Gender Treachery against the State:

The Political Function of Popular Film in Two Novels by Manuel Puig



Erin Redmond

Alfred University



There are three new bodies on the Wall. One is a priest [...].  The two others have purple placards hung around their necks: Gender Treachery. Their bodies still wear the Guardian uniforms.  Caught together, they must have been, but where? A barracks, a shower?  

Margaret Atwood


In the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, the setting of the Canadian Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, elite Christian fundamentalists stage a successful coup d’état in the former United States. Under the new regime, fertile women become “handmaids,” surrogate mothers assigned to upper-class couples in order to remedy declining birth rates among the ruling class. In this staunchly patriarchal culture, hierarchical and opposed gender roles are strictly enforced; only men may participate in political life and women are of value in terms of the service they provide to men. The state-mandated colors of women’s clothing identify their social class and function within the Republic, whether as domestic servants, surrogate mothers, or upper-class wives whose duty is to raise future citizens. Reproductive heterosexuality is compulsory; lesbianism is ideologically erased and male homosexuality is identified only as “Gender Treachery,” a crime against the state that, if discovered, results in the public hangings of the “traitors” in the same stadium where football games still take place.

Although The Handmaid’s Tale represents a fictional dystopia, in some respects Gilead is eerily similar to the nationalisms that are the focus of Anne McClintock’s feminist postcolonial theory.  McClintock notes the power of nationalism’s ability to create an illusion of unity through politically- and emotionally-charged spectacle such as team sports and women’s clothing (101-102). For McClintock, nationalism cannot be understood without a theory of unequal gendered power relations, one that accounts for the fundamental nationalist opposition between masculine self and feminine other, which subordinates women to men in terms of access to political rights and economic resources (89). McClintock highlights the typical function of “woman” as the symbol of the nation, her duty to biologically reproduce, and the restrictions imposed on women’s sexual relations in order to sustain divisions among national groups (89-90). For McClintock the trope of the heteronormative, patriarchal family as nation serves to subsume socio-economic inequalities within an ideology of popular unity at the same time that it naturalizes hierarchical social relations and, through the figure of the father, legitimizes state authority and military violence (89-94). The ideology of the patriarchal family as a microcosm of the state necessarily excludes people of non-normative genders and sexualities from the nationalist imaginary; for example, as McClintock points out, nationalisms often position homosexuality as a product of corrupting foreign influence (109). 

In this study I combine certain aspects of Atwood’s and McClintock’s work with elements of the concept of transvestism as it is elaborated by Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui in order to create a new lens through which to examine the work of the Argentine writer Manuel Puig.(1) Puig’s original goal was to become a film director and he studied film and scriptwriting techniques at the Escuela de Cine de Cinecittà. Puig was put off by the filmic realism that was the dominant style during the period in which he studied, prompting him to change his focus to writing narrative fiction. However, Puig never lost his interest in film, either in his personal life or in his novels and continued to write screenplays even after he became a successful novelist (Romero 24). Puig’s passion for film is evident in his 1967 novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth, and in the 1976 El beso de la mujer araña. This study focuses on the ways in which alternative constructions of gender and sexuality emerge through dislocations of U.S. and European films to small-town Argentina in the 1930s and 1940s in the case of La traición and to the 1970s Buenos Aires prison cell in which most of El beso’s narrative unfolds. The protagonists’ appropriations and transformations of popular films from the 1930s and 1940s evoke and ultimately contest the heteronormative ideologies of the films themselves and of the early Peronist nationalist discourse that informs both novels. An important focus of Sifuentes-Juáregui’s analysis of transvestism in Latin America is transvestism’s power to expose gender and sexuality as performance (106, 129). In common with the transvestitic subjects of Sifuentes-Juáregui’s study, Puig’s characters denaturalize binary-based categories of gender and sexuality. Through their reinventions of popular films, the protagonists of El beso and La traición position gender and sexuality as performance. As such, Puig’s characters necessarily undermine early Peronist nationalism at its foundation in the naturalized opposition between masculine self and feminine other that McClintock identifies as the grounding of all nationalisms. Atwood’s term “Gender Treachery” aptly describes the effects of Puig’s characters’ refusal of binary-based terms, which not only upsets socio-cultural norms, but also constitutes a betrayal of the state.

 La traición de Rita Hayworth is a collection of narratives of the inhabitants of Coronel Vallejos, the fictional Pampas town of the 1930s and 1940s that, according to Puig, represents his hometown of General Villegas, where weekly outings to the local cinema with his mother provided him with his only escape from provincial life (Bacarisse 8). Although the narratives are organized non-hierarchically and almost all of the characters interpret events through the lens of Hollywood films, the character of the young boy Toto is central throughout, as his own and others’ narratives trace his growing-up years from infancy to late adolescence, chronicling his refusal to conform to norms of masculinity, his distaste for heterosexuality, and his romantic interest in other boys, along with his imaginative and gender-complicating recreations of the 1930s films that he sees with his mother. Given Puig’s romantic relationships with men, his lifelong love of the movies –his video collection numbered over 4000 titles- his childhood nickname, “Coco,” and the parallels between Toto’s authoritarian father and submissive mother and Puig’s own male-dominated family, some critics consider La traición de Rita Hayworth to be a thinly-disguised autobiography; indeed, Puig once said in an interview, “Toto soy yo” (qtd. in Bacarisse 8). 

El beso de la mujer araña is set in a prison cell in Buenos Aires in 1975. The novel’s two protagonists are Luis Alberto Molina, who is incarcerated for corruption of minors, and Valentín Arregui, who is imprisoned for politically subversive activities. One of the novel’s most talked-about elements is the narration of six films by Molina to Valentín, three of which are existent though embellished cinematic productions and three of which are invented. Like Toto’s, Molina’s narrations and re-imaginings of popular films serve to highlight womanliness as performance, as well as Molina’s own performance of non-masculinity. Prison officials appeal to Molina for information on Valentín’s activities and fellow subversives in exchange for early parole, an element of the plot that recalls the stereotype that Sifuentes-Jáuregui discusses, of the effeminate homosexual as corruptible, a traitor (107). Molina initially attempts to secure the information that will restore him to his mother, but an emotional and sexual relationship develops between the two prisoners and Molina takes on the role of a double agent in his interactions with the prison officials, falsely claiming that Valentín has confided nothing. By the end of the narrative, Molina leaves the cell armed with information to give to Valentín’s fellow revolutionaries and is killed by a shot from a moving vehicle after he is approached by authorities. Valentín returns to the cell on morphine after being tortured and seems to travel to a utopian island in his dreams. 

Toto and Molina reinvent popular films through their retellings and imaginings and, in the process, (re)create themselves. Although both characters are culturally categorized as male, they do not produce themselves as the masculine, heterosexual subjects of the nationalist imaginary and instead exhibit tastes that are culturally designated as feminine. Such tastes include their preference for the so-called “women’s films” of the 1930s and 1940s, their tendency to identify with filmic heroines and not heroes, their desire for masculine, heterosexual men both on screen and off, and their fascination with the construction of femininity through fashion and film techniques. Drawing on Sylvia Molloy’s characterization of Oscar Wilde and other turn-of-the-century poseurs, Toto and Molina may be understood as enacting a “visibilization of non-masculinity” that, for Molloy, refers “at least equivocally to homosexuality” (147-51). Given nationalisms’ allegiance to the ideology of naturalized categories of opposed genders, Toto and Molina’s performance of non-masculinity constitutes a betrayal of their gender. As in Atwood’s Gilead, this betrayal is frequently translated as homosexuality within the terms of dominant nationalist discourse and has predictably negative consequences: although he is a child, Toto is identified several times as a homosexual by other characters, socially marginalized, and threatened with violence that is often sexual in nature; Molina is incarcerated for corruption of minors, categorized as a homosexual by prison officials and other characters, and runs the risk of torture and death. In this analysis, the term Gender Treachery does not necessarily imply homosexuality but rather a more radical form of treason. In his study of homoeroticism and Latin America cultural production, David William Foster questions the viability of the category of homosexual, even when it is taken to refer to acts and not identity, pointing out that this Foucauldian version of homosexuality presupposes an ontological category of specifically homosexual acts. Foster argues that even if the homosexuality of an act is taken to depend solely upon an anti-essentialist concept of the gender of the agents, there are innumerable acts in which the agents do not conform to identifiable genders, either in patriarchal terms or in a context of opposition to patriarchal order (54-55). Foster’s radically deconstructive perspective resonates with Puig’s fiction. By performing non-masculinity and by drawing attention to the constructed character of the idealized womanhood they see in popular films, Molina and Toto denaturalize and deconstruct the categories of male and female and, by extension, of homosexual and heterosexual. For Sifuentes-Jáuregui, the transvestitic subject cannot be understood in such binary-based terms as androgynous beings or as men pretending to be women (4-8). Similarly, both Toto and Molina emerge as uncategorizable in binary terms, representing what I conceive of as an other feminine other, a figure that has no place in the nationalist imaginary that Juan Domingo Perón once called “la inmensa familia argentina” (Doctrina 326).

In 1967, Puig published his first novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth, which sold very well and received much critical attention, both positive and negative. El beso de la mujer araña was published in 1976 and was immediately put on the government’s list of prohibited books under the short-lived presidency of Isabel Perón. The novel would remain banned in Argentina until the fall of the military regime in 1983 (Levine 241). As political violence increased after Perón’s return to Argentina in 1973, Puig fled to Mexico and remained there for two years. Puig’s return to Argentina was short-lived; in 1976, he again left Argentina after receiving telephoned death threats from the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance or Triple A, the paramilitary death squad that was organized under Perón’s last regime in the early 1970s (Levine 241). Puig cannot be characterized as writing anti-Peronist fiction; he claimed, perhaps disingenuously, that references to Peronism were not intended as political critique, but rather were a reflection of his personal experience of life in Argentina from the 1930s on (Corbatta 139). Numerous interviews attest to Puig’s ambivalent view of Peronism: though he recognized its socialist achievements, Puig was critical of what he perceived as Peronism`s fascist tendencies, including the power held by Perón as an individual and the lack of a clearly articulated political theory (Corbatta 143). Puig sums up his own unpopularity among members of the Peronist left as well as the political right with the comment that, “The return of Perón brought with it the renewal of censorship. My attitude toward Perón wasn’t reverential and that was seen as sacrilege” (qtd. in Levine 239). Although Puig’s work is an indictment of repression in its broadest sense, whether social, political, or sexual, Puig’s novels are most colored by the discourse and daily life of the early Perón regime from 1946 to 1955 which, for Puig, symbolizes repressive regimes in general, whether in the Argentina of the 1970s or in 1930s and 1940s Europe (Bacarisse 95). According to Pamela Bacarisse, “It has been claimed that [Puig’s novels] could be classified as historical novels, with emphasis on what Unamuno designated intrahistoria: in them we discover what daily life in a given period was like, and cultural references clarify the picture” (95). 

La traición’s chronology alludes to its wider political context and to the authoritarian regimes that Puig linked to the exploitation learned within the male-dominated family. Toto is born in 1933, the year the novel begins and ends, and also the year that Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and Mussolini was consolidating his dictatorial power (Romero 70). We first hear Toto’s voice in 1939, the year World War II began and Franco won the Spanish Civil War.  Toto’s sophomore essay is dated 1947, the year after Perón was first elected president, as is “El diario de Esther,” a chapter in which a young working-class girl’s narrative is an overt parody of Peronist populist discourse. As Jorgelina Corbatta points out, Esther repeats stock slogans from the Peronist daily, Democracia, and her style and tone mimic the melodrama of Peronist discourse, as do her references to the vengeance of the humble against the oligarchy (140-42). El Beso’s narrations of films of the 1940s suggest this novel’s preoccupation with the ideologies of the era of early Peronism, given Perón’s increase in popular support in the early part of the decade and his first election as president in 1946. The invented Nazi propaganda film Destino, Molina’s favorite of the films he retells to Valentín, explicitly links European totalitarianism to Perón through the film’s references to Hitler as “el Conductor,” Perón’s nickname. The novel’s setting in 1975 links it to Perón’s second regime and to its politically divided aftermath, as it presages the increased political violence of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional begun in 1976. 

Early Peronist discourse has understandable appeal to members of an upwardly-mobile working class, especially given Eva Duarte de Perón’s tendency to melodramatic exaggeration of emotions, her consistent emphasis on her modest social origins that established a bond of community between the woman and her people and, perhaps most of all, her constant cry for the vindication of the humble (Romero 59). Like Hollywood melodrama and in keeping with McClintock’s characterization of nationalisms in general, early Peronist discourse naturalized the ideology of two opposed and unequal genders and of reproductive heterosexuality. Both Juan and Eva Perón spoke of “rational man’s” superiority to “emotional woman” (Clases 13; Doctrina 91-92) as well as of women’s duty to the nation to have and raise children (Clases 211; Discursos 70, 89-90; Doctrina 104). Eva Perón explicitly claimed that women naturally feel inferior to men (Clases 18) and opposed women’s innate common sense to men’s “natural” capacity for higher thought (Discursos 87). She also characterized men’s role as active in contrast to women’s, whose natural role was to support others through self-sacrifice (Discursos 251).  The symbol of the Argentine people, Eva Perón at once embodied the nation and represented an intermediary between the people and Perón. In her best melodramatic style, Eva Perón summed up women’s subordination to men –and by extension, the people’s subordination to the paternal figure of Perón– when she said, “Todo lo que soy, todo lo que tengo, todo lo que pienso es de Perón” (Razón 14). Passive, emotional, most valued as a biological reproducer of the nation and, above all, subordinate to men, the ideal woman of early Peronist discourse embodies McClintock’s figure of the feminine other, foil to the active, intellectual, masculine self of the nationalist imaginary.  

Like early Peronist discourse, popular films from the 1930s and 1940s –particularly melodramas– strongly color Puig’s work. Literary melodrama’s widespread appeal coincided historically with the wave of European immigration to Argentina in the late nineteenth century. Always sentimental, in this period, melodrama focused on themes such as ideal but impossible love and represented characters that were in some sense socially excluded, often for veiled reasons of religion, race, or social origins. The children of Argentina’s nineteenth-century European immigrants formed a new and socially-mobile working class in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the same time, melodrama lost its focus on the socially marginalized (Romero 61-64). In its early-twentieth-century Hollywood incarnation, melodrama neglected the social outcast in favor of model middle-class characters, while it continued to ignore realities of cause and effect and sought above all to heighten spectators’ emotions (Campos 127).  Characterized by ideologies of eternal love between masculine men and properly feminine women, strict morality, and compulsory and reproductive heterosexuality, Hollywood melodrama’s promise of justice that rewards the good and punishes the bad, like Peronist discourse, has understandable appeal to upright and hardworking citizens who strive for happiness and prosperity. For an average second-generation working-class immigrant, melodramatic movies made anything possible –as long as you worked hard and lived clean– from ideal romantic love relationships to the rise from rags to riches.

The compulsory heterosexuality that characterizes popular film and the discourse of the early Perón regime, as well as the Peronist equation of nation and normative, patriarchal family, are ideologically at odds with Puig’s own beliefs. For Puig, the normative family with its male head of household was the school in which exploitative relationships were learned (Romero 70). In Puig’s words, “Sexism is as serious [...] [as] economic corruption and workers’ struggles. The battle of social freedom must begin there. The foundation of exploitation is in the relationship between men and women” (qtd. in Levine 285). Puig was unwilling to ground identity in sexuality or gender, claiming that, “For me, [homosexuality] doesn’t exist. Heterosexuality doesn’t exist either.  [... .] I don’t think there’s a difference between men and women [...].  The distinction between masculinity and femininity, the whole notion of role playing, isn’t natural” (qtd. in Levine 261). In sum, Puig’s personal views of the family, gender, and sexuality are starkly opposed to the Peronist and popular discourses that inform his work.

Most of the 1930s and 1940s films incorporated into La traición and El beso fall into the category of “women’s films” and many of them are melodramas. Some critics have argued that Puig’s novels in themselves both imitate and undermine melodramatic films (Romero 16). Others have suggested that in Puig’s work, melodrama becomes camp in the sense of the word as a love of artifice and exaggeration that exposes supposedly natural identities as cultural roles that people perform (Echavarren 225). For Raymond Leslie Williams, Puig’s writing is both implicated with and critical of mass culture (123). Williams’s perspective is borne out by La traición and El beso. Both Toto and Molina articulate their belief in the heteronormative ideologies of popular film and yet, as Julia Romero says of Puig’s work in general, their retellings of films restore nineteenth-century literary melodrama’s focus on marginalized figures (16).  Puig’s work can never be reduced to a purely critical stance toward popular film, given his well-known empathy for his characters. Agustín García Gil has said that if anything can be called “the Puig effect,” it is this sustained sympathy for his characters, despite their silliness, their bad taste, their melodramatic passions, their weakness, and the way in which, like Don Quijote, they confuse poorly-crafted fiction with real life (26). I would argue that Puig’s empathy for his characters arises not despite but because of their preference for a cinematic world in which good triumphs and love conquers all, in place of a real world characterized by patriarchal order, violence, and socio-economic injustice.

Both Toto and Molina show their faith in the tenets of popular film in general and melodrama in particular, especially the heteronormative ideology of two naturally opposed and complementary genders. As a young child, Toto’s only glimpse of a world outside of his partriarchal home and hometown is constituted by his weekly visits to the cinema with his mother. Toto’s first-person narrative begins in 1939 when he is six years old and highlights his dissatisfaction with his family home where, during siesta, his father Berto imposes a rule of silence and deprives him of his mother’s company; in this novel, “siesta” is a euphemism for obligatory marital sex. Toto recalls interrupting his parents’ siesta on one occasion and his father’s threat to break him in two, a memory that provokes his decision to think about the movie he likes best, “[...] porque mamá me dijo que pensara en una cinta para que no me aburriera a la siesta” (39). Already the novel exposes the hierarchy and injustice that Puig saw as characteristic of traditional families. As the male head of the household, Berto determines when and whether his wife Mita will have sex with him; as Berto’s subordinate, Mita must ensure that their child will not interfere with Berto’s pleasure; and as the person at the bottom of the familial hierarchy, when Toto breaks the rules, he is threatened with paternal violence.

The first film that Toto recreates is director George Cukor’s 1936 Romeo and Juliet. Toto’s choice of films reveals his belief in an ideal and eternal heterosexual love that sharply contrasts with the reality of his parents’ relationship. Through his recollections of this film, the six-year-old Toto also suggests his enjoyment of melodrama’s capacity to heighten spectators’ emotions: “Romeo y Julieta es de amor, termina mal que se mueren y es triste: una de las cintas que más me gustó” (39). For Toto, Director H.C. Potter’s 1939 The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is the best Ginger Rogers film “[…] porque es de bailes y termina mal, que Fred Astaire se muere en la Guerra en el avión estrellado y ella lo está esperando pero él no llega” (41). Like Romeo and Juliet, this is another representation of the ideal and eternal love between a man and a woman that both Toto and his mother believe in: though Astaire’s character dies, as Mita explains to Toto, Rogers’ character is not sad “[...] porque es como si estuvieran juntos, en el recuerdo. Ya nada los puede separar, ni la Guerra ni nada” (42). And, as in all the popular films that Toto enjoys, emotions are heightened and realities are ignored: as the tears roll down Ginger’s face and she looks toward the empty stage where she and Astaire were to have danced in a charity show, she suddenly sees the two of them, now transparent figures, who dance off into the distance so that even after death, the good receive their reward (42).

Like Toto, Molina believes in the eternal love between men and women that is represented in popular film. He narrates an invented Mexican film in which a beautiful singer leaves her rich lover for a young journalist, who dies of exposure and starvation rather than letting the heroine prostitute herself to support him. Like Mita, Molina explains to Valentín that the lover will always be with the heroine, even though it might only be through the words of the song he wrote for her: “... estoy feliz, también lo estás... me quieres tú... te quiero más ... Estoy tan enamorada, que ya olvidé lo pasado... y hoy me siento feliz, … porque te he visto… llorar… por mí…” (263). When Valentín comments that nothing is forever, Molina’s belief in eternal love and his valorization of emotion over reason remain unshaken. “Sí, eso es fácil decirlo. Pero sentirlo es otra cosa,” says Molina. Valentín replies, “Pero tenés que razonar entonces, y convencerte.”  Using Valentín’s own tactics against him, Molina closes the argument triumphantly: “Sí, pero hay razones del corazón que la razón no entiende. Y eso lo dijo un filósofo francés muy de los mejores. [...] Y creo que hasta me acuerdo el nombre: Pascal” (263). Like the sentimental boleros that he favors, for Molina, popular films “[...] dicen montones de verdades [...]” (143). Molina’s narration of director Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 film Cat People stands out not only for his explicit identification with the film’s heroine, but perhaps even more so for the way in which Molina’s experience of a romantic relationship outside of the prison resembles that of the architect hero’s female colleague. Rejected for another, this traditionally feminine film character remains in love with the architect but accepts his marriage and continues to support him as a friend – at least until tragic events bring about a romantic relationship between the architect and his self-sacrificing colleague (28). When Valentín asks about Molina’s sexual relationship with Gabriel, the handsome waiter who is the object of Molina’s desire, Molina explains that Gabriel is “un tipo normal” (72): “[…] nunca, nunca pasó nada, no hubo modo de convencerlo.  […] me daba vergüenza insistirle, y con la amistad de él me conformé” (75). In his relationship with Gabriel, Molina mirrors the normative, self-sacrificing ideal of womanhood represented in the film. Molina also implicitly acknowledges his poor chances at a happy ending because he is not a woman, at least not from the point of view of Gabriel who, as “un tipo normal,” is identified as both male and heterosexual. Molina again implies his belief in the naturalness of heterosexual desire between two opposed and complementary genders when he describes his social group to Valentín: “-[…] siempre lo que estamos esperando… es la amistad, o lo que sea, de alguien más serio, de un hombre, claro. Y eso nunca puede ser, porque un hombre… lo que quiere es una mujer” (207).

Despite their belief in the premises of popular film, including their overt acceptance of polarized gender roles and the naturalness of heterosexual relationships, both Toto and Molina deviate from Peronist and pop-cultural norms of gender, not only through their love of “women’s films,” but also through other ideologically feminine tastes and behaviors. In his study of transvestism and masculinity, Sifuentes-Jáuregui argues that the transvestite shows the falseness of femininity through her effort to represent “real” womanhood: “[...] by constructing the other’s ‘realness,’ transvestism also reveals the ‘falseness’ [...] of the other” (4). Toto and Molina also show up womanhood as performative but, unlike the transvestitic subject that Sifuentes-Jáuregui’s considers in his introduction, neither attempts to represent himself as a “real woman.” Rather, despite their performance of ideologically feminine characteristics, Puig’s characters acknowledge that they are not women, as in Molina’s discussion of “real” men’s desire for “real” women. Sifuentes-Jáuregui draws on Shoshana Felman to emphasize that the failure to perform masculinity does not equate to a metaphorical castration, but rather is an enactment of difference (23). Felman’s insight is apropos to a discussion of Molina and Toto: it is only because they are culturally classified as men –or future men in Toto’s case– that they can be understood as failing to represent themselves as the masculine self of nationalist ideology and, instead, as producing themselves as an other feminine other, a subject that is defined by its difference, and one that does not exist within the nationalist imaginary. Toto’s custom of using the women’s bathroom with his mother at the cinema, for example, is not a performance of womanhood but a striking refusal to perform masculinity, one that defies the patriarchal order within which he lives and results in harsh criticism. Toto’s mother Mita explains to him that women cannot go into the men’s bathroom (35); in other words, males – or at least male children – have access to women’s space, but women and girls do not have access to men’s. The six-year-old Toto is horrified at his father’s insistence that he use the men’s washroom at a school concert; after Toto refuses to go alone, his father impatiently sends him off to the women’s washroom with an older girl: “llévalo al baño de mujeres, no importa” (35). Toto’s performance of non-masculinity shows up in other ways as well, including his taste for drawing film scenes and playing with dresses, which Berto prohibits, as well as his distaste for such masculine pursuits as soccer and bike riding (46, 73-75). The cultural expectation that Toto become a “normal” masculine male underlies Berto’s increasing anger at Toto’s “difference.” After Toto plays with dolls’ dresses, Berto threatens to send Toto to a convent, a punishment that implies emasculation insofar as Toto would be locked up in a traditionally all-female space and one that also implies that a refusal to become the masculine self of the nationalist imaginary is punishable by exile (118-19).

A window-dresser by profession, Molina seems to embody an extreme of Western femininity through his preoccupations with fashion, film stars, and personal romances. Initially at least, Molina valorizes emotion over reason and the personal over the political, as when he defends the invented Nazi propaganda film as “una obra de arte” (63). In all his film narrations, Molina inserts his own embellishments, which suggest traditionally feminine interests: “[…] la fuente blanca parece […] como de merengue, y los ventanales también, un palacio blanco todo de merengue, como en algunos cuentos de hadas” (63). Like meringue itself, this description has the feel of a delicious confection cooked up by feminine hands. Molina also conforms to the Peronist and pop-cultural ideal of feminine self-abnegation, as in the following conversation with Valentín:

-Mirá, a mi salir me importa más que nada por la salud de mamá. Pero me quedo preocupado de que a vos no te va… cuidar nadie.

-¿Y en vos no pensás?

-No. (245)      


Like Toto, Molina’s ideologically feminine tastes and behaviors do not add up to a representation of “real” womanhood, but rather to a refusal to be masculine. As a normative masculine figure, initially at least, Valentín at first attempts to curb what he sees as Molina’s feminine traits, telling Molina not to cry and even mocking what he sees as the trivial cause of Molina’s tears (63). Like Berto, here Valentín tries to “correct” the problem of a man who performs non-masculinity. Molina’s refusal to perform masculinity elicits criticism from others as well, as the following dialogue between the two prisoners reveals:

                                    -[…] ahora te tengo que aguantar que me digas lo que dicen todos.

                                    -A ver… ¿qué te voy a decir?

                                    -Todos igual, me vienen con lo mismo, ¡siempre!


                                    -Qué de chico me mimaron demasiado, y por eso soy así, que me

                                    quedé pegado a las polleras de mi mamá y soy así, pero que

                                    siempre uno puede enderezar, y que lo que me conviene es una

                                    mujer, porque la mujer es lo mejor que hay… .          

                                    -¿Te dicen eso?

                                    -Sí, y eso les contesto… ¡regio!, de acuerdo!, ya que las mujeres

                                    son lo mejor que hay… yo quiero ser mujer.  (25)


Molina’s description suggests the force of hegemonic discourses insofar as “everyone” categorizes him as male and, in keeping with the heteronormative ideologies of nationalism and of popular film, as naturally formed to sexually desire women.

Unlike Berto and Valentín, who desire women film stars, both Toto and Molina identify with the heroines they admire. When Valentín asks Molina which character from Cat People he identifies with, Molina replies, “Con Irena, qué te creés. Es la protagonist, pedazo de pavo. Yo siempre con la heroína” (31). Molina also identifies with Leni, the heroine of Destino, to the point that he, like Leni, sees the hero, Werner, as “un hombre-dios” because of his masculine fearlessness (62).  Toto also identifies with the feminine heroines of the films he sees and, from their position, expresses his desire for masculine men. For example, Toto imagines a kind of montage of Dorothy Lamour films set in the south Pacific, in which, like the feminine heroine, Toto is rescued by Raúl García, the highly masculine, handsome, and athletic schoolmate that Toto admires (Campos 69). According to René Alberto Campos, Molina actually lives Toto’s imagined experience as he and Valentín come to see their prison cell as a sort of utopian island that allows for the development of their non-normative romantic relationship (69). Director John Cromwell’s 1945 film The Enchanted Cottage appears in El beso as a narrative that Molina tells to himself, in which he identifies with Laura, the ugly servant in love with her handsome employer. After the hero returns disfigured from the war, both characters are transformed so that they are beautiful to one another, through a miracle wrought by love (115). In La traición, Toto’s sophomore-year composition “La película que más me gustó” recreates director Julian Duvivier’s 1938 film The Great Waltz, so that Carla, Johan Strauss’s illicit but unconsummated love sees the physically weak Johann – an alter-ego of Toto – as if he were Adhemar, the handsome and masculine high school senior that Toto desires, through a “milagro de amor,” a phrase that evokes the Cromwell film’s Spanish title.  In this way, Toto is at once Johann, the less-than-ideally-masculine figure transformed and also Carla, the heroine who desires Adhemar (Campos 99-102). Both Toto and Molina emphasize their identifications with female characters by embellishing their film narrations with invented glimpses into the heroines’ thoughts, desires, and feelings. In his imagined version of director Thornton Freeland’s 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, Toto is able to read the Ginger Rogers character’s thoughts, saying that she wants a bird to put a white flower in her hair (40). In his narration of the invented Mexican film among others, like Toto, Molina describes the heroine’s secret feelings: “El magnate la mira a la chica, ella tiene los ojos llenos de lágrimas, porque está enamorada del muchacho, y ya no lo puede negar, no se lo puede negar a ella misma, que es lo peor” (232). 

On another level, both Toto and Molina disarticulate the nationalist opposition between women and men by drawing attention to the artifice of the films they have seen and, as Gabriela Speranza points out, by underscoring femininity as performance by presenting it as representation (422). Toto’s consistent use of actresses’ and not characters’ names draws attention to the constructed nature of the heroines’ femininity and of the films themselves. His identification of Norma Shearer as an actress who is always good and not as her character, for example, suggests the star system of the 1930s, in which actresses’ public personae mirrored their cinematic roles (Morales Saavedra 90). Molina consistently highlights the artificiality of the films he narrates through his overt admiration of camera angles (62-63) and of stage sets such as the “palmeras hechas de papel plateado” or the “velero a todo lujo, fingido en carton, pero [que] parece de verdad” (79). In a description that focuses the reader’s attention on both theatrical makeup and the camera as they function to produce femininity, Toto writes in his sophomore essay that when Johann seems to see Carla, “[…] su piel no es blanca ni sus labios de rojo coral ni sus ojos de verde esmeralda, sobre el cielo de Viena su figura ahora se refleja transparente […].” (278). Similarly, Molina draws attention to the filmic production of femininity through repeated comments on clothing (227), hairstyles (16), and camera work,  as in his description of the singer whose lover dies: “Y de golpe se ve grande en primer plano la cara de ella, con los ojos llenos de lágrimas, pero con una sonrisa en los labios” (263).

Like the 1941 Rita Hayworth film Blood and Sand, in which the good suffer and the bad emerge victorious, the reality of small-town Argentina in the 1930s and 1940s and of Buenos Aires in the 1970s betrays through violence and injustice. By virtue of their refusal to perform masculinity and their sexual desire for masculine men, Toto and Molina represent figures that are not only excluded from the nationalist imaginary of the early Perón regime that informs both novels, but also punished, in Toto’s case through social marginalization and in Molina’s through political violence. Yet their re-makings of popular film transform its repressive characteristics – specifically the rigid gender roles and compulsory heterosexuality that also characterize Peronist discourse – into opportunities for the expression and experience of dissident identities. Despite these characters’ belief in the ideology of the naturalness of romantic relationships between masculine men and feminine women, Toto and Molina denaturalize binary-based gender and sexual categories through their retellings and reimaginings of popular films. Given that Toto and Molina are categorized as male, their performances of non-masculinity are indeed a form of Gender Treachery, one that subverts the nationalist ideological opposition between masculine self and feminine other, producing a new subjectivity, an other feminine other that cannot exist within the nationalist imaginary. Through Molina’s and Toto’s transformations of popular films, El beso and La traición restore the interests of marginalized groups to mass culture as they simultaneously subvert the heteronormative ideological foundations of early Peronist nationalism.





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[1] In Transvestism, Masculinity, and Latin American Literature, Ben Sifuentes-Juáregui devotes a chapter to an insightful analysis of the sexualities of El beso de la mujer araña’s two protagonists, especially as they relate to the Oedipal complex.