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  • Spinning a Bigendered Identity in Silko's Ceremony and Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • Matthew Teorey (bio)

In a number of Native American traditions, Spider Woman is creator of the universe and an important source of cultural wisdom and social values. Also called Thought Woman and Grandmother Spider, this divine figure uses the power of her imagination, womb, abdominal spinneret glands, intellect, emotions, and voice to bring humans into existence and help them develop balanced identities and harmonious communities. Robert Boissiere calls her "a force, an energy," whose ability to spin webs of life and language derives from the "Woman Spirit" who provides "succor and peace," enabling the Spider Woman "to nurture and protect."1 Paula Gunn Allen writes that Spider Woman's feminine energy inspires tribal storytellers of both sexes to "make pertinent points to some listener who is about to make a mistake or who has some difficulty to resolve."2 According to Allen, contemporary Native storytellers help listeners and readers confront bigotry in mainstream society and "make communal, transcendent meaning out of human experience."3 They teach the value of diversity and cooperation, interweaving various literary genres, levels of diction, and narrative techniques to unite people of different races, genders, and sexual preferences and with different social attitudes and spiritual beliefs.

Western culture's original Spider Woman was Arachne, master weaver of Greek mythology. Many consider her story a morality tale, the story of a woman who is punished for being conceited and not deferring to male authority by being transformed into a spider. However, feminist scholars argue that Arachne was unjustly punished for taking pride in her artistic talents and boldly challenging patriarchal domination, "the interwoven structures of power, gender, and identity."4 In the myth, Arachne fearlessly [End Page 1] engages the "male-identified divine weaver Athena" in a weaving competition and creates a masterpiece tapestry that denies male superiority and protests sexual violence against women.5

Two millennia later, Spider Woman is still "an enigmatic, archetypal version of the female," whose knowledge, confidence, and sexuality frighten the male establishment.6 Western popular culture typically subjugates her to the role of archetypal whore. The noir tradition, for example, pits the male hero against an evil seductress and murderous "black widow," exploiting society's fear of strong women to justify male domination and destruction. Philippa Gates suggests that the burgeoning feminist movement's critique of gender roles intensified "the close association of noir with masculinity in crisis," a crisis in which the male hero summons the courage and strength to subdue the beautiful, duplicitous, and ruthless femme fatale, the noir Spider Woman, before she ensnares him in her web of lies and depravity.7 Interestingly, Western culture also brands Spider Woman as the archetypal virgin. New Age spiritualism, for example, naturalizes her as an idealized earth mother.8 The romantic tradition's appropriation of female power and wisdom is gentler than noir's demonization and annihilation, but it is no less oppressive since it relegates an active, complex figure to a passive, ornamental role. Nevertheless, the Woman Spirit resists neutralization; it subverts Western culture's restrictive patriarchal norms and promotes female agency and a bigendered male identity.

This essay analyzes two contemporary literary works that champion Spider Woman and her subversive and transformative energy: Leslie Marmon Silko's 1977 novel Ceremony and Manuel Puig's 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. Although Silko and Puig did not share the same sex, ethnic background, nationality, language, sexual orientation, or artistic sensibility, both called on traditional storyteller and divine authority Spider Woman to heal a rift in the modern male psyche, a rift caused by the suppression of the feminine side of his humanity. Each author's own sense of self was ruptured by mainstream Western culture, Silko as a Native American female in the United States and Puig as a leftist homosexual in Argentina. They both responded to Western society's rigid social mores and conventional literary style with an Arachnean tapestry of words, a polyphonic mixture of oral and written storytelling that guides the reader to a more harmonious, integrated self. Their male protagonists, Tayo in Ceremony and Valentin in Kiss of the...