Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Twisted Gender Essentialism in Carter's "Desire Machines"

"Gentlemen, if you rid your hearts of prejudice and examine the bases of the traditional notions of the figure of the female, you will find you have founded them all on the remote figure you thought you glimpsed, once, in your earliest childhood, bending over you with an offering of warm, sugared milk, crooning a soft lullaby while, by her haloed presence, she kept away the snakes that writhed beneath the bed. Tear this notion of the mother from your hearts. ...I am proud to say that not a single one of my harem or, indeed, any of the tribe of more than Roman mothers you see before you, has ever experienced the most fleeting ecstasy, or even the slightest pleasure, while in the arms of any of my subjects. So our womenfolk are entirely cold and respond only to cruelty and abuse."

--Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, pp. 160-161.

This excerpt is from a monologue given by the ruler of a cannibalistic African tribe encountered by Desiderio in the sixth chapter of Carter's Desire Machines. It should be noted first that this ruler was originally identified as the "pimp" who chased The Count all over the world aiming to avenge the death of one of his many prostitutes. At the beginning of the chieftain's speech it would seem that he rejects the idea of any essential "feminine" nature. But by the conclusion, it is more likely that the speaker instead simply espouses a different, and to us even "backward" concept of essential femininity. By performing compulsory female circumcision on all the girls in his tribe as soon as they reach puberty, the chieftain boasts that he has hardened them into cruel, emotionless instruments of his will. Because he joins his claim of their deprivation of pleasure to their coldness with the word "so," we have no choice but to infer a conceived causal connection between the former stimulus and latter phenomenon. It seems that the chieftain thus believes that the qualities we assume to be "feminine"-- warmth, emotional sensitivity, propensity for nurturing-- are engendered only through sexual stimulation, without which they retain only their "natural" characteristics-- coldness and cruelty. This model, then, assumes that women are born ruthless and vicious, and only develop nurturing, sensitive traits as a response to the psychological effects of and social imperatives to sexual pleasure. The chieftain goes on to claim later that man's essential nature as well is "constitutionally vicious, instinctively evil and studiously ferocious." Regardless of whether or not the chieftain truly believes in an immanent femininity, it is clear that he believes gender, or at least "femaleness" is determined completely by sexuality and the effects of sexual stimulation. Carter's portrayal of this character as abominably cruel and inhumane is ample indication of her rejection of this mindset.

1 comment:

  1. When I came across this excerpt in the novel it struck me as well. I thought about how the lack of sexual pleasure would affect the women in this way. The passage basically says that their only joy in life comes from sexual pleasure. This is a unique and interesting concept brought on by Carter.I cannot say that I agree with the chieftain's belief on this, but I know that Carter is trying to represent something with it. Maybe she is using the chieftain to represent men and how they do not care too much about the satisfaction of women sexually and/or socially. Also, to use your comment on how the tribe leader is also the "pimp" that was chasing The Count, this could represent how men exert dominance over women and treat them like property instead of equals. The novel did come out in the early 70s, and at that time society was patriarchal. Carter is most likely pointing out how women are being wronged.