Patriarchy, Politics, and Pornography: The Femme Fatale in Desert Blood
Patriarchy is often understood to have privileged men and damned women forever. But gender dynamics are more complex in the detective story of Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders where patriarchy is responsible for tearing society apart and oppression of every kind. In detective stories, the figure of the femme fatale is an attempt to pave an in-between space from the dominant sexual cultures in a narrative where isolated and hierarchical identity categories have allowed for the widespread massacre of a historically subordinate class of impoverished Mexican women from a historically ravaged nation.
Alicia Gaspar de Alba stages her novel, Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (2005), as a detective narrative that echoes American detective fiction championed by crime novelists in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Her narrative strategy is absorbing because it involves readers as detectives alongside the novel’s protagonist Ivon Villa, a Ph.D. candidate returning home to Texas for a family reunion. Though Ivon is already a detective in her own right given the analytical skills she possesses as an academic, once back home she must tackle the immediate “whodunit” to find her kidnapped sister Irene while deconstructing the larger mystery of the Juárez Murders, an ongoing femicide along the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso border. Gaspar de Alba’s detective narrative summons the gender dynamics of early 20th century American detective fiction and reinterprets the victims of the Juárez femicide as criminals who need to be disciplined for challenging patriarchal authority. As punishment, these criminalized female bodies become vessels of capitalist exploitation through pornography, echoing Mexico’s history of abuse and domination by the West.
American detective fiction erupted onto the literary scene in the late 1920s and carved out a special place for women as criminals. Works of popular hardboiled detective fiction like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) reveal a fascination with the femme fatale: the “fatal woman.” In The Maltese Falcon, the timid and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the femme fatale accused of murdering the head detective’s partner. In The Big Sleep, the femme fatale is Carmen Sternwood, the seductive, gun-wielding, epileptic daughter of a Hollywood millionaire. As fatal women, Brigid, Carmen, and other femme fatales are unnatural women because they reject their stable, societally-dictated roles as mothers, wives, domestics, maternal guides, and dependent women in favor for a socially liberating, dangerous, and independent life of crime. Because the woman is understood first and foremost as a receptacle for life—she is able to bear children—the femme fatale who kills is doubly unnatural because she rejects the purpose her body set out for her.
The femme fatale is in some ways a transgender character who is able to inhabit a type of borderlands space between the “masculine” and “feminine” worlds. In her discussion of the United States-Mexico border in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) Gloria Anzaldúa writes: ‘[t]he psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands, and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other’ (Contreras 116). The femme fatale is a subject who lingers in the sexual borderlands between and a part of the two dominant, mainstream heterosexual cultures. She exhibits characteristics which are deemed “masculine”—she is calculating, intelligent, resolute, daring, and violent—and qualities which are deemed “feminine”–she is an attractive, deceptive temptress who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and fake passivity. The femme fatale is a sexy, conniving, dangerous villainess with the brains of a man wrapped tightly into the body of a woman. Because the femme fatale defies the rigid gender norms demanded of her by her patriarchal world, she is guilty of trespassing an identity that is not her own. In adapting a space in-between a man and a woman, she destabilizes the long-held social constructs of what a man and a woman should be, opening up the possibility for future sexual hybrids. As a rival breed of man-woman, the femme fatale challenges men and earns their hate. ‘A host of domineering women, castrating bitches, unfaithful wives and black widows seemed to personify the worst of male sexual fantasies’ (Synder 4). The controlling, violent, and deceptive qualities of femme fatales threaten men’s own assurance of their masculinity through the ultimate act of castration. A femme fatale navigates outside sexual norms which have been accepted as truth so that she may be more aggressive, violent, and dominating than a stereotypical man. Her tough character metaphorically castrates his manhood once he appears the weaker and thus more “feminine” of the two. Castration may be her most damnable crime because by it she unravels thousands of years of established social constructs.
So when Gaspar de Alba includes a quote from Jane Caputi’s The Age of the Sex Crime (1997) in the epitaph to Desert Blood—“It is in pornography that the basic meanings of sex crime are distilled—the female body fetishized, displayed, sacralized, only so that she can be hated, possessed, profaned, sacrificed,”—pornography becomes an attempt to tear down the strong woman, the femme fatale. By breaking with the patriarch’s rules the defiant woman automatically enflames his desire and becomes the object of his lustful chase to tame her. Pornography becomes a perverse way of taming the wild femme fatale—“the worst of male sexual fantasies,”—to make a sexual fantasy complicit with a chauvinistic vision. Once she is through being tamed, she is no longer threatening or appealing; the fantasy to discipline her is over when she is forced back to comply with traditional expectations for the heterosexual woman: pretty, unthreatening, silent, docile, and subservient. All rebellious women—the financially independent woman, the single woman, the lesbian, the femme fatale, any type of woman who threatens the patriarch’s command of what she should be—are punished through pornography.
The kidnapped women of the Juárez Murders are raped, tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered as if they were deserving criminals whose crime is to be women. The directors of the porn films in Desert Blood apply tools of punishment used on criminals to the kidnapped women. Though not all detective or crime fiction narratives end with an arrest, once arrested, the captured femme fatale arrives at the end of her life as a free woman. She is returned back to a position of submission and social confinement, embodied literally in the barred jail cell. The end of her freedom is first materialized in physical bondage, most likely handcuffs. Irene is kidnapped (arrested) and held in bondage like a criminal at the porn film warehouse. “They stuck a rag in her mouth, and she can’t breathe through her nose. Her legs are trussed with rope, wrists tied over her head” (Gaspar de Alba 172). Later the rope binding her legs is replaced with “leg irons” (Gaspar de Alba 292) that match the shackles of a prisoner in jail. Beyond bondage, rape is another form of punishment in which women are criminalized. Still at the warehouse, Irene hears the men masturbating during their break from filming: “I’m gonna chop her into pieces” “I want to shit all over her” “Stick a knife up her ass” and “Suck her blood till she dies” (Gaspar de Alba 172). The focus of their fantasies is not on phallic-vaginal penetration but on torturing women. Speaking their fantasies aloud while panting, the men sadistically imagine the sexual torture of women as sexually stimulating so that a woman’s death becomes their orgasm. The lack of bodily contact between these men and the women they are tormenting depersonalizes the experience: the men exchange rape between human bodies with rape between bodies and inanimate objects. “Shit” takes the place of semen, the “knife” replaces the phallus, and “suck her blood” becomes an act of oral sex on a woman’s most private pubic region. The substitution of bodies for objects further objectifies these imprisoned women and makes them less than human.
Irene witnesses how the most perverse male fantasy is one of raping women and how the depersonalization and brutality of these fantasy rapes—and actual rapes in the porn films—suggest that the motive for rape is to aggressively enforce the status quo gender hierarchy. The femme fatale is not just a murderous woman found in film noir. She is a symbol of female delinquency in a world of patriarchal rules. As a rebel in a society of male-dominated standards, she is a fitting metaphor for the Third World working women climbing toward independence in Ciudad Juárez. In the documentary Señorita Extraviada (2001), director Lourdes Portillo reports that the women who have been kidnapped, murdered, and dumped in the desert were not incidental victims. They followed a specific type: young, slim, dark, Mexican women who worked in the maquiladoras (“factories”) of which the vast majority of workers are women. According to the documentary, maquiladora workers leave their homes daily to work over 15 hour shifts and are paid miserably low wages, yet their status as employed wage-earners signals their growing financial and social independence in a male-controlled economy. The threat of independent women in the workplace illuminates why the pornography directors in Desert Blood choose these particular women to abuse, rape, and kill. Maquiladora workers aiming for more self-sufficiency violate male-bred fantasies of feminine submission, as do femme fatales, which is why violent pornography satisfies these men. Viewing the types of abusive pornographic videos which Irene was cast in, fulfills them sexually and egotistically because the videos affirm that men can and do dominate women even though a more globalized economy is threatening their hold on women by allowing women more autonomy. Pornography enforces the thousands of years old tradition of the inferiority of women. In Desert Blood, the murderous porn crew kidnaps and forces women to undergo sexual torture that they record for their internet viewers: “…Hold. Okay, Dracula, take that hood off! Let her have it!” “In the ass, boss?” “Fuck the shit out of her man” (Gaspar de Alba 268). They say what is to be done to women and how it is to be done to them. They silence women and violate them, and finally exercise the most extreme power over all of her by deciding when to kill her.
In Desert Blood, patriarchy is internalized within the female characters so that they too, usher in gendered oppression towards women and can be just as cruel and merciless as men. Women understand themselves as potential victims of men so they are often cornered into giving into the wishes of men to have their way. When dealing with men, women know that their sexuality is always a last resort bargaining chip. After Ivon is arrested for getting into a bar fight, she performs oral sex on a police officer so that he will let her go (Gaspar de Alba 213). Though sexuality can be women’s tool to manipulate men for their benefit, humiliation may be a trauma that is far heavier to bear. Another alternative for women to survive in a cutthroat system where men rule is to rule under their command, sometimes ruthlessly and at the expense of other women. In this way, the presence of seemingly heartless female characters in the novel—like Ariel, who taunts Irene at the porn warehouse, and the unnamed nurse who artificially inseminates factory women to test a doctor’s contraceptives—who support systemic gendered abuse toward women, suggests that a patriarchal world has not only made women the second sex, but ruins possibilities for them to ever demand to be equal with the first. Generations of female subordination make women pessimistic about true equality with men so they tune into survival mode. Patriarchy has pitted women against each other so that women end up competing against each other for a top spot with men in power, which is ultimately a second-best position since the most powerful positions are already held by men.
Gaspar de Alba tackles the issue of female oppression head-on in Desert Blood without producing an anti-male novel or singling out women as the sole victims of patriarchal oppression. While women have become the second sex, men have reaped the division they have sowed. Patriarchs who have taken advantage of their privileged position and used their power to abuse women have scarred the image of all men. Every man is since viewed as a potential abuser. The mystery narrative of Desert Blood makes each character a potential suspect who is hiding valuable information from Ivon that may help her find her kidnapped sister. But the men in the novel are particularly untrustworthy because a background of sexual torture and a murderous porn industry organized by men in the erotic entertainment industry with intimate connections to government, big business, and the police, marks nearly all men as corrupt and sexually perverted beings. While Ivon regards an innocent Father Francis and Police Detective Pete McCuts with suspicion, she never suspects that Walter Luna, the executive producer for the television show Mujeres Sin Fronteras, which publicizes the Juárez Murders, has ties to the internet porn gang holding Irene captive.
The perverse sexual voyeurism in the pornography Irene is forced to showcase herself in mirrors the larger theme of how the detective—which tends to be male—instinct is to be a voyeur, emblematic of the alluring desire in men especially, to watch women. In Desert Blood, the two major detectives are Ivon and Police Detective McCuts. While Ivon focuses on finding clues and joining them together with theories similar to the way a scholar strings together a research project, McCuts does his detective work through undercover observation. Unknowingly, Ivon is being watched and followed by him, with his sexual interest in her as one motivation to follow her. But his wrongs, if any, are made right because the end of the novel makes conscious its relation to traditional storylines where McCuts is the heroic male who saves the damsel in distress, Ivon. As eventual heroes, detectives receive a free pass for stalking, something that would be punishable for others in society. Pete McCuts’s stalking is completely unthreatening but like the stalking voyeurism of pornography, it paints the sexually interested male as a predator. Likewise, the pornography in Desert Blood is rooted in a male fetish for watching women who do not know who is watching them. These women lack control of the narrative they are the protagonists of. Detectives are not totally in control of the narrative they are witnessing, yet as observers they are endowed with the privilege of being an omniscient figure that sees from a safe, uninvolved distance unless they choose to come into the scene they are watching. The kidnapping and murderous internet porn gang in the novel bars women from being in control of their own lives (their narrative) and restores men that privilege. Beyond gender, pornography is grounded in an urge in the watching voyeur to control.
The murderous manipulation of women for sex and profit run by the pornographers in Desert Blood parallels a greater phenomenon of capitalist exploitation of Mexico by foreign corporations. The first act of sexual violation against Irene occurs while she is swimming naked in the Rio Grande within the geographical borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico that Anzaldúa discusses. “Hands probe between her legs, pull her pubic hair, bruise her thighs. No matter how fast she swims, she cannot get away from those hands. And then she is on dry land again, hunkering under the shadow of a black bridge. A train pumps across the trestles—she can see it clearly, the Southern Pacific” (Gaspar de Alba 195). Irene’s nakedness says something of the vulnerability and danger in this borderlands space where the perpetrator is only described as “hands” she cannot escape from. Though Irene cannot pinpoint more details of who her abuser is, her eminent rape is foreshadowed by the Southern Pacific train’s phallic intrusion into the vaginal shaped bridge on land. The sexual penetration that seems to be implied with the train and bridge is made violent and imposing because of the struggle Irene is fighting against her own powerful predator. Irene’s body and the bridge parallel her abuser and the Southern Pacific train.
Industrialism, represented by the Southern Pacific train, penetrates or “rapes” through the landscape in a sexualized way. The forward “progress” of industrialism represented by the train shows how capitalist intrusion by a privileged society into an impoverished one is an abusive economic model. Irene’s abductor is later found out to be working for the internet porn website where she is held captive. The parallel drawn between pornography and capitalist intrusion shows how pornography introduces the woman’s body not just as a sexually stimulating fantasy but as an actual commodity which is exchangeable and interchangeable with money. Pornography works within a free market society where ownership of a woman’s body is available to anybody who can afford to purchase her. And in pornography, men can control and own women just the way they control and own things. Women’s bodies become a product of the market and are fixed with a price tag. The pennies Ivon sees inside a rotting female corpse dumped by the same porn videotaping warehouse is Gaspar de Alba’s symbolic figuring of how the female body is commodified and treated as a product that once no longer useful, is dumped.
The exploited young women of Juárez are symbolic of the colonial relationship Mexico has historically suffered, beginning with the Spanish conquest of the New World. The figure of a vulnerable and naked Irene in the Rio Grande symbolic of the sexually exploited nation echoes Octavia Paz’s interpretation of Doña Marina. Also known as La Malinche (“the traitor”), Doña Marina was the sexual partner, translator, and go-to information guide for Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Traditionally seen as co-conspirator with Cortés, Doña Marina was held as largely responsible for advancing Spain’s colonial conquest of Mexico and the downfall of her own people in the Aztec empire. From her sexual relationship with Cortés, who later abandoned her, she gave birth to the first mestizo (“mixed race”) who had both Aztec and Spanish blood and became “the mother of all Mexicans” (Contreras 110). As a woman who was sexually violated and emotionally manipulated, “her relationship with Cortes is made to symbolize the figurative as well as the literal rape of all the Americas and its original inhabitants” so that Mexico is the offspring of repeated violent sexual encounters (Contreras 110). Mexico’s historical exploitation continues into the 1990s when Desert Blood takes place. Only now the figure of Western imperialism continues in the form of business exploitation by the maquiladoras in a more globalized 20th century world. As the country of Mexico personifies the deflowered, abused brown woman, the murdered women of Juárez reciprocate that very symbolism of continued abuse by foreigners. She is torn up, sucked dry from abuse, and finally cast off when she can give no more. Mexico, like the kidnapped Irene forced into pornography, becomes a prostitute forced to offer herself up to corporations who use her body—her people for labor and her land for construction—for financial profits of which it scarcely benefits from.
In a detective styled novel where clues and evidence are sought for everywhere, women become the ultimate evidence of the suffering, vanishing, and dying failure of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) along the U.S.-Mexican border. While connecting dots for her dissertation on the Juárez murders, Ivon thinks over how the reproductive power of “poor brown fertile female bodies” is most threatening because they can produce more brown children who, unlike their mothers, are full-fledged U.S. citizens when they are born in the U.S. (Gaspar de Alba 332). This threat is controlled for maquiladora women workers by factory staff that forbid them from becoming pregnant, chart their monthly periods, check sanitary napkins as proof of monthly menstruation, and artificially inseminate them to test contraceptives (Gaspar de Alba 90). Maquiladora workers are also dangerous because their bodies are ultimate proof of society’s greatest inequality: poverty. Their low-paying jobs are not enough to help them escape poverty. Rather, their fertile bodies, like the factories they work in, are vessels of reproduction. The children they give birth to will reaffirm their poverty, which has failed to be alleviated by NAFTA. In 1994, the year NAFTA was passed, the World Bank recorded that 52.4% of Mexicans were living under the poverty line. In 2008, 14 years after NAFTA was passed, 47% of the population still lives below the national poverty line (The World Bank). Optimism about NAFTA’s capacity to help both the U.S. and Mexico fell short for the Mexican people for whom almost half still live in abject poverty.
NAFTA as a “free trade” policy corresponded not only with the movement of goods but with women’s bodies, commodified and disassembled in the Juárez murders like the objects they put together in maquiladora assembly lines. Brown women’s bodies are literally “traded” amongst men for “free” in the business of the factories and in the business of pornography. Though maquiladora women prop up the million-dollar profits of American companies settled in the Juárez-El Paso border, they work almost for free and their labor is disposable. Female workers are easily replaceable since jobs are scarce and poverty is rampant in Mexico. As Ivon concluded, once these companies no longer suck the productivity out of them anymore, the pornography industry takes over where big business left off: kidnapping, torturing and killing women—sometimes carving out organs to put a price on the human body—or forcing them to prostitute themselves for free before killing them. They are ultimately dumped like a spare part or broken product when their bodies are no longer useful. Women’s bodies become a capitalist business venture in which powerful businesses compete for her until both have her and she is no longer valuable.
Desert Blood weaves together an enormity of histories within a single narrative. It reinterprets violent, bloody, and misogynistic popular detective fiction into a plot where sexualized power hierarchies encourage a slew of mass murders against society’s most vulnerable: dark, impoverished women. This violence is rooted in the fundamental understanding of women as only what their bodies can produce, making them the ideal workers to exploit economically and sexually. The femme fatale in detective fiction is an attempt to avenge a male-dominated narrative so that women can be the controllers and oppressors, no longer the victims. Despite the powerful role femme fatales carve out for themselves, gender divisions run so deep that hope for women to create more egalitarian spaces in the novel often falls short; women end up replicating gender oppression towards other women. Yet despite the savage brutality in Desert Blood, hope lies in literary spaces to be the place where neglected people and their narratives can be told.
Katharine Henry is a junior studying English and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in the ways her two majors can converge with the study of language, particularly how political discourse constructs ethnic, sexual, and class identities. After her last year here at Berkeley, she would like to continue pursuing studying English in graduate school.
Contreras, Sheila Marie. Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism, and Chicano/a Literature. University of Texas Press, Austin. Chapter 3.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Desert Blood. Arte Público Press: Houston, Texas, 2005.
Señorita Extraviada. 2001. Dir Lourdes Portillo.
Synder, Scott. Personality Disorder and the Film Noir Femme Fatale. University of Georgia: Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture. 8 (3) 2001. 155-168.
World Bank. Data by Country: Mexico. <http://data.worldbank.org/country/mexico>. 15 Jan. 2012.