The Dangers of Machismo in Telenovelas: A Critical Reading of Mariposa de Barrio

TW: Discussion of sexual violence and abuse

I’ve always loved watching TV, I think it was my way of escaping into fantasy worlds, and taking my mind off of the reality of the world we live in. Especially in grad school when I was knee deep in heavy theoretical content, all I wanted to do when I got home was dive into a reality show to escape my own reality which is what drew me to Jenni Rivera’s reality show. Yet, at the same time, being who I am, and doing the work I do, I can’t help but always have my critical mind on high. I wrote a whole dissertation on critical media literacy afterall, and the importance of viewing media from a critical lens. And let me tell you, once you turn that part of your brain on, you can’t turn it off, once you learn to view media from a critical lens, you cannot unlearn it, believe me I’ve tried. Sometimes I promise myself I’m going to watch something for pure entertainment and just enjoy it. But alas, that critical thinking part of me creeps in everytime and I play out a whole dissertation in my head about what I’m watching is problematic.

And so it was no different when I sat down to watch Mariposa de Barrio, the telenovela based on the life of Jenni Rivera. Fairly quickly into my binge session sure enough my critical brain was on high alert and I had come to the conclusion that I could probably teach a whole class on this show and the way it demonstrates toxic masculinity in all its forms and nuances. And yet I still wondered if I was just being hypercritical. I was quickly reassured by my community and even my students, that my critique was spot on! So here goes my critique. 

First of all, the show desperately needs a trigger warning, such as the one provided at the top of this article. It also desperately needs some sort of PSA, to offer resources to those who might be watching and in the middle of abusive situations themselves. Without these warnings, it’s hard to know what the intention of the producers of the show was. What were their intentions in showing the explicit violence of Jenni’s abusive relationship with her first husband? It was episode after episode of blatant violence. I really thought it could have been one montage of that experience, but it seemed they wanted to show the entire arc of that relationship. Again, I kept asking myself why!? Why did we need to see her go through all of that? And without the warnings and without space for any kind of contextualization for this experience, I wonder how viewers of the show are interpreting and internalizing these images? In a YouTube convo with Bernice Elizarraraz and Las Doctoras, we concluded that showing these types of images perpetuate the romanticising of abuse and violence. It could even perpetuate victim-blaming. 

If you find yourself asking why Jenni would stay in such a clearly toxic relationship, I encourage you to think about how her environment, family, and support system set the stage for the normalization of abuse and control.  Think about how her brothers and father’s machismo normalizes sexist power dynamics. Her brothers’ relationships with their wives clearly demonstrates they see women’s sole purpose in life to serve the husband and care for the home and children. Meanwhile her father has multiple affairs all while preaching the importance of commitment, loyalty and marriage. Think about how her own tia perpetuates patriarchal gender roles in her continual pressure for Jenni to stay in the abusive marriage because it’s “better for the children that the mother and the father stay together.” Her tia prioritizes traditional societal expectation of marriage and women over the safety and happiness of Jenni. 

The patriarchal dynamics in this novela are merely an illustration of a larger societal problem though. Jenni’s situation is not unique. We need to ask ourselves, how do we perpetuate the romanticization of abuse? Often time, violence and abuse are romanticized as products of love. “He loved her so much he hit her. If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t care enough to hit her.” That is literally the internalized message girls learn at a very young age. Think about when little boys hit little girls on the playground, and adults will tell them, “it’s because they like you.” And what consequences do little boys face when they hit or tease little girls? They are given the excuse of “boys will be boys.” Not to mention boys are also told not to cry or show emotion as those are signs of weakness. So they are not allowed to show any emotion, but they can demonstrate anger often through violence, and it’s’ all packaged as love and romance. WTF! This directly sets the stage for the normalization of abusive dynamics. 

Not to mention, the other ways in which domination and control of women are normalized. If we look at the show and the ways Jenni’s brothers are portrayed. They are supposed to be the “good ones,” they see themselves as somehow better than Trino, the abusive husband. In fact, they become upset when they realize Jenni is being abused and want to rush to defend her honor. What they fail to see, and frankly, what many men fail to see is the ways their own actions perpetuate violence. It’s easy to name the monsters, those who cause blatant harm through physical abuse while enabling other forms of controlling and manipulative behavior. 

Let’s think about when the Me Too movement hit the mainstream, and Harvey Weinstein was being accused of sexual harassment and violence. Or Bill Cosby for that matter, or R.Kelly. It was easy for us to recognize them as monsters and decide we need to “cancel” these men. And yet, if we get rid of all the monsters in our world would sexual violence go away? No!  What about your/our own father, or brother, or boyfriend, or husband, or uncle? Because even the suttle forms of sexual harassment like sexist jokes or cat-calling normalize a culture that make rape and sexual violence a byproduct of masculinity, blaming victims for being too enticing to men and their innate and uncontrollable sexual desires. We need to ask ourselves, what does your everyday sexual violence look like, how can even these so-called subtle forms of harassment perpeturate more dangerous forms of abuse? How are Jenni’s brothers no different than her abusive husband? Where do we begin?

When they show flashbacks of Jenni as a child with her brothers, they show them basically bullying her, destroying her dolls and toys all under the guise that they were teaching her how to be tough and stand up for herself. WTF! Then her mother kicks her out of the house when she gets pregnant from Trino, because she knows the father will not approve. Throughout the course of the abusive relationship, the father says that whatever happens in their marriage is none of his business and that problems in marriages are normal. This of course as he has multiple affairs. Her brothers on the other hand decide they need to be responsible to defend their sister, meanwhile they are also having affairs, and are majorly controlling their own wives, not letting them have their own lives or jobs outside of the home. 

How many times have we heard warnings from the men in our own families or communities about the dangers of predatory men, meanwhile acting in predatory ways themselves? This only proves they see women as the problem. In Jenni’s case, her brothers would tell her to toughen up so she wouldn’t get taken advantage of, putting the onus on her to be responsible if something happens. Nowhere do they take accountability for their own abusive and violent actions, nor do they hold each other accountable for that matter. Her brother’s might not have been physically abusive as Jenni’s husband was, but nonetheless, they used control and manipulation to assert the same kind of domination in their own relationships. They feel emboldened to do so because our society and culture enables this kind of behavior.

I do want to note that machismo is a product of colonization. This is to say I don’t believe Mexican culture is innately sexist, or that somehow Mexican men are worse than white men, cause white men invented sexual violence as a means of domination. Yet it’s important to recognize the complicity of Mexican men in perpetuating and enacting colonial sexual violence, and the ways in which they privilage and benefit from an inherently patriarchal society. In other words, Mexican culture is innately sexist in as much as our culture has been colonized by Eurocentric white supremacist values. Toxic masculinity is not unique to Mexican culture, but it does exist and we need to name it when we see it!

And yes, women can also perpetuate machismo as we see in Jenni’s tia. It was difficult to watch how hard she pressured Jenni, her mother and the family for Jenni to stay with Trino. Even when the sexual abuse of Jenni’s sisters and daughters was revealed the tia still took his side. How often do we hear the women in our family brush off the controlling, abusive and violent behavior of men in our families and communities? How often does sexual abuse remain secrets because of the women who keep them? I so want to point out the fundamental difference between Jenni’s brothers and her tia. Her brothers perpetuate domination because they benefit from it. Her tia perpetuate patriarchy because she is trying to survive it. For some of us, the only tools our mothers and Abuelas had against patriarchy was to succumb to it. To put their heads down and endure it for our sake. And so they passed down those tools of survival to us, they instilled in us the importance of enacting our gender roles so that we would survive. I recognize this is not the case for everyone or every family. But for some, when we have the audacity to stand against patriarchy, to stand against machismo, to demand something more and better, our mothers and abuelas often fear for us. They fear our audacity will be dangerous, and oftentimes it is. And so I believe women perpetuate machismo not from a place of domination, but from a fear of vulnerability. This is not to excuse this type of behavior, it’s merely to contextualize it within the larger framework of patriarchy and the insidious ways it permeates our society. Anyone who perpetuates violence and abuse should be held accountable, and at the end of the day those who benefit most need to be reckoned with. 

Mariposa de Barrio demonstrates all the facets of patriarchy and sexism: rape culture, sexual violence, romanticizing and normalizing abuse, toxic masculinity, societal expectaions of gender. I mean it when I say I can teach a whole class on this show and use it to cover a different topic over the course of a 15-week semester. 

Now, I have to also take the time to give Jenni the credit she so desperately deserves. Because aside from illustrating how toxic men in our culture can be, this show also clearly demonstrates the magic that is Jenni Rivera. Despite all the shit she endured, all the f-ed up men in her life, she was unapologetic about who she was. She drank tequila on stage, and cursed and talked about sex. She found exponential success in an industry and in a genre that historically marginalized and even objectified women. She broke barriers and boundaries all while mothering her children and providing a life for them. Not to mention how she supported friends and family and gave back to her community. She wrote and composed her own music, producing feminist anthems for a generation of women emboldening them to stand up against the very patriarchal dynamics she was living in. 

I think that’s why this novela was so frustrating to me, because it shows how much women and all marginalized genders for that matter must endure to simply survive. And how fucking magical she was to do what she did despite her circumstances? It reminds me how often cis-men want to stifle our magic, and how hard we have to work to shine despite it all. What would happen if we didn’t have to work so hard to simply survive and we could shine from a place of wholeness? Where would our world be? How much more magical could Jenni have been? Or Selena, or Britney or Whitney or Tina or you?

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