They Came From Within: Yonic symbolism in the films of David Cronenberg
by Miriam Bale
Cronenberg’s early career coincides with the publication of some significant feminist criticism on sexual difference. "A new morning of and for the world?" wrote Luce Irigaray in 1984. "A remaking of immanence and transcendence, notably through this threshold which has never been examined as such: the female sex. The threshold that gives access to the mucous...a threshold that is always half-open."
A more direct connection to Cronenberg's explorations on sexuality: the first test tube baby was born in 1978, three years after his first commercial film was released. Cronenberg commented later on this connection: "Well, I think, with Crash it was getting very focused on the idea that we are re-inventing sex. We are at a major epoch in human history, which is that we don’t need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. This is the first time in human history that has been true." In Crash, the yonic bleeding-wound symbolism takes on new significance, no longer the wound from penetration but a site of new pleasures, when a character has sexual intercourse with a gash in another character’s leg.
While Cronenberg has worked repeatedly with ideas about the awe and horrors of reproduction—most notably in The Brood and The Fly—more interesting are his explorations of a woman’s sex that have no connection to her womb, that are instead about complex pleasures, power, and fear. The most basic fact of horror is that we fear what we cannot see; Cronenberg has made a career of this vertiginous relationship to the abyss of the yonic. The most haunting scare scene in his first major movie, Shivers (or They Came From Within), which was also the poster image, is of a woman naked in a bathtub with her legs casually open and bent in the water. A slimy phallus-y horror invader crawls through the pipes of the haunted apartment building and exits through the hole of the bathtub drain, obviously heading toward the next opening. It is a terrifying reminder that there is no door to shut out entry to a woman’s body. Cronenberg’s fascination in this film is with these exposed openings to a closed system, where internal meets external. Where does the body end and the outside world begin? This fascination was taken further in eXistenZ. "How come bio-ports don’t get infected? They open right into your body," the inexperienced man played by Jude Law asks the woman—the expert—about the anus-like bio-port openings that are the site for head-fucking games for two. "Listen to what you’re saying, Pikul. Don't be ludicrous," she answers, as she opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue.
Cronenberg followed Shivers with Rabid, which starred porn star Marilyn Chambers as an affectionate woman with an anal opening in her armpit that hides a killer clit. Not since "Little Red Riding Hood" has the clitoris found a better metaphor: a small and pointed red appendage that pops out of hiding in an embrace to stab its victims and turn them into vampiric sex zombies. The film is an awestruck examination of the insatiability of female sexuality. "Do you feel weak?" Chambers is asked by a doctor after a string of attacks. "I feel strong. I feel very strong," she says slowly with a postcoital grin. But the film also addresses her guilt once this insatiability has been awakened. "It's your fault!" she screams at her boyfriend who caused this mutation, a surprising glimpse of rage in an appropriately flat performance. "I’m crazy, I’m a monster," she says later, the woman with girl-next-door looks who locks herself in a room with a victim to prove that she’s still innocent.
In underestimating the clitoris, this "obviously inferior" organ that has no purpose but pleasure, Freud confused size with power, not taking into account the limitless pleasure possible in that "little penis," nor realizing that it has 4,000 nerve endings to the 2,000 nerve endings spread out over a larger space in the male anatomy. (It’s notable, too that a Freud paperback makes an appearance early in Rabid, when a woman wants to know what her father’s interest in her nose symbolizes.)
In eXistenZ, Cronenberg creates one of cinema’s only visual metaphors for the next section of a woman’s sexual anatomy, the lower region of the vagina (the knobby section that contains the woman’s G-spot and other tender buttons) turned inside out, in horseshoe-shaped game pods used as remote controls for sexually metaphoric, virtual-reality games. Made of metaflesh, the pods are pink and wrinkled and make squishy little noises of their own accord once activated. "That's ugly even for a pod," says Jude Law’s character of a diseased pod. One person can play alone with the pod, but it’s no fun, says the gaming female cult leader played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. "Then you’re just a tourist." It takes two to play. "The only way I can tell if everything is OK is to play eXistenZ with somebody friendly. Are you friendly?" Leigh asks the uptight Law. But he is resistant to having a bio-port opening (complete with "Umbi-cord") installed in his lower back.
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