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The Truth About "Macho" Men

A macho man is a domineering, controlling, chauvinistic type of male -- what does this image do for men, women and families?

Latinos and other men from traditionally “sexist cultures” don't have a monopoly on machismo, so why is it that they're so often scapegoated for backwards attitudes when it comes to gender? How can entire continents and counties be compromised of completely chauvinistic men? And where does this “macho” the media insists on perpetuating come from?

Celia Falicov, PhD, author of  Latino Families in Therapy, points to the work of  Matthew Gutmann, who traced the rise of this figure to the Golden Era of Mexican cinema in the 1950s. These movies, Falicov says, glorified certain macho qualities, such as gun slinging and objectifying women. According to Falicov, although these movies showed both the negative and positive qualities of machismo, the negative traits were the ones that were glorified and have really endured. Many still continue to permeate the media's representation of Latino men.

Machismo, Falicov says, is the greatest representation of patriarchy while sexism is the milder representation of male dominance. In her article  Changing Constructions of Machismo for Latino Men in Therapy: ‘‘The Devil Never Sleeps, she writes: “the better man is the one who can drink the most, sire the most sons, defend himself the most, dominate his wife, and command the absolute respect of his children. It is also part of the configuration to have strong sexual drives and seek variety in sexual relationships, while being possessive and jealous toward the faithful wife.”

There is no denying that machismo is detrimental and often deadly for women, and failing to understanding the origins, nuances, and contexts is a disservice to everyone. Falicov and other mental health experts feel there needs to be a more comprehensive and less stereotypical definition.

Dr. Yobany Pardo, lead researcher of the study  Machismo and Marital Satisfaction in Mexican American Couples, says that the traditional definition of a macho is a domineering, controlling, chauvinistic type of male, but he's “arguing for a less stereotyped definition, one more congruent with real characteristics.” He believes that we should be looking at specific behaviors in specific scenarios for a newer, more accurate definition, one that is both social-cultural driven and contextual.

His study, for instance, found that wives’ endorsement of positive machismo beliefs was associated with higher levels of their own marital satisfaction, while moderate levels of positive machismo were associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction for husbands.

Pardo believes that his study's findings demonstrate “a more nuanced understanding of positive and negative machismo and challenge stereotypical notions of machismo still prevalent in popular culture and research as intrinsically pathological.” Part of the problem may be that the effects of machismo on the marital satisfaction has not been studied sufficiently. According to Pardo's  study, the field of marriage and family research with Latinos in the U.S. was completely underdeveloped in the 80s and 90s.

Pardo and Falicov believe that caballerismo, which consists of positive aspects and traits, is a often overlooked when addressing machismo. Pardo points out that protectiveness, leadership, and participating in the education, for instance are all part of caballerismo. “It involves caring for partner and family and feeling that it's honorable,” he says.

According to Pardo's study, extreme dominance and lack of gentlemanly traits reduce the satisfaction that husbands and wives experience in a relationship. Contrary to the common one-dimensional portrayal, Pardo found that in Mexican families, “ideologies of honor have been found to simultaneously protect women from spousal abuse and at the same time empower men to act violently.”

He also points out that sometimes positive and negative views can conflict in the same person. “In extreme cases you will have couples who can't deal with conflict because there's no compromise,” he says. “Usually, I'll ask them to recognize the challenges in maintaining that status. It's taxing. It may work for him, but not the system. If a man endorses a lot of positive attributes, it's important to help him recognize and appreciate those traits. I don't think there's a man who only has negative attributes.”

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