The Female Gaze: Desire as a Source of Power to the Objectified Female
As a subversion of what we understand today as the “male gaze”, Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves, and The Courtship of Mr Lyon exercises postmodern parody in order to both expose and destabilize gender stereotypes through the use of desire as a propelling force to action by the objectified female, and by telling the stories from the female perspective. Carter skillfully knits themes of rites-of-passage, sex and death through the retelling of well-known traditional fairy tales in order to describe the imbalanced relationships contained therein. The female protagonists all undergo a mental transformation which allows them agency and prevents them from becoming one of the many women preceding them who have succumbed to the fate designated to women in a patriarchal society. Carter overthrows traditional gender positions by allowing her female characters a subjectivity gained through their own narration of the stories (Renfroe 89)– stories which in the past have been dominated by the masculine voice.
In The Bloody Chamber it is this subjectivity that stresses the importance of the girl’s journey to self-discovery through the Bloody Chamber. Thus, in the same way that the narrator is introduced to a new way of thinking through her exposure to the bloody chamber, so the reader is forced to re-examine the dominant ideologies that surround the original fairy tales that Carter reimagines (Renfroe 91). Rites-of-passage, sex and death become interlinking themes in these stories through the female characters exploring their sexualities in a manner that allows them to become more cognizant of their own positions and their relation to a masculine world.
What is interesting is that this metamorphosis is accompanied by the theme of death. According to Cheryl Renfroe in her article Initiation and Disobedience, in The Bloody Chamber, the protagonist’s probe into the forbidden chamber is her rite-of-passage and defines the chamber as a liminal space. As defined by Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (1909), a liminal space is one in which the initiand is removed from the ordinary life to a place of isolation where s/he experiences an tribulation that causes him/her to return to the normal life with a transformed standpoint. This space is then the indeterminate middle phase when the initiand is exposed to an ordeal in order to be able to leave one life stage behind in order to arrive at another (Renfroe 92). It is in this moment that the protagonist undergoes a realization of her character: “Until that moment, this spoiled child did not know she had inherited nerves and a will from the mother who had defied the yellow outlaws of Indo-China” (Carter 26). This is a moment of female empowerment as the daughter grasps the true strength that she has been taught by the primary female figure in her life. Her power thus comes from being able to appreciate her mother’s power and channel that strength into her own situation.
Furthermore, the emphasis on the woman as savior is a clear subversion of gender roles and encourages a new perception of women as being capable of significant action in a patriarchal society. Here, the imbalanced relationships between genders in traditional stories are toppled and the readers come face to face with the fact that a female lead can have as much importance and sway as a male one. It is in this room that she comes face to face with the intimate relationship between sex and death. Her sexual initiation becomes inextricable from the death of the women who came before her. She realizes that once she had sexually satisfied her husband, she became disposable. It is in this way then that the term “le petit mort” for sexual orgasm gains literal meaning as “a little death”. The orgasm of her husband means death for her. Desire, power and death intertwine in this moment of confrontation with the implicit truth of what her husband is, and the protagonist cannot help but think of a quote by her husband’s favorite poet: “There is a striking similarity between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer” (Carter 26). The power gained through sexual dominance is thus explored, and the sexually dominant partner is able to control the submissive partner – roles which have conventionally been attributed to males for the former and to females for the latter.
Carter’s re-exploration of the classic folk tale allows a partiality to be given to a female voice, as well as an empowerment of the female characters. This is most clearly seen by how the protagonist attempts to use her own sexuality in order to prevent the fate decided for her by the dominant male character: “I forced myself to be seductive, I saw myself, pale, pliant as a plant that begs to be trampled underfoot, a dozen vulnerable appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors, and I saw how he almost failed to resist me” (Carter 36). In this moment there is both an inversion of traditional gender roles and a subversion of power dynamics. Sex and death become even more intricately involved as the protagonist states that: “If he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him, then” (Carter 36). She is willing to take control in a sexual situation and exert any power that she might have gained. Furthermore, power is afforded the female especially through the twist that makes the mother the savior and not a male. Even after the moment of release from her husband, the protagonist further defies tradition by living with a man outside the sanctity of marriage – an act which both defies societal expectations of women as well as affirming her own changed perceptions of the world and her part in it.
In The Company of Wolves, desire, gender and power are important in the retelling as the role of the innocent Red Riding Hood is destabilized. In Carter’s re-exploration, the protagonist is a girl on the cusp of womanhood willing to explore her own sexuality. She has a sexual curiosity that is awakened when she meets a handsome man in the forest. The wager then becomes an opportunity for her to experience her own sexuality: “…for she wanted to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager” (Carter 140). What makes her interest so important is that it allows her to experience sexuality in a manner normally only afforded to males. Her curiosity comes to fruition when, even faced with the realization of what he had done to her grandmother, she “freely gave him the kiss she owed him” (Carter 144). Her choice thus becomes what sets her apart from her traditional counterpart. She is not saved by her father or a male figure as in the original story, instead, she saves herself by recognizing her own power – power found in her sexuality. It is in this moment that power dynamics are overthrown by both allowing the female voice subjectivity and portraying sexual desire as being natural to females, as well as males. Furthermore, the use of sexuality in attempting to escape patriarchal oppression is blatantly obvious when the protagonist laughs at the apparent threats of the werewolf: “She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing” (Carter 144). By laughing and proclaiming that she is “nobody’s meat” she detaches herself from patriarchal pornography and grants herself sexual license as a strong female (Lau 87). Furthermore, by burning the clothes of the wolf-man she chooses to accept his beastiality and thus decides to accept a concept of sexual liberation (Lau 87). This use of sexuality in order to lead the males away from their original destructive paths make Carter’s female protagonists more interesting than the traditional virginal perception of the female character. Lorna Sage in Angela carter: The Fairy Tale encapsulates this wonderfully by stating that “The blameless woman is for Carter also the unimaginative woman” (Sage 58).
Once more, the virginal qualities that make the traditional fairy tale female so attractive to the male protagonist is undermined, and the female gains agency by moving beyond the constructs of what is expected of her. Her very natural sexual desire serves to separate her from the unrealistic expectations placed upon her. In terms of sexual conquest, the female re-informs traditional views by making Little Red Riding Hood a sexual agent (Lau 86). While Little Red Riding Hood has been changed primarily in her character, Carter retains some of the narrative techniques of the original story as Little Red Riding Hood follows the dialogue set for her, before utterly destroying its historical power. After dictating the physical prowess afforded the male by saying the celebrated “What big arms you have” (Carter 144), Carter excellently sabotages its significance by following it with “All the better to hug you with” (Carter 144). In this moment, the wolf is no longer as threatening and Little Red Riding Hood gains agency by freely indulging her desire for the kiss they wagered upon. The Courtship of Mr Lyon as a postmodern parody of the Beauty and the Beast is powerful one because of Carter’s unique ability to subvert traditional power dynamics through the appropriation of fresh gender roles focussing on the expression of latent female desire and sexuality.
This subversion of gender roles is most evident by the Beast’s reaction to Beauty leaving him to meet her father: “The Beast sunk his great head on to his paws. You will come back to me? It will be lonely here, without you” (Carter 53). His response is that of a man in love who is easily directed by Beauty (Brooke 73). Beauty too is far removed from the innocent Beauty in the traditional folk tale who fails to recognize her own beauty; Beauty in Carter’s tale becomes vain with the attention bestowed upon her. She finds herself looking into mirrors often and “She smiled at herself with satisfaction. She was learning, at the end of her adolescence, how to be a spoiled child and that pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments” (Carter 54). This image is far removed from the Beauty in the traditional story who asked only for a single rose when her father travelled. This Beauty “could sometimes turn a mite petulant when things went not quite as she wanted them to go” (Carter 54). It is this moment that Carter’s use of parody becomes obvious as when the story begins, the reader is exposed to a Beauty that fulfills the expectations set by the traditional folk tale, but this perceived innocence becomes less attractive when stated by Beauty herself: “And such a one she felt herself to be, Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial” (Brooke 73). Carter’s takes this parody one step further by having Beauty take on the role of a subservient female, but only because of the appearance that she thinks this will create as herself as a virtuous female (Brooke 74). This amplification of gender stereotypes draws attention to the perilous discrepancy between manifestation and true being (Brooke 74). As such, Carter also exposes the extent to which women will silence their own voices in order to become what they think will be most attractive and what will serve to please most the men who are primarily in control of their lives. Carter expertly weaves this into the storyline in order to highlight that the subjugation of women is not only sustained by the dominant male voice, but also by the female perpetuation of the norms which serve to demean them.
It is clear that Angela Carter is expert at clawing at the gender norms that permeate every inch of society in such a way that the reader is left unable but to come to understand better the subtle inundation of female submissiveness which serve to inform the female function. By using well-known folk tales that most people have encountered, Carter manages to subvert the expectations placed upon genders by proficiently retelling the story in such a way as to grant the female voice agency through her wonderful linking of the significant relationship between desire, gender and power. The females in her story gain their power through the acceptance of their own sexual desires and their knowledge of how this sexual desire may be used by them against the male figures who often attempt to govern them.
Works Cited Brooke, P. (2004). Lyons and Tigers and Wolves – Oh My! Revisionary Fairy Tales in the Work of Angela Carter. Critical Survey, 16(1), 67-88. Carter, A. (1979). The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. New York: Penguin . Lau, K. J. (2008). Erotic Infidelities: Angela Carter’s Wolf Trilogy. Marvels and Tales, 22(1), 77-94. Renfroe, C. (1998). Initiation and Disobedience: Liminal Experience in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”. Marvels and Tales, 12(1), 82-94. Sage, L. (1998). Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale. Marvels and Tales, 12(1), 52-69.
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