Marked by a Kiss: Sexual Perversions and the real identify of the Spider Woman

Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman consists almost entirely of extended dialogue shared between the two main characters of the novel, Molina and Valentin, who are two prisoners in a seedy Argentinean prison in the late sixties. Molina is a middle aged man who was incarcerated for his corruption of the youth, clever language to explain that he had been arrested for being homosexual, who passes his time recounting and modifying his favourite films as stories for his fellow prisoners. Valentin is a young, middle-class, and involved in the heated political struggle for the Argentina of the period. Both men develop a strange and close bond under the oppressive forces of incarceration that eventually lead each to their own demise. Manuel Puig’s novel, however, is so much more than a pithy love story.

Had Molina and Valentin’s relationship ended at love and not encompassed the more basic of human motivations and feelings than it would be a rather disappointing novel. Instead, Puig tackles the notions of sexual perversity, challenges ideas of gender stereotyping and forces the reader to re-evaluate their notions of helplessness and love. In turn both Molina and Valentin must face their essential selves: Molina who wants to understand himself within a purely womanly matrix and Valentin who is distrustful of any female element within his psyche because he is petrified it will chip away at his political resolve. Through the seemingly unending dialogue between Molina and Valentin, one quickly realizes that Puig has brought one into a world of observation where the author apparently allows the characters to play out their most basic instincts. Notions of the feminine and masculine and intertwined in Freudian fashion and the reader is called upon to revisit notions of normalcy within life and love. Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman will be evaluated in this paper by firstly defining and addressing the Freudian aspects of both Molina and Valentin’s particular sexual perversions as well as by concluding with an analysis of what and whom the spider woman really is within the text.

The first section of this essay will be dedicated to defining and analyzing sexual perversion within the two main characters of Puig’s work, Valentin and Molina. Sigmund Freud described homosexuality as the most important perversion of all as well as the most repellent in the popular mind.[1] It is a perversion that occupies much psychic energy and space within culture, especially those which are built on the basis of machismo. Sexual activity itself can be described as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it.[2] According to Freud, each human infant begins its life with a sexual disposition which is innately bisexual and therefore has an intimate knowledge of perverse sexual longings.[3] This bisexuality is not negative, however, it is a necessary precondition for the successful socialization and gendering of the individual that is appropriate to their culture. The goal in normal development is that as the child grows they will eventually abandon their innate bisexuality through repression and sublimation with the goal of establishing appropriate gender lines and boundaries so as to create later heterosexual relationships. Repressed and sublimated perversions help to form, and are intrinsic to, normality. The might also be said to be the cement of culture, helping to constitute the social instincts.[4] Within this framework it becomes important to see Molina and Valentin representing different aspects within the development of sexual perversions within the human psyche.

Valentin as the epitome of masculinity and machismo in Latin American culture appropriately shuns anything resembling femininity. When first in prison her berates Molina for what her perceives as an excess of emotion and sentiment, and prefers to reminisce about his political struggles than contemplate the “softness” of life. In this way Valentin is the perfect example of the sublimated and repressed individual that Freud discusses in his sexual perversions. Repression seeks to conceive itself in terms of psychic stability and sees its function as the maintenance of social stability. This sets up within the individual (and Valentin for that matter) a situation of antagonism between instinctual desire that cannot be abated within the prison and the demands of civilization as symbolized through the figure of Marta his heterosexual love object. Though Marta represents the appropriate object of Valentin’s affections, he is oddly attracted to Molina the middle aged man who claims that he is a woman. This seems to bolster Freud’s analysis of sexual perversions as he stated:

“ Indeed, everyone, says Freud, has made a homosexual object choice, if only in their unconscious. In short: ‘in addition to their manifest heterosexuality, a very considerable measure of latent or unconscious homosexuality can be detected in all normal people’.”[5]

Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman represents the successful repression and sublimation of perverse sexual desire. Though he eventually succumbs to desire with Molina he never abdicates his heterosexuality and he never relinquishes his desire for his female partners. In fact his experimentation and dabbling with homosexuality can be understood through Freudian analysis on the perversions.

“More than any other kind, modern civilization demands high levels of sexual repression, the energy of the sexual instincts being ‘displaced’ or sublimated into increased or higher cultural activity and development. But there is a limit to the extent to which this can work, and in practice the result is that in avoiding the pressure to sublimate, the individual may turn to perversion and other forms of deviation which run counter to the requirements of civilized sexual morality.”[6]

In this way Valentin is adhering to social expectations in his role as the political rebel. His repression of his more feminine qualities and therefore his rejection of his bisexual roots equates to a situation in which increasing pressure is placed on his psyche. Out of this he initially uses politics as an outlet through which he can prove his masculinity, prowess and power and utterly subordinate his feminine qualities (such as his love for Marta).

Molina, on the other hand, also demonstrates aspects of sexual perversion that are somewhat more profound than the cursory statement that he himself is homosexual. The homosexuality itself is rarely problematic for Freud. In fact the great psychologist once noted that he was not sure whether homosexuality was even a perversion. Molina, however, is a very particular homosexual because he does not identify with many of the stereotypes often associated with homosexuals in prison. He is not muscular, he does not subscribe to his own brand of chauvinism and torture. In fact, the important of Molina is that he identifies with women going so far as to want to be a woman himself. In this way Molina can be described as more of a Queen than a homosexual of normal stereotype. In fact, according to Freudian notions of sexual perversion this makes Molina the more conservative of the two individuals. Given that Freud’s theory states that each individual is born with homosexual impulses that are acted upon in youth and slowly sublimated in adulthood, being sexually perverse is not a question of transformation.[7] Instead, sexual perversity, or in this case homosexuality is directly related to a human remaining in a static understanding of their own sexual and gendered relations. Molina’s acceptance of his female aspects is reminiscent of this in the way that he has maintained his androgyny and homosexual leanings.

“- Sure, you’re not in any way interior. Then why doesn’t it occur to you to ever be… to ever act like a man? I don’t say with women, if they don’t attract you. But with another man.
– No that’s not for me.
– Why?
– Because it’s not.”[8]

Molina, as a character seems to represent the very extremes of anormality and this is possibly also related to Freudian theory. Only through the self-repression and sublimation (as seen in Valentin) can society be cemented and achieve the preconditions that are needed for normalcy (i.e. continuation of the species). Molina as a character is only creative in his ability to adapt stories, otherwise he is a follower of Valentin. As a Queen (a male character embodying the characteristics of the feminine) Molina is passive though nurturing and caring. The real “work” is done by Valentin (symbolized through his dominant sexual position as well as his position as a leader of society and a political revolutionary). Therefore the highly bisexual and androgynous individual Molina is unable to assume his full position in society. When he does in fact try to do so at the end with Valentin’s followers he is brutally killed because they are unsure as to whether he will stand up to torture.

The second aspect of this essay concerns the very nature of the Spider Woman metaphor in the text. In Kiss of the Spider Woman many films are recounted by the gay character Molina in which there is a theme of female subversion of power and the feeling of helplessness or martyrdom towards events in life.

“The image of the spider woman herself pervades the novel. She appears in different versions, as cat woman and zombie woman. She is an enigmatic, archetypal version of the female.”[9]

Given that, as previously discussed, Valentin and Molina represent two polarized genders of masculine and feminine that are investigated through the culture in the prison as well as through the Hollywood stereotypes that are promoted in the films that Molina recounts.

“Molina, the homosexual queen, identifies with cat woman. He identifies wityh her beauty, purity, and altruyism and with her ultimate strangely powerful martyrdom. Of course Molina is emotional, intuitive and “female” in orientation in contrast to Valentin who is rational, logical and “male”.”[10]

In many ways the reader must ask the question of who the spider woman really is. Is it Molina with his intense desire to seduce and possess Valentin? Is it Valentin as the one who ultimately outlives Molina and maintains his own gendered sexuality? In fact the answer to who is the spider woman is more complex than any of these cursory answers.

“- And know what else I felt, Valentin? But only for a second, no more.
– what? Talk to me, but just…don’t…move…
– For just a second, it seemed like I wasn’t here … not here or anywhere out there either..
– ….
– It seemed as if I wasn’t here at all … like it was you all alone.”[11]

Though like the black widow spider the spider woman in the play is traditionally understood to kill the man she sleeps with, it is not Valentin or Molina that directly kill eachother and therefore this metaphor cannot hold.

The answer is found in the last scene of the book wherein Valentin has his morphine induced vision in which he sees Molina as well as others in his life protruding from the spider’s web with the fat body of the spider at its center. In some ways Molina is the individual, who in the prison represents the female, and therefore is responsible for renewing Valentin’s contact with his static and dynamic feminine powers.[12] However, it is not Molina himself who is at the heart of this, instead it is his weaving of cinematic stories that puts Valetin into contact with his elusive feminine self. It is the stories, the norms of society in the Freudian sense the greater purpose that is seductive, not the charms of a fading middle aged prisoner. In this way both Valentin and Molina are seduced by the movie-stories trapped in the threads of a rigid heterosexual script. Valentin and Molina are both victims of the highly gendered and hierarchical society of Argentina as well as the world at large.

“Nevertheless, in the end, it is Molina himself who is seduced by his own movie stories, trapped in the threads of a rigid script. Indeed in Valentin’s morphione dream, which closes the novel, Molina – as seductive, though nurturing spider woman – is inescapably caught in an essentialist web of gender: unable to move.”[13]

The movie stories serve as evidence for their normative power over the individual and their ability to define what is and is not appropriate behaviour. This is further cemented by Molina’s self-description as female, he cannot consider himself male and display all the softer emotions of a female just as Valentin cannot keep his political activities and yet surrender to the seductive power of Molina. The Spider woman metaphor therefore refers to society as a whole. The way in which society spins an essentialist web in which gender and sexual identity is fed to the prisoners and then related again and again through stories.

“ – And what’s masculine in your terms?
– it’s lots of things, but for me … well, the nicest thing about a man is just that, to be marvelous-looking, and strong, but without making any fuss about it, and also like walking very tall. Walking absolutely straight, like my waiter, who’s not afraid to say anything. And it’s knowing what you want, where you’re going.”[14]

The very fact that Molina consistently repeats these stories functions to a great degree like sublimation and repression in Freudian psychology. In this way the true spider woman becomes the overarching norms and expectations inculcated at birth into the average human being.

In conclusion Kiss of the Spider Woman is a tale of seduction but not necessarily of gay love. Though Molina and Valentin do find their own brand of affection the real story is how each of them is seduced by the expectations of society and learns to either deny or succumb to their allure. The Spider woman is society who spins a web around each individual and informs them of who they are to be. Freudian ideas of sexual perversion explain the allure of stepping away from the web but ultimately explains how each and every one is hopelessly caught in the web, dangling.
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[1] Dollimore, Jonathan. “Freud’s Theory of Sexual Perversion.” Sexual Dissidence. Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. OxfordP: Clarendon Press, 1991. p. 95

[2] Dollimore, Jonathan. p.95

[3] Ibid

[4] Dollimore, Jonathan. p. 96

[5] Dollimore, Jonathan. p. 97

[6] Dollimore, Jonathan. p. 101

[7]Dollimore, Jonathan. p. 96

[8]Puig, Manuel. “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” New York: Vintage International, 1978, p. 243

[9] Pinet, Carolyn. “Who is the Spider Woman?” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 45(1/2) p. 20

[10] Pinet, Carolyn, p. 22

[11] Puig, Manuel. p.219

[12] Wiegmann, Mira. “Re-visioning the spider woman archetype in Kiss of the Spider Woman” The Society of Analytical Pyschology, (2004:49), p. 398

[13] Zimmerman, Shari. “Kiss of the Spider woman and the Web of Gender” Pacific Coast Philology (1988:23), p. 111

[14] Puig, Manuel, p.46

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