A girl can drink,
but not too much
Text Elisa García
Elisa García is 23 years old and born in Monclova, Coahuila, a small industrial city located in the north of Mexico. The article below is based on her research done at the Universidad de Monterrey, where she has studied sociology with a minor in politics. Elisa has also lived in Berlin, Mexico City and Chiclayo (Peru) for studies, work and volunteering. Her travels in Europe and in Central- and South America has broadened and reaffirmed her interest in politics and gender studies, and she says: “I’m aware that I’m a privileged person; in Mexico only 5% of the population has a university degree! For the same reason, I consider it a responsibility to use this advantage for the benefit of the society I live in, and I hope this article can shed a little light on a small part of life and gender structures in Mexico.” Sounds like a future doyenne to us, read on:
"In a world made in man's image,
woman is only a reflection of masculine will and desire."
This is a quote by Octavio Paz, from his book The Labyrinth of Solitude, where he tries to describe the way gender works in the Mexican society during the 50’s. When I was debating this book with my father, he stated that Mexican society has changed for good, that gender equality is a fact, and that I am pretty lucky to being living in this era.
“Is this true?” I thought. Personally, I never felt this gender equality. From a young age, I wondered why I had to speak in certain ways, why I had to know how to cook and clean, why I could not leave my house without being well dressed and having makeup on. As a teenager, I didn’t understand why I was considered a slut if I kissed more than one person, but it was ok if a guy did it.
In university, I decided to become a sociologist, and a lot of questions started to pop into my head: what does it mean to be a woman or a man in my social circles? What are the expectations for each sex, what are their roles, and what are the characteristics they have? I thought that my generation, which is constantly exposed to all kinds of social media and continuous intercultural exchanges, hopefully would be more educated on these subjects than Mexico during the 1950’s… I decided to take this curiosity to the next level: it became my bachelor’s thesis, and I got the opportunity to dig deeper into this topic. I decided to do ten interviews; five with women and five with men, all between 18 and 23 years of age. Most of the interviewees studied at my university, but belonged to different areas of the metropolitan area of Monterrey, Mexico (Northwest in Mexico, one of the richest cities in the country). Below are the most relevant finds I made, on role models, on raising boys and girls, on social dynamics between women and men, and how these aspects impact relationships:
Role Models: Impacting Your Worldview
My research showed that for women, the most important role model was their mother. The values and characteristics most frequently taught to them as little girls, were to be polite, well-spoken and well-dressed, and to save your virginity for marriage. The interviewees described that from an early age, they were required to use the vocabulary and conversation topics of a “proper woman,” which meant no “bad words” or mentioning of topics such as politics, sex, partying or alcohol. Nevertheless, their mothers were fully supportive in whatever their daughters wanted to become or do in the academic and professional fields. There was constant talk about the importance of becoming a professional, able to support yourself before getting married and having kids. So even though mothers were raising their daughters in a conservative gender structure, they were encouraging them to become independent and professional women.
In the case of the male interviewees, the father was the most important role model. The most frequently mentioned value they had learned was to be chivalrous. They used different verbs to describe it, like “protect,” “take care” and “respect” women. One of the interviewees mentioned that his father explained it as “assuming that women always need to be spoiled in some way”. Other values taught, were: to be strong, to hide emotions and weakness, and to never show when you’re in pain. Dressing properly was also mentioned, including avoiding colors like pink and assuming the posture and walk that is “part of being a man”.
Raising Male and Female Siblings
After exposing the different values and characteristics that were taught to children depending on gender, I wanted to find out how it works when you have both female and male children. Do the parents raise them differently? The answer is yes: The male interviewees explained how they didn’t have to inform their parents when they were going out, nor about where they were, with whom, or when they would return. They had plenty of freedom to do whatever they wanted. Regarding potential girlfriends, they were not obliged to introduce the young woman they were dating or make a formal statement to the parents.
When it came to the female interviewees, the relationships between the parents and the daughters were different. Emotionally, the parents tended to be closer to the daughters, showing more emotional and physical affection. I found that they tended to have had a personal space, like their own room, whilst the males tended to have shared a room with their brothers.
However, the female interviewees seemed to have had less freedom: in order to go out, they had had to ask for permission, as well as inform their parents of what time they were going, with whom, and when they would be coming back. When it came to boyfriends, they explained that the guy had to come to the young woman’s home, introduce himself to her parents, tell them where he studied and sometimes event tell them whom his parents were. After that, the young woman might be able to go out with him on a date, always coming home early at night.
The above points out the extreme difference between how boys and girls are raised. One of the male interviewees explained that when he saw that his parents wanted to install a GPS on his sister’s phone, he protested: “How is she going to have a normal life if you’re doing this to her?”
The social dynamics between men and women
After identifying what is expected from young men and women in Mexico, how do these norms impact the relationships and dynamics between the sexes as adults? First, I asked the male interviewees to describe interaction in a group just of men: their responses showed that they thought they were always in a defensive position. They explained that there was a constant “tension;” you must be ready to answer jokes, or be able to defend yourself.
These dynamics change when a female joins the group. The male interviewees then said they had to “keep in control” and “behave”. I asked them why that was, and one of them answered that “I cannot be myself when I’m with them (women, ed.note), not because I don’t want to, but because they get offended”. Another interviewee explained that because there is a constant pressure to treat women in certain way (part of being “chivalrous,” mentioned earlier in the article), he already considered them to be completely different from men.
A similar answer came from the women: they explained that they demanded being treated differently. They would get offended if the men talked about topics like sex, partying, alcohol or drugs. They also confirmed that there are women that don’t mind talking about these topics, but that one must ask the woman in question first, or having been friends with her for a long time.
One remarkable observation was that every time my male interviewees referred to women, they would use the term “niña,” a Spanish word for a female child between 6 and 12 years old. They would do this even if referring to an adult woman between 18 and 23.
Even though the female interviewees were raised with strong gender structures as mentioned in the first part, they were also raised to pursue their dreams and become independent women. Some of them are at this point already economically independent, or are involved in different activities that are pro feminism. All of them have also lived outside of Mexico for period of minimum three to six months (South America, Asia and Europe).
So, these are powerful women, with desires, objectives and goals. What happens when they are looking for a partner? Intimidation. Men are intimidated by these women. The interviewees explained that men said that even though they were beautiful, nice people, etc. they would never be able to go out with someone whose life is already “solved”.
When it came to the male interviewees, I had a pretty honest case: one of them explained that even though he doesn’t like this part of himself, he recognized that he was not able to go out with women who were independent. When I asked what he meant by that, he explained that he meant women who are emotionally independent, who are not in the need of constant texting and can make decisions in their own. I asked why that was, and he was embarrassed that he couldn’t explain it, not even identify exactly why, but he didn’t want someone who “easily could live without him”.
Furthermore, I asked the male interviewees which characteristics they were looking for in a woman. They mentioned beauty, intelligence and open-mindedness. When I asked what they meant by “open-mindedness,” the answer was full of contradictions: “A girl who drinks, but not too much”, “a girl who parties, but doesn’t go wild”.
As mentioned earlier in the article, the female interviewees said they were raised to save their virginity for marriage. When asking the male interviewees about this, all of them answered it was not important to them, but, to their friends it was a key point. They explained that in society there was only two boxes for women: “the ones who are and the ones who are not” (referring to being a virgin) and apparently the “demand” for the ones who are is high, and the ones who aren’t… not so much.
At this point in the interviews, I was very interest in the reason why virginity was such an important topic. Again, it was hard for the male interviewees to explain, but one of them expressed it like this: “I think it’s hard for a man to imagine that she was with another person that it wasn’t you”.
Hopeless or Hopeful?
I’m aware that we are quite far from where we would like to be when it comes to gender roles. Achieving gender equality is hard work, and it requires a lot of research. We have to be conscious of each society, each country, each continent, having completely different gender structures. We must understand it from the point of view of the place where we live, the friends we share our lives with, and the family who raised us. At the same time, we must be aware of ourselves. During the interviews, each person started to realize the influence their families, their friends, their experiences had had on them. It was impressive to see that while they were talking, the interviewees would stop for a moment and think about their statements in the context of the interview, and realize: “wow, now everything make sense,” or “I never thought about this in this way”.
The main purpose of my research project was to show that even what seems like the most common tradition, custom or norm can be questioned. I started this research project full of misconceptions and prejudice, and what I found was far from what I expected. When each interviewee started to open their minds to me and telling me about their family history, about the relationships with their parents, siblings and friends, I gained their trust and they managed to honestly express their thoughts. I think this is the hardest part of being a researcher, being able to separate yourself from your ideas and beliefs, and just try to understand the person that is in front of you.
It is not easy to change a whole generation, but I’m hopeful that we are on the way to build a better and more equal world for future generations, starting with the simple task of asking ourselves: Who am I?