- From Girly Men to Manly Men:The Evolving Representation of Male Homosexuality in Twenty-First Century Telenovelas
Telenovelas are one of the most popular Latin American genres. These melodramatic productions, often compared to soap operas in the United States, reach wide audiences throughout Latin America with story lines and character types that viewers have come to expect. In recent years a new character has been added to the list of standard players in telenovelas: the gay man. Almost without exception this character is extremely effeminate and flamboyant in both dress and mannerisms. He wears brightly colored, dandyish clothing and exhibits mannerisms that are more a parody of a gay man than an actual representation. The nature of this characterization raises questions and concerns. While it may be interpreted in a positive light that the telenovela industry is including gay characters in their scripts, the tendency to portray these individuals in a caricaturesque manner is essentializing and suggests that there is only one kind of gay man: an effeminate, or girly, man. The resulting message is that masculinity (i.e., stereotypical masculine or macho behavior) equates with heterosexuality, while femininity in a man equates with homosexuality.
This investigation explores the ideological conflation of male effeminacy and homosexuality in Latin America and how this phenomenon plays out in telenovela productions. Examples are drawn from Mexican, Venezuelan, and Peruvian telenovelas that have aired on Univisión during the past several years. It should not, however, be inferred from this selection that telenovelas from different Latin American countries are indistinguishable or that all follow the same formula. On the contrary, different countries make their own unique contributions to the variety of telenovelas that are produced in Latin America each year. Despite these differences, there are certain unifying strands that run throughout the genre. One of these strands is the relatively consistent representation of gay characters, regardless of the provenance of the telenovela. To prove the point, the first three examples in this study show the typical characterization of gay men in Latin American telenovelas as extremely effete. These examples are representative of the majority of [End Page 102] telenovelas that include gay characters in that they rely upon an exaggerated, caricaturesque depiction of these subjects. The final two telenovelas discussed here are exceptions to the rule because they include gay or bisexual characters who behave in a stereotypically masculine way, and because the presence of these characters gives rise to a discourse about sexuality by virtue of the fact that the characterization does not follow the accepted pattern.
Prior to examining these specific telenovelas, it is important to have some understanding of Latin American concepts of gendered behavior (i.e., femininity and masculinity) and sexuality. This study does not propose a single, hegemonic Latin American view of homosexuality. However, there are historical and cultural reasons for similarities in the concepts of gender and sexuality that exist in different Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. Foremost among these reasons is that the region was conquered and colonized by Spain, a country steeped in Mediterranean traditions. Part of the cultural legacy of Spanish colonization is what researchers call the Mediterranean model.
In his seminal work on the subject, Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, John Peristiany describes the model as a product of the cultures and belief systems of the Mediterranean region, and he points to the honor/shame dichotomy as the essence of the model. Man's honor is maintained by defending his masculinity. A primary aspect of this mission is keeping his women (i.e., his wife, mother, sisters, and daughters) from bringing shame on him through sexual misconduct. He accomplishes this by taking measures to protect their sexual purity or, if they are married, monogamous state. If a woman is believed to have had sexual contact with any male other than her husband, then she is said to be "polluted" (Delaney 42). This pollution shames the male and is an affront to his honor and masculinity because it means that he is unable to control and defend the women in his charge.
Peristiany and other theorists of the Mediterranean model also point to another avenue of shame and dishonor for...