Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mama's Boys

The other night I watched a documentary called Blossoms of Fire, about the city of Juchitán in Oaxaca, México. (Trailer here -- embedding is disabled, alas.) Juchitán has a reputation as a “matriarchy,” which speaks volumes about human confusion about categories. As far as I can tell, the Zapotec women of Juchitán have pretty unremarkable views about women and men – but they earn their own money, mostly as food manufacturers and vendors, and are expected to manage it well. The women depicted in the film expect to manage their husbands’ pay as well. They are also not expected to cater to the masculine ego, which means that they’ll leave a husband who mistreats them, whether by abuse or neglect, and can expect support from their families when they do so.

This is all very laudable, but it’s hardly a matriarchy, except to people to whom a situation that approaches equality equals rule by women over men. (Or even a situation that doesn’t approach equality – in the 1950s, when American women had been driven from the WWII factories back to the kitchens and family rooms, eunuchs like Philip Wylie and William Burroughs still claimed that the US was a matriarchy. For some men, mere sentience in women feels like a threat of dominance.) There are plenty of people who see things that way. Blossoms of Fire begins by describing local reaction to an article about Juchitán in the Mexican edition of the magazine Elle, which claimed that the Juchitanas “prohibit the men from buying and selling in the market” and force their husbands to “babysit” while they cavort with boy toys.

Now, Elle appears to be a fashionable mag that views itself as sophisticated, which confirms once again my observation that sophisticated, stylish people are generally quite stupid and backward – especially since what the women of Juchitán have achieved is what sophisticated North American and European women consider a major, if tenuous, achievement of their movements toward sexual equality. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” so far that you’ve almost caught up with a bunch of Indian women in the Mexican hinterlands. Except that these women wear “traditional” colorful native garb, and eschew makeup. (One of the pleasures of the film for me was its celebration of the beauty and strength of these middle-aged and older women, who exhibit the same confidence and pride that we gringos associate with older men, not women.)

Against the Juchitanas’ hard-earned equality, though, it should be noted that their society still has a cult of virginity – for women, of course. Another tradition is the “kidnapping” (robar is the Spanish word used by one of the men in the film) of brides by their grooms, which leads to negotiations between the respective families, and if the bride proves to be a virgin, she’s worth a lot more. This information appears in a 20-minute featurette on the DVD, which should have been integrated into the film itself; if you watch the DVD, be sure to watch the additional material as well. At 74 minutes, Blossoms of Fire wouldn’t be stretched by being a bit longer.

One thing I found very interesting about the film was its inclusion of several homosexuales (which the subtitles render, not quite correctly for reasons I’ll go into, as “gay”) and lesbians – or rather, one lesbian, a handsome woman with neck-length hair and a mildly butch affect, and a girlfriend (possibly) sitting next to her at the table in traditional Juchitana garb. It wouldn’t be correct to call her a marimacha, because she’s really not more masculine than the “matriarchs” who are at the center of the film: cut their hair to the same length, put them in t-shirts and jeans, and they’d probably look just like her. The homosexuales are all big queens, in halters and makeup and plucked eyebrows. They mostly agree that they are different from American gays because we Americans are always talking about “realizing” that we were gay at 15, or 20, or 30, whereas they all knew that they were homosexuales from the beginning. I must point out that American sissies are just as likely to have started dressing up in their mothers’ clothes at 3 as any homosexual. And nowadays the standard line even among gender-compliant Homo-Americans is that they knew they were Different from an early age, and therefore they must have been born gay.

As female-identified as the Juchitán homosexuales seem to be, however, the women they identify with aren’t their mothers. They don’t seem to work in the markets with their mothers, and their fashion role models, like those of American queens, are basically hookers. (Not that there's anything wrong with that! I've just always been baffled by the images of women many gay men see as their ideals. But see this article, for example. I've learned to be wary, though, when any place, from Morocco to San Francisco to Juchitán, is called a "Queer Paradise.") And to recall my rant on scientific models of the Homosexual from a couple of weeks ago, though the film doesn’t mention it, it’s safe to presume that they don’t have sex with each other: they fit the common Latin American model of the homosexual, so they look for Real Men, activos to match their pasivos. (“Active” and “passive” don’t really fit reality either – pasivos are about as passive as “starving ravens,” as the sociologist Annick Prieur put it in Mema’s House, Mexico City: on transvestites, queens, and machos (Chicago, 1998), her study of vestidas, or cross-dressing homosexuales in the metropole. But they are the standard terms in Spanish for sexual tradeoffs between males.) Which is why “gay” isn’t the right word for them – according to the “gay” model of homosexuality, both same-sex partners are gay, whether they penetrate, are penetrated, or trade off.

A reviewer in the Village Voice claimed that these figures hint at “the idea of a more fluid sexuality in the pre-European Americas,” which I can’t figure out. “Fluidity” in sexuality is a trendy term nowadays, but the penetrator/penetrated model of homosex has nothing to do with fluidity – it assumes that penetrators will penetrate, the penetrated will seek to be penetrated, and the line between the two is guarded like a DMZ. (Prieur’s vestidas criticize “bisexual men who are apparently manly but who secretly let themselves be penetrated as if they were homosexuales …, even when the vestidas are the ones who penetrate them” [166] I suppose you could say there’s fluidity there, as well as exchange of body fluids, but the homosexuales and their partners consider it a violation of the model.) Nor is there anything “pre-European” about this model; the ancient Greeks and Romans knew it as well as today’s homosexuales, and it hasn’t died out yet, even in the postmodern United States.

Far from being “traditional”, these boys’ claim that they were born homosexuales aligns them with the cutting edge of modern Western science. Or turn it around: the cutting edge of modern Western science is a regression to old, traditional models of human sexuality and gender. I was gratified by Blossoms of Fire's inclusion of non-heterosexuals, almost as much as I was to learn about Juchitán’s long tradition of resistance to centralized authority, especially the right-wing dictatorship that currently rules Mexico. The filmmakers save this information for later in the film: only after they’ve hopefully won the audience’s sympathy and affection for the Juchitanas do they reveal that they’re a bunch of socialists. If I can’t move to Korea when I retire, maybe I’ll move to Oaxaca.