In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Puig portrays gender identity with the rich but painful irony that our desire to define it in our own terms may confine us much as liberate us. The confinement that results is concrete and overt as both Molina and Valentin are thrown in prison: Molina for daring to define herself as a woman by having sex with men and Valentin for daring to define manhood as commitment to Marxism.
The irony strikes when they are thrown together.
With her stories and unrepentant fantasies, Molina forces Valentin to question how rigidly he has defined what it means to be a man. Must a real man hide his feelings? Must he always commit to reality and never indulge in storytelling or fantasy?
With his relentless interruptions and “male logic,” Valentin forces Molina to question how rigidly she has defined what it means to be a homosexual. Does loving a man mean you have to identify as a woman? Is prison the only place she can really be free?
Even in chapter 14, when Molina is released on parole and attempts to deliver a message for Valentin, and Valentin takes refuge in fantasy while he is being tortured, the trade-offs in liberation and confinement remain mixed and painful. Valentin has become liberated enough to initiate sex with Molina, but does he do that only as a masculine sacrifice? Molina has become liberated enough to take on the “macho” role of messenger, but does she do that only to prove to Valentin that she is an ideal woman? Puig refuses to resolve these questions for the reader, and that is precisely what makes this novel so successful and powerful.