“Modernity and the Nation in Mexican Reflections of Masculinity: From Sensuality to Bloodshed”

Domínguez-Ruvalcaba, Héctor. Modernity and the Nation in Mexican Reflections of Masculinity: From Sensuality to Bloodshed, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 182 pages
John Thomas Maddox
Universidad de Georgia
Domínguez-Ruvalcaba’s collection of essays studies “…the relevance of masculinity to Mexican culture” from the end of the nineteenth century to the present (1). Domínguez lucidly explains that “…maleness participates in a rhetorical operation in which it allegorizes historical entities such as nation, modernity, and colonialism or functions as a metonym – relationships of cause-effect, contain-content, fraction-wholeness – of social phenomena such as work, violence, oppression, and resistance” (1).

He describes the evolution of the perceptions of the male figure that took place in the era after the defeat of the French in Mexico. At the Academia de San Carlos, the male nude was studied and portrayed in the plastic arts, appreciated for its surface value, instead of the “inner” beauty preached by the flagging Catholic Church. The sensual male body was a unique part of modernism in Mexico: in the novels of Amado Nervo and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, dress is used to ornament the male form in order to gain social status (25). The notion of male beauty being merely skin-deep, according to Domínguez, is in many ways analogous to Judith Butler’s belief that gender is a malleable “performance.” One example the author often references is los 41, a group of bourgeois men who gathered for a ball in 1901, several of them in drag. In Posada’s political cartoons, “…transvestitism is interpreted as a political critique of the ruling Porfiriato’s bourgeois class” (34).

Part 2: Homosocial Passions” covers those men who do not portray a macho image and, consequently, are considered somehow traitors to the nation. Domínguez analyzes works that portray homo-social bonds as key to the success of the Mexican Revolution, but acting on homosexual desires as a failure akin to treason (55). Weakness and mannerism, not homoerotic desires themselves, were scorned, although novels of the period contradicted this norm (74). This attitude towards masculinity continued in the “Golden Age” of Mexican Cinema. Comedias rancheras of this time suggested at times that male protagonists were attracted to other men, a paradox of the dominant belief that succumbing to homoerotic desire was a threat to national values (75). There exists between many protagonists an erotic attraction, a temptation that is resolved by constant challenges to fight (93). Other threats to social order, such as heterosexuals marrying outside their social class, are always dissipated by the end in the films of this era, Indio Fernández’s among them. These works re-affirm the fatalist sentiment of the post-revolutionary period.

Part 3: Enlightening Machismo” describes the literati who challenged monolithic notions of machismo in order to “quell the barbaric and bloody national myths” of the Revolution (98). These critics included Octavio Paz and Samuel Ramos. They and other authors “…propose[d] to derationalize (or denaturalize) the hegemony of the patriarchal nation” and show the macho’s “irrationality” and backwardness (99, 105). Patriarchal irrationality is also part of Revuelta’s critique of the Mexican state’s “Father-knows-best” tapado politics of the 1950’s, whereby el pueblo is expected to trust el presidente to secretly choose his successor (122). Domínguez does point out that even the critics of machismo never proposed that a woman is entitled to have a figure of authority, thus reaffirming masculine supremacy (122).

Part 4: Vanishing Identities” describes Mexican notions of homoeroticism as embodied in the figures of the mayate, the chichifo, and the chacal (133). These terms, while neither monolithic nor mutually exclusive, refer to men who self-identify as heterosexual, yet who have sex with men in the active role. This is differentiated from the joto, or passive participant. These performances are directly connected to class difference (those who need money sometimes prostitute themselves; those who can afford prostitutes sometimes enlist their services) and the tourist trade in Mexico (sexual tourism) (147).

Domínguez’s final chapter connects gender to social inequity as it treats the tragic feminicides of Ciudad Juárez that began in 1993. Gender and class are central to these tragedies, because the government appears to have not done enough to find the killers of poor women, and have even complicated the matter by framing innocent men. Recent Mexican films have portrayed the views of politicians who think the women “got what they deserved” for violating patriarchal norms and provoking their attackers. There later came a backlash in these films (and in other media) in which the victims are treated as martyrs, innocent, pure, and passive, examples of the ideal Marianist woman (151). Gender and class may also be key to understanding the pathology of their killers. Maybe he is a monstrous man whose delusional, broken machismo is sustained by violence against women (155). In an impoverished area like Juárez, where men feel marginalized, the perception of power that comes with murdering someone could be seen as a grotesque compensation for one’s inadequacies. Domínguez portrays violent masculinity as both a basis for the patriarchal state and the pathology of the Juárez killer(s), both part of an “economy of violence” (155). Or, to put it another way, “a killer man is a killer state” (162).

His use of the male as a metonym for the nation is a fascinating and widely studied idea. Though he claims to deviate from Kimmel, he shares the sociologist’s belief that analyzing notions of masculinity is key to understanding gender systems. Domínguez sites Doris Sommer’s Foundational Fictions as a predecessor to his own analysis of gender and state. Rebecca Biron’s Murder and Masculinity similarly treats the connections between masculinity, violence, and national identity, though in different contexts. Domínguez’s work, like the aforementioned authors, effectively connects the personal and the political. It gives a multifaceted and eloquent account of the complexity, the centrality, and the tragedy of masculinity in recent Mexican History.

I applaud Domínguez-Ruvalcaba’s eclecticism and his willingness not to shy away from hot-button political topics. By encompassing painting, film, literary prose, and news periodicals, his essays can be incorporated into works on any or all of these areas. The gender studies, Mexican Studies, Spanish, or multicultural perspectives class would be well complemented by Modernity and the Nation.
Works Cited

Biron, Rebecca. Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of the Twentieth Century. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000.

Kimmel, Richard. The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sommer, Doris.  Foundational Fictions.  The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford:  University of California Press, 1991.


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