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Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 218-229

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Juggling Gender Stereotypes:

Justifications and Their Consequences

Stanford University
A Courtship After Marriage: Sexuality And Love In Mexican Transnational Families. By Jennifer S. Hirsch. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. 397. $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.)
Virtually Virgins: Sexual Strategies And Cervical Cancer In Recife, Brazil. By Jessica L. Gregg. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. Pp.207. $49.50 cloth, $19.95 paper.)
Sex And The State: Abortion, Divorce, And The Family Under Latin American Dictatorships And Democracies. By Mala Htun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. Pp.219. $60.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.)
The Famous 41: Sexuality And Social Control In Mexico, 1901. Edited by Robert McKee Irwin, Edward J. McCaughan, and Michelle Rocío Nasser. (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2003. Pp. 308. $75.00 cloth, $25.95 paper.)
Changing Men And Masculinities In Latin America. Edited by Matthew C. Gutmann (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. 416. $74.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.)

At this historic moment, when "family values" reportedly played a major role in determining the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the books reviewed here reinforce the message that gender stereotypes provide a powerful language for justifying one's own actions and for condemning the actions of others. Gender stereotypes are powerful, not because they are singular and monolithic, but because they are multiple and riddled with contradictions. Different interpretations of gender stereotypes, however, offer different resources to their articulators and can lead to different outcomes. This is the theme I pursue in this review essay.

The five books reviewed here are varied, but all address, in one form or another, the question of whether the dominant gender stereotypes in [End Page 218] Latin America are changing from "traditional" to "modern." Readers of LARR already know that academic research on gender issues in Latin America has blossomed over the past few years (see Bliss 2001; Kaminsky 2001; Tiano 2001; Hutchinson 2003; Rakowski 2003), suggesting that gender stereotypes are indeed becoming an increasingly contested domain in the region. The books reviewed here also document a growing conflict between allegedly modern and traditional images of femininity and masculinity. Far more interesting, however, both for the authors and for me, is the question of who uses which gender stereotypes when, for what purposes, and with what consequences.

Although some of the authors reviewed here refer to the Mediterranean gender stereotypes of "honor and shame" described by Julian Pitt-Rivers in the 1960s (1961; 1966), none of them mentions the irony revealed by subsequent studies of gender in Southern Europe (Brandes 1980; du Boulay 1974, Pina-Cabral 1986). This irony lies in the fact that when gender stereotypes are drawn from the Christian Bible, women—allegedly made in the image of Eve the Seductress—have a far easier time portraying themselves as better than their nature than do men, whom the Bible portrays as made in the image of God. Indeed, the books reviewed here suggest that women in Latin America have little difficulty justifying to themselves and others behaviors that vary radically, whereas men agonize over how to manage the conflict between family obligations and peer expectations. Femininity may be devalued, but Christian gender stereotypes allow most women to portray themselves as succeeding in overcoming their base natures, while condemning most men to fears of failing to realize God's perfection.


Jennifer S. Hirsch and Jessica L. Gregg have written quite different, but equally outstanding, books that, to my mind, represent some of the best work being done in medical anthropology today. Hirsch and Gregg are, respectively, an anthropologist teaching in a school of public health and medical doctor, with a Ph.D. in anthropology, also teaching in a public health program. Both of their books provide rich cultural analyses of how women from a rural area of Central Mexico (Hirsch) and a shantytown in Brazil (Gregg) justify their life choices, and of how their justifications put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

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