon. She is author of Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory, and the Perils of Looking Back (Rutgers University Press, 1998)


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