May 4, 2012

A Transgender Psychology 3: The Shadow

Voldmort may be understood as Harry Potter's Shadow
In this post I will look into the role of archetypes in the development of the transgender psyche, focusing on the "dark side of the soul": The Shadow.

The discussion is based on a model developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

(Click here for the previous posts in this series).


One of the parts of Jung's theory that I find problematic, is that his categories have a tendency of becoming absolute.

He warns us against this, though, reminding us that the psyche is not a rational place organized on the basis of scientific principles. This is probably why some of his concepts contains contradictions that are hard to sort out.

The word "archetype" is, in my opinion, very useful. It is used to describe the natural basis of many psychological experiences.

The archetypes -- or "primordial images" -- are expressed through symbols in dreams and art. The symbols may vary from person to person and culture to culture, but the underpinning reality may be the same.

In fact, even the symbolic expressions of these archetypes are often very similar across cultural borders. It seems to me, for instance, that we in nearly all cultures find the image of the nurturing mother goddess.

Strongly inspired by a patriarchal Judaism, Christianity tried to get rid of the mother goddess, but lo and behold: She popped up again in the shape of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary even took over associated symbols from the Sumerian goddesses, like the moon crescent and circle of stars.

In other words: There is a psychological need underpinning the appearance of such symbols, and that the basis for that need can be described as archetypes.

(For a critical discussion of the interaction between archetypes and the mind, see my post on the mind/body conundrum.)

Related to instincts

Jung compares the archetypes to biological instincts. In the same way there is a hunger instinct that causes the sensation of hunger and the desire for a burger, there is a mother archetype that shapes your attitude towards motherhood.

You have no way of "seeing" the hunger instinct in itself. You can only feel the effect of it, and that may vary from person to person and from the situation you are in right now. 

In the same way you cannot experience an archetype as it is in itself. You an only experience the way it is expressed in your life or in the lives of others. Through art and dreams we do take part in the creation of images that may express the archetypes and make them conscious. 

In other words: Archetypes are not created by individual men and women. They are discovered, as they are -- in fact -- the result of evolution.

Instincts and archetypes

Personally I find it hard to distinguish between biological instincts and psychological archetypes, not at least because Jung himself argues that the archetypes themselves are biological in nature. 

In the same way the  hunger instinct (biology) may lead to an appreciation of French wine (culture), the archetype of the union of opposites (biology) may be expressed in art as the yin and yang symbol or a hermaphrodite (culture).

The close relationship between instincts and archetypes is also found in animals.

Goslings have a kind of mother archetype that makes them seek out mum when they hatch. Their inborn concept of "mother" does not entail a description of how she looks like, however. A gosling will adopt any moving object nearby as "mother", even if it is a human being. You could say that in this extreme case the human being becomes the cultural expression of "the mother archetype" of the gosling.

We also know from modern studies of the brain, that our ability to hear and see is very much based on "instincts" or unconscious processes. Our brain sort out and interpret sense impressions for us based on wide variety of basic rules, most of which we are not aware. These are instinctual information processes.

Indeed, some researchers will argue that they are semiotic, i.e. based on the development of symbols and signs. (See Vilayanur S Ramachandran's fascinating  book: Emerging Mind). It is not far fetched to imagine that our sexual desire or sex identity may also be influenced by such processes.

What I like about this part of Jung's psychology is that he avoids the pitfall of reductionism. The mind is not a blank slate to be filled by culture. But it cannot be reduced to instinct and drives only, either. The mind is born where biology meets culture.

The Personal and the Collective Unconscious

A dichotomy that may be hard to grasp is the one between the personal and the collective unconscious.

The personal unconscious is easy enough. This consists of personal experiences, ideas and desires you have faced consciously, and then suppressed because they have been considered unacceptable by you or the persons around you.

In cultures that associated sexual desire with guilt, most people will at least suppress some of their desires and "exile them" to their personal unconscious.

Beyond sex

It might help to think of the personal unconscious as the unconscious Id of Freud. Freud reduces all psychic activity to basic animalistic sexual drives.

Jung accepts the important role played by sexual instincts, but adds another level below the personal unconscious. The archetypes are inborn patterns of behavior that helps us navigate the world. They are not  necessarily sexual in nature.

The collective unconscious is the part of the unconscious that is based on "experiences" that are common to all human beings. This where the inborn instincts mentioned above become relevant.

“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”
The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious , London 1996, p. 43)

The archetypes have not necessarily been repressed. They are unconscious from the very beginning. In fact, it may take a life time to integrate them into your conscious life, if you  manage to do so at all.

The Shadow

The Wicked Witch of the East represents the
Shadow of Dorothy in the Oz story.
Even if the collective unconscious is the realm of the archetypes, there is especially one archetype that can also be activated in the personal unconscious.

This especially applies to feelings and personality traits the individual or the surrounding considers bad or evil. This may, for instance, apply to anger, hatred, and sexual desire.

The shadow is the archetype most of us recognize.

Voldmort -- the one who cannot be named (since everyone is trying to ignore their own dark side) -- can be understood as the shadow of Harry Potter. Where Harry (the Ego) represents kindness and self-sacrifice, Voldmort equals uncontrolled hatred, greed and the lust for power.

Darth Vader clearly represents the shadow of Luke Skywalker.

Those of you who now think I am babbling (I know you are there!) may take a look at the following clip from where Luke is being trained by Yoda on Dagobah.

Luke  is told to enter a cave that is strong with "the power of the Dark Side". Yoda asks Luke to go in unarmed, but Luke enters the cavern armed anyway. Cavers and dark rooms are typical symbols for the unconscious.

Underground Luke has a vision of Darth Vader. In the ensuing fight Luke gives in to his anger and beheads the dark lord, finding that Vader has his own face. In other words: Luke is forced to see and feel his own dark side. He is forced to become conscious of his dark side.


(Sidebar: George Lucas was inspired by the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell when he wrote the first Star Wars trilogy. Joseph Campbell's research is very much based on the one of Jung.)

Jung says that the shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, as no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort:

"To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance."


These resistances are usually bound up with projections, which are not recognized as such. If a friend, suddenly starts obsessing with the negative character of another person, it could be that your  friend is projecting his or her shadow onto that person.

"Projections change the world into a replica of one's own unknown face," Jung says.

Adolf Hitler was a master in exploiting the projections of the German people. The Jew was given all the negative characteristics possible, and the Germans gladly and willingly projected their own fear, anger and shame onto the Jews. This gave them a sense of emotional relief, increasing self-worth and  purpose. Which is how concentration camp guards could make themselves believe that they were on the good side of the battle.

Homophobia and transphobia may also be the effect of the shadow. It is interesting to see how some of the most intense gay-bashers later turn out to be gay themselves.

Within the transgender community we see how some transsexuals fall into this trap. They start persecuting transgender who do not live up their idea of the ideal woman or the ideal man. The "imperfect" transgender reminds them of who they do not want to be.

The shadows of the transgender

Jung insists that the shadow archetype bears the same gender as the ego in dreams and myths. The shadow of Harry is Voldmort, the man. The shadow of Snow White is the Evil Witch.

This is where Jung's model proves to be too strict to capture the complexity of the transgender psyché. Sure, if the transgender fully and consciously identifies with the opposite sex (that is compared to his or her body), the shadow would likely  follow the pattern described by Jung.

If there is ambiguity, however, things may play out differently. A transgender person may consciously identify with the sex of his or her body, while the transgender nature has been repressed. If that is the case, should we not expect the shadow to be of the same sex as the ego?

Having read a lot of transgender fiction and fantasies, it seems to me that the transgender shadow can be of the same sex as the ego and as  "the cross-sexual self".

In stories written by male to female transgender persons (as found over at, for instance, Fictionmania), the find both male and female characters who embody the shadow, especially the shadow archetype of the mischievous trickster.

TG stories are about being changed from one sex to the other, physically and/or mentally. In many -- if not most -- stories, there is an evil or morally ambiguous agent that ensures that the change happens. This change can be magical or more "realistic" (read: hormones and surgery).

In male to female transgender fiction the trickster can be both male (as the shopkeeper found in the Spells R Us stories) or female (as the female keepers of the Bikini Beach stories or the dominatrix of  the Tabor stories). There are a lot of wizards and witches in male to female TG fiction, as well as male and female genies.

Almodovar does crossdreaming

In Almodovar's latest movie La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)  the evil trickster or shadow is the disturbed surgeon Robert Ledgard, who changes the main male character of the film, Vincente, into a beautiful woman.

This movie is definitely a male to female crossdreamer fantasy. The fact that Vincente had worked in his mother's dress shop is a dead give away. He has already symbolically accepted the role of a woman. He is designing dresses, but is not gay.

In The Skin I Live In there is also another "shadow" character, the "animal man" and rapist Zeca, who represents untamed male sexuality. So, in this work of art, the repressed evil sides of the male protagonist are male, if we follow Jung's recipe.

(I plan to look for shadows in female to male TG stories in a later post.)

The reality is more ambiguous

I would argue that the idea that the shadow must be of the same psychological sex as the ego is difficult to uphold also when it comes to non-transgender people. In folk tales repressed and forbidden desires are often represented by characters of the opposite sex, like the wolf in the fairy tale about Red Riding Hood.
In fairy tales the shadow represent unwanted dreams
and desires. The wolf represents Red Riding Hood's
budding sexuality, as does her red cloak.

Jung would probably argue that the wolf is a symbol for the animus, or the masculine side of the feminine psyche, and as such distinct from the shadow archetype.

But if that is the case, the animal man of Almodovar, may actually be the animus of a female mind, which only proves my point. The movie does not follow Jung's dichotomy to the letter.

Beyond good and evil

Regardless of how we look at this, it becomes hard to make develop an absolute distinction between the shadow and other "taboo parts" of the unconscious mind.

Indeed, in male to female crossdreamer fantasies, the image of the inner female may also express the forbidden or dark side of the personality.

This side of the personality is not necessarily evil (as in the shadow), but negative all the same. If the outer persona is the strong, dominant and efficient man, the inner woman may become the submissive sissy. If the outer persona is the intelligent, disciplined and ascetic man the inner woman may absorb the opposite traits. She becomes the stupid, nymphomaniac,  bimbo.

In the next post in this series I will take a look at the anima and the animus, the cross-sexual archetypes of Jung, and see if we can make sense of it all.

I will also point out how Jung's idea that the Shadow and the Anima has a specific gender, made much of the  Jungian analytic therapy sexist and oppressive.

Next: The animus and anima

More posts in the psychology series.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!