Isn't He Lovely: The Trouble with “Machismo”

Cristen Conger
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box of machismo brand candy cigarettes with a cowboy on the front and a cigarette sitting in front of itEarlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported on the hottest new marketing demographic for the personal care industry: Latino men. Considering that Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, it isn’t surprising that brands and advertisers had already begun courting Latina women’s purchasing preferences. The men’s habits, however, seemed like more of a lesson in social studies than in product development.

Univision VP Peter Filiaci told the LA Times:

We knew these guys use these products—and heavily—but what we really didn’t know was why. The big surprise was that these guys really celebrate vanidad—or vanity—over machismo … We found that that the word ‘vanity’ doesn’t have a negative connotation to it with this consumer.

As a result, Latino men are more likely to shower twice per day and drop more money on hair care products, moisturizers, and fragrances. Considering the male grooming industry that has rejiggered its formerly female-targeted jargon for a male audience, such unabashed preening must be a sales division’s dream come true. Forget about toughening up product verbiage and color palattes to make it read “manlier” on shelves. Latino men involved in the Univision research identified more with the actual language—as in, Spanish.

Despite the machismo stereotype of Latino men as uber-macho and therefore eschewing beauty practices by extension, Latino men don’t seem uncomfortable in the least openly keeping up appearances. This insight came as little surprise to members of the Latino community: “I’ve always known that my men love to ‘primp and groom.’ They just like to look good. I don’t know if it’s that ‘Latin lover’ thing, but gay or straight, Latin men do the whole nine: mani-pedi, hair, cologne,” wrote Chiqui Cartagena for Ad Age. She also went on to describe them as the “original metrosexuals,” which is just about as un-machismo a description as I can imagine.

Do the contents of a man’s medicine cabinet prove anything about his positions on gender equality? Certainly not. By and large, Latino households tend to uphold more restrictive gender roles, and telenovelas often portray gay men as flamboyant, flouncy and effeminate. Theories for why these patriarchal patterns exist abound, including the influence of Catholicism, Spanish colonial conquest, and socioeconomic inequity.

At the same time, to me, the findings offer tangible evidence the “Latino men as machismo” assumption misses the mark big time. Think about how often “machismo” pops up whenever we mention Latino masculinity. Or, put another way, what associations come to mind when we describe male behavior, regardless of the person in question’s ethnicity, as machismo? Either way you slice it, it’s a negative catch-all term applied to roughly 18 million men in the United States alone. Reductionist much?

Research on Latino masculinities also reveals that while characteristics associated with machismo exist within the diverse communities that comprise the Hispanic population, it isn’t the standard. A detailed study on the machismo stereotype among heterosexual Latino males points out:

Although Latino men’s socialization has traditionally incorporated patriarchal images of power, seduction, and domination and some machismo traits may be observed in Latino men in different degrees, this recognition need not embrace a grand narrative of machismo as the primary description of Latino men.

Rather, the study author argues that Latino masculinity has a lot in common with masculinity performances among the ethnic majority in the United States:

It appears that Latino men, like white men, live in a culture of ”masculinities” in which each man expresses his maleness in a unique way, as a blend of mainstream cultural expectations along with alternative features or behaviors.

For that reason, I find machismo as stereotpye and description as linguistically troubling as the phrase “man up,” which is often tossed around in white male culture, especially. Both evoke images of chest puffery and testicle-grabbing that provide little substance about actual men—Latino, white, or otherwise. Moreover, the physical and sexual violence associated with “machismo” only makes the term more problematic, casting men as uncontrollable monsters.

And since we’re on the topic of language, perhaps the ultimate reason it’s time to retire machismo because it certainly isn’t the go-to term for honorable or idealized manliness among Latino men themselves. In interviews among Latino communities, the definition of un hombre de verdad (a “true man”) was “quietly strong, dignified, and noble,” which is a far sight more encompassing than the machismo mold.

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