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In Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the reader is immediately exposed to the world of two cellmates-Valentin and Molina. Molina, a homosexual window-dresser who chooses to live life as a female, and Valentin, a reserved revolutionary, have very little in common. Given their descriptions, it would have been easy to depict Valentin as ultra-masculine in comparison to Molina, whom many would perceive to be less masculine solely based on his sexual preference and appearance (Tuss 1). Herein lies the problem-there are so many preconceived notions concerning masculinity and homosexuality that is difficult to dissect them in order to gain a better understanding of the terms. The interaction between the two men in a jail setting is interesting because these two men, who are seemingly polar opposites of one another, are now forced to interact. It is through this interaction that one can begin to examine how truly intricate masculinity is in the sense that how it is defined varies depending on who is defining it. By continually breaking down and rebuilding the reader’s sense of masculinity, Puig explores what it means to be a man, showing that regardless of the obvious differences between men there are innate characteristics present within all. Given this, one must completely “reconstruct” the ideological thinking regarding masculinity (Tuss 1). Judith Halberstam claims, “Masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects” (935). Instead, it is necessary to examine the issue as a whole, taking all aspects of masculinity in to account-from transvestites to transsexuals, all must some how fall within the term “masculinity.” Puig is able to facilitate this process by presenting the reader with oppositional characters-each of whom embody two very different sets of masculine characteristics-allowing the reader to better understand and define masculinity through Valentin’s and Molina’s interaction with one another.
Establishing Roles Within Masculinity
In the beginning of the novel it is evident that Valentin feels the need to constantly establish that fact that he feels intellectually superior to Molina by setting rules. Perhaps it is his political background that leads him to feel the need to set the framework for there coexistence, as if Molina is not capable. When Molina finishes giving an elaborate depiction of the Panther Woman, Valentin quickly interjects by saying, “Look, remember what I told you, no erotic descriptions. This isn’t the place for it” (Puig 4). Valentin’s demand further supports the idea that he feels comfortable with running things in the cell. In this sense he perfectly conforms to Halberstam’s idea that “Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege” (937). Because Molina is a homosexual and therefore less-masculine in Valentin’s eyes, Valentin feels as if he has every right to act authoritatively. According to Cliff Cheng, this type of behavior is common and that, “One way to ‘prove’ hegemonic masculinity is to act aggressively or even violently toward what is regarded as ‘feminine,’ for example, women, homosexuals, and nerds” (1). He does not stop to consider that perhaps the description was an essential part of the story he was being told, or that Molina may have enjoyed giving such descriptions. It is interesting that almost immediately following his complaint to Molina, Valentin offers his own depiction of the Panther Woman as “dark-looking, not too tall, really nice figureâ€¦” (Puig 5). This shows that it is not the actual depictions that worry Valentin, but instead he fears hearing such descriptions and consequently becoming “aroused” (Tuss 1). Had the description been coming from a heterosexual male or even a female, it is likely that Valentin would not have objected. However, Molina’s homosexuality causes Valentin to avoid anything that could possibly jeopardize his status as a man. Often times a heterosexual male will make this type of conscious effort to shun or lash out at anything deemed to be homosexual, because they feel as if it is helping them establish their own masculinity. But even within homosexuality there exists an eagerness to create separation from other homosexuals, as is seen with Molina.
Molina adamantly suggests that although he loves men, he is not necessarily gay. He can acknowledge the fact that he was born a man and is also attracted to men-making him “gay” by definition-but he avoids this truth by claiming he is a woman. In his mind he is not a man that loves men- he is a woman who loves men. To help establish this idea, Molina looks down poorly upon homosexuals and uses derogatory terms to describe them. He claims, “But as for my friends and myself, we’re a hundred percent female. We don’t go in for those little games-that’s strictly for homos” (Puig 203). If, “Men are the producers of their conceptions,” then Molina has created the conception of being a female, even if everyone around him knows it isn’t true (Marx 656). By lashing out at other homosexuals, Molina is simply trying to establish his superiority as a transvestite over gays that don’t choose to live as women. This is very problematic and contradictory. Even though Molina would love to be accepted by society and not be looked at differently by the world for being a homosexual, he continues to question the practices of other homosexuals. In this sense he is actually acting in an oppressive manner against his own cause, creating a never ending cycle that is hard to break. This type of behavior, however, is nothing new. In her essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks explains how she was punished for staring as a young child. What is even more interesting, however, is that “white slave-owners (men, women, and children) punished black people for looking” (hooks 510). Much like Molina, this type of inter-domination mimics the oppression coming from outside, whether it’s whites over African Americans, heterosexuals over homosexuals, or in Molina’s case, a transvestite over other homosexuals. This is illustrated perfectly in Kiss of the Spider Woman, because both Molina’s and Valentin’s words and actions are oppressive towards homosexuals. The underlying difference is that Valentin does so in order to negatively depict homosexuals as less masculine, while Molina willingly does this in order to cater to his own desire to live as a woman, not a man.
Use of Film
Despite the initial hostility felt by Valentin, Molina is able to gradually establish himself as a trustable cellmate and loyal friend. Molina significantly changes the way Valentin views him in large part through his vivid narrations of films he has seen in his lifetime. Despite being annoyed at these descriptions at first because he finds them to be irrelevant, Valentin quickly learns to love them because they allow him to escape the harsh reality of being locked in his tiny cell. This transformation gradually occurs as he becomes increasingly aware that there is no escaping his life in jail. He even begins to compliment Molina’s story telling ability, saying, “Mmm, it’s really been entertaining” (Puig 205). Aside from bringing the two prisoners together, the various films also are valuable in assessing masculinity in terms of the ideas and conceptions that’s are typically associated with being “masculine” in today’s society.
In Molina’s depiction of a Nazi propaganda film, for example, Leni falls in love with a Nazi soldier, thus betraying her beloved France. The film ends when Leni is shot after she betrays her country and decides that her love is too strong to ignore. In modern cinema it is as if the strong female character has to die at the end because she has become too powerful. Leni becomes powerful in the sense that she not only ignores her obligation to her country, but she goes as far as stabbing the majordomo in his back (Puig 91). Leni has simply become too powerful-a masculine trait-and therefore has to die so that hierarchy can once again be established. The story of Molina and Valentin, in many instances, mirrors the events of this film. Much like Leni, Molina is willing to bravely come into contact with Valentin’s fellow revolutionists in order to pass on valuable information. Because Molina is depicted as a female, he too must die because he has exhibited far too much power for a female character. The story of Leni perfectly foreshadows what will eventually happen to Molina.
Another interesting and relevant part of the novel when discussing masculinity is Molina’s close relationship with his mother. Molina describes her as a fragile woman who becomes absolutely devastated when she learns that her son has been sentenced to prison. It is evident that the two have a very close relationship and that their separation has been difficult for both. In contrast to this relationship is the one shared by Valentin and his mother. Valentin describes her as being “very difficult” because, “she’s never liked my ideas, she believes she’s entitled to everything she ownsâ€¦” (Puig 121). This is significant because it seems to suggest that Molina is less masculine for having such a close relationship with his mother. He is even dependent upon her in the sense that she regularly brings him groceries from a local store. By depicting Molina as being so close to his mother, it’s as if two are very comparable-a comparison that Molina would surely be pleased with. Valentin, on the other hand, is very independent and refuses to rely on any one-even becoming upset when Molina makes decisions for him without his consent. As is the case in various other instances throughout the novel, the contrast seen between the two men through their relationships with their mothers shows how each exhibit a very different set of masculine characteristics. As usual, Valentin is seen as an ultra-masculine, while Molina is seen as the opposite.
The mother-son relationship plays a larger role later in the novel. Valentin becomes extremely ill when guards poison his food. In a very graphic scene, he is unable to control himself as he becomes overtaken by a bout of diarrhea, causing feelings of horrible pain and discomfort. Molina, upon seeing his cellmate in need, immediately comforts him, gently ordering him to, “Take it, wait, lift yourself, not that way, that’s it, careful, wait, so it doesn’t get on the sheet” (Puig 120). This type of calm demeanor and gentleness closely resembles the actions of a mother when her child is in need. In this sense, Molina becomes a mother figure for Valentin-a figure that he has been lacking for most of his life. It is no coincidence that immediately following this scene, Valentin willingly opens up and talks about his mother with Molina, something he had not done until this point. Finally the reader is offered a glimpse into Valentin’s life that does not depict him as a tough revolutionary machismo, instead showing that he too can be emotional and sensitive. This serves as a major turning point in their relationship and also helps close the gap between the way Molina and Valentin are viewed as opposites, showing that they both have a lot in common despite their apparent differences.
Valentin’s willingness to become more comfortable with Molina becomes very apparent after he helps him through his sickness. It is as if the occurrence causes Valentin to completely reevaluate his situation, and he slowly begins to realize that there is no way for him to escape his life in prison. Given this, it makes sense that he begins to treat Molina differently, because he might as well make the best of his situation. He supports this idea by telling Molina, “In a sense we’re perfectly free to behave however we choose with respect to one another, am I making myself clear?” (Puig 202). It is almost unthinkable that Valentin-who was once disgusted with Molina’s homosexual behavior-would make such a risqué statement, alluding to the fact that he sought more then just friendship. By realizing that he can truly do whatever he wants within the confines of his cell, “his realization liberates Valentin to express himself to Molina and ultimately to make love to him” (Tuss 1). When the two actually become sexually active, it is interesting that Molina constantly asks if he is disgusting Valentin, as if he expects him to react this way. It becomes apparent, however, that Valentin no longer posses these types of feelings towards Molina, allowing himself to fully enjoy all aspects of Molina’s company. By falling in love and escaping societies norms regarding masculinity that had previously controlled how Valentin felt, he is able to feel a sense of freedom. This is surely a very liberating feeling for a prisoner, allowing Valentin to escape-if only momentarily-from his horrible life as a political prisoner. Molina is also able to free himself by giving Valentin the detailed descriptions of the films-something Valentin once criticized him for. However, Valentin comes to realize that such escapes do not necessarily create false hope, and actually allow him to temporarily enter a new mind state, alleviating any negative thoughts he may have. It is difficult to know whether Valentin views his relationship with Molina as genuine or just another “escape.” It is interesting, nonetheless, how Valentin comes to terms with his actions, and realizes that he does not need to act like Molina in order to enjoy being with him. In this sense, Valentin deconstructs his understanding of homosexuality by realizing that not all homosexuals must exhibit ultra-feminine characteristics like Molina does.
By presenting the reader with these two oppositional forces-Valentin and Molina-Puig is able to make the characteristics of each character much more visible and apparent. For example, Puig depicts Molina as being more feminine in the jail then when he is free. In a prison, where inmates are often envisioned as being strong, dominant figures, it is easy to imagine Molina as being seen as being very feminine. The same can be said for Valentin, because in the beginning of the novel the reader is lead to believe that he perfectly fulfils the role of a stereotypical prisoner. By placing both men in the same cell, the stereotypes surrounding the two men are slowly torn down. Valentin, who is seen as ultra-masculine, eventually becomes very emotional and vulnerable, such as when he was incapacitated by a serious illness. Molina, who is seen as very feminine, makes the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life to help Valentin’s political cause. In many senses, the roles of the two prisoners are reversed, an idea support in Tuss’ essay. He claims that by reporting back to the warden, “Molina stands revealed as maneuvering Valentin for his own purposes, and Valentin, the strong, intelligent, efficient rebel who staunchly espouses his cause, stands revealed as a dupe who is as susceptible to Molina’s artful interrogation as he is to Molina’s storytelling” (Tuss 1). Although Molina never gives in to the warden’s desire for information regarding Valentin because of his emotional attachment to him, it is still significant that he was able to hold such a powerful position over Valentin, albeit Valentin wasn’t even aware of it.
One of the most crucial points made in Halberstam’s essay is that while femininity is “approximate,” masculinity is “precise” (953). This means that it is extremely difficult to define masculinity because in general people are much more willing to bend the rules of femininity then masculinity. There are things that women can do that simply would not be tolerated if men were to duplicate them. Take, for example, a kiss on the cheek. If two females do this it is seen as friendly and polite, but it is highly unlikely that a kiss between two men would garner the same reaction. Because Molina is so openly defiant of the rules that typically establish masculinity, it would be easy to view him as an outcasts of sorts, lost somewhere in between both genders. This, however, would simply be unfair. It is blatantly apparent that Molina doesn’t fit the typical depiction of a man, but part of the problem lies within the process of establishing a definition of masculinity. For most of history, people like Molina would have been left out entirely in discussions of masculinity simply because of his appearance and demeanor. Only recently have transsexuals, transvestites, and other similar groups been acknowledged of playing any significant role, outside of embodying everything a man is not. People all too often base their ideas of masculinity on characteristics that do not effectively define masculinity. As seen with Molina and Valentin, even those on the opposite spectrum of masculinity can have numerous things in common. Given this, one must not attempt to define what it means to be a man based on looks and the way one carries them self. In a resource guide for educators, the oft quoted Pastor William Hybels states that, “The freedom of authentic masculinity is an amazing thing to see” (9). Both Molina and Valentin express this freedom of masculinity in similar ways, despite their obvious differences, by making bold decisions that question their roles as men. Although Puig takes each man down two very different paths, it is undeniable that Valentine and Molina come together to fiercely fight for what they believe in, while maintaining the same civility that allows them to love one another without being ashamed. By coming together and representing masculinity as a whole, Valentin and Molina illustrate that is necessary to consider a wide array of factors when attempting to define the term, instead of relying solely on the machismo characteristics that typically dominate discussions of masculinity.
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