In Junot Diaz’s collection of short stories titled Drown, the male protagonists of the stories project their ideas about masculinity onto the women that they interact with. The resulting force is a toxic overcompensation that affects every daily interaction, whether it be with their children, their friends, their wives, or strangers. The exaggerated machismo evident throughout the book is not only representative of societal norms, it also specifically speaks to the experience of men and women within the Dominican culture. Gloria Anzaldua comments on and critiques similar traditions that exist within her culture in excerpts of her book Borderlands/La Frontera, in which she discusses the nuances of race and gender in relation to her own cultural identity.
In her book, Anzaldua writes in a combination of Spanish and English in order to simultaneously critique, alienate, and engage her readers. Her use of “Spanglish” allows her to create a space for herself to voice her opinion that does not exist within either the Chicano or White American cultures that surround her. Furthermore, her focus on borders, in particular those that exist between languages, cultures, and genders, allows her to emphasize how many people do not fit into either side of a binary. This is a problem that heavily affects the Latino immigrant community in the United States because assimilating to the American way of life marks them as traitors to their culture, despite the fact that they are never wholly accepted by American culture regardless of what they sacrifice. Women are even more so affected because, according to Anzaldua, “culture is made by those in power‒men” (Anzaldua 1018). While men struggle to find an identity within a new environment, women are not even welcome within their own culture. Anzaldua asserts, “nothing of my culture approved of me” and “every bit of self-faith I’d painstakingly gathered took a beating daily” (Anzaldua 1018). She was discouraged from pursuing interests such as “studying, reading, painting, writing,” and her refusal to fulfill the role of housewife resulted in her family writing her off as “lazy” (Anzaldua 1018). Since men are inherently powerful in her culture, they are able to “make the rules and laws” while “women transmit them” (Anzaldua 1018). This means that, although women do not play a part in creating the ideological beliefs of their culture, they reify them through their behavior. A women in the Chicano culture is a good subject of ideology by “renouncing herself in favor of the male” and by “remaining a virgen until she marries” (Anzaldua 1018). Women also verbally perpetuate oppressive behavior against their gender by teaching their daughters to be subservient to men. Anzaldua proves this point by referencing her own personal experience:
How many times have I heard mothers and mothers-in-law tells their sons to beat their
wives for not obeying them, for being hociconas (big mouths), for being callejeras
(going to visit and gossip with neighbors), for expecting their husbands to help with the
rearing of children and the housework, for wanting to be something other than
housewives? (Anzaldua 1018).
This is exemplified in Diaz’s short stories, as the female characters are compliant to men, even in the face of blatant disrespect. In the real world of Anzaldua and in the fictional world created by Drown, women are objectified in ways that serve men, whether they are being sexualized or degraded in a way that allows men to take out their fears and frustrations without compromising their masculinity or power.
Perhaps one of the most notable signifiers of gender discrimination in Drown is the constant sexualization of every female character that the male protagonists encounter. This begins early in the book, as the first story “Ysrael” features a young Rafa telling his brother, “I’m going to go crazy‒chinga all my girls and then chinga everyone else’s” (Diaz 4). From an early age, boys are taught to view girls as sexual conquests rather than as people. One instance is in the story, “How to Date a Browngirl…” in which the narrator, which is assumed to be Yunior, attempts to give dating advice and assures the reader, “If she’s a whitegirl you know you’ll at least get a hand job” (Diaz 144). Throughout this story, Yunior dehumanizes all girls by stripping them of their individuality and viewing them merely as vessels for sex. He tells the reader, “A local girl may have hips and a thick ass but she won’t be quick about letting you touch… She might kiss you and then go, or she might, if she’s reckless give it up… A whitegirl might just give it up right then.” (Diaz 147). In addition, adult men encourage this behavior, which can be seen in the story “Fiesta, 1980” when Yunior’s uncle Miguel tells him and his mother that “back in Santo Domingo, he’d be getting laid by now” (Diaz 31). In this scene, Miguel treats the subject of sexual intercourse as a rite of passage for men. Meanwhile, double standards in Latino culture create a paradoxical situation in which men are expected to have sex with women, who are scorned if they do not remain virginal until marriage. For this reason, men are allowed to be much more vocal about the women that they interact with, while women must remain secretive. For example, in the story “Edison, New Jersey,” a casual conversation between the narrator and his friend Wayne occurs in which the narrator is asked, “Did you at least get some?” and he replies, “Hell yeah… Homegirl was an animal. I still have the teeth marks” (Diaz 138). In each of the stories, men assert their masculinity and project their insecurities about their own sexuality onto women by controlling the narrative and by dramatizing their sexual encounters in ways that make them seem powerful.
Another way in which men overcompensate for their fragile masculinity is through physical violence against women. Yunior and Rafa’s Papi exerts physical power over his wife in the story “Fiesta, 1980,” first seen when he walked into a room and Yunior narrates that he “didn’t say nothing to nobody, not even my moms. He just pushed past her,” (Diaz 23). His physical presence is so overt that Yunior describes his younger sister being “too scared to open her eyes” because “being around Papi all her life had turned her into a major-league wuss. Anytime Papi raised his voice her lip would start trembling, like some specialized tuning fork” (Diaz 26). Madai has been taught submission to men from an early age‒the dynamic between her mother and father being her first example of a relationship. Physical violence is also a common theme in the story “Aurora,” which is supposed to be primarily about love. Lucero attempts to reconcile his abusive relationship with Aurora when he says, “she once tried to jam a pen in my thigh, but that was the night I punched her chest black-and-blue so I don’t think it counts” (Diaz 53). In another scene, he juxtaposes a tender moment when she “ran her nails over my side” with the statement, “a week from then she would be asking me again, begging actually, telling me all the good things we’d do and after a while I hit her and made the blood come out of her ear like a worm” (Diaz 65). The casual nature in which violence against women is described throughout the stories of this collection emphasize how it is accepted within the culture.
The voicelessness of women in the Latino culture is another common thread between the stories. In “Fiesta, 1980,” Yunior comments on a fight between his parents, saying, “Papi’s voice was loud and argumentative; you didn’t have to be anywhere near him to catch his drift. And Mami, you had to put cups to your ears to hear hers” (Diaz 33). In this scene, Papi’s voice physically overpowers Mami’s, thus silencing her. In another passage, a conflict erupts because “Mami didn’t think these excursions would cure anything, but the one time she had brought it up to Papi he had told her to shut up, what did she know about anything anyway?” (Diaz 35). Unsurprisingly, Papi invalidates Mami’s feelings by not allowing her to speak. Even when Mami realizes that she is being cheated on, Yunior notes that “everything was calmer than usual. And Mami didn’t look like she was about to say anything to Papi” (Diaz 40). She has accepted her own submission to him and does not speak up, even when she is clearly being taken advantage of. The Girlfriend character in “Boyfriend,” similarly has her thoughts trivialized, the narrator explaining how the Boyfriend character “listened to what she had to say, arguments that had taken her hours to put together, and then he would sigh and say it didn’t matter” (Diaz 113). It is clear that Boyfriend does not believe any of her thoughts hold any weight. He manipulates her by appearing to listen to what she has to say, even though his mind is set before the conversation begins.
In ways such as this, men are able to constantly reestablish control over women, since they do not give them space to voice their opinions. Diaz also makes clear that this is a common occurrence, as he does not even name the characters, instead giving them archetypal labels. The harsh reality of Diaz’s world is that women must submit to men, even if they are capable of existing on their own. This is proven by the ending story “Negocios” because, even after everything her husband put her through, “Mami forgave him for what he had done” (Diaz 177).
Anzaldua, Gloria. “Borderlands/La Frontera.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Michael Ryan
and Julie Rivkin. 2nd ed. N.p.: Blackwell, 2004. 1017-1030. Print.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996. Print.