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Psychosexual Development: The film "Little Children"

Updated on April 18, 2015


Psychosexual development by definition is a central element of the psychoanalytic sexual drive theory, that human beings, from birth, possess an instinctual libido (sexual energy) that develops in five stages. Each stage – the oral, the anal, the phallic, the latent, and the genital – is characterized by the erogenous zone that is the source of the libidinal drive. Sigmund Freud proposed that if the child experienced sexual frustration in relation to any psychosexual developmental stage, he or she would experience anxiety that would persist into adulthood as a neurosis, a functional mental disorder.

Oral Stage

The oral stage spans from birth to about one year of age. During this stage, the mouth is the main source of libidinal gratification (breast feeding and oral exploration during development). Since the infant does not yet have a personality (or identity), everything is based on the pleasure principle. The development occurs when weaning takes place, introducing delayed gratification. As an adult, if someone is orally aggressive, you may see them actively chewing gum or the ends of pencils. If someone is orally passive, you may see them actively smoking or doing sexual oral practices. Often times we see these people with naïve, gullible, or immature personalities.


Anal Stage

The anal stage spans from around eighteen months to close to three years of age. In this stage, the erogenous zone changes from oral to anal, while their ego continues to develop. This is

where the toddler is “potty-trained”, and the instructions from the parent effect the shift in the child’s developing ego. As an adult, if someone is anal retentive, you may notice that they are obsessively organized, or extremely neat and tidy. If someone is anal expulsive, you may notice that they are careless, disorganized, and in many cases, defiant.

Phallic Stage

The phallic stage spans from around three years to around six years of age. In this stage, the child’s genitalia is their primary erogenous zone. Around this age, children become aware of their bodies, and other people’s bodies, thus learning the difference between boys and girls, and male and females.


Latent Stage

The latent stage spans from the age of six and lasts until puberty. In this stage, the child merges the first three stages of both sexual and psychological development. The child must derive pleasure of gratification from secondary process-thinking that points the libidinal drives towards external activities, like schooling, friendship, hobbies, etc.


Genital Stage

The genital stage spans from puberty throughout adult life, making it the final and longest stage. In this stage, the individual claims him or herself as independent from their parents. The genital stage differs from the phallic stage in that the person's concern shifts from primary-drive gratification over to applying secondary process-thinking to gratify desire symbolically and intellectually by means of friendships, a romantic relationship, one’s family, and finally, adult responsibilities.

The film.

In class, we watched the well-received film, Little Children, which is a perfect example of what could go wrong with psychosexual development. In brief words, Little Children is a film (and book) about a “perfect” family neighborhood and the many secrets and issues it hides within. This starts with the introduction of sexual predator, Ronnie, who was convicted of exposing himself to

a child. The entire neighborhood is on edge when he moves back home with his mother, everyone seems to have a defensive aura. The film focuses on child development, dysfunctional marriages, secrets affairs, and mental instability.

Personally, I found this film to be very informative without having to spell anything out to the audience. The way they directed each situation was brilliant in describing the changes that happen in certain situation to the human ego and psyche. It is a great example of not only psychosexual development, but of examples of emasculation, empowerment, and maturity.

The first dysfunctional family is that of Sarah and Richard. They have a little girl, Lucy, who neither of them seem to pay much attention to. As a result, Lucy is a handful to deal with, constantly causing stress for Sarah, which she is desperate to relieve. But she gets no help with this from her husband. Richard is having hat seems to be a one-sided affair with virtual “Slutty K”, who he is obsessed with the thought of. Sarah finds this out, and is devastated. Trapped in this loveless, marriage, she seeks thrill elsewhere.

This introduces our second dysfunctional family, Brad and Kathy, who have a son, Aaron. In comparison to Lucy, Aaron is their prized possession. Kathy, who is a perfectionist, claims he is perfect, and is therefore the center of her world, leaving Brad to feel a little out of place. Kathy is always undermining what he says, and even controls most of what he does, showing the first example of emasculation. Brad is studying to take the bar exam for the third time to become a lawyer, but has yet to crack open a book. Instead he spends his time watching young men skateboard, wanting to be a part of the action.

When Brad swings by the part with his son, Sarah shows off to the three wives she usually sits with by going over to talk to him. They exchange minimal information, and part with a

surprising kiss, that startles both them, and the watching wives. From that day on, that can’t stop thinking about each other, until finally, sexual tension reaches its limit one fateful rainy afternoon and the affair begins, filling the void laying in them both. Feeling alive and wanted, the two partake on this journey of adultery, where they in part, both abandon and revive the genital stage.

Meanwhile, during these sexual revelations between Sarah and Brad, Ronnie, the sexual predator is trying to find his way in a world that despises him, only able to seek comfort in his “mommy’s” arms. Ronnie is continuously scolded like the child he is, for his mistakes in the past, which are still haunting his present. He is unable to control his fetish for children, worrying his mother who begs him to “be a good boy”. When she passes after an incident with enraged retired cop Larry, Ronnie goes into a fast spiral. And in an attempt to please his mother, he castrates himself, in the hopes that that will force him to behave appropriately.

The passing of Ronnie’s mother leads to the awakening and maturing of Sarah and Brad. When they finally decide to run away together, Sarah waits for Brad at the park with Lucy, and consequently runs into Ronnie. Terrified, she speaks to him, but them is horrified when she turns around to see her child missing. Meanwhile, Brad is finally getting his chance to skate with the boys he’s been watching for so long. At the moment Sarah finds Lucy, Brad falls off the skateboard and hits his head. The two have their epiphany of maturity, realizing that they have responsibilities with the lives they have created, and realizing that they are no longer “little children”, able to indulge in the carefree and immature world of fantasy. This is where we see the breakthrough of the genital stage.

This entire story and plot provide several instances of other similar topics we have been covering in class, like Foucault’s studies of the origins of sexuality and madness, and Derrida’s idea of the nature of desire. These theories focus on the human sexuality and the many ways in

which it presents itself. Men to women, women to women, and men to men. Not every sexuality is brought out in sheer lust. It can be portrayed in conflicts, hierarchy, and personality as well. Both of these theories are played with throughout Little Children, and brought bluntly to our attention.

We see through Brad and Kathy’s relationship, the struggle over the effect of unbalanced power in their sexuality. With Kathy’s overbearing ways, she easily emasculates Brad, which drives him to seek ways to practice his masculinity, via Sarah, whom he can instruct and dominate sexually. We see through Sarah and Richard’s relationship, the frustration of having the burden of a child, weighing on their sexual relationship. Richard, in an attempt to re-spark his love life, turns to the virtual world of porn, while Sarah turns to Brad, at first, as a way to get back at her husband. These acts dive them into madness as they scramble for their sexual identity and freedom. And finally, in the case of Ronnie, we see the inner conflict of behaving in an appropriate way in society’s eyes, against his own personal lust over children.

Desire is present in all parts of this whole story. From Brad’s desire to complete the childhood experience of hanging out with the skateboarding boys, to Kathy’s desire to raise her perfect child to make up for some loss of her own, to Richard’s desire to start again with a new woman, to Sarah’s desire to strut her sexually active body and prove herself as attractive, to Ronnie’s desire to love, and even to Larry’s desire to redeem himself as a protector of his neighborhood. Desire appears in many aspects, not just sex.


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