I did not imagine guiding discussions about gender dynamics in university classrooms would be this hard. Oh, it is! And it is also illuminating, worrisome, infuriating and exhilarating.
The seminar’s focus was hip hop and reggaeton. That day’s topic was the pre-history of reggaeton. The assigned readings were a chapter from Keith Negus’ Popular Music in Theory and Mayra Santos’ “Puerto Rican Underground”. The students seemed subdued and some even sleepy, so instead of beginning our conversation with the readings, I decided to start with the musical examples.
I began with Vico C’s “De la calle,” old-fashionedly recorded on a cassette tape. It was a live recording circa 1986. Then I moved on to video clips of Vico circa 1989 doing “La recta final,” and then rapping in “Blanca” with Jossie Esteban y la Patrulla 15 and singing with Toño Rosario in “Otra vez” around 1991. Then I showed a clip of “Bomba para afincar” from 1993.
Vico: Y yo quiero que todas mis gatitas me digan ‘ah ah’
Female chorus: ‘Ah ah’
Ugh!, exclaimed in exasperation Rosa as she dropped her head to the table, burying her face in her arms.
Comments?, I asked, once the song was over. Silence. What was your ‘ugh’ reaction about?, I asked Rosa.
She was the only female student that day in class. Zenaida and Elsie were absent. So it was Rosa, Pete Jones, Michael, Max, Victor, Pete Gonzalez and Professor Rivera (that would be me).
I’m tired!, Rosa exclaimed. Its always the same thing. The sexy gatitas in the video background, the sexual objects. I hate it!
But they were fully clothed, weren’t they?, I asked, playing devil’s advocate.
It doesn’t matter if they’re covered or nearly naked. Women are always objectified, sexualized, said Rosa. I’m sick of it. I like reggaeton, but I just have such mixed feelings about it. It affects our lives as a whole, people think of us like that, reduce us to sexuality.
But its women who choose to put themselves in the object position, countered Victor. No one is forcing them to. They’re getting paid for putting on those little shorts.
The conversation kept following the its-their-choice-so-whats-the-problem vein for quite a while. So I interjected.
True, it is their choice, I noted. But why do you think its women choosing to display their flesh for the most part? Why are men overwhelmingly the artists and women the flesh-displayers?
They considered it, in silence. Rosa intervened.
Men are mostly the ones in decision-making positions in the industry. This is the way they want to see women, so that’s what happens, she explained.
How we got from that subject to the next is a bit blurry to me. But next thing I know a few of the men in class were talking about the child-raising responsibilities of women as a way of explaining why women are not in decision-making positions.
Not everyone is the same, stated Victor emphatically. Men and women are not the same!
Who in this classroom said the contrary?, I wondered silently.
Since the first two people on Earth were around, men have been the ones providing for the woman, whose job is to provide for the child, said Max. Women have in their bodies the capacity to feed the child. They are better equipped for child-raising.
Plus, if a man chooses to be a stay-at-home Dad, his buddies are going to be laughing at him, society is going to look down on him, added Pete Jones.
Men have greater strength, greater muscle mass, Max said. You think you will be a better construction worker than Pete who is stronger and has been doing it for years and years?, he condescendingly asked Rosa. You really think you guys should make the same amount of money?
I was glad the male students’ true opinions were finally surfacing, even if it took them almost the whole semester to open up. But there was an edge of over-eagerness in their voices. What is going on here?, I wondered. And why did they wait so long to speak up? I had suspected they did not buy the reggaeton-objectifies-women and reggaeton-is-sexist party line they had been feeding me in class all semester long. I had tried to open up the space in our classroom discussions so they would feel comfortable stating their ideas. To no avail. Until that day.
These young men, though they give lip service to the existence of sexism, they are actually content with the status quo!, I realized. They don’t really see what the problem is. This is just the way things are. It makes sense.
Yet in the same breath they will admit that it’s a twisted patriarchal world.
I think men keep women down out of fear, Pete Jones said. There is some Greek story about women withholding sex and baby-making from men until they stop some war.
Rosa was countering their arguments como gato bocarriba (like an upside down cat, so to speak). I was trying to play it cool, though, kind of like a referee, but Rosa was by far outnumbered and the guys were pushing it on the haughtiness. They were bordering on disrespectfulness when refuting Rosa’s ideas.
I wondered: How could they describe the world as patriarchal and say it all makes sense in the same breath? How can they ask how do we change things but at the same time make arguments for why things need to stay the way they are? And why all the attitude?
Today’s world is not only about muscle mass, Rosa countered Max. Why would a man and a woman who work at a bank have an income difference?
It does make sense, said Victor. Why would they make the same? When the woman takes time off to have kids and then goes back to work. Lets say she takes off five years. That man is going to have five years of experience on her.
But what if she’s working from 22 until 35 and then she decides to have kids?, I asked. What justifies her making less money than him for 13 years?
He seemed to consider it, but said he still didn’t see what the big problem was.
I wish my mom had not worked so I didn’t have to go to after-school programs, said Max. So what if my Mom makes less? She should have been at home with me!
But what about all the female-headed households?, Rosa asked. Why would those women make any less?
Social policy should not be built on what should be an anomaly, Max shot back. We should not be basing policy on broken homes as the standard. The man is supposed to take care of the woman and the woman take care of the children. It has always been like that.
Wait, Max, I cut in. That’s not a fact. It has not always been like that. The breadwinner dad, the homemaker mom and their kids in a house model is not even a hundred years old. The dominant scheme in human societies has been that mothers work outside the home, whether they are also engaged in child-care or not. When they have worked outside the home, then they have either taken the kids with them or there were others of the family or community who provided that care.
They stared back at me with blank looks in their eyes.
What do you mean?, Michael asked.
Pete Gonzalez finally spoke up: I remember reading about that. Like in indigenous communities everyone was a mother and a father to a child. It wasn’t just up to the couple.
But even more recent and closer than that, I added. Lets take Boston and New York at the beginning of the century. Buildings were occupied by relatives and friends. It was a network of resources and childcare.
Trying the tactic of human understanding and empathy, Rosa told a personal story: My mom dedicated herself to me and my sister her whole life. Now that we are in college she feels so lost. She tells me her only option is to become a cashier because she has no other skills.
The guys didn’t see what the problem was.
But your Dad is still with her, right? And he needs to eat when he comes home at night, right?, asked Max.
Well, first, we have a cook, Rosa said, revealing the specifics of her class background which probably did not win her mom much sympathy with the mostly working-class group. So my mom doesn’t really have to do that. She was so depressed for such a long time.
But isn’t that what happens when people retire? They just have to find something else to do, said Max.
That’s supposed to happen in your sixties, not when you are forty-three!, Rosa retorted.
Well how about when couples do break up?, I asked.
Then the woman gets alimony and child support, Max said.
Alimony! Who the hell gets alimony?, I thought. Certainly not any woman I know. Most of them don’t even get child support from their former spouses. Before I could interject, Victor provided the clincher.
Well, even if women make less money than men, they have something so great that no man can ever do: to give life, said Victor.
But you can’t do that without a man!, Rosa jumped it.
Isn’t it suspicious that motherhood gets put up on a pedestal as the greatest thing in the world as if it’s a privilege women have so they shouldn’t be complaining about making less money than men?, I asked.
Rosa nodded vigorously. The rest of them looked thoroughly unconvinced.
By then, class time was over and I wondered how time had gone by so quickly. As they rowdily filed out of the classroom, I kept asking myself: How on earth did we start a two hour discussion focusing on the gender politics of reggaeton video imagery but quickly moved on to spend most of our time debating if women’s place (after all) really is in the home?