Machismo is a word borrowed from the Spanish language that, in English, refers to the performance and attitude of manliness, bravery, aggressiveness, power, control, and excessive masculinity. Individuals who identify as machos (macho men) conduct themselves in an excessively masculine manner. Such behaviors are part of Gay-related folk performance of identity and erotic desire in same-sex cruising (looking for romantic laisions), communal dance at Gay men’s Circuit events, and stage shows featuring Lesbian drag kings. The word “macho” is also used in the performance of humorous speech that mocks excessive masculine display.
To understand the roots of machismo as it developed in the Iberian Peninsula and later in Hispanic America, one must examine medieval and early modern concepts of manliness and femininity in Spain. Honor and shame were pivotal elements that permeated the daily actions and ethics of colonial society. During that time, the Catholic Church attempted to construct an image of a perfect man or vir, which was an associate or collaborator of God. This man had to be honorable, loyal to God and the King. The elements that an honorable man needed in the colonies were courage, authority, domination, and power. For women, the preservation of virginity, sexual control, and shame were essential.
European notions of honor and masculinity in Hispanic America mixed with indigenous ones. Even though there were different gender dynamics and perceptions among Native societies, the majority of the indigenous cultures (either by tradition or by imposition) considered men the most powerful members of society.
Another concept that is part of this gender dynamic is marianismo. Derived from traditions concerning the Virgin Mary, it is an attitude that women adopt by emulating Mary’s example of being a good mother and a good wife. Marianismo complements machismo because it promotes the power of men over women. Women who are marianistas earn the moral respect of their society by making the home their sphere of moral influence.
Sometimes morally strong women are more powerful than their men, but usually they do not appear publicly as the strong force, instead deferring to their husbands or sons in public. Men who appear to be weak and non-aggressive – qualities considered to be characteristic of women – are traditionally repudiated by society.
Machismo as Performance and Identity
As an ideology of gender, machismo states that men are superior to women and, as such, are the heads of the family household. According to Octavio Paz, “In a world made in man’s image, woman is only a reflection of masculine will and desire.” Machismo justifies power and control by men, both physical and psychological. Respect from their peers and society at large is extremely important in the machista (macho man) point of view. Bravery and aggressiveness are some key elements as well, but moral virtues also play a role as to whether a macho is perceived as genuine or simply affecting a posture. Scholars who have done ethnographic works on machismo point out that the members of a society divide machismo into two classes: authentic machismo and false machismo. According to Matthew Guttman, authentic machismo is “characterized by courage, generosity, and stoicism,” and false machismo, which basically “consists of appearances — cowardice hiding behind empty boasts.”
Carlos Monsiváis, a Gay Mexican writer, described machismo as both an attitude and a performance: “To be macho is now part of the scenery. To be macho is an attitude. There are gestures, movements. It is the belief that genital potency holds the key to the universe, all that.” Matthew Guttman argued further: “Whether the macho is seen as good or bad, a serious threat or merely a risible fool, men have the option of letting their heads be controlled by their bodies.”
In some societies, particularly rural ones, macho men are treated with respect and it is an honor to be considered as such. In more industrialized/urban societies, however, men who share these ideas are viewed critically because such ideas are considered degrading to women.
Machismo and the LGBTQ Community
Within the context of the LGBTQ community, machismo has become less important as a definitive category of heteronormal gender and more important in the production of desire-based identities and role-playing. Gay macho men act with the hyper-masculinity that characterizes the macho are assumed to prefer the active sexual role, even though this is not always the case with ultra-macho power bottoms or aggressive bottoms (men who prefer to be penetrated, but do not take on a passive role while having sex).
Some homosexual machos in Latin communities do not consider themselves Gay because they practice the active sexual role. Gay men, according to these same-sex oriented macho men, are those who play the receptive sexual role with other men. Homosexual macho men separate themselves from effeminate Gay men because they do not want to be considered sissy or maricón (Spanish folk term for an effeminate and/or homosexual man), or in any other way in which society has identified Gay men as being less than real men. Lesbian machos, however, do not necessarily distance themselves from the so-called lipstick Lesbians when it comes to shared Lesbian identity.
The model of the macho has influenced members of the LGBTQ community all over the world. Gay male and Lesbian individuals who identify their performance of gender with the heteronormative dominant masculine gender role tend to follow the macho model, which in turn leads to Gay folk humor ridiculing that same model. For example, the machismo that arose in the Gay male community the 1970s was lampooned by the campy disco group, the Village People, in their hit song, “Macho Man.”
Marimacho and Macho Mary
“Marianista” is not the only Maria-based word in Spanish. In Latin America, a folk term for a masculine woman or Lesbian is marimacho or marimacha, words that take the feminine “Maria” and combine it with the masculine or feminine form of “macho.” In addition, there are two other macho-based words for masculine women: machona and machorra.
In American English, the name “Mary” is used to signify an effeminate man in humorous speech, even if the man in question does not appear effeminate. If a Gay man is muscular, he may be called a “muscle mary.” A Gay man who acts especially masculine may be labeled a “macho mary,” which is also the name for an alcoholic drink (vodka served neat, that is, undiluted).
Abalos, David. Latino Male: A Radical Re-definition. Lynn Rienner, 2002.
Gutmann, Matthew C. Changing Men and Masculinities in Latin America. Durham: NC: Duke University, 2003.
Mirandé, Alberto. Hombres y Machos: Masculinity and Latino Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.
Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1950.