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I Don’t Get It: The Electra Complex

Do you have self-diagnosed daddy issues? Well look no further as Bruna Gomes explores the debate surrounding the Electra Complex and its complicated relationship with modern psychology. 

The Electra complex, also known as the female equivalent to the Oedipus complex, is a psychosexual theory coined by Carl Jung. Broadly, it refers to a girl’s competition with her mother for sexual possession of her father. A more current term we would use to describe the Electra complex is “daddy issues”. You may have heard your friends saying that women always end up marrying men who resemble their father, which is an idea that is grounded in Electra theory. 

The Electra complex is neo-Freudien, stemming from Freud’s theorisation of the psychological conflict between same-sex parent-child relationships (as in the conflict between a father and his son, or the conflict between a mother and her daughter). While the Oedipus complex is the basis for a son’s competition with his father for his mother, the Electra complex is analogous for a daughter’s competitive hatred for her mother as she tries to win over her father. The complex is characterised by Greek mythology, but does not remain in antiquity – modern iterations of the Electra complex, particularly that of American poet Sylvia Plath, provide psychosexual fodder to characterise feelings of isolation and abandonment, as well as face the brunt of contemporary feminist criticism. 

The Mythological Roots

The character tropes and moral conundrums of ancient Greek mythologies are so primal and detailed that they often serve to be the narrative basis for understanding contemporary human psychology. The premise of the Electra complex originates from the character Electra of Greek mythology, who plotted to murder her mother to avenge the death of her father, who was killed by Electra’s mother. The dynamics of Electra’s dominant love for her father, and her simultaneous disgust of her mother, serve to suggest a desire for sexual possession of her father. Electra wants to take her mother’s place. Freud and Jung have taken this mythology as an allegorical understanding of female sexual development. It is through this familial dynamic and competition that a girl finds her sexual identity, a process that is an inherently youthful one, characterised by the curiosity of young children as they discover their bodies. 

Freud theorised around this mythology with a basis that girls, in this phase of discovery, transition from thinking they have a penis, feeling possessive over their mother and adore her like a husband; to realising she doesn’t have a penis and thus, steals her possessive admiration away from her mother and gives it to her father. The girl, therefore, becomes sexually attached to her father.

Plath’s “Daddy”

Syliva Plath is a confessional American poet, revered for her poetry collection Ariel (1965), edited and published posthumously by her English poet-husband Ted Hughes. Plath herself has referred to the way she has engaged with her own Electra complex in her poetry, and there’s no poem quite like “Daddy” that does her psychosexual complex more justice. 

The poem interweaves the characters of the persona’s father and husband, imagistically melding them into one another, pinning them against each other so that they face the brunt of Plath’s allegations as one and the same man. 

Plath initially refers to her father as “a bag full of God,” the religious allusion depicting her father as someone larger than life, someone all-consuming, someone at the centre of all her desires, motivations, and morals. She then goes on to use violent authoritarian imagery and says, “Every woman adores a Fascist / the boot in the face”. Here, the image of the father and the husband become one and the same; they are both the dictator of her life, the one she craves validation from, the one she so desperately wants to please, the authority figure. 

Further on, the image of a husband crystallises from the blurred double-character, “I made a model of you… and I said I do, I do,” using marital phraseology to replace the godly man she revered so much with a new man, who she admires still with the same reverence. Plath looks up to her husband like a little girl looking up to her father. The final line of the poem, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” pins both of her “daddies” as the ones responsible for abandoning her. She trusted both with understanding her desires, her needs and yet, both left her empty and misunderstood. Plath, above all, is a woman who does not want sexual possession of either her father or her husband, but wants them to possess her in her most honest form: not as a daughter or wife, but as a woman.

Feminism and Criticism

By now, the Electra complex is mostly perceived as an outdated, primitive theory that is founded on the presumptions of men. Contemporary critics argue that a woman’s sexual identity is not defined by her relationship with men – she has equally as important and complex relationships with her children, her siblings, her mentors, and her friends. These critics include Hélène Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Nancy Chodorow, and Luce Irigaray. 

A woman’s life does not hang from that of her father’s and husband’s. Furthermore, a mother is hardly always the psychological victim of her daughter’s sexual development. If a woman has complicated relationships with her father or male partner, it is not because she is psychosexually predisposed to do so, but because her father and/or partner have wronged her, and she correlates those wrongs as an intrinsically male pattern. Women have an internal life with agency, one that overpowers any mythological narrative or theoretical complex. Today, the Electra complex is regarded mostly as an afterthought of Freud and Jung, who scrapped together a female equivalent of the Oedipus complex; the male-oriented theory being their most primary interest.

And, of course, the Electra complex is acutely heterosexual, unable to authentically categorise all women’s sexual development. 

Forgive Me Daddy, for I Have Trusted Men’s Theories Instead of Women’s Experiences Once Again

So, is the Electra complex a legitimate theoretical framework we can use to understand our own psychosexual relationships? While it is not worth disregarding entirely, it is valuable to realise that the best way to understand our own relationships is to view them from our own experiences. Plath’s poetry is not unsuccessful just because it is structured by the Electra complex. Her writing still powerfully validates the abandonment issues she experienced. Plath utilised the Electra complex to dramatically characterise this abandonment. Is the Electra complex, then, just another way for us to blame our parents for our pain? And what of the mother we presumably kill vengefully along the way? The world is not made up of matricidal daughters, figuratively or otherwise. Just a lot of girls with a strong sex-drive.


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