In recent weeks, hundreds of women have taken to the streets of Mexico City protesting against murder, rape and other violence against women in Mexico. Many commentators blame “macho culture” for the violence they are so furious about. In the first half of 2019 alone, 1,835 women were murdered in Mexico, according to Mexican geophysicist María Salguero, who is mapping the violence.
In these accounts, macho culture seems to refer to a social climate which facilitates or rewards macho attitudes and behaviours. Following the stereotype, in a macho culture, a man earns respect through his ability to lead his family, make sexual conquests, and defend his honour, with violence if necessary.
But what does macho culture mean in real life? And what if blaming it for violence against women in Mexico is in fact part of the problem?
“When we have friends visit from other states, they are frightened,” a young psychologist told me when I visited the central Mexican state of Michoacán in June. Within Mexico, the state is notorious for its high levels of violence, including gender-based violence. Sitting in a cafe among feminist friends of diverse backgrounds, she added: “Here they are macho to the bone.”
This statement, like many similar ones I’ve recorded during my ongoing research in Mexico since 2014, both confirms and challenges stereotypes about Mexican machos. The feminists I spoke to often – unsurprisingly – blamed macho attitudes for violence against women in Michoacán. But they also made a point out of distinguishing different kinds of macho culture in different places and different moments in history.
For instance, the Catholic Church has a much stronger influence in the conservative city of Zamora in Michoacán than in liberal Mexico City. This means that while many parents in Michoacán teach their daughters to be submissive in line with Mediterranean Catholic ideals of womanhood, their peers in Mexico City are socially expected to fend male aggressors off with equal violence.
Machismo in many forms
Paying attention to these differences is important, as the anthropologist Matthew Gutmann explained in his study, The Meanings of Macho. Simply blaming macho culture for violence against women allows men to justify their physically abusive behaviour. They can excuse themselves by saying: “I am a product of a macho culture, and that’s why I hit my wife.” Gutmann found that, in reality, machismo comes in many forms.
Both men and women in the working-class Mexico City neighbourhood he studied displayed some qualities commonly associated with being a macho, without fully conforming to the stereotype. Some alcoholic men were caring, nonviolent husbands, while some women beat their children or cheated on their husbands. By contrast, some less “manly” men who avoided alcohol and did not seem like machos did beat their wives.