Home to five crown title holders of the Miss Universe pageant, many in Puerto Rico hold it as a badge of honor and pride. On this tiny Caribbean archipelago, the objectification of femmes as trophies is directly tied to machismo and the patriarchal society wherein it thrives. Under the backdrop of toxic masculinity lies the perpetuation of violence against women.
In dissecting the factors at play, we are better equipped to confront and dismantle the cultural stereotypes harming young girls and women in Puerto Rico.
A Matter of Definition
Strongly underlying the macho attitude are strictly defined gender roles, whereby a man’s masculinity is sometimes measured by dominance. This nurtures men being viewed as the ‘kings of their castles’ with women expected to cater to them. In her gender analysis project, The Evolution of Machismo in Puerto Rico,” Researcher Gabriela Sofia Ortíz offers her insights [on college-aged students]:
“Random House defines machismo as ‘a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness, an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes of masculinity.’ In Puerto Rican society, the dominant patriarchal views encourage this male attitude. It is believed that men feel superior to women.”
Taking an extreme form of machismo, we find misogyny. Derived from the Greek term misogynés, it breaks down as ‘miso’ (hatred) and ‘gyné’ (woman). Jane Ussher, a Feminist Professor of Professor of Women’s Health Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, offers us a more in-depth definition.
“Misogyny is defined as hatred of women or girls, expressed as disgust, intolerance or entrenched prejudice, serving to legitimate women’s oppression. It is manifested through religious and cultural beliefs which represent women as dangerous, defiled, or polluting; hostile folklore and jokes; the sexualization and objectification of women through art, film, literature, the mass media, and pornography; hostility towards women in positions of power; sexual violence and domestic despotism; female genital surgery and foot-binding; and the visceral horror held towards women’s secretions, including menstrual taboos and phobias. Misogyny damages the physical and mental health of women, putting them at a disadvantage throughout their lives and stifling the development of their societies.”
Viewing misogyny taken a step further sometimes bring us to femicide. Stemming from the Latin words ‘femina’ (female) and ‘caedere’ (to kill, i.e., the suffix ‘cide’), the term refers to the killing of a woman or a girl based solely on her gender. Joanna Manganara, Sociologist and President of the International Alliance of Women, elaborates. “Femicide is specifically defined as the killing of a woman because she is a woman, or the killing of a girl because she is a girl. Femicide, according to the UN, is the extreme and ultimate manifestation of existing forms of violence against women in patriarchal societies. Crimes of this kind reinforce the idea that women are sexual objects and belong to men.”
And here, the statistics are alarming. Between 2014 and 2018, Puerto Rico witnessed 266 femicides. In 2020, Puerto Rico’s Observatory of Gender Equity reported 60 femicides, and by mid-2021, the civil rights coalition estimates at least 21 women have fallen victim to the hate crime.
An Un-Beautiful Universe
Some might consider it a stretch to say Miss Universe pageants directly impact femicides. And while I do not have statistics on said correlation, it remains valid to relate machista attitudes to the objectification of women. Beauty contests perpetuate an ideology our value is directly tied to physical appearance. These pageants remind society that our worth is based on our bodies.
A look at this 2021 article in The Peak explains:
“Beauty pageants started as a form of entertainment for (mostly) men and have now become a cultural phenomenon across the world. Contestants show off their physical qualities on stage for a panel of judges, who will determine a winner out of the group based on an arbitrary list of qualifications. The judgment of bodies and beauty as a form of entertainment continually perpetuates dangerous gender and racial stereotypes.”
“Dismantling this toxic symbolism of societal emphasis on physical beauty and judgment is a small step for furthering women’s rights, and a big step for gender equity,” the article continues.
All of this has a close correlation with Puerto Rican and other Latina cultures, where the ideology of a machista mindset aligns with cultural identity. Unfortunately, many of us Latinas in the Caribbean and other parts of the world have experienced it.
This Best of SNO article offers a snapshot of what machismo looks like.
“From a young age, girls are taught household skills while their male counterparts enjoy their youth. Adultification is prevalent within Hispanic culture, based off of the idea that a woman’s natural role is that of a caretaker. Girls are taught to accept catcalling and sexual assault as forms of flattery, rather than as forms of harassment. By imposing these damaging ideas, society successfully limits the agency that women have over their own bodies.”
Another consideration is mental health. Beauty pageants and a culture that objectifies women send the message that our physical appearance is what makes us beautiful. Not all women are size 4 and it’s dangerous to send these signals to our young girls. Their body image is something that should be positively affirmed, not shamed! This medically reviewed article in Choosing Therapy outlines the dangers of body image expectations.
“In our society, one’s appearance is often how we are first evaluated. The current ideal in America is an ultra-thin female body and very toned and lean male body. When a person’s realistic body and ideal body images do not match, this can often lead to mental health issues such as eating disorders, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders. Several serious eating disorders are centered around body image concerns.”
While a certain segment of the Puerto Rican population could not imagine a world without the international contest, countless feministas envision the exact opposite. We are relentlessly raising our voices against pageants and the parading of women’s physicalities.
Here’s what the fight looks like:
Fundación de Mujeres en Puerto Rico (FMnPR): their Twitter lists them as the “first and only feminist-based philanthropic organization in Puerto Rico.” Founded by women in the diaspora and on the archipelago, the Foundation of Women in Puerto Rico “promotes social justice and supports the economic security, reproductive autonomy, and empowerment of women, girls, and non-binary persons.”
Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (CFC): this political project based on Black feminism tackles the struggles in all its forms: patriarchal systems, anti-Black violence, capitalism, racism, sexism, machismo, colonialism, xenophobia. Based in Puerto Rico, the Feminist Collective in Construction remains in fierce solidarity with femmes in the Caribbean, Latin America, and internationally.
Taller Salud: Founded in 1979, this feminist community-based NGO is dedicated to “improving women’s access to health, reducing violence in communities, and promoting economic development via activism and education.”
Grito de Mujer (GM): a “cultural-poetic-artistic movement, joining global voices against all forms of violence against women,” Women Scream and its International Poetry & Art Festival Grito de Mujer is an initiative by Dominican Writer/Designer, Jael Uribe. Taking place during the month of March (convening from the Dominican Republic), the Festival holds “simultaneous events in over 30 countries” and is made possible thanks to good faith collaborators and institutions within (as well as outside of) the movement.
By confronting, questioning, and dismantling these harmful contests, we simultaneously deconstruct oppressive patriarchal institutions. In fighting machismo and misogyny, we’re positively transforming our cultures to embrace non-traditional gender roles. We are boldly changing the narrative.
In doing so, we are empowering our young girls to understand it is their minds, hearts, and actions that emit their radiance. Together, we are building a more equitable Puerto Rico, and globally, a more female-friendly world, a place where all femmes can shine their fearless beauty!