De Sade, Pornography and Women: A Reappraisal by Angela Carter
On the 16th of February 1992, Angela Carter, one of England’s most valuable female writers of picaresque fiction, magical realism and cultural thought, died in London of lung cancer at the age of 51. In her obituary in The Telegraph, she was remembered for “the exuberant fantastic invention, the interest in archetypal fairytale patterns, and her taste for sceptical, musical, politicised comedy”. Markedly, Lorna Sage of The Guardian noted that Carter was one of the first female writers to realise that “we were living with constructs of ourselves, neither false nor true but mythical and alterable” – hence, her poignant views, which shattered pre-established myths of women and reinterpreted their hopes and desires.
Her challenging, first non-fiction essay, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979), set the cat amongst the feminist pigeons. Given that writers such as Catherine McKinnon, Susan Griffin, Susanne Kappeler and especially Andrea Dworkin despised the writings of de Sade, a feminist reappraisal of his work seemed highly unusual. Carter herself found this piece problematic to write and deliberated on it at length before its publication; its themes even recur in the fiction she was writing at that time (e.g. The Bloody Chamber). Carter cleverly argued that there is room to rehabilitate de Sade as the Enlightenment thinker who “put pornography in the service of women”. In many ways, he allowed women to become as free as men by means of their liberated sexual fantasies, saw them as genuine sources of desire and not merely biological propagators of the human species. As far as Carter was concerned, the nature and extent of women’s desires had been often underestimated. “Carter is using de Sade to argue for a wider incorporation of female sexuality, to argue that it too contains a whole gamut of perversions alongside normal sex.” (Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality’, Feminist Review, No. 42, Feminist Fictions, Autumn, 1992).
“While not absolving Sade of denigration of women, she attempts to go beyond the flat, surface readings proposed by Griffin and Dworkin and examines the texts from a variety of vantage points. She notes that any pornographic text, even the most banal and mechanical, contains within it a mirror, however distorted, of the social and sexual relations between the men and women of the society in which it has been written (…) his writings comprise a guerrilla action against the repressive society in which he lived. (…) The principle of human equality becomes justification for theft; freedom is defined by the arbitrary exercise of power; sexual libertinism is a form of communal ownership of property.” (Eleanor Heartney, ‘Pornography’, Art Journal, Vol. 50, No. 4, Censorship II, Winter, 1991).
Carter implied that de Sade’s sex and gore stories were in fact veiled social observation and political criticism: his two main female characters, Justine – the abused victim, and her sister Juliette – the corrupt and terrifying whore, symbolise two sides of society – the oppressors and the oppressed, with the privileged few always becoming the tyrants. She noted that for de Sade, “Feminine impotence is a quality of the poor, regardless of sex. Juliette is an exception; by the force of her will, she will become a Nietzschian superwoman, which is to say, a woman who has transcended her gender but not the contradictions inherent in it”. So, in many ways, the Marquis de Sade created a female role model in what was wrongly perceived as an anti-feminist work at the time. Carter suggested that by being open to new perspectives of seeing themselves, women could counteract “their own complicity with the fictional representations of themselves as mythic archetypes. Such mystification of femininity amounts, in her view, to a complicity with the pornographic scenario on which the unequal gender relations of our society are founded.” (Sally Keenan, ‘Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: Feminism as Treason’, in The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, eds. Joseph Bristow and Trey Lynn Broughton, Longman, 1997).
From a historical, economic and cultural point of view, emotional dependence of women has worked against them by undermining and infantilizing them and keeping them entrapped in marriages they did not fully feel they belonged into. Carter considered that “the economic dependence of women remains a believed fiction and is assumed to imply an emotional dependence that is taken for granted as a condition inherent in the natural order of things.” Although women have gained more emotional independence since 1979 when the essay was written, there is still a dominant trend in Western literature, especially perpetuated through the form love is given in romantic fiction. Carter’s writing generally suggests that sexuality, like gender, is at least in part a constructed thing: “if women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men).”