CW: violence, femicide.
“Aggressive masculinity”, “male chauvinism”, “a strong or exaggerated sense of the right to dominate”: All of these definitions point to one word: machismo. The definitions vary, but they all converge around the idea that masculinity dominates femininity.
Even though machismo culture can be found all over the world, its source seems to be in Latin America. “Machismo” consists of the Spanish word “macho,” meaning “male,” and the suffix –ismo, meaning “-ism.” It reflects ‘male’ power and ‘female’ subservience. Machismo exists in more spaces than the romantic space; it exists in (some, but not all) businesses, homes, and governments throughout Latin America. I have been in Latin America several times, and I’ve seen people acting like the ultimate machismo character Rambo, making disrespectful jokes about LGBTQ+ people, and treating femmes with disrespect like it is normal. Not only have I seen that, it has come to my attention that in the last few decades, there has been an enormous grow of characters with machismo traits in movies, games, music, even kids cartoons (everyone remembers Johny Bravo right?). These characters are made for young kids to look up to, to be a role model: They often use violence to solve problems, they don’t show many emotions and you’ll probably will never see these characters cry.
Most men or masculine presenting people who act macho see all forms of femininity as weak or as a threat for their (so belonged) manhood. If you consider that this kind of ‘machismo behavira’ is the culture in which big parts of Latin America grew up, its not so astounding that the numbers of domestic violence and murder (including femicide) in Latin America is one of the worlds highest. Youngsters assigned male at birth (abbreviation: AMAB) are being raised with the idea that showing emotions is something feminine and not for them, that they can not show weakness and that they need to use violence instead of words. A lot of Latinx families still have the traditional hyper binary male/female culture going on: the mother is respected a lot, but she is simultaneously reduced to being the caretaker of the kids and the men. (I am aware that this is a stereotype, but it also a pattern in reality).
I have two brothers who both grew up in Honduras – Central America – they have lived there until the age of twelve. After that me and my family moved to the Netherlands, where I grew up. My parents raised my brothers and me pretty much the same way, with the idea that all humans are equal no matter what, because there should be no labour, task or emotion linked to gender, which shouldn’t be linked to sex. I didn’t grow up in a climate where machismo is overly present, but my brothers did. When I asked my oldest brother if he could remember some examples of him being confronted with this kind of machismo, he could remember plenty of examples. He told me about how my other brother used to have long hair, long enough for a ponytail. When the neighbour saw that, he cut it off without hesitating because “it was way too long, he looked like a girl!” A different story he told me was about a fight happening on the street. Two masculine presenting were having an argument about something silly, but it escalated and one of them pulled out a gun. When my brother asked him why it was so necessary to pull out a gun, he answered: “If I don’t do it, he will. I don’t walk away from my problems.”
To come back to the consequences of machismo in Latin America; the continent has one of the highest ‘female’ murder rates of the world (femicide; the “killing of women by men motivated by hate, contempt, pleasure or the assumption of ownership of women” (Russel, 2018)). Data from the Small Arms Survey (2016) tells us that amongst the 25 countries with the highest rate of femicide in the world, 14 are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Same thing goes for domestic abuse, rape, teen pregnancy, illegal abortions and unequal salaries; its common in most parts of Latin America. For a short time it seemed like change would come to the continent, with three female presidents representing the three biggest countries in South America (Brazil, Chile and Argentina) and more than half of the continent’s population. The Latinx population felt a wave of progress in gender equality, but unfortunately none of the female presidents are in power anymore because their positions have been taken over by men.
The New York Times has published an article in which Dilma Rousseff, president of Chile, told them: “They accused me of being overly tough and harsh, while a man would have been considered firm, strong. Or they would say I was too emotional and fragile, when a man would have been considered sensitive. I was seen as someone too obsessed with work, while a man would have been considered hard-working.”
I am a Dutch woman, but I am also a Latina woman. I love my culture and I found it amazing and impressive that femmes in Latin America are dominantly seen as this strong and powerful head of the family, a caretaker for their children (if they have any) and a loving partner… as long as they’re not ‘emasculating’ their masculine partners, which is what makes it so alarming at the same time. That extreme masculine behaviour that AMAB people are taught to perform and AFAB (abbreviation for: assigned female at birth) people are taught to accept is dangerous for society.
Last year when I was walking down the streets of Bogotá, Colombia by myself (19 years old a that time) I didn’t feel like I was doing anything dangerous: I was just looking for an ATM. A local came up to me, saying that at this time (10 PM) it’s way too dangerous for a young girl like me to walk alone and he was kind enough to escort me back to my hostel. He didn’t try anything with me at all and he wasn’t insisting to walk me back, he just felt like it. My point is; people do not need to be macho, dominant or aggressive in order to be brave or to ‘protect a girl’.
What is necessary then to change this epidemic of gendered violence and this unhealthy image of masculinity in Latin America? To change machismo culture in Latin America is a huge task that starts with raising consciousness. Consciousness about how sexes are not a binary of genders with stereotypical traits like being violent or being submissive. Instead of reinforcing gendered stereotypes, let children figure out freely how they want to live their lives without machismo rolemodels. Let all children have long hair, teach them all that emotions are very human instead of weak. Don’t normalize violence, and don’t romanticize machismo culture. There is nothing romantic about being violent. It all starts with cultural upbringing, no one around the globe is born macho, it is something you become.
Text: Isabel Sijbrandij
Image: Ibe Rossel