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Gender construction in post-war spain

According to neo-Marxist theorist, Ernesto Laclau, fascism is ‘characterised precisely’ by a kind of ‘highly unified discourse which glosses over all logical inconsistencies and uses an organising principle, such as the family, to organise and become symbolic of all others, for example, politics, religion and economics’. In Franco’s fascist Spain, the family performed this unifying function. Franco used his political version of the ‘family’ as a way of giving credence to his ideology. He created a specific image focusing on patriotism, piety and specific gender roles. Franco intended for women to take on the role of mother and wife in domestic life, but be secondary to men in the public sphere. He passes laws to this effect whose object was to oppress Spanish women and force them into this war. For example, there were laws that essentially made a married woman her husband’s property. Married women were not allowed to hold any positions within public life, or even get a job or open a bank account, without the permission of their husband. In Franco’s Spain, traditional concepts of masculinity were relied upon as a means to ‘ground male dominance and the hegemony of a traditional mode of masculinity’. The ideal man provided for their families, showed no emotion and did not concern himself with what were considered to be menial female tasks, this was Franco’s ideal. Franco considered himself the father figure of the Spanish family and he used his gender construction to legitimise state control over the Spanish people. The fascist propaganda of the Civil War heavily emphasised these rather simplistic gender roles which the common people found a ‘comforting way of living’. I shall examine the portrayal of these gender constructs using two texts written in the Post Civil War period (the 1940s and 1950s). The first text I will look at is ‘La Familia de Pascual Duarte’, a diary of a psychopath, written by Camilo Jose Cela, published in 1942. The novel challenges the Francoist, traditional ideals of the family, primarily through the fact that Pascual’s mother and father are not traditional parents, but also through Pascual’s exploration and obsession with his own masculinity. The second text, ‘El Balneario’ written by Carmen Martín Gaite examines the relationship between the sexes and the roles and the expectations imposed upon women by Franco’s fascist ideology. In this essay, I shall discuss to what extent these texts reinforce or challenge Franco’s dominant constructions of gender roles throughout the Spanish Post Civil War period.

Franco’s government imposed strict censorship on all writings and it is important to remember this when interpreting these texts. When it was first published, ‘La familia de Pascual Duarte’ sparked outrage. Within a year the novel was banned by the Spanish government because it dealt with violence, particularly violence against women, which was an anathema to the Catholic Church. In 1946, this ban was lifted and the novel came back into circulation. One of the principal themes of ‘La Familia de Pascual Duarte’ is Pascual’s need to emphasise and protect his masculinity as during the Franco dictatorship, the Spanish ‘machista’ or ‘machismo’ society dominated. In Franco’s ideology, Spanish society was constructed in a way that meant to be a good Spanish citizen you had to follow Franco’s conceptions of gender, race and class, especially how accurately each male represented the ‘prevailing model of hegemonic masculinity’. Pascual is obsessed with this model of hegemonic masculinity. For example, he prefers hunting over fishing since fishing is ‘poco de hombres’. He also emphasizes the importance “being a man” hiding one’s emotions ‘un hombre que se precie no debe dejarse acometer por los lloros como una mujer cualquiera’. There is danger in men hiding their emotions and fixating on being ‘manly’, after all, one of the principal motivations for his crimes is that of defending his masculinity. This is seen when El Estirao becomes Pascual’s enemy because he questions his manliness ‘¿Sabes que tienes un hermano que ni es hombre ni es nada?’ Pascual’s constant worry about maintaining a ‘proper’ image contributes to other violent acts throughout the story. He shoots a dog who ‘stared at him accusingly’, stabs his best friend who made a potentially insulting joke and kills a horse who witnessed his ineptitude. Pascual’s fixation with his masculinity and the horrors that result from this obsession, could be a warning of the doom that will come from Franco’s ideals of masculinity. Through this, Cela is portraying Pascual’s fixation as a metaphor for the downfall of the fascist gender ideologies. Cela’s metaphor exhibits that Franco’s entire ideology of the family will implode with his obsession with masculinity. This is shown by Cela ending up having destroyed the family with Pascual’s act of matricide, the most horrifying crime.

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Cela, through Pascual constantly questions what a man should do and if he is being ‘manly’ enough, however he is also fascinated with how women should act within Franco’s gender construct. In every civilisation, women are idolised because they alone can give birth to new life. In Franco’s ideology, the women’s role was primarily concerned with being a mother and rearing as many children as possible. His regime promoted the image of an ‘ideal’ woman and womanhood as ‘eternal’. Women must be passive, pious, pure and submissive, tying in with Catholic ideology which dominated Spanish society following the Civil War. Catholics idealise the Virgin Mary, and Franco’s ideal of women in Spanish society could feasibly be considered to be modelled on that image of the mother of Jesus. Cela’s portrayal of Pascual’s mother, however, is not one that corresponds with Franco’s depiction of the perfect Spanish family. Cela introduces her to the narrative with defamatory words such as ‘disgustar’ and ‘blasfemar’ and describes her with debilitating adjectives such as ‘cetrina’ and ‘chupada’. Pascual’s obsession with sex and women bearing children leads to him being unable to separate the terms woman and mother. For Pascual, much like in Franco’s ideology of the family, every woman must be a mother, else she will bear the stigma of ‘ese aire doliente de las hembras sin hijos’. Pascual strips his mother of any name, referring to her only as ‘la madre’, inferring that her sole purpose in life is to be a mother and her actual identity is of little relevance. Even the bitch ‘La Chisa’ has a ‘psychological advantage’ over Pascual’s mother, as she is at least given a name. In fact, ‘La Familia de Pascual’ completely challenges Franco’s ideology of the family, and as a result, women’s role in society by suggesting that women do not bring life, but death. Pascual’s mother produces children who deviate from the expected norms, Pascual, a psychopath, his sister, the prostitute and Mario, his ‘deformed’ brother. His sister produces no children throughout the narrative. Finally, Pascual’s wife, Lola has a miscarriage and then a child that dies at aged 11 months. As a result of these tragedies Pascual feels that the women around him underline the pain he feels because his wife is not able to provide him with a child, referring to them as ‘como los grajos, de ingratas y malignas’. The women’s response to this loss is to talk about the child constantly and Pascual views this as a failure on their part to ease his sense of loss.

El Balneario was published over 10 years after ‘La familia de Pascual Duarte’ and was the first work of Carmen Martín Gaite. The protagonist, Matilde is a woman who initially does not feel she belongs to society and finds herself at a spa on holiday with her husband, Carlos. The way the novel is written emphasises the differences between a fantasy and a reality, Martín Gaite uses this to emphasise ‘la existencia rutinaria de la protagonista y la repercusión que esa vida vacía tiene en sus sueños, los cuales se convierten en una forma de huir del tedio’. She illustrates through her novel the monotonous lives women were forced to live under Franco, challenging his ideologies of the ‘perfect’ woman by suggesting that women do not want to live this way. For the protagonist, her dream could symbolise the rebirth the she wants to experience from her monotonous life. Her anxiety is reflected in the suggestion that her dream represents wish-fulfilment as she does not have her own voice within the real world. This anxiety illustrates the severe restrictions on both free speech and women’s self determination, in Franco’s fascist society, given that both women’s activities and all representations of female sexuality were tightly controlled. As she arrives at the spa, Matilde’s anxiousness is apparent. Her pulse beats very quickly, reflecting her consistent mental state of panic ‘batía – pumba, pumba – igual que un pez oprimido’. However, she fights to suppress these urges despite the fact that ‘sabia que solo con gritar, con ponerme en pie bruscamente, los latidos se hubieran desbandado, apaciguándose luego en ondas concéntricas’. She is repressing her feelings to appease her husband whom she ‘solo tendría que seguirle’. Carlos’s attitude towards her exacerbates her insecurities as he seems completely unaware of how she is feeling, treating her with a critical manner and not exhibiting any desire for her company. The Franco regime was based around the traditional authority of the male and submission of the female. After the Civil War, ‘La Sección Femenina’ was formed. Its main role was to educate Spanish women about the new religious, social and patriotic concept of Franco’s regime. Primarily, women were taught that they were secondary to men and should always remain subjugated by them. The initial reflection by Matilde about her anxiety and her relationship with Carlos, in the opening pages of the novel reflects this, as he is very clearly the dominant figure who takes control whilst she is the subordinate character.

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In her fantasy, Matilde attempts to escape this oppressive environment where her role as a woman is constrained by the society in which she lives. After arrival at the spa, Carlos leaves Matilde to unpack their bags whilst he goes in search of a famous mill within the Spa grounds. Matilde soon is worried about his absence and decides to follow him however, her journey to leave this repressive state of the spa is plagued by a horror narrative. She describes the mill that she is trying to reach as ‘terrible’ and a ‘molino en la noche’. This use of ‘terrible’ and the setting changing rapidly to the night time perhaps implies that the journey to break free from the ‘oppressive’ state of a woman is one that is almost impossible and terrifying. The gender constructs are juxtaposed as suddenly it becomes a female heroine saving the male, rather than the traditional male hero overcoming all odds to save a weak female from whatever horrors await her. The section of the fantastic ends with Matilde hearing what she thinks is the sound of Ghosts dragging Carlos’s corpse to her feet. This could be interpreted as an ‘unsuccessful’ mission, perhaps suggesting that women are not fit to play the role of the hero and should remain weak and oppressed, as under fascism, only males are heroes. From being narrated by Matilde, the story then jumps to being narrated in the third person. Matilde wakes up from her nightmare and it is revealed that she is, in fact, a woman with many key social connections. She is single with no boyfriend, husband or lover mentioned. This Matilde is assured and well-connected within the aristocracy. She has ‘un notable privilegio sobre la mayoría delos veraneantes, que se rindieron a la evidencia de esta superioridad desde el primer día’. As she ponders the nightmare she has just had, Matilde notices the reflection of herself in a mirror, where she remains the image of the insecure woman from her nightmare. The mirror is an important tool as it acts as a gateway into the entrapment she felt during her dream. Conventionally, mirrors in art are used to symbolise the independence of women in regard to their husband or society. For Matilde, the mirror is an opening into the oppressive environment of her nightmare, perhaps the alternative route she could have taken in life if she had chosen to marry. The gaze Matilde directs towards the version of herself in the mirror establishes a confrontation with a woman whom she knows to be a fundamental part of her character – ‘the ultimate result of the sociocultural environment’. This symbolises a direct challenge to Franco’s gender constructs, and could be seen to reflect the true feelings of Spanish women at that time that something needed to be done to change the way society perceived them.

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After the Civil War, the Spain that had been beginning to modernise, along with the rest of the western world, quickly went back to its traditional religious roots. For Franco, the heart of Spain now, was ‘La Familia’ and this defined the roles that the entire population must follow. The slogan for the new Spain was ‘todo por la patria’ and Franco presented himself as the benevolent father figure of Spain. Through his social engineering and with the collaboration of the Catholic Church, women were repressed and their role reduced to nothing more than the mother figure. Men, on the other hand, were expected to express ‘machismo’ and have complete dominance over their family, and most specially their wife. Cela in ‘La Familia de Pascual Duarte’, challenged these stereotypes as he represented women as evil and opposed the typical view of the mother by connecting childbirth with death. He also presents a man obsessed with his masculinity, so much so that it leads him to bring destruction wherever he goes, a reflection of what happens if you push gender constructs to the extreme. On the surface El Balneario reinforces post Civil War gender constructions, initially, with the presentation of Matilde and her husband Carlos who appear to follow the gender roles as the subordinate female and dominant male, respectively. The dream of being married, and thus following the Franco stereotype, makes her anxious. This undermines Franco’s ideology because, for Franco, every woman should be the Matilde in the dream, yet this ideal is presented as a nightmare and in reality women wish to have more control over their lives whether they are married or not. This is in direct contravention of the fascist ideals. The nightmare scenario mirrors that of Cela showing that following either gender role, the ultimate masculine or feminine, is certain to result in doom and the same misery will be visited upon Spain.

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