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.”

When it comes to the issue of machismo, much of the discourse is justifiably centered on the ways it affects women; however, by ignoring the negative influence of these attitudes on men, it's difficult to effectively dismantle these damaging ideologies. If men are the often the perpetrators of violence and oppression, it makes sense to examine how machismo can also wound their psyches.

Oswaldo Neri, who grew up in a strict Catholic home, says that his father's machismo created a severe distance between them. Even as an adult, his relationship with his father continues to be strained. “I feel like they [his parents] didn't give me the tools to deal with emotions or sex,” he says. “I had to navigate my way alone as a Hispanic man.” Neri believes that because he was not equipped to compromise or to be vulnerable, he prematurely abandoned many of his relationships.

Neri says the media also plays a big role in perpetuating unhealthy attitudes about men. “It's promoting the idea that you're incomplete with out material things and a pretty girl.” While women are grossly objectified, of course, men are victims, too, he says. If men are not successful, handsome, and posses the right cars, clothes, and phone, for instance, they are seen as failures, “Your humanity is reduced to that of a consumer. Without your 'manhood,' you're nobody,” he says.

“It's an act to fool others,” says Joe Putignano, model and author of Acrobaddict: A Contortionist's Heroin Romance. “People who are doing it are extremely detached emotionally.” Putignano says his relationship with his absent alcoholic father had a profound affect on his romantic relationships with men.

“We're trying to mimic straight relationships because that's all we have,” he says. “There hasn't been enough time to establish or define what two men bring.” Putignano gives the example of one of his previous partners who was sexually aggressive because he felt he was “supposed to be a man.” As a result, Putignano says he was not in tune with his needs. “Two people are instruments and they're there to make music,” he says.

When it comes to the media, he says, “That's a beast that probably will never change, but my hope is that people are waking up.”

“Men are silent sufferers,” agrees Robert de Leon. “Men have to live up to this standard portrayed in the media, the idea of being 'a real man.' We definitely don't want this label for men. We're all going to have different characteristics.”

de Leon witnessed a dangerous form of machismo while growing up. His father was so physically abusive towards his mother that she often feared for her life. “I grew up with this feeling that I never wanted to be like my dad,” he says. “I didn't want to relive the things I saw and have my kids one day see that.”

But de León says he could not completely escape that macho mentality. While he was never physically abusive, he describes his former self as a “typical guy” who felt a sense of ownership over the women he dated.

Because de Leon was eventually able to transform his notions of masculinity, he founded Bromodels to share this knowledge with other young men. The program is dedicated to “engaging and mobilizing men and boys to prevent violence before it starts” and de Leon and his friends offer free workshops in schools and in the community.

“The program is a chance to express who they really are,” he says. “It's a life-changing and life -saving experience.” de Leon hopes to receive funding to expand their programming and reach more young men. “Liberation, that's what I feel when I share this love with other men,” he says. “These actions should not be multigenerational because we have the choice. We need to stop the cycle of abuse.”

Falicov has also noticed that attitudes are rapidly shifting, partly, she says, due to women's liberation and laws against domestic violence. She believes machismo is becoming increasingly less acceptable both in the US and other other counties. Most of her male clients, Falicov adds, are also willing to participate in therapy if they know it will benefit their families.

“You cannot have a whole continent of men classified this way without understanding deeply what's going on,” she says

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet, writer and editor living in Chicago. She is the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and has contributed to the Guardian, NBC News, Rolling Stone,  Al Jazeera, Truthout, Salon, and many other publications. Email her at es@influencemediagroup.com.