I was approached a while ago by a Danish colleague who explained to me that she would bring to Barcelona a group of undergrad American students, as part of their Study Abroad programme. She asked me for help regarding gender issues in Spain, as her students will be dealing with these during their stay in Barcelona (she contacted me as a member of the research group in Masculinities Studies I belong to).

To my horror and consternation, though, the Danish website describing my city and the tour intended for these students was full of appalling clichés, running from Hemingway (in Barcelona??) to bull fighting (forbidden by Catalan law…), the whole stereotypical rigmarole. Quite indignant, I volunteered to lecture the students on condition that the offensive text be replaced. I’m meeting them next week–and I’m using the post today to start drafting my presentation… (the clichés are still online… I wonder whether their rephrasing depends on what I’ll say).

I need to teach these young American students in which precise way Spanish masculinity differs from old-style ‘machismo,’ whether Catalan masculinity is different in any way from that of other areas of Spain, the role that men play in current debates on gender equality all over Spain and, finally, whether our reputation for being a women-friendly state (remember Zapatero’s Government?) is still extant. A tall order indeed… It is very difficult, believe me, to know where to begin. I have asked the American students to come to my lecture having previously made a list of features defining American masculinity. A challenge, I know!, for both of us.

I’ll start with possibly the easiest part: clearly, Zapatero’s Government was more favourable to women than the current Rajoy Government. It’s not just a matter of how many women Ministers Zapatero appointed (50%, which prompted male chauvinist Berlusconi to joke this was a ‘pink’ Government), but of a general attitude towards women’s rights. Just this week, several prominent members of Partido Popular, some in the Government, including the current Health Minister, have insisted that abortion is not a right and have announced that they intend to remove any references to that word in the new legislation on this issue, so crucial to women.

Soraya Sáez de Santamaría and María Teresa Fernández de la Vega may have both occupied the position of Vice-Prime Minister, but I cannot imagine two more different women. This does not mean that we need to get suddenly nostalgic of Zapatero’s Government as not that much was done for women, and much more could have been done for gender equality in general. Some of the steps taken, for instance the legislation to diminish the burden of caring for dependants in the home by women, were not solid enough and have been swept under the carpet with the excuse of the 2008 crisis. We all certainly have much to do in that sense.

I do not know how to translate Miguel Lorente’s wonderful slogan to encourage men to fight patriarchal violence: “No basta con arrimar el hombro, hay que arrimar a los hombres.” Lorente, a forensics specialist familiar with the bodily harm endured by women in the hands of patriarchal abusers, is the author of Mi marido me pega lo normal (2001). He has also been the Government’s Delegate (2008-11) in charge of running the anti-violence programmes devised by the Socialist Ministry for Equality. The title of his volume defines, I believe, the enormous change in the matter of couple-related violence seen in recent decades in Spain. This kind of violence, as the shocking title expresses, was assumed to be a normal part of marriage, both by men and women. The fact that it is no longer so is what, paradoxically, gives us the impression that there is more violence, when, actually, this is decreasing. Its relatively new visibility is, I believe, a sign of the diminishing tolerance. Again, this does not mean that all men are doing their bit explicitly against anti-patriarchal violence. And, yes, yes, we need to deal with the matter of men’s victimization by their female and male partners, even if this is only 10% of the total couple-related abuse.

I think that in order to understand how deeply Spanish masculinity has changed one only needs to see the grandfathers pushing baby prams in the parks or picking up young children from school (they’re not as many as the grandmothers, I know, but they are many, nonetheless). My own father, who is not quite that kind of grandfather, tried to justify men’s avoidance of children both in private and public when he was himself a young father (mid-1960s to late 1970s) on the grounds that “we were not allowed” to behave as fathers do today. I was puzzled by how his words suggest the existence of a repressive external authority, when actually it was, rather, a matter of personal choice (he could have for instance picked up my younger brother, born in the mid-1970s, from school without facing patronising looks but he chose never to bother). Spanish men, who took a gigantic step towards their own patriarchal liberation when they fought together to end compulsory military service (1996), have often discovered in their personal lives that it is in their own hands to change things. For their own benefit but also for women’s.

I am thinking of accompanying my talk with iconic Spanish male figures, both in fiction and the media, yet it is complicated who to choose. Is there a man who represents Spanish masculinity best today? What does Pablo Iglesias’ famous ponytail say about men in Spain today? Is our most successful actor, Antonio Banderas, the ideal Spanish man? I wonder… As for Catalunya, I need to explain that the process for independence is now stalled by the squabbling for prominence between alpha males Oriol Junqueras (a man who does not care what he looks like) and Artur Mas (a man of carefully styled looks). Their confrontation says much about our local masculinity, torn between the need to play victim of the patriarchal Spanish other and, thus, unable to build a serious Catalan leadership. In Polònia, the political satirical show that always gets it right, Catalan men are represented by a new hero, Super Seny (Super Sensible), characterized by his inability to make any decision as he is always torn between the possible consequences… And I keep thinking of Joel Joan, who in his delicious TV series El crac (2015) chose to poke fun at his own iconic value as the poster boy for Catalan independentism by presenting the character also named ‘Joel Joan’ as the worst bundle of lies and cowardice you can imagine… I think the word I am looking for is self-deprecating.

Of course, if I tell my American visitors and Danish colleague that, as a recent survey suggests, bull-fighter Francisco Rivera is the most desired man in Spain (it’s hard to imagine a similar category in Catalonia right now), then I’m lost… as this will only reinforce the clichés I’m trying to fight. Happy were the 1980s when Miguel Bosé, then young and handsome, was the most desired man in Spain–and because of his ambiguity and not despite it. The fact that his own coming out of the closet and his, relatively recent, paternity of four children have not diminished his acceptance as an artist is perhaps a clear sign of how far Spain has progressed. I wonder, though, on what common grounds a man like him and, say, former President José María Aznar, could meet… and what this says about men in Spain today.

I’ll keep on thinking…

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  1. On Hemingway and abortion, there’s a line deserving reflection. It’s the man (the Hemingway lookalike) who says “It’s just a small operation. They just let the air in”, and that’s it. The woman in the tale is not that happy about it, nor is she thinking primarily about her “right” to have an abortion.

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