Mysterious Women and the Pitfalls of Benevolent Machismo in Pop Culture

Article by Lara Vascouto /
Eight Not /
June 09, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

[Spanish to English Translation]

The idea that women are mysterious and incomprehensible creatures is a kind of complimentary machismo, known as benevolent machismo.


Just over a year ago, Stephen Hawking decided to be witty in an interview, and when asked what the greatest mystery of the universe would be, he simply replied, “Women. They are a complete mystery. ”


Predictably, the phrase of the most consecrated scientist of today has become news and has spread like the plague, populating the most diverse social networks and publications online, from serious newspapers, to the most esdrúxulos portals. I say “predictably” not only because journalism has been in the last few years, but because Hawking’s response echoes a widespread feeling in society that women are mysterious and incomprehensible creatures with their “feminine secrets,” hormones Freaks, uncontrolled TPMs and monthly bleeds that do not lead to death.


Thinking about it, Hawking’s joking provided a sort of validation to that feeling because, well, if not one of the most intelligent men in the world can untangle women, it’s because there’s no way, right?

At first glance, this type of speech may seem like a compliment – and most of the time it is said justly for the purpose of poorly praised even. It’s as if she were saying: look, women are so hard to understand, so much more complex than men. But in practice what she does is reinforce the idea of ​​the woman as the Other, as a being almost alien, deviant from the human standard (position filled by man). You may be thinking, “ah, but still, it is an Other superior to man, is not it?”, But he is mistaken. It is like an Other inferior to man, because this supposed female complexity runs away from logic and rationality (it is incomprehensible, after all), and therefore does not deserve credit and confidence.

Mysterious H: Women are so hard to understand / M: Well, actually, we just want … / H: Such complex creatures / M: If you heard me … / H: So mysterious
Thus, the idea that women are mysterious and incomprehensible beings fits nicely with the old-fashioned machismo, who did not trust them to vote, study, work out or acquire goods and property, and lock them in asylums to the asylum. The lesser sign of a deviation from what is considered the “feminine instinct” – motherhood and home. The difference is that while this distrust was explicit and hostile in the past, it is now lauded in a complimentary tone, which fits into what is known as benevolent machismo.

That’s right, sit down there textbox.
Well, according to social psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske , benevolent machismo is based on gender preconceptions that seem positive at first glance, but which reinforce inequality more broadly, and often give ammunition to machismo hostile. This is the case, for example:

Of chivalry, which is based on the idea that women are fragile or more worthy of protection (there is a whole text about it here in the Node of Eight );

From the idea that women are more loving, compassionate and intuitive, which feeds stereotypes and punishes those who do not fit into them;

From the belief that women are better at caring for others and the home, which restricts their work to the domestic environment and frees men from responsibility for raising children, caring for the elderly and housework (see our country texts Trapalhões , and on stereotypes of mothers );

Or even the idea that the female body is used to sell products because it would be more beautiful, which justifies the objectification of women in the media (remembering that the female body is considered more beautiful only if it is within the cis, thin, white) .

It is worth noting that benevolent machismo negatively affects men as well, stereotyping them as more resilient people (both physically and emotionally) and less needy and capable of compassion, gentleness and sensitivity, which can lead to many social and psychological problems. However, in a broader scenario machismo grants men numerous privileges, which alleviates the disadvantages for them.

To summarize then: to reproduce the belief that women are incomprehensible and mysterious creatures strengthens a whole system of oppression that is based precisely on the idea that we are fundamentally different. Unfortunately, this is a continually reinforced notion in pop culture in many ways.

First, we have the way female biological processes are often portrayed in films and series. Most of the time, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause are events that take the female characters off the axis, destabilizing them and bringing chaos and madness to the world around them.

“Pregnant Brain”: A recurring phenomenon in comedy series that consists of ultra forgotten, incoherent, or insane pregnant characters.

In fact, in 2012, Lauren Rosewarne, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne, has researched more than 200 menstrual bleeding scenes since the 1970s, and found academically that there are very few positive portraits of the pop culture infamous. According to her, in most cases, menstruation is seen as a traumatic, embarrassing, offensive, catastrophic, hilarious or desperate situation. Usually for the guys, by the way.

911? My friend is bleeding from the vagina!

In any case, positive or negative, the representation of these processes is almost always done from the masculine point of view, and the strangeness that results from this reinforces the message that women are other creatures.

Related to this, we have the recurrent chitchat of plots or jokes that involve “feminine mysteries” – that is, stories, rituals, secrets and traditions that only women know or may know, and which may or may not have some relation to magic.

Most of the time, however, these mysteries have to do with completely ordinary things, for example: how we insert an inner absorber; Why do we always go to the bathroom in a group? Or how we pulled the bra under the blouse. The difference of this type of narrative from those who talk about masculine secrets (which usually deal with rites of passage related to war, hunting, loss of virginity etc) is that the secret always remains a secret in the female case, while in the masculine it is usually unveiled – which is also the result of the fact that most stories are told from the point of view of men.

Most of the time, male characters do not really want to unravel the mystery and withdraw from the conversation, strengthening the belief that boys do not need to empathize or experience the female experience .

There are cases, however, in which guys want to know more but for personal benefit. We have the cliché that is fortunately falling into disuse, which is the plot that revolves around a male character who tries to understand what women want, how they think and where they live, in order to get a girlfriend / fuck.

Which is quite objectifying, because it is as if the woman were a machine with an instruction manual in another language to be translated.

It is worth noting that there are films in which this is reversed and are women trying to understand men. This is because so much of the romantic narrative is based on that old maxim that “men are mars, women are venus,” which assumes that men and women are a mystery to one another. But again, since most productions are headed by men, the male point of view stands out, and the stories in which we are the ones that need to be unraveled are the overwhelming majority.

And finally, another common example happens when pop culture chooses to treat female characters differently and as representatives of all women, rather than complex, well-developed individuals. In these cases of the two one: or she is that single female character in the middle of a lot of faces (a phenomenon known as the Smurfette Principle ), u is a Ms Male Character – a female version of a male character who is basically a Walking female stereotype.

Very common in cartoons and video games.

It is important to note that in all these cases, even in those where there is nothing mysterious in the characters, there is the message that women are like creatures derived from men – the standard of being human – but aberrant, and therefore absolutely different And incomprehensible.

This may seem small or insignificant, but these images and representations (which are not the only examples, by the way) support our macho beliefs and allow them to continue to be reproduced. Unfortunately, it is also in the details that the machismo lives.