Gender Expression and Roles in Latino Relationships
La Rosa de Guadalupe is a Mexican television series produced by Televisa. Each episode tackles a different topic relating to youth, including sexuality, parenthood, substance use, and interpersonal violence. I chose this show because it is shown on free channels and online, and is a piece of media and culture that most Mexicans are familiar with, and I thought was worth doing a close reading on. Furthermore, according to N.E. Rodriguez Portilla, most Latina women immigrating to Spain reported getting most of their information about contraceptives from television and other media.
This episode is about infidelity, casual sex, and STDs. The main protagonist is a male that is in a long-term relationship with a girl. The two have not had sex, and the protagonist is persistent in trying to convince his girlfriend as a 'proof of her love.' She rejects his advances every time and is upset that he is so insistent. He then goes to a club with his friend and has casual sex with someone he meets there. The girl, finding out the main character is actually in a relationship, leaves a message "Welcome to AIDS" for him to find in the morning. The rest of the episode, he agonizes over the possibility of contracting AIDS. At the end, we find out he has not.
The end of the episodes usually have a monologue about the moral of the story. For this episode, the moral is not so much to discourage unfaithfulness, but about casual sex in general. This sends the message that sex is a sacred act, and implies that casual sex is a direct affront to the heterosexual purposes of sex for the institution of marriage and for reproduction.
Apart from the main moral, there are issues with gender roles and identity implied in this episode. Firstly, the protagonist insists on having sex with his girlfriend as a proof of her love, which is problematic in that it confuses coercion with consent. Secondly, the characters talk explicitly about sex being a 'biological/physical' need for men (and implicitly, not for women), and an emotional want for women (and also implicitly, not for men). This serves to justify the infidelity in the relationship, and subversively places the blame on the girlfriend for his infidelity.
When the girlfriend does consent to sex and her boyfriend does not, she sees this as an affront, and responds with "what is the difference between now and later?" suggesting that there is no conception of continuous consent.
The parents of the protagonist also present differences in gender roles. The wife is portrayed as always cooking, cleaning, and looking after the son, whom she actively interacts with and checks up on. The husband is only shown doing work from home, and is oblivious to what is happening with the protagonist. When the wife voices her concerns to her husband multiple times, she is met with dismissal every time. Finally, in the climax of the story, when the father realizes the severity of the situation, does he finally agree to take action, which his wife had been insisting the entire time. This shows that within the marriage, that although women are expected to run the household, they do not have the equal leverage in decision-making as their husbands.
Finally, when the son is finally taken to the doctor, the wife is asked to step out when they begin to talk about his sexual activity. This shows the exclusion of women in discussions about sexual health, even when their own family is involved.
So, what does La Rosa de Guadalupe have to do with gender expression and reproductive health?
Normativities about gender (i.e how to perform gender) are kept in place by binary perfomances of masculinity/femininity, and ideas about how power operates are ingrained into social, economic, and cultural structures.
The protagonist's gender identity is performed and reinforced by others in several ways:
1. Going out (only with male friends) and flirting with other girls, even though he is already in a relationship (his girlfriend is not allowed to go out, and if she did the same, she would be shamed).
2. The protagonist (and others around him) reinforce the idea that sex as a biological, physical need for men (and by contrast, not for his girlfriend).
3. Sexual activity is expected of him. When he refuses sex several times, his girlfriend starts to suspect that he is gay (which in Latino culture, is emasculating and insulting).
This episode also demonstrates the roles that women play (or don't play) in their sexual health.
1. There is a lack of transparency in the protagonist's sexual activity, leaving her vulnerable at not in control of her own sexual health.
2. The girlfriend saying she doesn't want to engage in sexual activity is not a good enough excuse for the protagonist.
3. The mother of the protagonist, despite her involvement in her son's life, has little decisionmaking power in the household.
4. The mother is excluded from conversation with her son about sexual health.
The spheres of the 'men' and 'women' do not overlap (except for the mother, who is at the end, excluded). This is congruent to Ann Blanc's global meta-analysis and Claura Pedone's findings, which show that one of the main contributors of early, unplanned pregnancy and STD infection is the lack of communication between men and women.
Claura Pedone and Ivonne Szasz found that men are expected to know more about sex than women. The knowledge that they have is often false, but because of this lack of communication, their knowledge is not corrected or improved. Similarly, the performance of womanhood is that around a cult of virginity, and any show of 'experience' or knowledge about sex is not only seen as taboo, but as an affront to men's identity. Therefore, the knowledge that women have (which can also be misinformed) is not passed on to their partners.
Sexual activity as power performance
In very simplistic terms, some might define sexual orientation as defined by the partner that one has sexual relations with, and how that gender compares to one's own. However, sexual activity can also be a performance of the power dynamic the of the gender one is presenting.
In a study by Ivonna Szasz, Mexican men that reported engaging in sodomy did not consider themselves homosexual. Rather, the sexual activity was not about sex, but about power. In this instance, when two straight men engage in sodomy, one is being penetrated, while the other is doing the penetration. This means that the person doing the penetration is performing hypermasculinity, agression and dominance while the other, submission and passivity. In essence, heterosexual sodomy is about performance of heteronormative intercourse, and by extension performing the power dynamics of men and women, reducing one of the men to the position of a woman. Therefore, the gender identity of men is based not on the gender of their partner, but on the performance of power (agression, dominance, strength).
In a heterosexual relationship, the performance of gender is therefore based on control of the sexuality of their partner. There is a generalized anxiety around women enjoying sex outside of the purposes of procreation.
1. Women that are sexually experienced are a threat because their partner cannot use their lack of knowledge cannot be used for force her into submission.
2. If women enjoy sexual activity, they may enjoy it with other men, and be unfaithful.
3. Contraceptive use for women has an implication of promiscuity - some men may sabotage contraception or prevent its use as a way to perform power by controlling their partner's sexuality and reproductive health.
Finally, what this concludes to is that power dynamics in a relationship affirms the gender identity of heterosexual men in Latino relationships. Gender performance for men means infringing on the body autonomy and sexuality of their partner, and for women means performing and perpetuating the cult of virginity and feigning ignorance and naïveté. This may help explain why in places like Catalunya, Spain, where healthcare is inexpensive, there is a common language, culture, and accessibility to healthcare, why Latina women still fall behind other groups in reproductive healthcare.