Patriarchy and Subversion – Gender power relations and Sexual Identity in the Tango culture of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries as an inspirational tool for raising social responsibility in contemporary Tango.
- by Gabriel Wolff, Codarts Rotterdam Argentinian tango, January 2012
Thesis-counselor: Oscar van Dillen
The Tango culture is considered by many to be one of the most extreme patriarchal cultural phenomena in the west. The apparent unequal power relations in the dance, as well as in the song lyrics propagates an extreme atmosphere of male superiority and female subordination. This patriarchal picture is supplemented by a clear lack of any gender or sexual identities that could potentially question or destabilize the heterosexual patriarchal power system. Nevertheless, Argentina in the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century was not different from any other places and societies – diverse gender and sexual roles were an existing part of society, though not always as visible as the formal ones. If we consider the Tango culture as a mirror or a representation of the cultural and social values and structures of Buenos Aires of those days, we should look carefully for subversive signs that uncover the non-confirming identities that existed in many hidden spaces inside of this patriarchal system. This is the aim of this paper: to use critical sociological and feminist gender and sexuality theories in order to expose the hidden signs of an ‘other’ inside a ‘straight’ Tango.
In the first chapter I will rely heavily on the writings of the philosopher Michel Foucault who was a radical critic of social order and gender and sexual power structures. Foucault claims that each coherent cultural system of signs and symbols – what he calls a ‘discourse’ – already inherently contains the seeds of its destruction. In that sense, through this paper I will try to show that a perception of Tango as an absolute patriarchal and homophobic culture is an over-simplified approach that is bound to be blind to the under-currents and complexities of any cultural system. A perspective that understands tango as a representation of an absolute power structure with constant and unchanging roles and identities can only be partial in the sense that it lacks a deeper structural understanding. Through this work I hope to create a more complex and multi-layered perception of Tango. In no way will I try to prove that Tango is not heavily based on patriarchal and homophobic values; it is quite obvious that patriarchy is basic force in Tango, just as it is in almost all of western modern cultures. Instead I will try to offer an alternative interpretation of Tango that will hopefully allow for a wider variety of sexuality and gender roles and identities.
Gender Power Relations and Sexual Identity: a Theoretical Background
The strong interdependence between gender power relations and Sexuality has been discussed many times in critical feminist theories: a strong alliance has been shown between homophobia and sexism. Any individual who attempts to question or break the clear power relations between the male and female genders in a patriarchal society is automatically accused as having an abnormal sexual identity: a weak male would be negatively labeled as an homosexual and vice versa – a too strong woman would be labeled as a lesbian.
But before we carry on with the analysis, I would like to take a moment to clarify a few basic terms in gender theory which I will be using throughout this work and state a few basic principles of Feminist theories on which I will base my arguments. One of the most important principles that were brought forth by feminist thinkers in the second half of the 20th century was the division between biological sex and gender.
One of the first feminist thinkers who established the base for this division was Simone De Beauvoir in her book ‘the Second Sex’1. She claims that while a biological sex identity is based on the different physical structures of the body which a person is born with, a gender identity is created through social construction and is sustained through cultural significances that have been attached to this biological signs.
The form of genitals, the genetic combination of the sex chromosomes, the levels of different sex hormones in the blood and secondary sexual signs are all part of the biologic sexual identity. In that sense a person is born in most cases as either a male or a female. In recent years there is an increasing amount of research that questions the dual division into just two sexes, emphasizing the many cases of inter-sex persons (what was previously known as hermaphrodites). Due to the limited span of this paper I will not deal with the diversity of biologic sex identities and will confine myself to dealing with a simplified model of just two biological sexes.
On the other hand, the emotional and personal structures that are generally associated with one sex or the other – the dressing codes, intellectual and professional tendencies, different behavioral codes – are all part of what Feminist theories define as gender identity. In other words, anything that is not directly linked to and manifests itself through the body is a part of the social and cultural identity that is attached to the biological sex of a person from the first day of his/her life.
Naturally, this new definition of gender identity and its appropriation of so many elements that were previously considered an inseparable part of biology raised a lot of resentment. It is usually titled as the Nature against Nurture conflict, i.e- whether the majority of social and cultural phenomena are determined by biology and thus are fixed and nearly impossible to change or whether the vast majority of social and cultural identities and norms are constructed through social practices and thus are potentially subject to alteration.
Most of the sociological and cultural researchers are supporting the Nurture paradigm while the natural sciences (biology, medicine, chemistry, physics etc.) researchers propagate the Nature paradigm. In this paper I will base my analysis on the feminist sociological paradigm of Nurture claiming that gender identities and roles are created, constructed and maintained by social and cultural powers and not by biological determinism forces. Relying on the Nurture paradigm, I will argue that the gender roles in tango culture are derived from the cultural and social climate of Buenos Aires in the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century.
Another key term that I am going to use in this paper is patriarchy. This term is commonly defined as an unequal social system from a gender perspective. As the feminist theoretician Adrianne Rich explained in one of her first books2, in the patriarchal system the male gender role has a more central and powerful part than the female gender role. In such a system, all of the social and cultural establishments are structured so that the male gender adult individuals would hold control and subordinate all the other individuals – mainly females and children.
Needless to say that Argentina in the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century was a typical model of patriarchal society. Tango culture, as a reflection of the bigger social order, was reproducing the unequal gendered power relations using its own practices.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this chapter, Gender identity and Sexuality are strongly interlinked. But before I elaborate on this subject I would like to define the term sexuality. We already discussed the intricate relations between biological sexual identity and gender identity. At this point we can add a third variable to this equation. Sexuality is the structure of sexual desire of an individual.
The two largest identity categories of sexuality are heterosexuality and homosexuality, though – just like with gender identity and biologic sex identity – there are always more smaller identities that break the rough duality of the structure. The alignment between patriarchy and heterosexuality has been a subject for many feminist theories. A French feminist theoretician, Monique Wittig, explains that the survival of patriarchy relies on the heterosexual nuclear family sub-structure3. This analysis illuminates why patriarchal influenced culture has propagated heterosexual relations as the only legitimate ones.
Patriarchy establishes legitimacy by using many methods. But the three main processes that hold the biggest relevance to this paper are the denial of homosexuality, the restriction of homosexuality and the proliferation of heterosexuality throughout all cultural fields. We will investigate the three different process in detail in the next chapter.
For now, I would like to emphasize the independence and separability of the three categories I have introduced in this chapter. Though Patriarchy emphasizes the ‘natural’ link between a biological sex identity and gender identity (i.e- a masculine gender identity is necessarily based on a biological male body and vice versa) accompanied by the proper sexuality (the attraction to the opposite biologic sex and gender identities), in reality each identity category can interact freely with the others. For example, a biological female can have a masculine gender identity and can be attracted to either man or female or both. As obvious as it might look from a critical sociological and feminist perspective, patriarchy uses multiple cultural mechanisms to limit the variety of gender, biologic sex and sexuality identity combinations. The next chapter is dedicated to the analysis of tango culture norms and practices through which this patriarchal mechanisms can be clearly demonstrated.
And before proceeding to the analysis it is important to insert yet another disclaimer: the definition of homosexuality is a problematic one, even if the basics of traditional gender division are accepted. It assumes that the question defining the sexuality of a person is: “what gender do I feel the need to be sexual with?”. Rather than this, most of human history the defining question was: “which situation am I in when having sex?”. This second question can be simplified to the duality between penetrating and being penetrated. To take a very clear, yet quite far example, we can consider the master’s role in ancient Greek thinking. The “man of the house” would have sex with his wife, penetrating her, sex with his slaves, penetrating him or her and sex with his students, penetrating them. Women were by definition being penetrated. Slaves’ socio-sexual role was defined by them being penetrated, rather than penetrating. So was the student’s role.
No one had the idea to define the master’s sexuality by his preferences regarding male of female sexual partners.
Things are slightly different in Biblical thinking. Sexuality between men isn’t explicitly mentioned other than penetrational sex between men being forbidden. However, this Issur can be brought down to a general ban on any sexual activity not aimed at reproduction on one had and a ban on rape as means of humiliation of strangers on the other. In biblical thought there is no general difference between Onan, who had coitus interruptus with his wife, the fellows from the story generally known as Pilegesh baGiv’a [quite a disturbing story of the rape and consequential murder of a minor with the goal of revenge against her owner] and Noah’s son who can possibly be seen as having raped his drunk father. Most definitely homosexuality is not treated, as in modern thinking, as a personality defining function. A man having sex with another man isn’t becoming “gay”, as a person playing the piano is a pianist or a person born in Russia to Russian parents, speaking only Russian and never leaving Russia is a Russian. He is rather committing a specific sin, just like lighting fire on Sabbath or not taking efficient care of his dangerous bull, both of which are, under certain circumstances, regarded sins punishable with death. None of the latter would be considered a Sabbath-fire-lighter or a dangerous-bullnot-efficiently-carer. Just the same a man having sex with another would be considered “sinning”, rather than “a sinner”. To quote Foucault on this: “The sodomite was a recidivist, [but the homosexual is now a species.]”
Looking at the Middle Ages in Europe [other than which I found it very challenging to find any ind of information], we have to re-consider our whole understanding of sexual freedom permitted by the church. While the Middle Ages are normally regarded “The Dark Ages” in modern historiography, this is partly a misconception. As an example I would like to point out that, as much as this stands in contradiction to nowadays understanding of the situation, the church was advertising what would be today seen as safer sex in order to make it possible to have extramarital sexual relationships. Sex between women was ignored and sex between men was generally condemned. However, still the identification of a person with the gender of his sexual partners of preference wasn’t common.
In fact, even during the centuries following the Middle Ages sex between men was still not defining some one’s sexuality. The first time the term “homosexuality” appears in an English translation of the bible is 1946. The emerging definition of Homosexuality as a [forbidden] social situation is closely connected to the industrialization and the urbanisation going hand in hand with it. This is a process of the early 19th century. Capitalism re-shaped society in a way that atomized society on both the broader social level and the family level. Community life changed and was essentially limited to the core family as a recreation activity. The idea of a single sexual partner for men was born.
As a multitude of sexual partners was becoming impossible due to the change in the paradigms of production, a new category of defining sexuality emerged, titled by the question: “who do you have sex with”.
This is basically what shaped the understanding of human sexuality that is valid until today. Of course, less than 100 years later the question was raised if these definitions are valid by people like Magnus Hirschfeld of the Berlin Institute for Sexual Behavior. A short while later homosexuality was officially approved of in some societies.
However, while it is very clear even today that homosexuality is anything but generally accepted, we can even find clear traces of the pre-capitalist way of defining the sexual behavior of a man as “manly” or not. From my personal experience, in the minds of many of us, “being fucked” is still the main humiliating act for men, while telling someone male “I’ll fuck you” is in no way defining you as a “faggot”. Working in a kitchen with many much less educated and much less formulated people, acting much more out of society’s undercurrents than out of self reflection and the crippled emotional “clarity” that is an inevitable outcome of the intellectual way of dealing with things, including emotions and sexual drives, I experience countless examples of that way of feeling sexuality as a social factor. In all cases in which I experience homoerotic behavior [needless to mention that it is never explicit and it would be impossible to point it out without being banned as a homo] it is a question of power relations between the one being fucked and the one fucking. Comments such as “blow me” as an expression of humiliating the other or standing behind someone, imitating anal sex with him without him noticing are common and accepted as manly jokes. The contradiction between
- the generally accepted definition of homosexuality as any sexual contact between members of the same sex/gender
- the generally accepted contempt for homosexuality [which is, of course, somewhat softened by an official narrative in The Netherlands which allows everyone to be “himself” in the name of individualism and
- the generally accepted notion that sexual approaches towards your own gender are OK and manly as long as you are the one controlling the situation and forcing the other seems to stay unnoticed.
That being said, I am handing in a thesis that is based on the hypthesis that homosexuality is indeed defined and that there indeed are just two gender possibilities. While I personally do not stand behind those two assumptions, Tango culture does, as does Western Culture in general. I see myself, therefore, free to phrase my thoughts under these assumptions.
As a last disclaimer I’d like to state that as a Marxist I see all social phenomena as power relationships. This is the case with homophobia and sexism in general, but this is the case with class struggle in its various forms, art, conversations with strangers on the train and food traditions as well. In the summary of this text I phrase conclusions that are not strictly limited to homophobia and the struggle against it. However, as the different aspects of power relations in a society are interdependent, to say the very least, I allow myself to conclude from one to others.
In other words, the phenomenon of homophobia on one hand and gender ambiguity on the other are one of the most important ways power structures manifest in Western society. However, they are just a phenomenon. While I will be focusing on those specific aspects in this paper, my interest in them is a general one and I will treat it as a such in my conclusions. My urge to point out gender inequality and dismantle patriarchy is a general urge to dismantle dishonest/unjust power structures by exposing them. A critical view on Tango History is an important tool, but as Marx pointed out in his Thesis on Feuerbach: Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern [The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it].
Gender and Sexuality Norms and Practices in Tango
In the first volume of his remarkable book “History of sexuality”4, Michel Foucault argues that since the industrial revolution and the rise of the medical sciences, the western patriarchal culture has treated homosexuality in an almost contradictory way. On the one hand, homosexuality was regarded as non existent. The discourse about what was identified as abnormal sexuality was limited only to the professional scientific forums. Outside the hospitals, prisons and universities there was not supposed to be any mention of this ‘pathological’ phenomena.
Homosexuality – together with other sexuality outcasts as prostitution, sex outside of the matrimonial contract, etc. – was not to be mentioned in the higher circles of society. In art and literature there was no direct mentioning of homosexuality. A naïve and simple view over end of 19th century cultural artifacts would uncover no clue of any sexual inclination besides heterosexuality. On the other hand, the increasing amount of scientific research on “newly identified” social phenomena such as homosexuality had its own impact on the general topics of interest. A wave of curiosity was constantly building up. Foucault explains this apparent contradiction – the denial and silencing of homosexuality together with a growing scientific and under-current popular discourse about it – in the special role of sexuality in the social power structures. Foucault claims that sexuality was a perfect social site for inspection and control for the new political and scientific powers (i.e- the new modern capitalist nationalist states) that were rising towards the end of the 19th century.
A strong support for Foucault’s theory of sexuality can be found in a careful analysis of society and culture in the growing Tango culture of the end of 19th and beginning of 20th centuries in Buenos Aires. I wish to examine this culture mainly through texts and popular tango song lyrics. Through a careful reading and analysis I would like to show how what seems to be an absolute and total patriarchal and homophobic culture actually leaves large space for ambiguity for alternative gender and sexuality roles and identities. As so many other aspects of history, we have, in retrospective, the image of a terribly stiff society and feel a huge relief upon having left this society behind us, engaging in entirely new social contacts, while the contrary is often true: painting the past in the darkest black makes us able to live with a present that is at times less pink than we would wish for. The formal attitude of the patriarchal institutions to homosexuality can be clearly shown through the next text taken from the magazine of the Buenos Aires police department: ‘The homosexual is one of the most repelling characters, he brings disorder into society, deteriorates morals, ruins natural norms of the body.. in ancient times he caused two cities to burn down and disappear from the face of the earth”. We learn from the text that The homosexual was considered to be a cause of social disorder at a few parallel levels – the political, the social and the ethical. “ Needless to mention, of course, that at the beginning of the 20th century official standards were very homophobic anywhere in the Western World [except for very few exceptions, such as Berlin and Paris]. Buenos Aires was in no way a specifically alien place to homosexuals.
However, it is important to remember that Tango, before being adopted by the higher bourgeoisie classes, has been developing amongst the lower social circles. As anywhere else, these cycles were more independent of “official public opinion”. Prostitution and crime where common social phenomena in Buenos Aires of the late 19th century and while the upper classes naturally condemned it, the lowest class was feeding on their fruits. Tango was strongly influenced by them.
The proliferation of those social phenomenas was usually linked to the big immigration from the European continent. This immigration was mostly consisting of young men eager to find new opportunities in the new continent. Women were left behind in the old continent. This immigration caused an extreme imbalance between males and females in the general population. Reichardt, who elaborates on the social and cultural background of the birth of tango in Buenos Aires5, refers many times to the special social and cultural circumstances created by this male demographic burst. He describes how homosexuality, considered to be an unavoidable outcome of the lack of female sexual partners, was automatically tabooed by the authorities by linking it to prostitution and crime.
Since the beginning of tango the male supremacy values of patriarchy were expressed through fierce competition over women. But, as Salas depicts in his book6, this basic pattern of gendered power relations did not contradict the fact that the vast majority of visitors to the Tango Cafés were men and that same gender dance couples were a common sight in Buenos Aires before tango was introduced into the salons. Furthermore, many folklore texts about Tango (dated circa 1900) that were collected by Borde7 openly mention the existence of homosexuality amongst the Buenos Aires’ bohemians.
From this multiple examples we can learn that the roots of tango were in no way purely heterosexual. Though the patriarchal script of tango appointed opposite gender roles to unequal power relations, the actual acting of this play was not constricted to opposite genders and was very often performed by two males.
The long process of assimilation of Tango into the higher bourgeois circles of Buenos Aires had a strong effect on the visibility of homosexual elements. In accordance with the western scientific approach, homosexuality was labeled pathological – a social disease just like crime and prostitution. Tango had to be cleaned of the unwanted elements of this ‘social ailments’ before it could enter the cleanliness of the high class salons. Yet, with a careful analysis of Tango lyrics we can see that homosexuality did not disappear but only camouflaged itself.
A clear example of this camouflaging through deliberate ambiguity can be found
in a text dated from the end of 19th century:
|Bartolo tenía una flauta
con un agujero solo,
y su madre le decía:
toca la flauta Bartolo
Bartolo quería casarse
y gozar de mil placeres y entre quinientas mujeres
ninguna buena encontro
Pues siendo muy exigente,
na hallo mujer a su gusto
y por evutar dusgustos
soliterito se quedo
|Bartolo had a flute
with just one hole
And his mother told him:
Play the flute, Bartolo
Bartoo wanted to get married
and engage in a thousand joys
and out of 500 women
he didn’t find one good enough
because he was so specific
he didn’t find a single one to his taste
and to stay out of displeasure
he stayed single
Borde informs us that the common interpretation of this text holds it as a short vulgar song about masturbation. But the expression ‘playing the flute’ had another meaning: Bartolo ‘plays the flute’ instead of going after the girls because he is not interested in girls at all. ‘Playing the flute’ in the slang of Buenos Aires meant having oral sex between two men. This song poses as an example for how a text could have been interpreted both in a heterosexual way (although still too vulgar for the refined taste of the upper classes) and in a homosexual way.
Another text with implicit references to homosexuality is the song ‘catorce’ by Angel Villoldo.
|Qué dicha tan singular
y qué emoción
se siente bailando un tango,
cuando el que baila es un pierna
y con calor
se balancea al compás.
Cuando me lleva mi china
al hacer la quebradita!
Todo mi ser se conmueve,
en los brazos de mi bien.
|What singular luck
And what emotions
one feels while dancing the Tango
if one has a good partner [male form]
who with heat
cradles in the rhythm
When my china leads me
when we dance quebradita!
I’m deeply touched
and my fire is lightened
in the arms of my loved one.
The gender identities of the protagonists of this text are exhibited in a confusing way. In the first verse the dance partner is depicted as a man while in the second verse she is depicted as a woman. The ambigious term ‘china’ is unlikely to refer to a female dancer due to the fact that in accordance to the Tango dance norms of those days women were not allowed to lead.
We can see again how, through deliberate use of multiple-meaning symbols and terms, the songs can easily be interpreted as depicting homosexual lovers. At this point I would like to move on to a few texts that contain straight forward homosexual content in a way that makes intricate deciphering unnecessary.
The next song lyrics, also by Angel Villoldo, are an example of a song that is directly describing an homosexual desire and passion.
|¡Qué lindo es bailar
un tango así, dormilón!
Gozar… soñar… vivir… sentir
las vibraciones en el corazón.
Cuando, con calor,
me balanceo al compás,
no sé lo que me pasa…
sientoun gozo sin igual.
voy en los brazos de mi bien,
reboza mi pecho de pasión
y de placer.
Y el grato vaivén
de esta danza me hace muy feliz,
y es el 13 voluptuoso el que…
me gusta a mí.
Es el tango para bailar
una danza muy singular
que el alma enajena
y de emociones nos llena.
Es el tango mi Gran pasión
y pal pita mi corazón
cuando bail con un crinoline,
y es burn pierna y se Haman
|How nice it is, so sleepy,
to dance a Tango
The vibration of the heart
to enjoy, to dream, to live, to feel!
When I, with burning desire [heat]
move in rhythm
I don’t know what is happening to me
And I feel joy without comparison
When I, ecstatically
In the arms of my loved one, move
my heart bursts
of passion and lust
The pleasant forth and back
of this dance makes me very happy
And it is the voluptuousness of the Trece
which I like so much
As the Tango is
a special dance
which alienates our soul
and fills [it] with desire
The Tango is my big passion
and my heart beats
When I dance with a criollo, who doesn’t bitch around
who dances well and cradles passionately.
The narrator describes himself as the entranced and aroused partner of a local male dancer that has no shame. The song is full of sexual content that, given the gender identity of the two protagonists, refers quite clearly to homo-eroticism.
Elements like passion, pleasure, bodily vibration and heat and swaying back and forth make the homosexual allusion obvious.
A famous song that introduces flexible reversals of gender identity and female (lesbian) homosexuality is ‘Se dice de mi’, mostly known through the performances of the diva Tita Merelo.
|Se dice que soy fea,
que camino a lo malevo
que soy chueca y que me muevo
con un aire compadrón,
que no tengo simpatía,
que soy algo tartamudo
y además de andar ceñuda
tengo boca de buzón.
Si miro a Renée,
a Luisa o Mimí,
las pibas están
hablando de mí.
Critican si ya
la linea perdí,
se fijan si voy,
si vengo o si fui.
Se dice que soy fea
más… si el tipo no interesa,
¿por qué pierden la cabeza
ocupándose de mí?
Yo sé que muchas
que desprecian, comprar quieren
y suspiran y se mueren
cuando piensan en mi amor.
Y más de una
se derrite si suspiro
y se queda, si la miro,
resoplando como un Ford.
Si fea soy, pongámosle,
que de eso aún no me enteré,
en el amor, yo sólo sé
que a más de diez dejé de a pie.
Podrán decir, podrán hablar
y murmurar y criticar,
más la fealdad que dios me dio
mucho Don Juan me la envidió
y no dirán que me engrupí
porque modesta siempre fui.
yo soy asi8
I’m an ugly woman
I walk like a malevo
I have crooked legs and move
like a compadron
That I’m no likeable
That I stumble a bit
run around in a bad mood
And have a big mouth
When I look at Renee
Louisa or Mimi
Then the girl talk about me
they criticise the loss
of my skinny lines
They check if I come
go away or am present
One says I’m ugly
But if someone is not interesting
Why does everyone loose his head
by just thinking about me?
I know that many
who despise me, and want to buy me
sigh for my love and die
And more than one melts away when I sigh
and starts to snuffle like a Ford
when I just look at her
Let’s say I’m ugly
I didn’t notice it so far
I just know that when it comes to love
I have trumped many
Let them speak and talk
and wisper and criticise
but for the ugliness I have
some Don Juans already got angry
No one can say about me that I’m a show off
because I was always decent
So am I.
This song entails a straight forward depiction of a female lesbian dominant character. The self-depiction of the narrator as a rude, clumsy and ugly women – or in gender theory terms: a biologic female with a male gender identity – is not the only revolutionary element of this song.
Besides posing a direct challenge to the normative submissive female gender identity, there is also a direct reference to a wide spread lesbian homosexual passion that is directed at the narrator. Even though she breaks almost all of the gender and sexuality norms of the time, she still manages to receive the sexual attraction of other women. This lesbian sexual desire is mixed with envy. The women are both attracted to her and at the same time are being jealous of her success in attracting the males. They criticize her and at the same time long for her.
One can also interpret this notion as an expression of a bi-sexual sexuality. This forbidden sexual arousal is depicted in a very straight forward way – the women groan and melt when they picture her.
The potential danger that this text posed for the patriarchal order probably caused the creation of a second version of this song, where the forbidden homosexual desires were sublimated into a more acceptable heterosexual sexuality, though the gender identity subversive elements stayed.
Another example of a possible bi-sexuality can be found in the song ‘Siempre es
Carnaval’ by Fresedo.
|Y siempre es carnaval.
Van cayendo serpentinas,
unas gruesas y otras finas
que nos hacen tambalear.
Y cuando en tu disfraz
la careta queda ausente
en tu cara de inocente,
todo el año es carnaval.
¡Y viva el carnaval!
Vos ves siempre lucecitas.
Sos la eterna mascarita
que gozás con engañar.
Y cuando en tu disfraz
la careta queda ausente
en tu cara de inocente,
todo el año es carnaval.
¡Qué tuviste una fortuna!
¡Qué de oro fue tu cuna!
Que esto cuesta: ¡Qué se yo!
Las mujeres y los hombres
por tu amor tocan la luna
y otras cosas más por vos…
|And it is always carnaval
Always there are paper streamers flying around
thick and thin
That make us thumble
And if you take off the mask of your costume
In your innocent face
it’s always carnaval
You had a fortune
Your cradle was of gold
It cost such and such – who knows
The men and women
touched the moon in love with you
and many other things
The narrator of the text clearly addresses both genders as his dance, love and erotic partners. The cultural context of the carnaval is in itself strongly connected to transgressions of social and cultural limitations. among the last, the rigid sexuality and gender roles power structure is a favorite target for destabilization during the carnival period.
In the last part of this chapter I would like to offer a gender and sexuality focused analysis of the famous Argentinian cultural character of the Guapo. The Guapo is described by many cultural theoreticians as the extreme and distilled stereotype of Argentinian masculinity at the turn of the 19th century. As such, he is driven mainly by values of honor and courage. Yet, as with any extreme ethical cultural model, the reactions to this extreme masculine model were very often critical and full of doubts as to the actual possibility of a personification of such a character.
Salas writes in his previously mentioned book: ” The Guapo was often accused of homosexuality, his relations with women were kept minimal and were usually circling his role as a lonely wolf. His visits to the brothels were an unpleasant necessity for him, which he fulfilled without any emotion. He accepted this visits as an inseparable part of his status and honor and as an preventative anti-dote to any deterioration in his masculinity as acknowledged by the crowd of the quarter.”9
From this fascinating analysis of the gender role of the Guapo, we can learn that though the masculine gender identity of society was strongly connected to heterosexuality, the actual sexual tendency of the guepo was unclear.
An apparent separation between the Guapo’s social commitments and his emotional-personal inclination is obvious. The emotional detachment of the Guapo when performing heterosexual acts together with rumors concerning his sexual orientation point to a complex sexuality identity that transgresses the narrow normative heterosexual structure.
The sheer fact that the Guapo, the most evident model of masculine gender identity has its own ambigious sexual tendency brings us back to the main claim that I have raised several times throughout this chapter. Namely, that the popular, normative and wildly accepted patriarchal patterns of gender and sexuality power relations in Tango, are actually performed, re-appropriated and interpreted through a wide and diverse range of cultural acts. Though some of the interpretation confirm to the accepted patriarchal norms, others stand out as clear examples for the enormous interpretational space that exists even inside the most rigid and stable gender and sexuality social power structures.
Musico-social interrelations – understanding the social role of music and art in general
At the beginning of the 20th century tonality had come to a point of self-annihilation. While Schoenberg saw himself as continuing Wagner, there was an additional component to his 12-tone music idea: an intended social impact. The basic assumption of the social impact of Schoenberg’s music is that music is not only mirroring a society, but rather influencing it just as much. Schoenberg himself claimed that a music with hierarchical structure mirrors a society with hierarchical structures. As a communist, he couldn’t accept such a society and had, hence, the urge to change it through the music he wrote. According to his ideas, by eliminating hierarchy in the music of a certain society the acceptance of eliminating hierarchy in that society is increased.
Adorno states a very similar thought to the first half of Schoenberg’s: “the forms of art reflect the history of man more truthfully than do documents themselves”10.
This idea can be fortified by examining the music of movements with clear social intentions. It is needless to point out that in different form it was understood and practiced by such movements or ideologies throughout history.
Once again going back to ancient Greece we see how, just to give an example, Dorian melodies were believed to have the effect of stimulating violence and heroism in individuals. The church propagated music [and architecture] that made people feel small and insignificant in order to make them comply with the rule of something greater than themselves [i.e.: God or the church as His earthly delivery boy]. Masses in the Baroque period were huge opi, too gigantic to make the audience feel part of it other than in auto-annihilation.
The fascist movements of the 20th century had a tendency towards the same kind of super sized works, with a slight twist towards a more down-to-earth harmony and rhythm, as they intended to make the individual feel only part of something bigger [the nation this time] but without the transcendental factor.
In all three of these [and in countless other] examples of music we can see the mutual influence between music and people. On one hand the composers’ [and initiator’s] understanding of the world shaped the music and on the other hand the music was intended to shape the audience’s point of view.
It is important to notice that in all cases the lyrics [if existing] are explicitly propagating the idea, while the music is less explicitly propagating the very same idea. Applying this understanding to Tango, we should be very aware that not only the Tangos performed with lyrics [i.e.: sung] carry the ideas of the society in which they were written but those ideas are rather inherent to the music itself as well. To thoroughly analyze the specific instances of this assumption may be the content of a complete other research. However, I believe it is not too far fetched to assume that anyone with some knowledge of Tango and a view on the issue of social influence of music will agree with the claim that Tango is, altogether, a very masculine/male dominant phenomenon. This includes
- The lyrics/music, which were both created in a male dominant world, hence being based on a male dominant understanding of the world,
- The dance and its practice, which is based on very clear gender roles. We have learned from the black struggle in North America that “separate but equal” is a strategy that effectively separates but in no way assures equality
- The scene of musicians, which is predominantly male. The example of Eva Wolff is maybe the best example to show how much women are still a tiny minority between the 99% of men in the scene of Tango musicians.
The importance of bringing a wider perspective into attention, one that emphasizes the range of subversive elements and interpretations that coexist parallel to the formal patriarchal tango values, can not be over emphasized.
The over-simplified perception of the traditional Tango culture as totally patriarchal, sexist and homophobic may deter many from getting to know it. A big majority of potential culture consumers in the west today share the same liberal ethical ideas. Those ideas have been strongly influenced by the feminist and gay right movements in Europe and the Americas in the second half of the 20th century. Those consumers may find tango too offensive in the way that it oppresses women and homosexuals. A natural consequence of this ethical disapproval is a creation of a big antagonism against Tango in general and against traditional tango in particular.
Nevertheless, a more thorough and deep understanding of the practice of Tango, as opposed to the dry formal norms and values, can provide a more complex and favorable view of tango tradition. Furthermore, a complete blocking and boycotting of the genus is only one extreme way of dealing with the sexist values that proliferate in Tango. As the famous Queer studies theoretician Judith Butler11 suggested – the way to fight sexism and homophobia in our culture is not through negative political action (for example, avoiding certain cultural practices) but through creative positive political action. Or in McKenzie Wark’s words: I think critique should press to the limit and Situationist’s critique is a good example of the critique of the totality of everyday life, but their actions are modest and particular. Theirs is a kind of negative action that keeps alive the distance between what can be thought and what can be done … One can do both at same time: one’s practices are specific but one’s ambition, conceptually, should be the world-and we live in the gap between the two12. This positive political action is in fact exactly what this paper has been busy uncovering: a subversive interpretation of traditional patriarchal power relations structures.
When a woman acts the role that was originally reserved for a man (like in the case of Se dice de mi) or when a courting and dancing act that was originally intended for an opposite gender couple is actually carried out by a same gender couple, then a seed of subversion is planted into the patriarchal power system. Instead of opposing tango as means of fighting patriarchy I suggest to follow the example set by the original creators and participants of tango culture in Buenos Aires in the end of 19th century and question and destabilize patriarchy through Tango.
However, considering the chapter on socio-musical interrelations, Tango can be socially subversive in many different ways, solely by challenging the pure musical assumptions it is based upon. In the appendix, truly the reason for this thesis to be written, I will show how this can be accomplished in the specific case of Tango.
Appendix: A call [in]to arms
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.13
As an appendix to this thesis I would like to add what for me is the only good reason to write an analytical text: coming to pro-active conclusions that will influence the way we proceed from here. As we have learned from Marx, pure academic word-juggling is worthless unless it is directly connected to practice.
This link can never be as “clean” as a pure intellectual approach. This is to say: No single change in our approach to music can change any specific social element we’re interested in changing. We will have to generally re-think the way we are producing our art towards more equality and open minded thought on any level possible in order to preach social equality and social open minded thought through it. As in any social “science” it is impossible to use “accurate” scientific tools to point out single/specific relations between the social and the artistic. However, an attempt to do so is hugely important if we don’t want to stay within the boundaries of academia but actually have a part in what is happening with and to music.
If we agree with the assumption that music as a social phenomenon has an influence on the social structures of its audience, we have to dismantle those parts of it that mirror [and hence reassure stimulate] inequality and reactionary thought.
At this point I come back to the statement that music influences on various different levels. Considering the above discussed, widely accepted, opinion that music mirrors society even on the purely musical level [i.e.: leaving lyrics aside], we may assume that both patriarchy and its ambiguity are mirrored in Tango music itself, even though we might not be able to point out the exact elements in music that carry this or the other to today’s audience’s ears. It would, hence, be both childish and useless to assume that if I want to question or even dismantle patriarchy the only thing to do is to sing about a strong woman that leaves her husband because he cannot provide her needs within the relationship between them while leaving the musical approach we have inherited from the history of our specific genre untouched, just as it is not agreeable to only change the name of a adored female wrong doer in a certain song to a male name and assume the issue of homophobia in this specific song is thereby solved.
Rather than that, music that justifies hope to make a change will have to make
the listener feel generally less comfortable in the music, keep him more alert,
trigger him to see the ambiguity and call the obvious into question, make him doubt if he indeed has all the answers, if the song will finish as he expects it and when he expects it. This music would have to be an experience that deals with our audience as Brecht deals with his14: make them think rather than just feel, kick them out of their illusion of getting lost within the music/play once in a while. This music would have to be a challenge, possible to master by our audience but demanding the audience’s active listening and coping with it’s content rather than consuming absent-mindedly or being passively absorbed in the numbing shelter of a series of unquestioned conventions.
Our challenge as socially aware creative musicians is to bend rather than to break: as we have seen during most of the last century, it is easy to write avantgarde music that is very intelligently written, complex and possibly even introduces social ideas I would find agreeable. Most of those composers, however, forget that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If hardly anyone eats a socially aware pudding, it is and stays an ivory tower pudding, accomplishing nothing other than giving the cook a nice warm feeling15.
The question relevant here was asked [and answered] by Susan Buck-Morss16 in 1977: Precisely whom were the avant-garde leading? The answer could only be those who understand the complexities of musical technique, that is, other intellectuals. In reality, access to the “truth” of Schoenberg’s music was open only to the cultured elite from the bourgeois ranks whose economic security gave them the necessary means for acquiring a specialized training. The difficulty was that this group would always remain a “few”.
The above mentioned “numbing shelter of a series of unquestioned conventions” is evident in any traditional/traditionalist music. In Tango it would be the Tango specific harmonies, the typical I-V-I ending, the clearly defined forms that are based on the old scheme of ABA, the mainly male singers, the visual cliches we’re engaging in time and again and many more. Challenging those without abandoning them is possible by carefully analyzing the music with the goal of finding those elements inherent to it that can be used to destabilize the listener’s comfort feeling.
As an example I would like to mention the chromaticism we find so often in Tango. Piazzolla might be a good example of music that includes a lot of chromatically enriched melodic lines. Music that is to stay Tango while broadening it’s horizons could possibly take this element and give it more space. Piazzolla’s main chromatic idea as a core element to his music [as opposed to the other side of his chromatic approach, as we can experience in his solos] is a repeatedly descending bass line, evident in the melody as well. Needless to mention that for him there was no underlying social impact of such chromaticism. Although, as a former student of both Ginestera17 and Boulanger18, he must have been aware of Schoenbergs ideas, considering his straightforward indifference towards any social issues, we can rest assured that in the equation social-musical-social he was interested in neither the former nor the latter. However, the phenomenon of mutual influence doesn’t require awareness. Thus, we can still regard his social influence and the social influence on him as an issue requiring attention. This is a matter understood by some circles of Argentinian society, and so, [Piazzolla’s] music gained acceptance in Europe and North America, and his reworking of the tango was embraced by some liberal segments of Argentine society, who were pushing for political changes in parallel to his musical revolution19.
We have to be careful, though, not to consider any revolutionary act as a such per se. It is revolutionary only in correlation with a certain historical and geographical point. And so, as his specific chromatic idea has been used over the last 40 years to an extent that makes people feel very comfortable with, a challenging approach would have to take a step further, possibly either breaking the repetitiveness of it, or turning it around to be an ascending line [just to mention two simple possibilities, two of countless].
Moreover, it seems to me that we are at a stage of history in which atonality is more approachable to the broad audience than ever before. Music with atonal elements doesn’t have to completely let go of a tonal center, but could blur or redefine the inner musical relations. As opposed to any other point in history I am aware of, some of the very popular music in the West in fact lacks a clear tonal center. This happens mostly in electronic music focusing on rhythm.
A few examples would be Aphex Twin, Einstürzende Neubauten, the latter of which can arguably be considered avantgarde but have made it into the very heart of popular music for the more educated in Germany over the last 20 years [especially since their 1996 album Ende Neu] much of upbeat dubstep and other electronic dance music, and Missy Elliot and Kelis with Top Hits in the US such as Milkshake and Get Ur Freak On, to mention just a few from different genres.
As an example of this happening already in Tango, it is important to mention
Julian Peralta’s harmonic approach, as can be found in many of his compositions written for both Fernandez Fierro and Astillero20. As opposed to what I can find in Tango history up until this point, Peralta uses a lot of harmonies based on fourths. This destabilizes, by definition, the functional harmony as it is inherent to harmonic approaches based on fifths/thirds and thereby changes the flow we know from Tango until now. Paired with chromaticism this opens an entire tool set of possibilities of questioning basic musical assumptions.
Considering Adorno’s and Schoenberg’s analysis of musico-social interrelations mentioned above, we can consider this a defiance of the social order as expressed in traditional Tango. In other words: if the audience used to both clear functional harmony on one hand, and clear gender relations on the other, linked by the history of Tango, challenging one is automatically challenging the other.
Another example of an element in Tango that carries possibilities of destabilizing the automatisms of Tango is the rhythmical one. We can see a clear line from the beginning of Tango until today of increasing rhythmical complexity. This complexity stays in the boundaries of a 4/4 bar [examples of music other than in 4 or the occasional 3, which in itself is an exception already, can hardly be found and can thus be dismissed]. In some cases, the bar is challenged by ignoring one bar line and in fact making two bars into one, as we can see in the basic rhythmical pattern of the first of Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes.
However, I can hardly think of any music that defies the very bar it is unwilling
to leave behind more consistently than Tango. A missing list of examples is:
- Gardel’s fraseo, which is doubtlessly one of Tango’s pillars
- Pugliese’s yumba, as well a rhythmical element destabilizing the rhythmical feeling which has come to be one of the most used rhythmical elements in Tango throughout history
- Troilo’s approach to time. More than any other music I know he is giving the melody as such so much space that we at times witness more rubato in a piece than “straight rhythm”. This includes, but is in no way limited to, the syncopa named after him.21
- Many of Piazzolla’s themes such as La Muerte del Angel. The theme in 4 is based on a rhythmical thought in 3, being “corrected” every other bar in order to fit the 4/4 bar.
The rhythmical challenges inherent to Tango culture come to such an extent
that we are, at times, unable to understand the original rhythmical idea of a
certain bar by simply listening to it. Reproducing the rhythm becomes a game
of guessing that annihilates the feeling of the bar. A good example is Pugliese’s
La Mariposa as transcribed by Alicia Alonso last year, played by OTRA22 for her exam23.
These rhythmical complexities are especially surprising due to the fact that Tango is originally dance music and is thus deeply rooted in the need for clear and expected rhythms.
A music that goes beyond what has been accepted by Tango audience, thus ceased to challenge, can use this rhythmical complexity and take it to a next level, for example by letting ideas like the one of Piazzolla’s theme mentioned above lead the music to abandon the 4/4 bar, if not completely at least for longer than Piazzolla allowed himself.
In order to not fall into the trap which avantgarde is caught up in by definition, as expressed by Buck-Morss and quoted above, progressive music has to take those destabilizing elements inherent to its own history and use them for further destabilization in such a way that is approachable by the targeted public. This, of course, is a never ending process that has to be re-thought time and again, as it both mirrors and intend to influence an ever changing society.
By doing so a musician is challenging those social elements linked by history to his music in general, without the need or the possibility of immediately linking a specific music phenomenon to a specific social phenomenon. In other words: with patriarchy as a basic element in Tango, calling patriarchy into question can efficiently done within the boundaries Tango by calling Tango’s general music assumptions into question and answer that question with music that stays Tango but evolves in a way that challenges today’s listener.
Being aware of those factors that challenge the widely accepted understanding of patriarchy in Tango, such as the homoerotic component of early Tango dancing practice and the sexual ambiguity of the Guapo, both discussed earlier, and using them, always next to pure musical aspects, by emphasizing them, is a key element in making such a process possible.
To stay true to the pro active approach of the appendix, I would like to conclude by expressing my hopes for an aware and socially responsible second century in Tango. Aux armes, musiciens24!
- Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Penguin Publishing House, London, 1991.
- V. Borde, El Plata – Folklore, Erstausgabe, 1923.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Vintage Publishing House, London 1995.
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Penguin Books, 1990.
- D. Reichardt, Tango, Suhrkamp Publishing House, Bonn, 2003
- Adrianne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Norton, 1976.
- H. Salas, El tango, Buenos Aires, 1986, 3/1995.
- Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Beacon Press, 1992.
I would like to thank Magali Saikin for her help in tracing original lyrics and translating them and Eli Fabrikant for pointing me to the relevant texts concerning gender studies.
Author and License
- This thesis is writen by Gabriel Wolff
- Text is released under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0
- Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Penguin Publishing House, London, 1991. ↩
- Adrianne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Norton, 1976. ↩
- Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Beacon Press, 1992. ↩
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Penguin Books, 1990. ↩
- D. Reichardt, Tango, Suhrkamp Publishing House, Bonn, 2003. ↩
- H. Salas, El tango, Buenos Aires, 1986, 3/1995. ↩
- V. Borde, El Plata – Folklore, Erstausgabe 1923. ↩
- Letras de Tango II ↩
- H. Salas, El tango, Buenos Aires, 1986, 3/1995. ↩
- Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 105 ↩
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990. ↩
- www.versobooks.com ↩
- “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, Marx in his Thesis on Feuerbach, 1888. ↩
- Insights interesting for us as musicians can be found in Brecht’s writings about alienation under the title “About the use of Music in Epic Theatre”, c. 1935. ↩
- One of the best examples is, in my opinion, the Darmstädter Schule, who had partially anarchist ideas but were completely unable to reach a broader audience until today. Stockhausen and Boulez are considered two of the important composers of the last century. However, this view cannot possibly based on their acceptance by broader audience but is rather a notion from within academia. ↩
- Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialetics (New York: The Free Press, 1977). ↩
- Alberto Evaristo Ginastera (Buenos Aires, 1916 – Genève, 1983), Argentinian composer. ↩
- Nadia Boulanger (Paris, 1887-1979), French conductor, organist and composition teacher, with whom AP studied in Paris and who pushed him to write Tango. ↩
- Wikipedia on Piazolla. ↩
- Alas por la Mitad, Motobronco, Conquistasobras amo. ↩
- Buenos Aires Tokio, any piece with his quartet and essentially most of his other recordings. ↩
- See www.otra-rotterdam.nl ↩
- bars 14 , 22, 25 ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise ↩