What is penis envy? There is a funny joke from Woody Allen when he’s pretending to be a psychiatrist about extending penis envy so that it didn’t just apply to women, and the truth is that psychologically speaking it is a Freudian term found exclusively within the domain of the female subconscious, and not a term used to refer to the envy that men with a small or even average sized penis would feel toward those men endowed with freakishly large units.
Freudian psychoanalytic theory defines penis envy thusly: the young girl upon seeing the penis relates the rather obvious anatomical feature to herself in terms of a lacking, and through her immature state believes not that she was simply born that way, but rather that it has been excised from her. The result of this misapprehension is that the female desires to repossess what has been taken away. Additionally, the female, in the words of Freud, also must deal with feelings of being handicapped and treated badly and the blame for this state of affairs falls directly upon the mother. Further complicating this delicate issue is the appearance of jealousy directed toward the mother because she is viewed as a threat to the young woman’s relationship with her father. The young girl not only loves her father, but also envies him because he possesses that part of the body the girl blames her mother for taking away from her. It is at this point where the conflicting emotions traverse the beginning of the female equivalent of the Oedipal Complex-the Electra Complex-begins. Typically this happens around the age of 3.
The Electra Complex and penis envy are similar to the Oedipal Complex in another way. Penis envy in girls can cause tremendous anxiety that is quite similar to the fear of castration that many young boys exhibit. As we attempt to do with all anxiety, the young girl represses the envy that she feels toward boys and men who have a penis. This is why, according to Freud, no woman will ever admit she actually has penis envy: she isn’t even consciously aware it exists. In addition, that sexual attraction toward her father that also causes undo anxiety is also pushed deep into the subconscious as she realizes it can never be consummated due to societal taboo. Instead, as she reaches puberty and begins to become sexually active that buried attraction to her father will, theoretically, begin to escape in the form of searching for lovers who are father-substitutes. That doesn’t necessarily imply she will look toward older men; rather she will satisfy her incestuous desires by looking for men who share certain traits or attributes with her dad.
That is the central psychoanalytic form of penis envy, but it has also been broadened into a term that serves to define the female desire for characteristics that acceptable in men, but not necessarily in women. Things such as dominance, the push for social status, even moving into the workplace have all been described as non-literal examples of penis envy.