What was regarded as “common sense” in Argentina about gender roles and stereotypes has, in the last ten years or so, become more and more nonsensical in the public eye. The types of images and language being used has kept roughly the same connotations over and over, from the very beginnings of Argentine media to today. In this article, we’ll take a look back at the foundation of machismo, a type of sexism that’s specific to our Latin-American culture. One of the main points is that there are certain tropes that link machismo to national identity. A couple of decades ago, to be Argentine and male meant conforming and living according to machismo’s ideals. What has changed? How has that change taken place and where is it most easily noticed?
Here’s a first attempt: How they’ve become so entwined is more a matter of archetype – some even link it to the times of the Spanish Conquista – than of stereotype. Which means that machismo as a hyper-masculine, aggressive, and violently sexual role came before our worst Tinelli TV specials. Another characteristic of the machista, which we’ll also come to in a bit, is talking openly about sex – which is not to be confused with being open about sexuality; the machista goes after women like a “Conquistador”: think “Latin Lover,” or the label “crime of passion.”
If you add machismo to the “viveza criolla,” you get an explosive cocktail of men in power distancing themselves from the violence they’ve caused (which explains, for example, actor Juan Darthes’ response to being accused of sexual harassment by Calu Rivero), or women blaming other women. No wonder we have an Argentine refrain that goes, “La culpa siempre es del otro” (it’s always the other person’s fault).
So, without delving into other socio-historical causes and effects that have made this change at least possible (which would require a Ph.D.), let’s dissect three of the most relevant areas in which that change is starting to happen in Argentina: film, music and television.
Spinsters, Vedettes, and Virginal Girls: The First Representations of Women in Argentine Film
Though probably forgotten by most who are not in academia or over 70 (sorry, abuela!), one of the first Argentine films to be released with sound in 1933, “Los Tres Berretines” (“berretín” is an antiquated term for a want, desire, or illusion), illustrates three popular obsessions associated with the new Argentine middle class of the thirties: football, tango, and the movies.
Sound familiar? In the movie, a middle-class father (played by then-newcomer comedian Luis Sandrini) is upset because his wife and daughter spend most of their time going to the movies instead of taking care of the house, in addition to his eldest son being an aspiring football star and the other, a frustrated composer.
These three things have been, for at least a century, the main identifiers of what it means to be Argentine and, even more so, what it means to be a man. Each had its own market and subculture, be it paid club associations or record company deals with the newest movie stars, and they equally set the grounds for a new figure in popular culture: the farándula, a.k.a. Argentine celebrities. Through these public personae, the new immigrant middle-class came together to admire, imitate, and revere the rich and famous, be it their style, their behavior, or their beliefs.
We could add a fourth berretín, which ties all three together: the new female presence. This counterpointed another, less traditional model of masculinity as embodied by the aspiring composer: the “hombre llorón,” or crybaby, whose Tango lyrics told stories of nostalgia, of being left by a woman, and having to avenge the injustice of being single.
It’s a berretín in that this type of masculinity – played by the likes of Carlos Gardel – portrayed men as both the victim and the embodiment of justice, and women as objects to be obsessed over (the lyrics to one of these songs reads: “creole guitar / you’re the only broad / that never fails me”). Under this newfound sensitivity lies some good old-fashioned machismo. One of the running themes in these commercial, highly-grossing films were the “education” of women to fulfill their roles as perfect housewives, all while displaying the classic stereotypes in which women seemed to unequivocally fall: the solterona (“spinster”), the innocent virgin, or the “funny one.”
Mirtha Legrand’s romantic, desexualized awakening as future wife in “Los Martes, Orquídeas” (1941, “Orchids on Tuesdays”)
A more contemporary, updated version of the “innocent virgin” trope in music is in synth-pop group “Miranda!”’s “El profesor”:
From the Happy-Go-Lucky Sixties and Seventies to Tinelli
Less than fifteen years later, another generation of actors and actresses took to the screen: Niní Marshall, Mirtha Legrand and, a bit later, Susana Giménez.
At a time when the Argentine film industry was declared by its filmmakers to be in crisis, and when the INCAA (National Institute for Film and Audiovisual Arts) was cutting up whole scripts for being either “too political,” “inappropriate,” or “subversive”, what was left for commercial film were often crude, screwball comedies featuring semi-naked women and tons of ogling. These films, marketed as family-friendly, were what supported the industry for years, and were viewed by millions each month. Whatever was left of realistic societal portrayals was either watered down or a metaphor for what was going on behind closed doors during the military dictatorship.
Meanwhile, the comedic duo of Jorge Porcel and Alberto Olmedo was hailed as a work of genius, and to this day are considered by many to be national icons. Women were seen as commodities on television or film, with the likes of Moria Casán being the poster child for sexploitation, and graphic scenes consisting mostly of sexual harassment – like Olmedo doing a medical checkup and forcing a young woman to undress among lines of “but it doesn’t hurt when I put the needle in!”.
The examples are endlessly cringe-inducing:
Susana Giménez (host of her own talk show since 1988) also started out as an actress around this time. In 1975, a year prior to the coup, the film “Mi novia, el…” (“My girlfriend, the…”) was released. In this film, Susana plays a transgender stripper. If being a woman automatically puts you up for abuse and ridicule, being a man who actively ‘chose’ to be female was even more unthinkable, and so transphobia seemed the only possible reaction. The film features lovely statements like “if I saw a dude like that on the street, I’d kill him,” referring to Giménez’s character. This male/female ambiguity was part of a recurring superficial gag, instead of it being a part of the character’s story arch and development.
Now it makes sense why Argentine television has been consistently misogynistic: the same people, plus roughly the same channels and producers equals the same stories being told over and over.
Flash forward to the nineties, where the sociopolitical climate translated into a hedonistic, “to each his own” kind of narrative. Along with a newer, fresher genre of sketch comedy (such as “Juana and Her Sisters” or “Cha Cha Cha”) came an imported talk show format, with Marcelo Tinelli as its presenter and bigger protagonist. With “Videomatch” premiering in 1990 and “Showmatch” replacing it in 2006 (featuring “Bailando por un sueño” – Dancing for a Dream), it quickly became one of the most viewed programs on cable TV, reaching its peak in 2010. Sure, the idea was nothing new – as we’d already seen just about the same idea with “Dancing with the Stars” – but what was all our own was the legacy and impact that Videomatch, the previous version, had left.
See, for example, this clip of model Solange Cubillo being openly harassed on primetime television as a “prank for Videomatch” (kind of NSFW)
People came to be entertained by, and therefore expect and accept, women’s being put up as laughing stock or as props for men to ridicule, despite the obvious displays of discomfort or outright refusal of the women against the “pranks.” And it wasn’t just women, but all bodies who were in any way marginalized or outside the norm, like hosting football matches with dwarves. In another nineties prank, a cameraman follows actress Guillermina Valdez around, filming her legs and breasts. The footage is put up for show in a hidden camera format: the viewer is made accomplice and main spectator of the harassment. These behaviors became so engrained that it now makes up our slang language; one can still hear “era una joda para Videomatch” (“it was just a prank for Videomatch”) in everyday conversation.
Two years after it first launched, Showmatch was accused by INADI for being one of the most discriminatory shows on open-air television. Among others featured in the list were “Intrusos en el espectáculo,” “Antes del mediodía (AM),” a daytime talkshow, and “Un mundo perfecto,” hosted by none other than Roberto Petinatto. Responding to the #NiUnaMenos claims, Tinelli decided to give up the pole dancing sketches, the skirt cutting, and homophobic sketches.
The production company for many of these shows is Ideas del Sur, whose owner is… Marcelo Tinelli. However, not all the blame can be placed on him: In 2015, a study determined that about 85 percent of TV programs promoted mixed or negative stereotypes of women, and while the sample included his show, it definitely wasn’t the only one.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at “Un mundo perfecto.” As we’ve talked about in a previous article, Petinatto received a stream of accusations in late-January of this year, after having justified sexual harassment as what happens after “women take too long to say they don’t want to f—you.” (And this was in reply to a statement by actor Facundo Arana, warning feminists not to be “fundamentalists,” who was himself defending Juan Darthés, re: Calu Rivero’s accusations.) He was also host of “Duro de Domar,” a.k.a “Indomables” (which means “untameable.” Remember that Conquistador trope?), from 2002 to 2009.
If this seems dizzying, it’s worth remembering that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in a 2010 recording of the show, there’s an entire segment devoted to “discussing” popular phrases with a character called “Macho” which – involuntarily – function as samples for all of the machista stereotypes found in these shows: Men are more creative in the bedroom, while women are frigid or stagnant; men go out for innocent fun, while women take off their wedding rings to party; when a man doesn’t want sex he’s convinced by the woman; when a woman doesn’t want to, she can’t be convinced.
If and when women appear on “Un mundo perfecto,” it’s as figures to be admired purely for their looks. Watch this clip of Amalia and Luli Fernández (and notice the matching outfits!):
What do all these men – Rial, Tinelli, Petinatto, Suar – have in common? Well, for one, they’ve sustained their position in power for literal decades. They’ve also diversified their media presence, gaining audiences in radio, film, and social media (like Petinatto who headlined radio shows for “Metro” and “Rock & Pop”). And the content they’ve produced, of which we’ve mentioned just a few examples, largely reflects their experience as Argentine men.
As we’ve mentioned in a previous article, Rial, the host of “Intrusos,” had a sort of awakening where, for a whole week, he invited feminist activists to his show and interviewed them. Nonetheless, before this sudden reinvention of his public persona, “Intrusos” was largely based on confrontation; mostly between women, and mostly when fighting over men (being part of a sexual conquest is also characteristic of machismo). This dynamic of female competitiveness featured none other than the same protagonists of “Bailando por un sueño”:
There is, though, one exception to the rule of male-dominated world in the upper echelons of the film and TV industry: Cris Morena. Most of those who grew up in Buenos Aires during the nineties and 2000s have seen or at least come into contact with the series she created: “Chiquititas” (1995), “Rebelde Way” (2002), “Floricienta” (2004) and “Casi Ángeles” (2007), with this last one being the biggest franchise.
After the success of “Chiquititas,” Morena founded her own production company, “Cris Morena Group”. These show the degree to which media tends to work reciprocally, as all of these are musicals, had their own CDs and books, and hosted shows at Buenos Aires’ biggest venues, like Luna Park or the Gran Rex. Part of the appeal also lay in the girl/boy romantic plots, where children appear overtly sexualized, in worlds where adults were either evil villains or caretakers to the orphaned children. Ideas of monogamous romantic love as the end-all be-all still prevailed:
Cris Morena’s shows were a sort of mid-point with mixed results when it came to the positive representation of teenage girls.
What is going on in the local film industry today? Though probably influenced by the #MeToo initiative and Hollywood’s latest attempts at inclusiveness (like in this year’s Oscars), our local productions are beginning to show diverse female narratives and images. According to an INCAA statistic, Argentine productions are steadily on the rise. And movies like “Gilda” (2016), “Yo soy así, Tita de Buenos Aires” (2017) and “Alanis” (2017), written and directed by women, are even doing well at the box office.
From “Tangueros” to “Basta de Violadores en el Rock” to “#NoNosCallamosMás”
On April 15, 2016, a video was posted on a new YouTube channel, “Bravery Facing Abuse” (trigger warning: graphic depictions of sexual abuse). This video featured Mailén Denis, publicly denouncing well-known indie songwriter Miguel del Popolo for sexual abuse, blackmail, and violence. A day later, the testimony of Rocío Márquez was uploaded to that same channel, revealing that del Popolo had previous underage partners as young as 13. On May 1 of that same year, a march against sexual abuse in rock was held at Plaza de Mayo. The plea was later renamed to No nos callamos más (“We won’t be silent anymore”) which now functions as a broader network for denouncing sexual abuse.
The videos spread like wildfire through social media platforms, mostly among feminist groups. Much like in most cases of public shaming and outing regarding sexual abuse, many victims chose to spoke up, though others – like former Bersuit Bergaravat frontman Gustavo Cordera, Pappo, or Cacho Castaña – practically outed themselves.
Caption: “Some women need to be raped to have sex.” Yikes.
Through much of Argentina’s music history, rock music – as an all-encompassing term for many other genres – has been male territory, save some exceptions. The closer we get to the mainstream, the clearer it becomes: our “founding fathers” like Vox Dei, Tanguito, Manal, were all managed by the record label “Mandioca,” who didn’t have a single female artist in their catalog. In this male territory, being an overly-enthusiastic female fan might have you labeled as “groupie”: the “Nena boba” (Pescado Rabioso), or “Rubia tarada” (Sumo). Later, in the Latin-American music boom of the seventies, even music sung by women was aimed at male listeners.
This type of abusive behavior stands on the shoulders of the type of masculinity that “tangueros” called compadritos and that we’ve seen in the film and record industries during the first half of the twentieth century. Tango was, and continues to be, one of our strongest national identifiers and sources of pride. For younger generations, rock nacional from the sixties and up until the nineties has taken up that spot. Be it one or the other, a large portion of the stereotypes remain the same.
Beyond “La Frontera”: the Power of Social Protest
What seemed to propel the Argentine feminist movement forward internationally has both to do with the coming of age of so-called “Millennial” (those born in the early eighties to early nineties) as well as the “Gen-Y” (those born in the mid-to-late nineties), and globalization. Social media has made it easier to witch-hunt, publicly shame, or denounce cases of abuse or harassment. However, here’s where the marketability of feminism to younger audiences comes into play. Taking a look at the usage of social media within this age group, not only is the number of Internet users worldwide on the rise but, according to the Pew Research Center, a large majority of users are young people ages 18-29, most of whom are women.
This new generation of consumers is growing up, essentially, seeing and demanding different types of stories and bodies on their screens. Unfortunately, marketability also includes using commonplace concerns and struggles, or history of the women’s liberation movement in general, as catchphrases that stand for the core values of a product or brand:
In the course of that mostly Western fourth-wave (think new spokespeople like Emma Watson, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and content like Lena Dunham’s “Girls”), what was going on in Argentina? Well, we had our own set of problems to worry about. A series of high-profile crimes against women began making headlines. The cases we’re referring to are not standalone or mere examples but part of a much larger issue, given that a femicidio takes place every 32 hours.
It’s important to stress how connected these crimes were; they were all – more or less responsibly – highly publicized, committed by the victims’ acquaintances, most all of them were underage, and they involved rape or physical sexual violence. We’re talking about Candelaria Rodriguez (2011), Lola Chomnalez and Melina Romero (both in 2014), Chiara Páez and Ángeles Rawson (2015). The first of these two cases in 2015 sparked the #NiUnaMenos movement, a key turning point for understanding Argentine feminism today. One noteworthy predecessor is the “Marcha de las Putas,” an import of the original “Slutwalk,” founded here in 2011.
From Peronism to today, Argentina has always kept a highly politicized and nationalist culture, almost as commonplace as its machismo. Massive participation in political events or protests is more or less the norm, with mixed repercussions in actual public policy. Whether by effect of all these phenomena, or simply by it being the straw that broke the camel’s back, #NiUnaMenos was no exception. The outcome was so popular, in fact, that the movement soon spread to the rest of Latin America, a whole three years before the US had its own version with the #MeToo movement. Now, every time the #NiUnaMenos collective marches (be it March 8, June 3, or now, due to the abortion debate in congress) the diversity within feminism and the feminist claims is covered on every major news outlets. In addition to bringing attention to specific issues such as gender violence, abuse, transphobia, economic inequality and abortion rights, the main collective achievement has been visibility.
From Legal, Safe and Free Abortion… Onwards
We’ve come a long way – but there’s still a long road ahead. When we say that “our bodies (don’t) belong to us,” we’re not only referring to our physical bodies, but also what is said about them, through metaphor and presentation. In other words, the way our bodies are put on screen or talked about doesn’t belong to us either, not behind the camera nor in front of it. This is more than just an issue of discourse or imagery: it’s about the real effects it has on the perception of women in the Argentine population.
As teacher and philosopher Dario Sztajnszrajber said recently, the debate on abortion is not about metaphysics (the meaning of life, the essence of what it means to be human), but about politics. The same applies to culture (or media in general), though the continuous division between art and politics has lead us to believe that women are “the way they are” before all instances that shape our patterns of behavior and thought. The fact that most conversations in movies are either with or about men is not abstract or apolitical; neither is it that almost no movies in the mainstream feature female protagonists. (If this sounds hard to believe, ask storyteller and activist Alison Bechdel).
Even for the women who continue to oppose feminism as “[esas mujeres] no me representan” (“those women do not speak for me”), presentation is still at the forefront. One question to ask would be: well, if feminists don’t represent you, your values or rights, than who or what does? Is it everything else Argentine media has had to offer for or about women in the last ninety years?
It’s no coincidence that one of the pleas that make up the Campaign for Legal Abortion is “our bodies belong to us”. Although the “politics, not metaphysics” idea seems easier to grasp when talking about access to quality health care and mortality rates, representation also lies behind what’s being discussed here: why should women desire to be mothers above all else? What other cultural associations are biasing our personal choices? (Just a hint: family values; motherly care; reproduction; repression of sexual expression and desire). All of these connections are being cycled and recycled wherever we look.
The debate that started this past week in Lower House regarding the decriminalization of abortion proves once again how putting the status quo up for discussion (call it abortion, harassment in the workplace, or unequal pay) is one of the most effective ways toward changing the usual cultural narrative. And as such, it’s not enough to allow it, but it’s also necessary to encourage it: It’s, in essence, the only way that actual changes will continue happening.
How can we become more informed and conscious as consumers? Among just a few of the institutions and organizations created in recent years are AFSCA (Federal Authority of Audiovisual Communication Services), the Advocacy for Audiences, and the INADI (National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism). These institutions give consumers the choice to denounce cases of gender-based discrimination. With so many regulations being enforced – legally or by societal pressure – it’s become easier in Argentina to spot cases of discrimination against women and minorities. In the span of the last ten years it’s become more accessible (though not necessarily easier) for women to ask for help, with the opening of free, 24-hour call-line #144 and #145 offering support to victims and in-person follow ups.
These are not just names and numbers, but very real resources available today to all citizens. Until now, all the changes that have come about were a result of the galvanization of public opinion and pressure. As such, you, consumer, have a right (a duty?) to make the TV, music, and film industries aware of what just doesn’t fly.