The Intersections of Race and Gender in Drown
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.
Masculinity Complexes in Junot Diaz’s “Drown”
Boldly forthright and bitterly candid, Junot Diaz’s “Drown” forges a sense of community culture that propels the development of several of the work’s major themes, foremost among them the retention of historically accepted implications of masculinity. Whereas subjects such as dissecting the infamous coming of age narrative or examining the futility of the ‘American Dream’ may appear more readily accessible or simple to grasp, this central, cultural, and intellectual complex of machismo proves to be the true agent that drives both these ideas and countless others explored by Diaz through his protagonist, Yunior.
The masculine insecurities that Yunior experiences can be anticipated as early as the opening lines of “Drown,” with the dismissal of his former friend Beto on the basis of his homosexuality. However, this rejection is a complex one, as Yunior relates,
My mother tells me Beto’s home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV. Only when she’s in bed do I put on my jacket and swing through the neighborhood to see. He’s a pato now but two years ago we were friends and he would walk into the apartment without knocking, his heavy voice rousing my mother from the Spanish of her room and drawing me up from the basement, a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles or grandfathers (Diaz 91).
Here, while Yunior’s spurning of Beto is apparent, his simultaneous reminiscence of times past with his friend reveal a great deal more on the subject of masculinity. Rather than merely stating that he and Beto were no longer on good terms, Yunior makes sure to highlight Beto’s homosexuality with the Spanish term, ‘pato’, a subtle act of desperation made in order to distance himself from the cultural taboo such an orientation entails. However, even in these opening lines of “Drown,” Yunior begins to expose his genuine sentiments on the subject of masculinity. By emphasizing Beto’s dominance, his ‘heavy voice’ that roused his mother and drew him up from the basement, ‘a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles and grandfathers’, it becomes clear that Yunior is intrigued, if not obsessed, with the notion of machismo. Relating Beto to an uncle or grandfather figure, the respect and admiration Yunior has, or had, for his friend’s masculinity and confidence can be noted quite clearly. Conversely, Yunior’s decision to wait until his mother falls asleep before going to try and see Beto further reveals his desire to hide any relation to a man who may be criticized in terms of masculinity, an effort that ironically reveals the fragility of his own sexual confidence. Commenting on their past adventures together, Yunior explains,
We were raging then, crazy the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us (Diaz 92).
Emphasizing recklessness and abandon in multiple instances, Yunior attempts to showcase his and Beto’s facade of masculinity, as well as the bravado it culturally implies. And yet it is ultimately Yunior that displays the more sensitive nature between the himself and Beto, as upon being caught shoplifting he recalls,
I started to cry. Beto didn’t say a word, his face stretched out and gray, his hand squeezing mine, the bones in our fingers pressing together (Diaz 99).
While Beto, the pato, remains stoic in the face of prosecution, Yunior begins crying, shedding the stereotypical attributes of machismo. This irony, in conjunction with the powerful image of Yunior and Beto’s hands clenching together, further complicates the already multifaceted nature of Yunior’s sexuality, bringing into question his ‘masculine’ identity. In a scene that encapsulates the masculine sentiment of this Dominican-American enclave in New Jersey, Yunior’s friend Alex, in reference to a gay man,
… just puts his head out the window. Fuck you! he shouts and then settles back in his seat, laughing. That’s original, I say (Diaz 103).
Aside from merely highlighting the cruel attitude toward those with stereotypically deviant sexualities, this incident also shows that Yunior isn’t completely spiteful or even apathetic towards homosexuals, seeming to almost come to their defense when abused by Alex. Therefore, through a multitude of subtle yet clear innuendos, Yunior’s latently complex and delicate masculinity reveals itself to be infinitely more fragile than he attempts to make it appear.
In this case study of masculinity, arguably the most powerful formative influence on Yunior, both sexually and emotionally, is his mother. The masculine burden Yunior feels compelled to carry with respect to his mother can be traced to their abandonment by his father, as described by his happening upon his parents talking:
She’s talking to my father, something she knows I disapprove of. He’s in Florida now, a sad guy who calls her and begs for money. He swears that if she moves down there he’ll leave the woman he’s living with. These are lies, I’ve told her, but she still calls him. His words coil inside of her, wrecking her sleep for days (Diaz 100).
Embittered by his father’s abandonment, Yunior loses all respect for the man, calling him a ‘sad guy’ and a liar. More significantly than his personal attitude towards his father, however, is Yunior’s concern for the effects of his father’s words on his mother. The vivid imagery of his father’s destructive effects on his mother is a detail that relates the compassion and sensitivity of Yunior, as well as his outstanding quality of loyalty. When his father leaves, Yunior feels obliged to contribute to household income and care for his mother, two stereotypically masculine qualities. Even going so far as to entertain his mother, Yunior reflects,
Saturdays she asks me to take her to the mall. As a son I feel I owe her that much… Before we head out she drags us through the apartment to make sure the windows are locked… Putting my hand on the latch is not enough-she wants to hear it rattle (Diaz 96).
Yunior’s bond with his mother is one that is only emboldened by the departure of his father, and the symbolic locking of the windows that occurs both here and at the end of the work symbolizes his devotion and his mother’s insecurity. Just as she wants to hear the locks rattle to make sure they are secure, Yunior’s mother makes sure to hold on to and hold back her son. Stepping in to fill the hole his father left behind at such a young age is a responsibility that advanced Yunior’s notions of the masculine at an alarmingly early time in life, while simultaneously corrupting his views of acceptance in an effort to preserve the qualities that he believes to support his mother. This internal struggle of self identity, this divide between the ‘masculine’ and the otherwise, boils over when Yunior relates,
My mother sensed that something was wrong and pestered me about it, but I told her to leave me the fuck alone, and my pops, who was home on a visit, stirred himself from the couch to slap me down. Mostly I stayed in the basement, terrified that I would end up abnormal, a fucking pato, but he was my best friend and back then that mattered to me more than anything (Diaz 104).
After Beto’s first sexual advance, Yunior’s carefully designed facade of masculinity seems to crumble around him, triggered subsequently by his mother. When asked what is bothering him, Yunior snaps back with an explicative, unable to contain the terror he feels in that moment. His mother, the reason for his machismo, the inspiration for the masculine identity he has constructed, is questioning him on an incident he can tell her nothing about; an incident that would be damning in the harsh cultural enclave they live in. This image of Yunior staying in the basement, afraid of ‘becoming’ homosexual, is therefore a symbol of his reluctance to come to terms with his sexuality, as well as one that represents the pressure he faces to maintain the illusion of masculinity in a society that denounces any inkling of the otherwise.
The masculine tragedy of “Drown” can be encapsulated by Yunior’s commentary of a scene he watches on television with his mother:
The actors throw themselves around, passionate, but their words are plain and deliberate. It’s hard to imagine anybody going through life this way (Diaz 107).
Yunior ironically goes through his life in the exact opposite way, one that is equally painful to watch. Filled with passion and emotion, Yunior is unable to express it, bottling feelings inside himself in order to comply with the preconceived cultural notions of masculinity surrounding him. Initially a spectator of those around him ‘drowning,’ such as his mother and Beto, Yunior is eventually overwhelmed himself, closing the window on both his literal and emotional potential, a victim to suffocation at the hands of cultural expectations.
Trying to Swim, or at Least Float
Sexuality does matter. It does not matter according to the theoretical, the moral, the logical and sensible definitions of meaning, but it does matter. For those who do not identify as heterosexual, and sometimes even for those who do, liberation of the self is an ideal that many people would hold for them just out of reach. No matter how comfortable an individual can be with his or her sexuality, there have always been and will always be those who view such with ignorance and reprehensible vile, who make no secret of it, who try to minimize and belittle and dehumanize a person because of their sexuality. This is what occurs in Junot Díaz’s short story Drown. A tale of two friends and a relationship gone awry because of sexuality, Drown strikes a particularly melancholic tone with its sense of futility and loss and lack of understanding. In his story, Díaz puts forth the notion that sexuality truly does make a difference, even in the face of supreme love, and that claiming it does not matter is in its own right a form of ignorance.
Throughout Drown, Díaz works to establish that even the strongest and most beloved of relationships can turn fickle. While love in and of itself may be unconditional, its manifestation and means of being shared with others certainly are not. Díaz’s character Yunior dearly loves his best friend Beto, but he nevertheless betrays this friendship and everything it means when Beto reveals himself to be gay. After Yunior and Beto’s first sexual encounter, Yunior says that “[Beto] was [his] best friend and back then that mattered to [him] more than anything,” and that is why he goes to see him again (Díaz 104). What Yunior makes obvious is that something much more sinister ultimately means the most to him, more to him than Beto, as he ends up throwing their friendship away because he cannot accept Beto’s homosexuality. Yunior’s abandonment of Beto, whatever his reluctance, is ingrained in him to be only a natural reaction to such a revelation as the one Beto delivers; raised in a culture where gay men are referred to as “fags” and “patos”, where it is acceptable to drive to a gay bar to point a plastic gun at someone just to see their reaction, Yunior is not trained to recognize or understand homosexuality as perfectly fine. Consequently, Yunior does not defy his culture and surroundings. He says that when talking to his mother about why he and Beto are no longer friends, he “tried to explain, all wise-like, that everything changes, but she thinks that sort of saying is only around so [he] can prove it wrong,” (Díaz 95). Yunior proves his mother right when he chooses to believe what he has been taught and told and cuts Beto out of his life, engaging in the cyclical perpetuation of homosexuality as a matter of great importance.
Yunior’s abandonment of his friend relates not just to Beto’s sexuality, but Yunior’s as well. Díaz implies in Drown that before his first encounter with Beto, Yunior has no sexual experience. He says that when Beto reaches into his shorts (with a dry hand, indicating that Beto is not nervous, and therefore probably familiar with what he is doing) he comes immediately. Whatever love exists between Yunior and Beto is far from apparent in their first encounter. There is no emotion, just carnal physicality.Afterwards, he says that he is “terrified that [he] would end up abnormal, a fucking pato,” (Díaz 104). Yunior does not know who he is, but he knows, or at least thinks he knows, that homosexuality is not allowed, and he is afraid. Yunior’s fear of the implications of sexuality is far from unfounded. As Allan G. Johnson says in his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, “of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people. This is why being shunned or banished is among the most painful punishments to endure, a social death. It[is] not surprising, then, that inclusion and acceptance are key aspects of privilege,” (Johnson 55). Yunior knows all of this, and it is the source of his proclaimed terror. Regardless of whether he is gay or straight or even bisexual, Yunior does not want such a punishment for himself, and he therefore sees his only recourse to be imposing it upon Beto. He does not even pause to truly analyze his own thoughts and feelings, what he believes to be right and wrong. He acts only in self-defense, exemplifying the tragic truth that sexuality is not a matter of no consequence. Díaz, while establishing the unfortunate yet undeniable relevance of sexuality, also comments in Drown upon the line friendship walks in terms of intimacy.
In his book The Transformation of Sexuality: Gender and Identity in Contemporary Youth Culture, Thomas Johansson says that “male fellowship may be discussed and analysed in terms of homosociality. This form of sociality constitutes a mixture of a desire for intimacy…and a need for maintaining fixed boundaries in relation to the surrounding world…this apparently strong male fellowship originates both in a longing for and a fear of intimacy, and is characterized by…considerable homophobia. Hugs, kisses and other intimate behaviors are enveloped in careful rules and norms,” (Johansson 28). Johansson asserts that male interaction often consists of very rigidly defined pre-determined parameters made up of conflicting desires. This is certainly the case for Yunior and Beto.
Even before any sex acts occur between them, there is an explicitly sexual element to their relationship. Watching porn together, even if it is heterosexual porn, has extremely homosexual overtones that neither Yunior nor Beto acknowledge, or even seem to recognize as existing. This, however, is fine in Yunior’s eyes, as long as no definitive action is taken to make their interactions explicitly homosexual. It is a fine line they walk, between friendship and something more, between heterosexuality and homosociality and homosexuality, between what is acceptable and what is not, but as soon as it is crossed there is no way of stepping back. There is no analysis in Drown of morality, of what Yunior or Beto should or should not have done, what choices they should or should not have made, who they should or should not be. In his book What’s Wrong With Homosexuality? John Corvino says “morality is about how [people] treat one another…it[is] about ideals we hold up for ourselves and one another. It[is] about the kind of society [people] want to be: what [they] will embrace, what [they] will tolerate, and what [they] will forbid,” (Corvino 6).
While the trademarks of morality, as explained by Corvino, are highly prevalent in Drown, there is no actual discussion of it. Drown is simply a relation of a story, told without remorse or sorrow, or at least not enough to be truly relevant, and it tells of no hope for reconciliation or understanding and catharsis. Instead, it implies that there is a need for forgiveness, that Yunior would have to forgive Beto for him being gay in order for them to have any kind of a relationship again. This is one of the main tragedies of the situation, that homosexuality has to be forgiven when it ought not have to make a difference at all. There are many who like to say that it does not matter if a person is gay or straight or bisexual or anything else, and intrinsically speaking, this is plenty true. Morally speaking, in regards to how people treat one another as Corvino says, sexual orientation should not matter, should not be a reason to treat a person better or worse than anyone else; a person is a person, no matter their sexual orientation.
However, something that should not matter is far different than something that does not matter. Certainly there are plenty of individuals who do not regard sexual orientation as particularly important to their interactions with others, but there are also far too many individuals for whom the opposite is true, individuals who embrace heterosexuality, tolerate homosociality, and forbid homosexuality, or at least its practice. It is the existence of both of these types of people that creates the reality of sexuality as a matter of great consequence, one way or another. Yunior is one of the individuals of the former category, regardless of what he himself actually identifies, or will come to identify, as.
The argument put forth by Junot Díaz in Drown is that sexual orientation does indeed matter, despite whatever claims, as accurate as they should be, to the contrary. It is a tragic story he relates through the voice of Yunior, one of friendship and possibly even something more lost because of lack of understanding. Sexuality is a cause for contention, is a case of morality, is something with the power to divide. Though Díaz does not discuss morality, by relating the story as he does he does portray the devastation that not understanding it can relate. Beto goes from being Yunior’s best friend, the person he states matters to him more than anything, to being nothing more than a “pato,” a “fag.” This does not, nor should it, have to be the case but it irrevocably is.
Public and Private Spheres in Drown
In Drown by Junot Diaz, there are decisive spaces for men and women within the text. Yunior and his mother demonstrate a compelling and complex dichotomy between a dependent maternal figure and an independent male figure. These two figures are each unique in their presentations of masculinity and femininity as they exist outside of traditional gender roles and expression. However, by transcending gender expectations, both Yunior and his mother are policed and ostracized because they do not adhere to normative ideologies.
Yunior’s mother represents traditional Latinidad roles as she remains loyal and supportive of her son and husband. Conversely, Yunior’s mother is presented as maintaining distance between herself and her son, as the only things that pass between them are money, silence, and protection. Undoubtedly, she is playing a role that she cannot escape, because if she did not adhere to societal norms she would lose her connection to her son and her sense of safety. Physically, Yunior’s mother predominantly exists in the domestic sphere, wading from room to room in silence. As Yunior describes her, “She’s so quiet that most of the time I’m startled to find her in the apartment” (Diaz, 94). Metaphorically, this silence represents her inability to express her true desires or her true self. The importance of silence permeates the text as Yunior’s mother becomes the embodiment of isolated fears within the familial relationships. Yunior struggles to understand how his mother maintains a sense of loyalty and even love for Yunior’s father, especially when Yunior remains a target of fears and anxieties throughout his youth. Misery and loneliness are etched into her very being, as is evident when she treats a trip to the mall like a celebrated occasion. Like Yunior himself, Yunior’s mother deviates from the norm. The phone calls to her former husband demonstrate a type of yearning that is non-normative and thus regulated by Yunior, who believes that his mother’s desire to remain close to her husband reflects his own repressed desires surrounding Beto.
Though Yunior does not necessarily mimic his mother’s relationship with Yunior’s father, he nonetheless construes his desire and potential desperation for Beto as a flaw that connects him and his mother. The central fear for Yunior is that he will inevitably experience the world as his mother has experienced it and crave the attention and love that a man like Yunior’s father can provide. For Yunior, this means that he cannot offer love and comfort; instead, he must offer stability and strength. These masculine ideologies persist throughout the text and are specifically maintained by Yunior in the face of a sexual awakening, potential job opportunities, and his role as the rock in the domestic sphere.
Yunior’s sexuality is clearly something that affects his identity as a man of machismo. However, there are clear distinctions made within the text between what is socially accepted and what Yunior is willing to participate in. Yunior has no problem with drug dealing because he believes that, as a product of an economically unstable environment, dealing is a choice that’s worth the risk if it yields an effective gain. Beto and Yunior’s sexual experiences, however, negatively affect Yunior self-image and drive him towards self-deprecation. The two encounters take place in Beto’s home, which gives the boys a sense of safety in their isolation and security in their expression of desire. Though these experiences are not morally problematic, Yunior cannot handle the thought of his social deviance, and that thought is what causes him to resent Beto. Crucially, Yunior does seek out Beto at the pool where they used to hang out during the summers. The pool represents their ability to be fluid in their expressions of sexuality and youthful in the midst of a transitional period in their lives.
Diaz purposefully avoids placing his characters into boxes because each individual has complex identities that are policed by themselves, their communities, and other institutional systems. Public and private spheres of expression are crucial for Yunior and his mother, allowing them to symbolically express their desires without complying with normative behaviors. Without the ability to go to the mall or call her husband, Yunior’s mother is rendered silent and in some ways becomes a ghost of what she once had — a persona which only exists in photos and in her own mind. Yunior struggles to maintain control of himself and his own desires, as well as the desires of his mother. By policing his mother’s actions, Yunior is able to protect his own cognitive dissonance with his own behaviors that exist outside of the performance of his perception of masculinity. Yunior and his mother deviate from normative behaviors, but in doing so are able to fully express their desires and transcend traditional gender roles.
Fragmented Masculinity: A Critical Analysis of Junot Diaz’s Drown
The effects and significance of unequal powers between males and females appearing in literature has been a popular topic in literary criticism. While a universal way of reading texts from a gender approach is yet to be defined. Kimmel, Hearn & Connell (2005) argued that all literary texts involving characters show a certain degree of the author’s supports to either masculinity or femininity. This essay adopts the definitions of masculinity and fragmented masculinity proposed by Gardiner (2005), Hofestede (1998) and Whitehead (2002); and argues that Drown written by Junot Diaz portrays the idea of fragmented masculinity. This paper first defines fragmented masculinity. Then, the significance of the absent father figures of protagonists; and the protagonists’ objection towards feminine behaviors as reflected in Ysrael, Aguantando, No Face and Edison, New Jersey will be featured.
The concept of fragmented masculinity was first coined by Whitehead which refers to a male’s misinterpretations and failure to achieve wholeness of masculinity (Whitehead, 2002). Masculinity in literary context refers to the description and enforcement of confined roles and identities of male in the text (Gardiner, 2005; Hofestede, 1998). It includes emphasis of possession of qualities, or characteristics considered typical of or appropriate to a man. Argued by Gardiner (2005), it is a social construction but not an in-born one. Different males have to construct their own masculinity throughout their lives based on their own cultures and others’ perceptions so to form part of their own identity. It implies that the concept of masculinity may vary from one place to another. When males fail to discover or construct the commonly accepted masculinity, this will lead to fragmentation of masculinity. They cannot fully recognize and understand the identities and roles of being a man. In many situations, they will show a heavy reliance of father figures, strong objection to any feminist idea and abnormal violent actions to show case their masculinity in an abnormal way. But these are just fragments instead of a true masculine wholeness which only serves as a kind of psychological compensation (Reeser, 2010).
The text’s portrayal of fragmented masculinity can be discussed in two aspects. First, characters in Drown rely heavily on their father figures to learn about masculinity. In Ysrael, it tells the tragic story of the narrator, later revealed as Yunior; and his older brother, Rafa. Both their father and mother have been absent in the story leading to Yunior and Rafa being left behind. Without sufficient parental guidance, the two boys bullied Ysrael whose face was mangled by a pig when he was an infant. He has long been wearing a mask and to know what is behind it, Rafa plans to take off his mask. At the moment when Yunior remains unknown to Rafa’s plan, there is a conversation with Ysrael in a kite field. “We couldn’t find it, Rafa said. How stupid are you? Where did you get that? I asked. Nueva York, he said. From my father. No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted” The captioned conversation reveals that survival of the entire family can be highly dependent upon fathers. Argued by Gardiner (2005), males will assume a role model as the basis while constructing masculinity; and presence of father figure is an important element for a full construction. But in the captioned scenario, their father’s abandonment has caused the absence of father figures in their lives which have led to fragmented masculinity. This is portrayed by their cruelty on Ysrael at a later scene.
In a later story Aguantando, we can find that the protagonist even have negative views towards their father. “when Abuelo was around (and awake)he talked to me about the good old days, when a man could still make a living from his finca, when the United States wasn’t some-thing people planned on” “he was the soldier in the photo. He was a cloud of cigar smoke, the traces of which could still be found on the uniforms he’d left behind”. In such a limited closet when their father cannot be a role model in their minds, the main power and force shifting their masculinity becomes a responsibility of their peers. To fulfill their desires of being a man, they can only rely on a collective vision of masculinity as there has been nothing for them to follow. Sadly in many cases, it becomes a kind of hyper-masculinity (Marsiglio & Pleck, 2005). Hyper-masculinity is a key consequence of absence of father figure as they can only be extremely cruel and selfish to maintain their social status and masculinity among their peers. This happens throughout the entire novel: in Ysrael, the males bully Yarael; in Aguantando, they show a tremendous desire of protagonists for girls. ” I’m going to go crazy—chinga all my girls and then chinga everyone else’s” Lack of masculinity finally leads to an overwhelming masculinity. They have no way but to over-exert masculinity on others who are weaker than them, on girls who are regarded as fragile so to maintain a kind of psychological compensation (Newkirk, 2002). This is a way for them to prove their own existences in the world. On the other hand, it also demonstrates their prolonged oppressions over society through their expressions of patriarchal privilege in which they have been lacking of. Riofrio (2003) argued this as a way of Diaz allowance for us “to consider Rafa as a stand-in for the hegemonizing process of masculinity”, though at last it fails and remains a misinterpreted and fragmented masculinity.
The second argument falls on the protagonists’ strong reluctance to femininity. In the novel, empathy, as a feminine act, is being portrayed as dangerous and problematic. In Edison, New Jersey, the narrator makes a conscious decision not to empathize when faced with his partner Wayne’s desire to commit adultery: “I really want to pile her, he tells me. Maybe on one of the Madisons. Man, I say, cutting my eyes towards him. Don’t you have a wife or something? He gets quiet. I’d still like to pile her, he says defensively. And what will that do? Why does it have to do anything? Twice this year Wayne’s cheated on his wife and I’ve heard it all, the before and the after. Wayne can be a moody guy and this is one of those nights; he slouches in the driver’s seat and swerves through traffic, riding other people’s bumpers like I’ve told him not to do. I don’t need a collision or a four-hour silent treatment so I try to forget that I think his wife is good people and ask him if Charlene’s given him any signals. He slows the truck down. Signals like you wouldn’t believe, he says.” The narrator initially shows his empathy to Wayne’s wife. However, with the story’s progression, empathy brings negative consequences. At last, the narrator sacrifices Wayne’s wife for a peaceful work-day making her the victim of this rejection of empathy. Such victimization of women is closely related to their association as empathetic and feminine beings. Showing empathy can possibly diminish the existing masculinity of the narrator which he has lacked of (Martin & Finn, 2010). Their daily struggles to avoid any possible feminine nature in their life can also be seen as a significant part to craft their own masculinity so they tend not to be emphatic.
From another perspective, masculinity is in fact fragile in their minds. In a scene of another story No Face when Ysrael is bullied by his peers, there says: “We’re going to make you a girl, the fat one says and he can hear the words echoing through the meat of the fatboy’s body. He wants to breathe but his lungs are as tight as pockets. You ever been a girl before? I betcha he hasn’t. It ain’t a lot of fun.” Assault of Ysrael is made more terrifying by the threat of rape. Action of raping here suggests an implied meaning that the boys who are threatening Ysrael can equally be raped suggesting their underneath weaknesses (Jayasena, 2007). A similar scenario in the opening story Ysrael, there shows a similar sign of the protagonists’ reluctance to empathy. “Where did you get that? I asked, Nueva York, he said. From my father. No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted, I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. What the hell are you wearing that mask for anyway? Rafa asked, I’m sick, Ysrael said. It must be hot. Not for me. Don’t you take it off? Not until I get better, I’m going to have an operation soon. You better watch out for that, Rafa said. Those doctors will kill you faster than the Guardia……” This conversation reveals Yunior’s initial understanding to empathy and his eagerness to be emphatic. Yunior shows his empathy through his words of caring like “It must be hot” and “Don’t you take it off?”. His empathy reaches a peak point when he abandons his brother’s side in order to catch up with Ysreal who has run ahead of them. “Are you still into wrestling? I asked. He turned to me and something rippled under the mask. How did you know that? I heard, I said…… The mask twitched, I realized he was smiling and then my brother brought his arm around and smashed the bottle on top of his head. It exploded, the thick bottom spinning away like a crazed eyeglass and I said. Holy fucking shit……Roll him on his back, my brother said and we did, pushing like crazy, Rafa took off his mask and threw its pinning into the grass. His left ear was a nub and you could see the thick veined slab of his tongue through a hole in his cheek,,,,The damage looked old but I still jumped back and said. Please Rafa, let’s go! Rafa crouched and using only two of his fingers, turned Ysrael’s head from side to side.” But exactly at this moment, Rafa breaks his continuous silence by bringing the bottle crashing down on the unsuspecting Ysrael. Arguably the most powerful part in the novel (Riofrio, 2003), this scene implies a tragic fact that Ysrael is unable to maintain his empathy in his community, but to be a cruel man to maintain his masculinity so do his social status. However, they can never achieve masculine wholeness as they never have a full understanding of the concept of masculinity, what has left is a fragmented masculinity full of misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
In the captioned analysis, there argues Junot Diaz’s Drown portrays the idea of fragmented masculinity. The two aforementioned arguments have well supported the thesis. In fact, the notion of gender is common in Junot Diaz’s writing (Jarrett & Delgadillo, 2010). Reading of his text may follow the approach as suggested in this essay, which shall be able to give us a better understanding of his writing and himself.
Gardiner, J. K. (2005). Men, masculinities, and feminist theory in Michael S. K., Jeff H., & Connell, R.W. (Eds.), Handbook of studies on men & masculinities (pp. 35-50). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Hofstede, G. H. (1998). Masculinity and femininity: the taboo dimension of national cultures. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Jarrett, G. A. & Delgadillo, T. (2010). Latino Literature and the African Diaspora. New York: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Jayasena, N. (2007). Contested masculinities: crises in colonial male identity from Joseph Conrad to Satyajit Ray. New York: Routledge. Marsiglio, W. & Pleck, J. H. (2005). Fatherhood and masculinities in Michael S. K., Jeff H., & Connell, R.W. (Eds.), Handbook of studies on men & masculinities (pp. 249-269). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Martin, H. & Finn, S. E. (2010). Masculinity and femininity in the MMPI-2 and MMPI-A. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press. Michael, S. K., Jeff, H. & Connell, R.W. (2005). Handbook of studies on men & masculinities. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Newkirk, T. (2002). Misreading masculinity : boys, literacy, and popular culture. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann. Reeser, T. W. (2010). Masculinities in theory: an introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Riofrio, J. (2003). Situating Latin American Masculinity: Immigration, empathy and emasculation in Junot Diaz’s Drown, Junio XXVIII Num 1, 23-38. Whitehead, S.M. (2002). Men and Masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Racism and Classism in Modern America: “How to date a browngirl”
Racism in Modern America “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Diaz is a short story narrated by Yunior, a teen of Latino descent. In this short narrative, Yunior walks the reader through the steps to date and engage in sexual relations with different types of girls, changing his strategy based on the girl’s race. While on the surface the narrator appears to be experienced and content with picking up girls by his methods, as the story progresses it becomes obvious that Yunior is forced to mask his personality and his origins in order to get dates. Diaz uses specific rules depending on the date, making Yunior change everything from his race, language, and home in order to have a chance at winning a date. Yunior’s desperate chase for physical intimacy at the expense of his own identity and origin ultimately is what Diaz points out is occurring all throughout America. In Junot Diaz’s “How to date a browngirl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)”, the narrator Yunior is used as a symbol of the stereotypes and deference towards authority typical of minorities, which highlights the disparity between race and class that Yunior is a victim of.
While the narrator puts on the airs of a macho guy, his fear of authority is exposed in his interactions with white and upper class figures. When he describes his date’s father picking up the telephone, Yunior immediately tells the reader “He’ll ask, Who is this? Hang up. He sounds like a principal or a police chief, the sort of dude with a big neck, who never has to watch his back”(1). Diaz highlights the fear of authority that the young, poor and Dominican Yunior has towards authority. The choices of principal or police chief are used as examples of figures feared primarily by minorities. The police have always been viewed as a white organization by minorities and are treated by Yunior with disrespect, who hangs up simply because of what the father sounds like. Before the narrator can interact with this powerful authority figure from the upper class neighborhood, his fear of what the father’s powers represents prompts him to hang up, Yunior assuming that the father would dislike and look down on him. He is unable to connect with the father because of the racial disparity that is evident in the striking contrast with Yunior’s living conditions and that of his dates. While white girls or halfies usually drive Jeeps or Hondas and “grew up with ballet and Girl Scouts, who have three cars in their driveways”(2), Yunior is stuck in poverty, relying on government cheese in order to survive.Yunior’s observations of the father also highlight his own fears. He remarks that the father sounds like a man who never has to watch himself, unlike Yunior, who grows up in “the Terrace-people get stabbed in the terrace”(1). Yunior is conscientious of his lower status and tries to hide his humble upbringing in different ways, such as by hiding the government cheese in different places depending on his date’s race, and stashing away the pictures of his identity are all an attempt to undermine his own identity and culture.
Yunior tries to hide his identity in order to appear more like his dates-upper class and white. As Yunior confesses to the reader, “Tell her that you love her[the white girl’s] hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own”(3). Yunior desperately wishes to be white Diaz is using the narrator as a lens to examine the upbringing of poor minorities as a whole. Yunior is shown as a typical impoverished minority kid-reduced to just another kid from the Terrace by his richer dates: “Neither of them[the parents] want her seeing any boys from the Terrace…but she’s strong headed and this time will get her way”(1). Yunior’s date doesn’t care particularly for him, but merely wants some adventure and a thrill from dating someone from outside her world. Her parents view Yunior not as an individual, but as part of a society that is a threat. Even before Yunior has met his date’s parents, they have formed a negative opinion of Yunior, just like how he defers to authority figures or white people. But even Yunior falls into the belief that he is the stereotypical minority, evidenced in his interactions with his date’s mother: “If she’s a halfie don’t be surprised that her mother is white. Say, Hi. Her moms will say hi and you’ll see that you don’t scare her, not really. She will say that she needs easier directions to get out and even though she has the best directions in her lap give her new ones. Make her happy”(2). Unlike when interacting with the fathers of his dates, Yunior seems much more willing to talk to white women, although his deference towards whites is still obvious. Yunior seems genuinely surprised that the mom isn’t frightened by him. Yunior expects to be viewed as the gangster from the Terrace, because of all the expectations given by the upper class.
As a result of these expectations, Yunior attempts to mask his identity and act as a “whiteboy”, as evidenced in his idea of how to interact with the parents: “Don’t panic…Run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa”(2). When the narrator hears that the mom wants to meet him, his instinctive reaction is to panic, and then to alter his appearance to match those of the whiteboys. How others view his race and appearance ultimately affect how he views himself and what he strives to be. While Yunior attempts to mask his personality with one more like that of his dates, his inability to accept himself makes him unable to achieve true intimacy. Yunior’s goal on all of his dates is ultimately to achieve personal intimacy only, with sex as the crowning achievement of any date. Yunior is unable to empathize or connect with his dates because of his mask. When detailing how dinner with his date will go, Yunior mentions that he has a hard time talking to new people, and states that “A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement…that sounds like…Uncle Tomming to me. Don’t repeat this….Black people, she will say, treat me real bad. That’s why I don’t like them. You’ll wonder how she feels about Dominicans. Don’t ask”(2). Yunior hides his personality throughout his interaction with his date. This forced interaction between a poor Latino and the higher class halfie emphasizes the gap between Yunior and his dates-the narrator is unable to connect with the struggles of someone he views as rich and free of problems. Despite himself being a minority, his brother uses the term ‘Uncle Tommin’, referring Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the subservient way the enslaved Tom acted towards his white peers. Yunior thinks of this while engaging in conversation with the halfie, and only refrains from mentioning it because he wants to have sex with the girl.
Similarly, Yunior chooses not to reveal his Dominican heritage to his date, allowing the halfie to think that he is black. On the other hand, when talking about the white girl, Yunior says “She’ll say, I like Spanish guys, and even though you’ve never been to Spain, say, I like you. You’ll sound smooth”(3) Yunior allows himself to change based on the whims of his date, and it is his lack of a true identity that makes him unable to identify with any girl that he dates. This is a message of the disparity between race and wealth. Yunior sees all of the girls as rich and privileged, even if they are black. This class boundary removes Yunior from the world of his dates and forces him into the position of the “bad boy” from the Terrace in order for him to get dates. On a larger level it connects Yunior to the whole of his kind. Diaz is saying that racism, stereotypes, and inequality are still prevalent in the world.