Sunday, April 17, 2011

They Cage the Women at Night?: Female Representation in Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.

“There were, perhaps, a dozen girls in the cages in the reception room and, posed inside, the girls towered above us like the goddesses of some forgotten theogeny locked up because they were too holy to be touched. Each was as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric and you could not imagine they had names, for they had been reduced by the rigorous discipline of their vocation to the undifferentiated essence of the idea of the female. This ideational femaleness took amazingly different shapes though its nature was not that of Woman; when I examined them more closely, I saw that none of them were any longer, or might never have been, woman. All, without exception, passed beyond or did not enter the realm of simple humanity. They were sinister, abominable, inverted mutations, part clockwork, part vegetable and part brute” (Carter 132).

This passage provides multiple avenues for feminist theory. First, I see it fit to examine the fact that Carter puts the women in cages rather than the other way around. It is the men who walk around with their genitals exposed in the Bestial Room, not the women. Thus, phallocentrism reigns supreme here. And we have an immediate preference of the male form over the female. The women are on display, just like in a zoo. But, although the women are nameless and are clearly presented as sexual objects, they have a degree of power—especially from a Lacanian perspective. Granted, the men choose whether or not to purchase the women’s sexuality. But the women on the pedestals get to objectify the men too. Desiderio and the Count have no faces. Their identity centers on their exposed male genitalia. Thus, for as much as the men objectify the women, so too do the women objectify the men. Most interesting of all is Carter’s depiction of the women as “abominable.” While they are overtly sexualized, the ultimate objectification of the female form makes it non-feminine. It is mechanical and banal. Hence, Desiderio later refers to the women as “meat.” The women are so sexualized that they are inhuman. So too are the Count and Desiderio. Thus, for as much as this passage opens itself up to feminist interpretations, it also raises significant questions about sexuality in general. How much is too much? And why is it that both sexes fail to see their equal objectification? Both the men and women in this scene are the respective “other.” Neither sex is privileged. The women may be in cages, but at least they have faces.

**Carter, Angela. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Penguin Books: New York, 1972.


  1. The first impression I had when reading about the women in cages was that there was a clear cut disparity in power between the males and females. Just the notion that a dozen girls were trapped in cages and were a “reduced…idea of the female” convinced me that the male maintained full control in the situation. I never really gave much thought to how the females, depicted in a demeaning manner as sexual objects, could actually hold some form of supremacy over the men. This seems significant to me, regardless of whether their only sense of empowerment exists through the objectification of the men. Unlike what the text may appear to suggest at first glance, it’s really interesting that neither sex is privileged. The women may be secluded to cages and depicted as inhuman, but is it not inhuman as well for the men to have no faces?

  2. I think it's also important to note that these icons of female sex appeal are not real humans, or even real living beings, it seems, because they are constructed of papier mache. At least on a superficial level this means that the "women" must necessarily be the objects and the men the subjects of desire in this situation. In the context of the world completely manipulated by Dr. Hoffman, perhaps the grotesque aspects of these totems serve to test the male sexual response. They are feminine in form and have female sex organs, so on some level Desiderio and the Count are forcibly attracted to them. The animal features, however, which to Desiderio are not even obvious at first glance, then serve to twist this attraction so that the men (both Desiderio and even male readers) are disgusted by their own attraction.

  3. The implications of this passage to me were of the imbalance of sexuality between men and women. The men walk around free, anonymous, with their genitals being the most prominent and identifying physical characteristic. The women, however, are caged and on display, subjected to the gaze and abuse of the Count and Desiderio. The Count even sets one on fire, revealing her actual construction out of papier mache. Women now are still treated in this manner, for physically exaggerated attributes such as big breasts or bottoms, and they surely were in the 70s. Representations of women are "caged" by the male tendency to treat them only with their penises (i.e., a sex object).