“Macho Strength” by Claudia Pineda

Patriarchy in the U.S.

The U.S. is a patriarchal culture which means that more than women, men are regarded as being the leaders and heads of family, state, government, etc. It’s not to say there aren’t women in these positions, it’s to say that the norm of leadership in our country has historically been dominated by males until the present day. For example, our country has never had a female president. The symbol of a “strong” male Caucasian figure in a suit and tie has represented the leadership of the country until Obama was elected. Males in associated with positions of power continue to be the symbol/image that comes to mind of Americans when thinking about leadership in general.

When we think about men, we often think about stereotypical associations of masculinity. In our culture, we define masculinity as being tough, strong, stoic, independent, etc. We learn at a very young age that women are “the weaker” sex and that usually women behave in a way that is opposite of men. It’s normal and acceptable then for a woman to be emotional, needy, weak, and dependent. If women are the opposite than men, then the logic that women shouldn’t or don’t deserve the same opportunities that are afforded to men makes sense. It’s under these assumptions and premises that gender, race, and most differences are constructed in the United States.

Oppression and Science

Some people argue that women are inherently (naturally through biology and genetics) the “weaker” sex and that by birth, not through culture, women behave in what we consider a “feminine” way. This is a controversial issue. We don’t know for sure up to what extent biology or society influence people’s behavior. What we do know is that it’s NOT all about biology, but the society in which we grow determines a great deal about the way we are expected to behave, and then end up fulfilling that prophecy.

In order to understand why domestic violence occurs, it’s important to understand that there are strong arguments supporting that the culture in which we live exaggerates the natural differences between men and women. Ultimately, we end up having a very limited idea of what is acceptable behavior for men and for women. For example, men are raised thinking that if they cry, they are being emotional like a female and so they learn to suppress their feelings. Biology may account for women being more emotional than men. But culture is responsible for teaching men that they cannot be in touch with their emotions and be masculine at the same time when expressing and feeling emotions is a very human and healthy experience.

In this confusion, many people end up believing that people behave the way they do strictly due to biological factors, and since behavior is something that is determined by DNA, there is no way to change it. “I’m a man, so I watch porn sometimes,” a client recently told me. The client was insinuating that since he was biologically born as male, his choice to watch pornography was expected, acceptable, and justified. This is a dangerous mentality since it’s the foundation to justify violence against women, other forms of discrimination against women, and other unacceptable behaviors.

Historically, “inherent behavior” has been used to justify barbarous crimes. Hitler executed millions of Jews, Romanians, homosexuals, and anyone else that didn’t fit his ideas of perfection. Hitler justified genocide because these individuals weren’t part of the pure, superior, Aryan race. He argued that other races were mixes, un-pure, and therefore inferior.

In 1883, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, coins the term “eugenics,” meaning “good genes,” to emphasize heredity as the cause of all human behavioral and cultural differences. Eugenecists advocate selective breeding to engineer the “ideal” society. Their writings find a receptive audience among white intellectuals in the early 20th century and profoundly influence many aspects of American life, including immigration policy, anti-miscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization, and schooling. Although the American eugenics movement collapses by World War II, its effect on institutions and social police is long-lasting, finding its fruition in Nazi Germany. (As cited in Race, 2003).

Eugenics was still in U.S. textbooks as recent as the 1970s. This logic was in the imagination of a countless number of Americans, and widespread discrimination of minority groups from different races was justified through science.

Macho Strength

In the U.S., men are part of the sex that has historically been more successful. They make more money, they hold more positions of power, they have more authority in the home and in the workplace, and they relatively have more advantages than women. In the media, men are more respected than women. Children exposed to these ideas internalize them at an early age understand what the rest of our culture believes: Men are respectable and powerful and women are reduced to sexual objects, unimportant, weak, etc.

Since men are the sex that is associated with power, women have eventually learned that they live in a man’s world and that in order to succeed and/or survive, they must adopt the ideas and/or behavior of men. Women have learned to abandon behaviors associated with femininity because it hasn’t worked for them. For women to break through spaces dominated by men such as in the legal system, the government, the business world, etc. they have had to assimilate. Femininity is changing and women have more opportunities than they have in our recent history but we still have not reached equality. Women still have to go out of their way to redefine themselves, change who they are and fit into spaces that weren’t created for them.

In our culture, we are taught that men are strong and men express their strength by being stoic (non-expressive), independent, hard, ambitious, physical, etc. Some women have adopted this idea of strength. In order to be successful, the modern woman may struggle with balancing her “feminine” side with her “masculine” side. How can you be loving and emotional when you have to be “strong”?

It is possible that these women didn’t learn from their female role models to balance both sides while they were raised because their mothers were raised in a different time when being “feminine” had a different meaning. Those mothers were raised by other mothers who grew up in a completely different era. The female gender is thus in transition and changing. Genders change throughout time. This is why gender can’t be explained in purely biological terms. They change with the cultural environment.

What many women fail to realize is that they don’t have to adopt the male, culturally prescribed idea of strength. Women can continue being strong and emotional at the same time. Countless amounts of women after having been abused by their intimate partners have told me crying, “I thought I was stronger than this” or “I’m usually very strong” and they go on to express shame and embarrassment for having to come to receive the services provided at our agency. The majority are U.S. raised women who were raised to believe in the black and white version of strength and weakness. They believe you can only be one or the other. I’m saddened by this restrictive, limiting idea of the so complex experience of being a person.

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” says a popular quote. According to the quote, to experience pain is to be weak; therefore to experience pain is the opposite of strength. The idea is that if a person is strong, they won’t have weaknesses, they won’t be vulnerable, they’ll never fail, they won’t have feelings, and they’ll be ok with everything that happens around them at all times.

This idea is virtually un-human. The expectation is to be a rock, or a piece of wood that has no feelings since it ultimately denies the human experience. This idea is unrealistic. We prescribe to unrealistic ideas such as this and then expect this of ourselves. We will fail ourselves each time. We will beat ourselves up about it every time we have a human experience. We will celebrate our victories and the times we can suppress our feelings to escape the weakness.

What happens if we change our ideas of strength? What if we start celebrating in the media men that cry? Sure there are men in the media currently that can cry openly, but this is only when the man has asserted his image as a “macho” man; otherwise, he is labeled a “pussy”, a “pansy”, or a “fag” (interestingly all related to femininity, the less advantaged sex). In tabloids, instead of talking about what women are wearing or how they looked, what if we started talking about what they think?

What if we start accepting humanity as it normally exists? Everyone, including the “strongest” man in the world experiences feelings (happiness as well as sadness). Everyone has the potential to fall in love, to be disappointed, to be hurt, to not accomplish their goals, to be vulnerable, etc. Why hate ourselves for this? It is the denial of who we really are and what we’re really like.

Self-Hate

Women are currently exposed to millions of advertisements of what they should look like: skinny, tall, proportionate, long haired (preferably blonde), big breasted, big behind, flawless skin, etc. These images are unrealistic. The very models that are shown don’t even look like that. The images are photo-shopped, digitally altered, manipulated, and etc. They are distorted perceptions of what humanity really is and that’s what our women grow up thinking that they should/have to look like.

“While the vast majority of images of women are being digitally altered, so are our perceptions of normal, healthy, beautiful and attainable” (Beauty, 2011).

 

We have ideas of expectations that are unattainable. It means we can never be or look that way. And how do we treat ourselves because we can’t ever be those things? It affects our self-esteem, but for corporate giants and Hollywood, it brings an endless supply of money. We spend our life trying to buy and be something we can never be. This is how we internalize self-hate.

Low self-esteem and depression is a serious national problem and it’s not an accident. Twice as many women as men experience depression. The anti-depressant pharmaceutical companies are booming. As women we need to start doing ourselves favors and paying attention to the expectations we have of ourselves that are unrealistic. We have to start paying attention to our denial of what we really are and start accepting that it’s ok with who we are right at this very moment. It’s ok to redefine culture. It’s ok to redefine our ideas of what we want to be and it doesn’t have to be an adaptation of anyone else’s ideas. It’s not our fault either. We exist in a cultural context that has set us up to be victimized and ultimately oppressed. We can still take full responsibility for our lives and empower ourselves.

References

Beauty redefined (Nov. 30, 2011). Photoshopping: altering our images and our minds. http://www.beautyredefined.net/photoshopping-altering-images-and-our-minds/

Katz, J. (1999). Tough guise: violence, media, and the crisis in masculinity. Media education foundation.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Mars, venus, or planet earth? Women and men in a new millennium. Media education foundation.

Race: the power of an illusion (2003). California newsreel. http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_03_h-godeeper.htm

Wood, J. T. (2010). Gendered lives: communication, gender, and culture. 9th edition. Wadsworth publishing.

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Interview with American Public Media

The American Now

“Erika L. Sánchez, 27, of Chicago, reads her poem, “Crossing,” about her parents who entered the United States in the trunk of a Cadillac in 1979. She also talks about what it means to be a hard working poet, and how her definition of success differs from that of her parents. You can also hear Sánchez read her poem, “The Loop,” here. You can also read her blog posts at News Taco, where she goes by Oh Hells Nah — also her Twitter handle.” (1.31.2012. Interviewed by Jeff Severns Guntzel)

“Kindness” in Drunken Boat (includes audio recording)

Kindness
Nicaragua 2008

The barefoot boys are little men—
sticky children wielding machetes, slicing weeds.

Dogs in gaunt elegance
bow their heads and follow—

scabs and bubble gum on their matted fur.

We say if there were ever animals
to kill themselves, it would be these dogs.

The girls we never see. I imagine
they are grinding corn
or rubbing their hands raw
on soap and slabs of concrete in the morning fog.

*

In my dream last night,
I was pregnant and didn’t want it,
so I used nails.

That’s all I remember: nails
and a birth not celebrated.

How easily we protest discomfort: the heat making nests
in the thickets of our bodies, the insects
like scissors on our ankles, the shit and static water.

How we learn to praise
a grain of rice
when we hear the slight gurgle
of hunger in the flute of the body.

How we learn to love
an egg.

We can eat until we are shamefaced and swollen
with happiness and light and the neverending.

*

What can milk say?
Victorious milk,
milk like mucous
in your throat— a pearl.
Cruel milk with a hair in it

The kindness of milk.

*

Granada: a British man with bleached hair
walks barefoot in the street
in his imagined bohemia. Among glass
scattered like confetti.

Two backpackers
with sores like tropical flowers,
iridescent sores,
sores like opal.

A young boy kisses his fingers
and presses them to our cab window.

*

In Estelí
a rattle of history, a photograph—

Miliciana de Waswalito: Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

A radiant Sandinista breastfeeding,
a rifle on her back.

*

In the morning my period comes
like a hot and languid Sunday afternoon.

My breasts still remembering
the milk the body can brew.

“The Loop” in Anti-

The silences are copulating again. Look,
a woman so hungry her insides eat her other insides.
What are you crying about now? See, a black hole
of a mouth: eat, eat, eat. The cupcakes
are porno pink and they make you feel sexy!
It’s the everyday accretion
of desire—the American
glory hole. A boss-man yelping and yelping
in a corner. Who are the office harpies?
(So many mouth-breathers!) Beelzebub flaps
his frozen wings and it’s getting chilly in here.
What has the television taught the girls to say?
With their lips all plumped with hot goo.
Pixel this. Pixel that. Pixel your ugly face!
Your silence is a sealed jar of water,
little pariah. Outside, men and women
carry pictures of dead fetuses.
The children hold them, too.
Every day, you say, I am a person, I am a person.
It’s winter and your feet are wet again.
You say hello to the friendly rats.
Why do you flounder so easily in holes?
Do you suffer from cholera of the brain?
Check yes or no. The day goes on picking
the meat from its teeth.

“Orchid” in Hunger Mountain

by Erika L. Sánchez

Woman’s destiny is to be wanton, like the bitch,
the she-wolf; she must belong to all who claim her.
— Marquis de Sade

In Cicero the white prostitutes
in front of the Cove Motel lean into cars—
knotted hair, limp breasts
jiggling underneath tattered t-shirts.

We are seven when we watch from our steps,
sucking on tamarind candy, confused.
Aren’t blonde women supposed to be beautiful?
Then I am 22 in Musee d’Orsay and finally

standing in front of Manet’s Olympia. Her square face
and taut body, stiff hand over her sex. A woman
who can slight the black servant, snub the flowers.
She waits for a milk-faced man who will suck her

open like an oyster, make feverish love to her, crumple
the orchid behind her ear. Next, red light
district, Amsterdam: women in glass boxes:
backs impossibly arched, full breasts

spilling out of shiny lingerie. I wonder
how the old ones with missing teeth
compete with them. Behind
a cracked door, a woman rinses

her mouth and spits into a sink.
On Calle Montera, Madrid, the center of the city
near the exact center of the country—women
from Africa, Latin America, and dissolved

Eastern European countries are in front of McDonald’s,
pulling on sleeves and listing prices. A teenage boy wants
to know if they offer student discounts. A graying man
approaches a black transvestite with golden hair, asks,

how much to have sex with a dog?
In Bilbao I watch a news exposé in a fusty hostel
we’ve named Kafka. A Russian woman
named Katya has been sold in Istanbul for $1,000,

then forced to live in a brothel where men insert
bizarre objects, perform acts from Marquis de Sade
pencil sketches. Katya cries and her tears slice
through thick slabs of orange makeup.

My boyfriend lives next to a motel now,
in the urban blight of a desert city,
and after lunch today, a woman in gray sweats
walks past his house towards a mammoth SUV.

She walks slowly, as if splintered, as if
something is already inside her.

Interview with Hayden’s Ferry Review

Contributor Spotlight

My writing process is a bit like me: irrational. Sometimes images seem to haunt me until I am compelled to write a poem around them; other times I do everything I can to “break my eye open” (this concept comes from my favorite TV series, “Six Feet Under.”) To break your eye open is exactly what it sounds like— to see the world in a new way, to make unusual associations. I do this is by delving into my subconscious—a fecund and frightening place. I love writing exercises for that reason. They help me find startling images and fresh language after I feel I’ve exhausted all of my own. One of my favorites is a dada exercise that I learned from my wonderful poetry instructor in Spain– Jesús Urceloy. What a brilliant man. He had everyone follow the most specific and absurd instructions and the end result was amazing. For example, he made us write the word “lamp” on a sheet of paper and leave it near our bed. Upon waking we were to immediately write every word that came to mind when we thought of “lamp.” Then in class he made us write all of the words we associated with “fish” along with a series of other similar instructions. Towards the end we were to give one of the lines we had written to a partner as a gift. He then instructed us to recite our lines in a specific order, then at random until they began sounding like an incantation. Everyone wrote incredible poems and that class remains as one of my most beloved memories. I miss those people profoundly…

The other night my roommate and her boyfriend came home to find me with one hundred note cards with different words written on them all spread out on the living room floor. I was standing over the cards in unattractive celestial pajamas, drinking beer, and listening to jazz. The three of us laughed. “This is what I do,” I tried to explain, still laughing at myself. These are the kinds of nights when I find most inspiration— solitary, drinking a beer, and listening to beautiful music. Very romantic.

Speaking of romance, I’ve recently been working on my dissertation for my MFA and in the process I’ve come to realize how romantic my notion of poetry is. Though Heidegger was a fascist (which is obviously incredibly problematic), I do agree with his philosophy on poetry. To me, it is the purest form of language and the closest we can get to the “essence” of things. Words inspire me every day and I was not exaggerating when I wrote in a poem that “I scrape words to stay living.” In many ways poetry has saved me time and time again.

Leftist and feminist writers have been especially inspirational to me. Adrienne Rich, for example, was critical in my early development as a writer because her poems were my first encounter with “political poetry.” It was after reading her that I realized that I should not only write about love and beauty, but also about what is happening in the world, sometimes even conflating these private and public spaces. I believe in work that reveals both the wonders and horrors of our humanity.

I am also fascinated by poems centered on the female body because I see it is a “site of cultural inscription,” (from Judith Butler’s book, Gender Trouble, quoting Foucault). So many experiences, from love to violence, are written on our bodies. Much of my work is intentionally corporeal and visceral. I have recently written poems about prostitution and human trafficking, and in the process I’ve realized how much the female body is directly communicating issues like globalization and drug trade. To me, a poem that simply celebrates female sexuality is also political in that it rejects our rigid gender codes.

Because poetry has inspired me to question and challenge injustice and because it’s been so pivotal in revolutionary movements throughout history, I still believe that poetry has the power to inspire revolution and transform the world, as naïve and idealistic as that may be.