As one of the most renowned literary figures to incorporate the theme of flesh-eating into his work, Jonathan Swift (in A Modest Proposal) seemed to capture the uncanny power of cannibal imagery: on one hand, the absurd humor that the mere suggestion of cannibalism can evoke; on the other hand, the innate horror that human history has born out in its own seemingly absurd tendency to confuse literal and symbolic flesh-eating. We both giggle and gasp at the thought of cooking up the tender flesh of the babies of poor families to solve the famine problem in Ireland, even as we become part of the social indictment that the satire intends. It becomes both natural and unthinkable to imagine the political machinery that would bring flesh-eating into a traditionally feminine food culture, exploiting, for economic gain, the mother as both nurturer and devourer.
When attempting to explain my interests in images of feminine cannibalism to friends, I was initially a little indignant about their nervous laughter and subsequent questions about Jeffery Dahmer and the Mayans (neither of whom I saw as terribly relevant to my interests), yet I could not ignore what I came to term the "Valley of the Cannibal Guys"--the undeniable epitomes of popular-media cannibals, typified by their charismatic flesh, underneath which lay unspeakable horror: native warriors eating their enemies to consume their spirits; the Vampire Lestat sucking the life out of victims with hetero- and homoerotic lust; Hannibal Lecter, so seductive is his ability to win over his audiences that we become spellbound in a mass Stockholm syndrome. Our culture's concept of cannibalism, it seems, begins with male references and is replete with images of masculine conquest. But this traditional imagery actually makes that of the feminine cannibal appear even more intriguing in comparison.
While we often see images of the feminine cannibal patterned after her male counterpart (the "man-eater" looking for conquests), we also find creative transformations of this traditionally male act into something else. This "something" might involve images of cannibalism that represent unification and wholeness--the opposite of fragmentation and devouring. At other times, we are able to see both of these dimensions of cannibalism at work at the same time, as is the case with the image of the mother both devouring and being devoured by the infant. Sometimes, this "something else" is not so much a matter of a new behavior, but rather a new interpretation of what has traditionally been studied from male perspectives, such as the cannibalistic acts of female praying mantises and black widow spiders. Perhaps most importantly, to look at representations of women as flesh-eaters is to look at models of women as desirers, rather than merely desired. It is, moreover, to contemplate owning desire, which itself can be, for women, as taboo as flesh-eating itself. And ultimately, owning desire can be an act of transcending patriarchal order as we know it.
CancerWEB's Online Medical Dictionary defines "cannibalism" as "eating other individuals of one's own species." When I started this study, I questioned the extent to which I would deal with literal versus metaphoric cannibalism. The metaphor is perhaps more commonly used in our culture (e.g., to think of an economically oppressed group as being "cannibalized" by those profiting from the exploitation would be obvious). On the other hand, we think of literal cannibalism as aberrant behavior, a rare occurrence that only happens in extreme cases of challenged survival (the Donner party crossing; the Andes plane crash); depravity (Jeffery Dahmer); or isolation (Easter Island cultures). Yet, it is perhaps the confusing of literal and symbolic flesh that creates the most accurate picture of how most cultures have come to understand cannibalism. For example, the Aztecs believed they could become godlike by flaying and wearing the skin of prisoners who were forced to act like gods (Morse 126). Christians believe they can be spiritually saved by a literal blood sacrifice and symbolic eating of sacrificial flesh. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer fantasized that he could achieve intimate union with his victims by eating their flesh. Academicians seem to be interested as well in the confusion of literal and metaphoric flesh. In a paper entitled "Myths of Embodiment and Gender in Electronic Culture," I explored the "cyborg" and questioned the extent to which this mythical creature becomes merely a symbolic focal point for political discussion, versus the extent to which we are literally a fusion of organic and technological flesh. Perhaps the cyborg is a privileged figure that acknowledges the value of confusing the literal with the figurative in what is, after all, an image of quintessential hybridity. It is possible that, when it comes to ideological matters of the flesh, we have forever obscured fundamental signification in the process of mythologizing our bodies.