Street Smarts? The Distortion of Masculinities of Color – Part II – Power



In the first part of a previous Karani blog series titled “We Make The Road By Walking” I engaged the concept of “power” making a distinction between an understanding of power based on possession as opposed to agency, I argued, “our understanding of power has continued to be limited to the idea of possession as opposed to agency. Agency is the capacity to choose and to act upon those choices, it is based upon french theorist Michel Foucault’s (1982) idea that power is exercised (221).” In embracing a concept of power that is exercised and not accumulated, it opened wide the possibilities of dispersing power across difference.

In this series I interrogate the role of what Louis Pierre Althusser (1971) coined as ideological state apparati, in imposing a distorted view of masculinity across different populations of color in a manner that reinscribes the will of capitalism without having to resort to the use of force. In this essay I explore the reinscription of an accumulation approach to power that has led many young men of color to experience failure and ultimately premature death.


Fig. 1 Louis Althusser’s Thesis, from Bad Subject Blog

There is a considerable amount of misogyny that is unpacked and of the traumatic that is written about openly in this essay in an attempt to draw people’s attention to understand that they are made vulnerable by not dealing with early childhood trauma. It is for that reason that I take this moment to provide a “trigger warning,” should you have unresolved grief or trauma around these types of experiences of violence, it may not be the right time to read further.


“Bros before Hoes”

In a rather homoerotic manner, one of the key commandments that was advanced by Scarface (1983) was what would come to be known as the “Bros before Hoes” rule of masculinity. Variants of this rule include “blood is thicker than water,” and “keep it in the family”.

This rule holds as common sense the misogynist belief that women are less human, that women are to be used, and that women will always betray men. This rule also holds that true closeness, trust and confidence can only occur between men who are in the trenches together.

In the motion picture, Scarface (1983) the homoeroticism of the relationship between Tony Montana and Manny Ray, forged in the context of extreme hardship of a refugee camp, is in hindsight clear as day.

Later in the film, the protagonist murders his best friend for sleeping with his little sister. I argue that Ideological State Apparati go after the most common distresses inflicted by generations of war, sexual violence and genocide, our weakest and most unhealed areas of traumatic experience as human beings, in order to impose the will of capitalism. There are two distresses at work in this particular rule of masculinity that are wound around homoeroticism. The first distress has to do with sex amongst men and the second distress has to do with incest. Distress for the purposes of this essay means unresolved trauma.

Repositioning Homoerotic Desire

In the late 1960s and early 1970s sexual liberation movements in the United States, homoerotic desire was reclaimed in such a way that celebrated the homoerotic as a form of self-love. In delinking sex from reproduction, human sexuality was in this context freed from the rigidity of the previous generation, and it exploded the possibilities of sexual expression that were possible through consent.

The 1980s culminated these liberation movements as these social transgressions became cemented in the public sphere and popular culture, the punk rock youth cultures and early hip hop and funk more explicitly embraced the middle ground for creative expression. Rigid gender roles that were exploded in the decade before, allowed room in the public sphere for androgyny in the way people dressed, and for the expression and discharge of raw emotions in music as a form of healing from the trauma of oppression.

The late 1970s and 1980s however, was also a time of extreme economic hardship, fueled by the first energy crisis caused by unsustainable primitive accumulation and as a ramification of third world development projects and the “green revolution”. It was in this time period that the U.S. had also experienced military defeat in the decolonial struggle for liberation in Vietnam against the U.S., creating a renewed sense of vulnerability, and in those last years of the cold war the Soviet Union seemed invincible and omnipresent.

Cultural fronts in the context of technological innovation and crisis, became a legitimate battlefield for the interests of capital at this time period. The work of Stuart Hall and the rise of cultural studies in academia gives testiment to this historical moment. In our confusion, again in hindsight, we became lost in postmodernisms taking meaning from much of those beliefs and ideas about who we were, that were being imposed from above. In particular, many academics internalized the product of capitalisms reimposition of control through the destruction of the fabric of community, resulting in the belief that fragmented identities were an inescapable reality.

Homoeroticism and masculinity were recast within this context through consistent messages of public shaming, stategic deployments of the taboo in public. It was thus how unresolved traumatic experiences of childhood sexual abuse, incest, rape (all of which were made possible by war); became a spectre that haunted cultural production in a way that was used to manipulate our ideas of who we really are, shattering and distorting our collective self-images in a way that externalized the trauma which benefitted the interests of capital by making our fragmented communities easier to mold into consumers.

In the late 20th century and early 21st it became common knowledge that straight identified men who have sex with men was a common enough occurance that it generated new language including MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), “Homie Love” and Torcidura (Prison only sex). All of these homoeroticisms refer to the sexual lives of men who perform sexual acts upon each other, but consider themselves to be heterosexual. In one fell swoop, the diversity of homoerotic masculine sexual expression was no longer queer and radical.

Matthew Guttman (1998) explored this phenomenon within the context of Mexican masculinty in the early 1990s. Guttman explains that for Mexican men, the differentiation between being gay and straight was made through being a “top” or “bottom”. Men who penetrated other bodies (“top”), no matter the gender identity of the person being penetrated, were considered heterosexual and embodied an ideal masculinity, whereas any man who was penetrated (“bottom”) were considered homosexual and lesser “men” than those who “topped”.

This kind of eroticism in masculine culture is reproduced in homosocial spaces such as in the trenches of war, the refugee camp, in sports teams or barbershops. Sociologist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski used a cultural explanation to describe a socialization process that was occuring at both barbershops and beauty salons that reinforced sexist and patriarchical relations in these poor urban communities.

The symbolic messages of the barbershops influence the beliefs of young men that women were sexual beings to be pursued primarily for their sexual attractiveness. Further, men’s own sexual identities and worth as “men” were judged to a large extent on their success in attracting and keeping “desirable” women. (Sánchez-Jankowski, 2008, 189)

He offered an analysis of the heterosexual ethnic masculinity that he observed was constructed via three characteristics, the first “to dominate both one’s physical and social space” which included the domination of women (Ibid, 179). The second was to protect the women and children that they dominated (183). And the third, “the view that men should not be sexually monogamous” (184).

According to Sánchez-Jankowski, the construction of the dominant heterosexual ethnic masculinity also was constructed by the material culture present at the Barbershop which he termed supporting agents of masculinity. These items included “pictures, calendars and other decorations…and a variety of magazines” (186). In the case of the barbershops he studied, he found that they supported the rigid heterosexual socialization and construction of masculinity that he described as originating from the urban subculture.

There is no doubt that there is something happening on these cultural fronts that influence the way that masculinity is shaped. What is often left out is the amount of external influence upon masculinities that permeates what we come to know as “street smarts” or common sense when it comes to masculine desire.

It is here, in this space that homoerotic desire is recast in the service of hetero-patriarchy from the more liberatory “self-love” motif that emerged from the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I stress, this distortion of masculinity emerged not from the masses but instead was imposed by the interests of capital via mass communication technologies and material culture that emerged within the context of the cold war that transformed into the “drug war” in Latin America as soon as the Soviet threat imploded in the early 1990s. This endless war shaped mens masculinity in the U.S. and its Latin American back yard, distorting it into something reminiscent of the horror and thriller films of that time period.

In the thriller Scarface (1983) this intimacy between men is coded as rape and as murder. The opening sequence in the film is of the murder of a drug lord in a Cuban refugee camp. The violence acted out in the film flows as a violation, or rape scene. This is where the bond of brotherhood between the protagonists is established in the film, through an act of extreme violence, a murder.

It is important to note, that of the 125,000 Cuban refugees who came to the U.S.A. from Mariel Harbor, Cuba from April 4 to September 26, 1980, most were considered “undesireables” which included homosexuals, people deemed mentally ill who had been institutionalized, and criminals. Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas wrote vividly of his experience as a Marielito refugee in his autobiography Before Night Falls (1992).

The autobiography in contrast to the film, addresses the sexual revolution that occurred across the world between the 1950s and 1960s as he experienced it in Cuba. Arenas describes both his own personal suffering and voices his path towards sexual liberation. His autobiography is a celebration of homoeroticism as form of self-love. His gripping analysis of experiencing oppression in Cuba as opposed to the United States was telling, he admitted “the difference is, under Communism, you have to smile and say, Thank you; whereas under Capitalism, at least you can scream.”(Before Night Falls, 1994)

Arenas claimed of Cuban exiles, “suffering has marked us forever, and only with people who have gone through a similar experience can we find some level of understanding”(308). I argue that it was this experience of suffering, the core of the distress for anyone who has experienced oppression, but in particular for men who experience suffering as isolation, was where capitalism was able to reimpose control over ideological reproduction in society when it came to masculinity. It was in restimulating men’s most intimate moment of victimization, that capitalist society was able to distort masculinity into something beyond recognition.

All Women are to be used for the Pleasure of Men

Repositioning the Taboo: Incest

The theme of incest permeates Scarface (1983) when it comes to Tony Montana’s relationship with his sister Gina, his unrequited desire for her, and his jealous rage in which he murders his best friend Manny for sleeping with her. Soon after this downward spiral begins, Gina is murdered by an assassin as she confronts her brother about his unrequited desire for her, leaving the matter unresolved for the audience.

Gina’s flat character in the film follows neatly a gender role that has been described by Chicana feminist scholars as the “virgin-whore” dichotomy. This rigid definition of womanhood is not unique to Latina women, as there are variants in multiple capitalist and patriarchal societies. This standard of femininity, sets women up to be held to an impossible standard to be as pious as a virgin yet when they are not able to meet that standard are considered tretcherous, lying, decietful and promiscuous.

In the film, Gina is desired for her performance of “virginity” and becomes immediately disposable when she is, presumably, found out as a “whore” by her brother. The “Bros before hoes” rule of masculinity advanced by the film thus feeds off of similar traumatic experiences experienced by men of color and exploits the sense of victimhood (isolation) that these men feel. The interests of capital give men a formula or commandment, “bros before hoes,” that maintains homonormative hetero-patriarchal relations at the expense of women. It neatly repurposes the distress and confusion caused by lived experiences of childhood sexual abuse and activates the victims desire (drive) for human connection in the service of a new misogynist masculinity that is socially accepted as “street smarts.”

The idea that all women (and less masculine men) are to be used for pleasure, are to be “fucked,” permeates these industries from the most subtle suggestive poses in mall displays at Victoria’s Secret, to the more overt pornography industry all of which hinge upon men’s frozen (at the moment of trauma) desire for human closeness.

What is often taken for granted in the mainstream film and music industries, however, is far from subtle. In Scarface (1983) Tony Montana did not stop with his sister, his object of desire was Elvira Hancock a character played by a pale and anorexic Michelle Pfieffer, a white woman. This object of desire will be addressed in the next segment of this series.

After possessing Hancock, Tony Montana in one incident of verbal abuse and denigration, tells Elvira to get a job, that “Anything’s gotta be better than lying around all day waiting for me to fuck you” (Scarface 1983). The idea that women are to be used for sex is repeated multiple times in this film, just as much as it is repeated in music.

This new hegemonic order provides a false direction for new generations who are navigating the confusion of distress caused by sexual violence. This distorted masculinity works in the service of capitalism. It mandates that men respect private property, and positions women and their genitals as the property of men. Whether these men are their brothers or fathers or husbands, and the distortion is that they are to be used for their pleasure. This breaks the fabric of community at the very core of familial relationships in the service of capitalism. Capitalism requires the production of distressed, fragmented, and individualized consumers.

All women are Private Property

Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. (1991) a hit song, referring to “Other Peoples Property” or “Other Peoples Pussy” or “Other Peoples Penis” (O.P.P.), was streamlined on the Radio and the newly launched MTV cable network and as a result was one of the first rap songs to become a pop hit. This song is almost exclusively about the “bros before hoes” rule of masculinity or one of its derivative mandates to not sleep with your homies girl, with the disclaimer that it is ok if the woman was disposable (a “hoe”).

It was in the context of an androgynous, punk rock driven, 1980s youth culture in the United States that Scarface (1983) provided the beginnings of an alternative and irresistable hyper-misogynist masculinity that incapsulated the homoerotics of the previous decades sexual revolution and repackaged it in a misogynistic and heteronormative brand of masculinity that thrived upon the distresses caused by incest, sexual abuse, rape and genocide.

To be honest, in my opinion the interests of capital were not very creative, as they recast the Western’s genre, which had been (re)packaged into the Kung Fu epics of Bruce Lee, which was then (re)packaged into films like Scarface (1983), La Bamba (1987), Boyz N the Hood (1991), American Me (1992), CB4 (1993), Menace II Society (1993), Blood In, Blood Out (1993). They were successful in part because they were so familiar, though cast with brown faces.

These films that shaped masculinities of color borrowed from earlier Western and Kung Fu based franchises like The Godfather, Rambo, Rocky, Star Trek and Star Wars all of which shared similar distortions around the trauma of war, masculinity, homoerotic desire, and incest.

I believe that vibrant youth cultures of the 1980s and the social movements from which they were forged were hijacked by the interests of capital at this historical moment, to serve ideological state apparati such as the media, music industry, film industry and academia to re-establish capitalist control over the queer people, women and people of color who were engaged in liberatory movements over the previous decade and who had been winning.

The gains made by the civil rights movements of the 1950s and liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s were undone beginning in the 1980s, this was one of the more subtle yet most intimate ways this was done. It was also one of the most effective.

It worked by (re)imposing this misogynist heteronormative and capitalist masculinity as the common sense, or street smarts of the 90s generation. It is in the context of major technological advances in mass communication, including cable television (MTV) and later, the internet, that this distortion of masculinity came to be exported on a world scale in the 1990s by ideological state apparatuses that helped advance the globalization of a capitalist mentality and misogyny that was once specific to the United States of America.

I dare to say here that the hegemonic drug culture and dominant capitalist patriarchy abroad as documented by Matthew Guttman for example, and even as far back as Oscar Lewis’ studies in the 1940s, was manufactured in the U.S.A. The anthropological evidence is there if you look at the field journals of these anthropologists who document a tremendous amount of migration to Detroit, for example, from such isolated communities like Cherán, Michoacan. The most clear examples of the heavy costs of this distortion is femicide along the border and the viciousness of the violence in the drug wars in Mexico.

Though the punk rock scene never died, nor did underground hip hop, these vibrant youth cultures were forever entwined and distorted with ideologies imposed by the interests of capital.


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