Sincronía Winter 1996

Barroco: Present Day His-Story

Vera Britto

"But who writes history?" asks the exasperated history teacher in the film "La Historia Oficial." "The murderers do!" exclaims a conscientious student.
Similarly we can ask who writes history in "Barroco?" The answer is not far from the one in "La Historia Oficial." "Barroco" is not really a film about the past, but a fabrication of history produced through current dominant sexist and racist ideologies prevalent in Latin America. Much more than a mere musical and visual artistic project, "Barroco" reinforces a comprehensive misogynist ideology.
"Barroco" is an MTV-like version of 500 years of Latin American his-story. Leaving out the voices of some of the most important groups, such as women and children in general, various indigenous peoples, and the Africans brought over as slaves, "Barroco" reiterates official and dominant discourses on Latin American history, racism, sexism, etc. Reality is re-produced by two male characters, which see everything from a present day patriarchal perspective. Therefore in looking at "Barroco" we see an example of a dominant Latin American ideology in the present and we get a snapshot of current power structure and norms of social relations.
For this paper, I employ various feminist theories to analyze the problematic film in question. I begin with an analysis of content, examining "Barroco" as a historical project. I focus on the patriarchal fabrication of history. I also examine the misogynist roles women play in this movie and how they are represented. Intertwined with the ascribed roles are the patriarchal discourses on sexuality that run throughout the movie. I finally conclude with examining in what ways the ideological problems in this film reflect current Latin American society.
What would Latin American history be like if we were told the real story? What would history be like if the groups usually silenced were the ones who spoke? For example, what if history were told from the point of view of different indigenous groups? History then might sound more like the accounts of the Holocaust, since what happened in the Americas was the greatest genocide in the history of humankind. "In the Caribbean islands the native population was practically exterminated, in Mesoamerica the population fell from 25 million in 1519 to 2.65 million in 1568, and in Peru it went from 9 million in 1532 to 1.3 million in 1570." [1] Systematic technologies were employed by the Europeans to decimate and conquer the aboriginal population. In "Barroco", however, we see a reasonably glossy and sanitized process. Do we see any signs of genocide? War? Holocaust? Extinction? No. With the exception of a scene where a European soldier has blood poured over him, the other scenes are very pasteurized. A man sits alone on an Inca temple. Nothing really disturbing or unpleasant for a non-Indian consumer society. Are we shown a world turned upside by chaos and destruction? No, it is an idealized portrayal of a peaceful process of acculturation. A little boy plays a violin serenely in the jungle. Is there rape and coercion? No. A Spanish Conquistador gently woos a female Indian. It is true that many women became concubines of the Europeans, but only because their traditional social order was eradicated. This latter fact is invisible in "Barroco." It is also true that not all that happened in the Americas was brutal and violent, but peaceful idyllic scenes tell us another story. Furthermore, are we shown any of the very active struggles to fight and survive of both male and female aboriginals? No. We are shown something quite different: Indians are passive and naive. They are only active when it comes to perform sex for the white male voyeur. Two female Indians intimately caress each other, in the usual patriarchal lesbian pornographic fashion: to titillate the male viewer. A third female Indian masturbates for the male viewer's gaze with a rabbit's skin. Finally, the conquistador directly shoots to kill a female Indian in cold blood. What kind of history is this? This is a "history" that distorts reality in a similar fashion to how MTV hegemonic discourses construct present day scripts for men and women and capitalist sexuality. Sexist, commercial sex is the device used to sell. Patriarchal norms of behavior rule. An idealized pasteurized picture is presented and the real experiences of the people involved are obliterated.
Similarly, what would Latin American history be like if it were told from the point of Africans brought over as slaves? What would people who lost their whole social order, their freedom, their lands and environment, their human rights, to be enslaved and destroyed in the Americas, have to tell? Would they want to titillate the listener with an eroticized portrayal of how they were tortured and raped? Would they prefer instead to reduce black women to nothing more than sexual non-person commodities? The only portrayal of black women is of slaves or sexual fantasy objects. The more active black protagonist is male. Again we see current patriarchal ideology shaping past "reality."
And what would history by like if it were told from the point of view of Latim American children? Would they reveal the ways in which human rights for children has often been a luxury, a privilege of a lucky minority? Would they tell us how they were forced to often work like slaves, how hungry they felt or how little protection they had from neglect and abuse by their own families or by society at large over the centuries? Or would they perhaps reveal how much they have been silenced and made invisible?
Finally, what would the last 500 hundred years of Latin American history be like if it were told from the point of view of different women? What would history be like if it did not obliterate different women's experience with an official story of objectification, passivity and silence? Would they all gather together and sing along? Did women have no other alternative in life than walk around semi-nude, throwing themselves at the feet of men, trying to seduce them? If one looks at MTV or "Barroco," the answer is obviously no. But real histories cannot be written by patriarchal racist minds. Mainly, true history requires a multiple voice project and a firm commitment to social justice. In Leduc's version, one present day voice silences all others in the past. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Stroble, two feminist historians write, "In teaching about women, it is important to avoid three common pitfalls: interpreting women as the exotic, women as victims, and women as anomalies." [2] Leduc manages to grossly err in all three categories. Do we ever see an indication of women's participation in economic power, political power, indirect power, women's subcultures and networks? Mostly not. Do we see a critique of the devastating results of oppression by a male supremacist system? No, whatever violence women suffer in the movie is for the most part eroticized and almost glamorized, therefore it is also legitimized. The distortion of past reality presented in "Barroco" reflects then the current power structure and ideology in Latin America with all its misogyny, racism and consumer society modus operandum.
The patriarchal ideology inscribed in "Barroco" presents several different problems linked to sexuality. These include: reinforcing dominant scripts for men and women, the sexual objectification of women, sexist "beauty" ideals, homophobia, sexual racism, eroticized subordination and torture of women, and a "sexual liberation" construction of sexuality.
I will begin with the last item: "sexual liberation." Messages characteristic of a modern "sexual liberation" or "sexual freedom" discourse are pervasive in "Barroco." We constantly see nudity and actual or suggested sex. For modern patriarchy, to present sex free from censorship is considered progress. However, the roles, scripts, attitudes, and values are pre-determined by patriarchal norms. We see a variety of semi-nude women, but rarely any men.
Additionally, there is a complete difference of social meaning for a woman to bare her chest versus a man doing the same. The positioning of characters is also sexist: not only are women frequently topless, while men are obviously clothed, but the men are always positioned to gaze at the women. The audience is also positioned to objectify the women sexually and participate as voyeurs.
In "Barroco," we see frontal nudity of a woman (but not of man); we see lesbian sex, but not gay male sex. We constantly see women trying to sexually entice men, but hardly the opposite. We see women in sensual or sexual activity performed for the male protagonists (and audience), but, again, not the opposite. We see sexual torture of women but not of men. John Stoltenberg lucidly writes, "sexual freedom has never really meant that individuals should have sexual self-determination, that individuals should be free to experience the integrity of their own bodies and be free to act out of that integrity in a way that is totally within their own right to choose. Sexual freedom has never really meant that people should have absolute sovereignty over their own erotic being. And the reason for this is simple: Sexual freedom has never really been about sexual justice between men and women. It has been about maintaining men's superior status, men's power over women; and it has been about sexualizing women's inferior status, men's subordination of women. Essentially, sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy." [3]
Not only do images in mass media re-present "reality," they also prescribe it. Values and attitudes are reinforced and taught directly and indirectly. "Attention to the politics of representation has been crucial for colonized groups globally in the struggle for self- determination. The political power of representations cannot be ignored." [4] According to Leduc, women should have sex with one another not because they want to but because that is what the man behind the film camera masturbates to. We obviously don't see male homosexual sex, because it completely subverts patriarchal homophobia (especially in Latin America) and its rigid exercise of heterosexual sexuality for males. For example, we don't see any male homosexuals performing oral sex on each other. Indian or non-Indian. We also don't see a male masturbating with some furry animal for the titillated audience.
The images of sex in "Barroco" all have to do with some form of domination and subordination. Leduc, like many other patriarchal filmmakers, eroticizes male supremacy. Women in the sex scenes vary in being objectified, silenced, tortured, terrorized and raped. Women's bodies are shot and burned. They are selfless. They exist for the voyeur or to satisfy the man. Leduc tries to make this inequality sexy and to turn torture into a sexual thrill. The so-called "sexual freedom" represented by women being semi-nude, the "sexy" women in bondage, the lesbian scene for the voyeur, and the torture scene represent the freedom of men to act sexually in ways that keep sex a basis for inequality. It is not only the white master that is supposed to be aroused by the torture of the black woman, the patriarchal audience is put into the same position as the man, that is, to be titillated and accept violence against not only women, but mainly non-white women. This is not to say that white women have escaped intimate violence. Torture and battering of white women have always existed in Latin America, but it is also made invisible in the film. What the film does show clearly is that a white supremacist social order is more brutal towards non- white women. In a very racist sense, Leduc continuously sexually objectifies the black and Indian women. There is no difference in the sexual pictures and messages we see in "Barroco" and any cheap racist pornographic material. White women, on the contrary are mostly de-sexualized in the film. Basically the only white woman shown without clothes is the older woman in the bathtub covered with foam.
"You can't have authentic sexual freedom without sexual justice. It is only freedom for those in power; the powerless cannot be free. Their experience of sexual freedom becomes but a delusion borne of complying with the demands of the powerful. Increased sexual freedom under male supremacy has had to mean an increased tolerance for sexual practices that are predicated on eroticized injustice between men and women: treating women's bodies or body parts as merely sexual objects or things;... treating women's bodies to sexualized beating, mutilation, bondage, dismemberment." [5]
Aside from the horrendously eroticized scene of the female slave, there are several instances where women are semi-nude, in bondage, captive of the male. A striking example of gratuitous female bondage is during the all female opera, which the dutiful male voyeurs prey upon. The audience is continuously put into the position of voyeur as well. We are supposed to be titillated or enticed by semi-nude women revolving around a pillar in absolute bondage. However, bondage in patriarchy is not constrained to physical chains. In the flamenco scene, the women sing a song about freedom, about being free as the wind, the stars, etc.--and what does the main female character of the scene do? She dances around an old man trying to seduce him. She only exists as his object and her only desire can be to seduce an ugly old man. This is freedom under patriarchy. Similarly, when European classical music mixes with African beat, it is the young women who try to entice the old men. In the last shot of that scene, a young woman falls in bed with an old guy. What else in Leduc's his-story do young women do?
Another way in which domination and ownership of women and their bodies is exercised in "Barroco" is through their symbolic portrayals. For example, a rifle that is present in various scenes has at the larger end, the naked body of a woman carved out. Her naked body is there to be grabbed and used at any time. It is also the extension of a lethal firearm. But what better sex stimulant for Leduc's ideology than violence?
Regarding the types of women represented in sexual activities in "Barroco," we don't see older, fatter women, women who had many babies and their breasts hang low, women with scars, women who are physically-challenged engaging in sex. On the contrary, we see a very current, very sexist ideal of "beauty" and "sexual attraction" prescribed for women. The first thing one notices in looking at history of aesthetics is that it completely changes from subculture to subculture, from century to century. Even within the larger realm of patriarchy, female "beauty" gets defined and shaped in a myriad of ways. Ideals of patriarchal beauty differed in the 16th century and throughout every century till today. If we were to look through the eyes of a typical man in the seventeenth century and regard what his ideal of female beauty was, it would not look like anything portrayed in the mass media today. The "beautiful" women in "Barroco" however, all fall into a modern Latin American patriarchal prescription of beauty. Consequently in all its subtexts, "Barroco" is a film about the present state of inequality between men and women in Latin America.
It is clear when analyzing culture that any construction of "beauty" is political. Leni Rifenstal is a good example of the "beautiful is political." Leduc functions as a minor Rifenstal, with two major differences. First, Rifenstal's main core ideology is German patriarchal fascism, whereas Leduc's is Latin American racist patriarchal colonization. Secondly, Rifenstal's aesthetic sensibility to filmmaking far surpasses Leduc's. Therefore, deeming either Leduc's or Rifenstal's work simply as "beautiful" obfuscates the problematic ideologies inscribed in each.
Similarly to the fact that "beauty" is political, so is "sexiness." Leduc reinforces what falls within the constructed category of "sexy" from a present day misogynist male supremacist perspective. But "Barroco" is not about real past history. It is about today's hegemonic discourses on sexuality in Latin America. It is similar to when Hollywood produced its Westerns with its phony white men with some paste on their faces, an old black wig hanging down, chanting any non-sense around in a circle. Who writes history? Who consumes it?
Sexual objectification in "Barroco" is not completely constrained by rigid racial lines in the past. Women as sex objects and commodities can also be found at cabaret shows like the Tropicana. Where does the male protagonist get the information for the show? From a centerfold, of course. This is women in the 20th century according to Leduc. Scantily dressed, wiggling around in a cabaret show all night long. We need not stay within traditional Cuban music to objectify women however. The next sex object presented for the male gaze is the singer/performer in the discotheque. The female rock singer wiggles around as the two men sit at the bar and gaze on. Has anything like a Women's movement or feminist movement ever occurred in the 20th century? Not in Leduc's MTV his-story. Any idea of feminism gets co-opted into a patriarchal Madonna like structure of "sexual freedom."
A more comprehensive history of Latin America may be in the throes of coming to light, but it still does not exist. It will require among other things, responsible and knowledgeable professionals, whose main task will be to make audible all the voices silenced and obliterated in "Barroco." For a misogynist culture, misogyny is invisible. Until patriarchy and white supremacy are eradicated in Latin America and a system of social and symbolic justice is in place, films like "Barroco" will be history. As George Orwell so eloquently wrote, "Who controls the present, controls the past."


I have thought quite frequently about this last paragraph since I wrote this essay. And more and more, it bothered me that I wrote that a more responsible history would require (among other things) responsible "professionals." Hasn't this problematic history been written exactly by "professionals?" Aren't the professionals the ones who make the horrendously problematic movies, who tell us the distorted news, who write false history? Among the things that a realistic historiography requires is to have people with conscience, awareness, and responsibility do the work. And that is often scarce among "professionals," since oppression does guarantee the silence of those with a conscience and knowledge of history, but not enough privilege to be a "professional" this or that.

Feb. 1997

1 Marysa Navarro and Virginia Sanchez Korrol, "Restoring Women to History--Latin America and the Caribbean," Organization of American Historians, 1988, pg. 22.
2 Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Stroble,"Restoring Women to History-- Introduction" , Organization of American Historians, 1988, pg. 2.
3 John Stoltenberg, "Pornography and Freedom," in "Making Violence Sexy," Diana Russell, ed., NY: Teachers College Press, 1993, pg. 70.
4 bell hooks, "Yearning--race, gender, and cultural politics," Boston: South End Press, pg. 72.
5 John Stoltenberg, "Pornography and Freedom," in "Making Violence Sexy," Diana Russell, ed., NY: Teachers College Press, 1993, pg. 70.
Copyright Vera Britto 1994

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