Part III: Latin America

Chapter 9: Intersectionality and Normative Masculinity in Northeast Brazil

Melanie A. Medeiros

In this chapter, the author uses an intersectional lens to examine how gender, race, and class affect the gender roles, gender performance, and lived experiences of workingclass, cisgender, Black Brazilian men. The author explores how in a rural Northeast Brazilian community, a decrease in demand for male workers prevented men from maintaining their roles as financial providers for their families, which challenged dominant notions of manhood and authority, creating a “crisis of masculinity” for working-class Black men.

Learning Objectives
  • To define intersectionality and explain the importance of an intersectional approach to the study of masculinity.
  • To describe the concepts of marginalized masculinities, thwarted masculinity, and crisis of masculinity.
  • To define the concepts of compensatory masculinity and exculpatory chauvinism and apply these to the Brazilian ethnographic case study presented in this chapter.
  • To describe how this case study helps to demonstrate the value of an intersectional approach to understanding masculinities.

North American media often use stereotypes to portray men in Latin America and the Caribbean as macho, a term associated with aggressive masculinity. This portrayal hides the fact that there are many forms of masculinity, and the macho stereotype ignores the historical, sociocultural, political, and economic issues influencing men’s performance of masculinity. As you read in chapter 1, normative masculinity is socially constructed and comprises traits and practices that are idealized and upheld by the dominant social groups in a society. For example, in North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean some characteristics associated with normative masculinity are whiteness, heterosexuality, and middle- or upper-class status. Research shows that not all men meet (or aspire to meet) sociocultural standards of normative masculinity, and their ability or willingness to do so affects their position on gender hierarchies (Wade and Ferree 2019). We should not assume, for example, that all cisgender men have the same level of power over all women. Cisgender men (referred to hereafter as “men”) who are not able to meet a society’s standard of normative masculinity may have a more marginal position on the gender power hierarchy than men who do meet it, and this position is often influenced by men’s other social identities. Intersectionality is an approach to the study of social inequality that examines how gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality overlap to form an individual’s social identity and the ways their social identity influences their position in social hierarchies (Crenshaw 1989). Although an intersectional lens is most often used to examine the experiences and oppression of working-class, cisgender, and trans women of color, it is also a useful framework for understanding the identities and experiences of working-class, cisgender Black, Indigenous, and men of color. Race, class, and sexuality all influence men’s ability to perform normative masculinity (Abelson 2016; Brooms and Perry 2016; Grove 2015; hooks 2004; Lawrence 2019; Linke 2011; Mutua 2006; Neal 2013; Slutskaya 2016; Ward 2016; White 2011).

The inability to meet social and personal expectations of normative masculinity can cause some men to view themselves (or be perceived) as inadequate (Wade and Ferree 2019). Wade and Ferree (2019) argue, in fact, that many if not most men find it impossible to perform all of the dominant or idealized characteristics and behaviors associated with normative masculinity and are therefore frequently in a position where they might be viewed as failing at masculinity or at least feel like they are failing. For men whose intersecting social identities distance them from the dominant or normative paradigm, the potential sense of inadequacy can be more pronounced. Furthermore, since dominant ideals of masculinity are continually changing, men are often tasked with adjusting their gender performance to meet transforming expectations (Wade and Ferree 2019). In other words, masculinity is fragile and fleeting. Scholars use a variety of concepts to refer to men who do not meet the normative or dominant standard their society prescribes. Connell (2016) advocates for the term marginalized masculinities to describe men whose intersecting social identities challenge their ability to fulfill what Connell refers to as “hegemonic masculinity.” Chant (2000) refers to a crisis of masculinity to explain how socioeconomic and political changes and/or challenges can prevent men (even those who met standards previously) from fulfilling dominant social expectations of masculinity. Researchers working in the United States (Moore 1994), Brazil (Hautzinger 2007), and the Congo (Hollander 2014) have used the term thwarted masculinity, which I also use in this chapter.

In this chapter, I describe how rural, working-class, Black Brazilian men’s efforts to meet standards of normative masculinity are both informed and constrained by socioeconomic marginalization at the intersection of gender, race, and class, as well as by geographic location. Subsequently, the strategies these men employ in their pursuit of normative masculinity pose a direct threat to their marriages, as changing gender norms and marriage expectations call into question some of the practices historically associated with normative masculinity in Brazil. I argue that the study of normative masculinity must consider the historical, sociocultural, and political economic structures that influence both the construction of normative masculinity and men’s ability to perform it, as well as the effects of thwarted masculinity on individuals and families.

Two boys and a young man sit outside a rural building, smiling.
Figure 9.1. Two boys and a young man in a rural Northeast Brazilian town. Photo by Melanie A. Medeiros.

Intersectionality and Normative Masculinity in Northeast Brazil

I employ an intersectional lens to examine how gender, race, class, and sexuality affect the gender roles, gender performance, and lived experiences of working-class Black Brazilian men living in the rural interior of the Northeast state of Bahia. For several reasons, Northeast Brazil is an important site for examining masculinity among working-class, rural, Black Brazilian men. First, due to historical trends and contemporary policies, the northeast region of Brazil is one of the poorest in the country, with social indicators well below the southern regions. In 2017, 70.6 percent of the households in Northeast Brazil had an income of less than or equal to the Brazilian monthly minimum wage, approximately US$234 per month (IBGE 2017). The political and socioeconomic marginalization of working-class Brazilians, especially those living in the rural Northeast interior, where there are even fewer employment opportunities than in urban areas, constrains men’s performance of normative masculinity.

Second, Northeast Brazil’s colonial economy centered on the production of sugar cane, for which Brazil imported an estimated four million enslaved Africans—40 percent of all slaves in the Americas (Graden 2006). The legacy of slavery includes not only the socioeconomic marginalization of the descendants of enslaved people and a long history of racial mixing but also racial ideology that informs perceptions of Black men and their self-perceptions, which I will discuss in more depth later in this chapter. Furthermore, the history of slavery has left a demographic footprint on the region, and 70 percent of northeast Brazilians identified as “Black” or “brown/mixed-race” in the 2010 census (IBGE 2011). In fact, Brazilians select from over one hundred terms to self-identify racially or by skin color, although the Brazilian census employs only five: branca (white), parda (brown/mixed), preta (Black), amarela (yellow), and indígena (Indigenous). Notably, race in Brazil is a complex category that encompasses not only phenotypic traits such as skin color and hair texture but also social class, education level, language and communication style, clothing style, and geographic location. A working-class Brazilian who lives in Northeast Brazil, and has phenotypic traits that indicate they have some African ancestry, will often be socially classified as “Black” or “brown/mixed” irrespective of how they self-identify. This is also the result of the racialization of the entire Northeast region, which in the imaginary of Brazilians in southern and central Brazil, is more “African,” “Afro-Brazilian,” or “Black” than the rest of Brazil. This image of the Northeast region is so pervasive that southern Brazilians use the word nordestino (northeasterner) as a derogatory euphemism for a working-class Black Brazilian (O’Dougherty 2002). Furthermore, people who are from and/or continue to live in the rural interior of the Northeast region are also racialized, largely because people from the interior are viewed as uneducated, unsophisticated, and poor—all qualities associated with Blackness rather than whiteness in Brazil. Brazilians also perceive urban, middle- and upper-class Brazilians, especially those from the large southern and central Brazilian cities (e.g., Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília) as more educated and cosmopolitan and therefore “whiter” irrespective of their phenotypic traits. Understanding that the category of skin color/race in Brazil encompasses more than just phenotypic traits is central to examining why and how working-class men in rural Northeast Brazil are socially and economically marginalized as a result of them being racialized as Black.

I lived in the rural interior of the Northeast Brazilian state of Bahia for two years and continued to visit every year for ten years while I conducted ethnographic fieldwork on gender roles, marriage, divorce, and distress, which I wrote about in my book Marriage, Divorce and Distress in Northeast Brazil: Black Women’s Perspectives on Love, Respect and Kinship (2018). The small town I lived in, which I will call Brogodó, was undergoing socioeconomic changes due to the growth of the town’s ecotourism industry. I found that these changes affected gender roles and community members’ identities in important ways.

Five students sit on a ledge overlooking a large, elongated rock-faced mountain.
Figure 9.2. A group of American students visits the national park at the center of Brogodó’s ecotourism industry. Photo by Melanie A. Medeiros.

In Brazil, normative gender roles are associated with marriage, in and of itself a heteronormative institution. Historically in Brazil, heterosexual men and women’s gender roles and their identities were grounded in their responsibilities to their spouses and households. Marriage was also a site where patriarchal values were upheld, granting husbands authority and decision-making power over their wives and their families: although it is important to recognize that women also exerted power within the household. Men’s authority was tied to their responsibility to financially provide for their families and ensure the respectability of their households, including safeguarding the sexuality and morality of the household’s women and girls. Women contributed to the household through their domestic labor and safeguarded their husband’s honor by being faithful wives (Sarti 1995). Men’s responsibilities to their households afforded them the opportunity of a life in the public sphere, colloquially known as the rua (street). Life in the rua consists of work or the search for employment but also includes socializing with friends, consuming alcohol, and flirting with women other than their wives. Life in the rua is also associated with men’s ability to have extramarital affairs, which for generations have been considered a gendered behavioral norm for men (but not for women). In short, men’s and women’s responsibilities to their households and relationships with one another defined gender roles and norms within and outside the household; the gender hierarchy within the patriarchal society was reflected in the household, and vice versa (DaMatta 1985).

However, gender roles and norms are never fixed; over time they continually shift and change within both the private and public spheres. In Brazil, political economic change has challenged men’s authority in the patriarchal family and subsequently gender hierarchies outside of the family. And yet gender roles and norms continue to be informed by historically salient ideas about gender and marital relationships. For example, my research demonstrates that by finding employment outside their households, women contested gender roles and norms that confined them to the household. As a result of their employment, women were able to transform their gender roles and subsequently their identities, describing themselves as “independent” and “modern” women. Employment also granted women more authority and decision-making power within the household. And, pertinent to our discussion of masculinities, all over Brazil and in Brogodó changes to women’s gender roles and to their identities had domino effects that impacted men’s gender roles and their identities as well.

A young man and woman dance, the man wearing a straw hat, at night under bright lights.
Figure 9.3. Every June, rural northeast Brazilians celebrate the festa de São João [St. John’s Day] with a weeklong festival honoring the saint and the corn harvest, paying homage to rural life in Northeast Brazil. As part of these celebrations, local groups organize amateur dance troupes to act out a casamento do caipira (wedding of a country bumpkin) and perform a quadrilha folk dance. The performances portray gender roles and marital relations that are being renegotiated amid sociopolitical economic change. Photo by Melanie A. Medeiros.

Men’s Unemployment and Challenges to Normative Masculinity

Ethnographic studies demonstrate that in many sites in Latin America and the Caribbean, policies that promote gender equality, combined with increases in women’s education and employment, lead to shifts in women’s gender roles and their identities. These shifts often challenge men’s authority, gender roles, and their identities (Chant 2000; Hautzinger 2007). Scholars argue that masculinity is “precarious” in this sense (Wade and Ferree 2019, 142) and that male power is limited by social expectations, obligations, and social judgment (Mayblin 2010). In this section, I will describe the socioeconomic factors influencing men’s unemployment rates in Brogodó and the effect underemployment had on men’s ability to perform normative masculinity. This will ground my later discussion of the ways that men compensated for unemployment and their thwarted masculinity with behaviors that put their marriages in jeopardy. Ultimately, I argue that rather than merely a product of patriarchal norms, men’s responses to thwarted masculinity were a result of social inequality and marginalization at the intersection of race, gender, and class.

The growth of the ecotourism industry in Brogodó created more job opportunities in the service sector, but those jobs—housekeepers, cooks, laundresses—were locally viewed as “women’s work.” Gender ideology also informed local ideas about what constitutes “men’s work” in the ecotourism industry, mainly jobs such as hiking and backpacking guides. However, many tour agencies preferentially hired guides from Brazilian cities rather than local men. Elsewhere, Medeiros and Henriksen (2019) describe in detail the ways in which employers justified hiring urban Brazilians, examining the ways they assumed that urban Brazilians were better educated and were more suited to the job of guiding domestic and international tourists. By contrast, employers explained to us that local men were unqualified because of their lack of education and foreign language skills, even though many of them had extensive local knowledge of the park’s hiking trails. Discourses surrounding employees’ qualifications masked racial ideology that framed urban Brazilians as “whiter” and therefore more capable and rural Brazilians as “Black” and unqualified or unreliable. These discourses also disregarded the fact that the local working-class men’s subpar education was a product of structural inequities in the Brazilian education system (Medeiros and Henricksen 2019). Other forms of employment, such as working as day laborers on construction sites or as skilled masons or electricians, were not available or consistent, a situation that contributed to high rates of underemployment among men. In sum, men’s underemployment was the result of gender and racial ideologies and structural inequities, and it had significant ramifications for men’s gender roles, their identities, and marital relationships.

Men’s roles as chefes da família (heads of the family) is a central characteristic of normative gender identity in Brazil (Mayblin 2010). For working-class men in Brazil, fatherhood and the ability to protect and financially support their children and spouses is critical to the successful performance of masculinity (Penglase 2010, 2014). Mayblin (2010), for example, found that many men in Northeast Brazil subscribed to a more pragmatic form of intimacy linked to their roles as financial providers. For these men, their inability to be primary breadwinners challenged their ability to demonstrate care for their families.

Unemployment and Normative Masculinity in a Brazilian Film

In the film The Middle of the World (Amorim 2003), the protagonist Romão is a married man and a father of five children. He takes his family on a cross-country journey by bicycle in search of employment opportunities in the metropolitan city of Rio de Janeiro in southeastern Brazil. While the entire film gives us a glimpse into the effect of poverty on families and family relations, there are two scenes in particular that indicate the relationship between employment and normative masculinity in Brazil. In one scene, Romão turns to his adolescent son and says, “A man has to work from an early age. When I was your age I was a man.” His son replies, “I am a man.” In a mocking tone, Romão rebukes his son and asks, “A man who makes no money, and has no woman?” Later in the film, Romão tells his wife, “I’m not a man if I can’t provide for my wife and kids. How can you put up with living with a man who doesn’t give you a decent life?” Romão questions the manhood of his son who does not work and is unmarried and then later questions his own manhood due to his inability to provide for his wife and children. This fictional account mirrors the reality of working-class men’s insecurities over their roles in their households and in society and depicts normative notions of Brazilian masculinity.

Men caught up in Brogodó’s persistent underemployment were prevented from fulfilling their gender roles as household providers. This jeopardized their ability to perform normative masculinity and challenged their identities. The inability to financially support their households and the subsequent decrease in household authority that came with their reduced financial contribution (and their wives’ increased contribution) challenged men’s sense of themselves as “men.” For some men, their reliance on wives, mothers, and sisters for financial support was humiliating because it suggested that they were “not man enough” to support their families (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 50). Twenty-seven-year-old Lucas explained, “I think a man who doesn’t work is not a real man. . . . People look at you differently when you work. You have a little more moral (esteem). [When you have a job] they know that you are a stand-up guy. People look at you with different eyes” (Lucas, interview by author). Lucas described social perceptions of employed and unemployed men, demonstrating how the sociocultural link between men’s gender roles, paid labor, and masculinity influenced those perceptions. Both men and women in Brogodó sometimes shamed unemployed men, labeling them as “lazy,” less reliable, and not “real men.” This discourse further challenged men’s sense of masculinity and self-esteem.

Unemployment is particularly demeaning for working-class Black Brazilian men whose masculinity is marginalized (Connell 2016) because they are less able than white and middle- and upper-class men to perform normative masculinity both in the family and in society (Hautzinger 2007). In Brogodó, the frustration surrounding local men’s unemployment was aggravated by the fact that local businesses were almost exclusively owned by white, middle-class men and women. These business owners preferred to hire individuals who were from Brazilian cities, educated and socially classified as white over locals who were racialized as Black (Medeiros and Henriksen 2019). This case exemplifies why masculinity must be examined at the intersection of race and class to understand how men cope with racial hierarchies and masculinity (Hordge-Freeman 2015). For Black Brazilian men in particular, structural inequities and daily microaggressions—such as harassment from the local police, or job discrimination—have historically limited their options in society, threatening their social status in the public sphere and increasingly in the private sphere as well (Hordge-Freeman 2015).

In Brogodó, men’s experiences of marginalization and thwarted masculinity were distressing. Thirty-two-year-old Karolina explained the effects of unemployment on two of her former intimate partners:

Men have that thing to be men. That old taboo that it’s a man who provides for the household, that it is the man who speaks loudly, that it is the man who gives the commands. So an unemployed man feels worse [than an unemployed woman]; he feels like garbage. I say this because there are men that I’ve seen, in some of the relationships I’ve had. . . . I saw how my ex-husband and my ex-boyfriend both changed when they were unemployed. When my boyfriend was unemployed, he’d become very sad. . . . .There were times when he cried, saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m unemployed.’ He felt like less of a man. (Karolina, interview by author)

Karolina also described her interactions with her ex-husband when he was unemployed: “When I would talk to him he would say, ‘You are speaking to me in this way because I don’t have a job.’ One time he got a j ob and he became all . . . you know . . . feeling like he was the man” (Karolina, interview by author). According to Karolina, her ex-husband believed that his unemployment caused Karolina to question his authority or “speak to him that way,” which demonstrates the relationship between employment and perceptions of authority, a key component of masculinity for these men.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, and other parts of the world, the stress of thwarted masculine identities sometimes leads to problematic behaviors such as substance abuse (Maier 2010). When I asked Lucas why he thought it was important for a man to work, he argued that men needed to work for financial and “psychological” reasons. He explained how work prevented men from “losing themselves in life, for example, drinking and other things” (Lucas, interview by author). Women and men in Brogodó perceived a relationship between unemployment and alcohol abuse. Karolina made the connection between her ex-husband’s abuse of alcohol and his status as an unemployed man: “My ex-husband, he drank, drank, drank, and couldn’t get a job” (Karolina, interview by author). Aggravating the situation, when Brazilian men abuse alcohol, they lose the respect of their families, further perpetuating their loss of authority in the household and challenging their masculinity (Sarti 2011). Women in Brogodó also sometimes attributed the verbal or physical abuse of romantic partners to men’s unemployment. Hautzinger (2007) discusses how in Brazil violence serves as a resource for performing masculinity when men’s dominance in the gender hierarchy is threatened by changes that increase women’s rights and autonomy. Thus rather than assume that male violence is the result of a patriarchal culture, it is necessary to acknowledge the structural circumstances and social discourses shaping their identities within a context of social inequality and marginalization. The masculinity of rural, working-class, Black men in Brogodó was fragile; it was compromised by their marginalized social status as well as the socioeconomic changes occurring locally. Furthermore, their inability to perform normative masculinity resulted in compensatory practices that threatened their marriages.

A young man and woman sit next to each other, the man with a hat over his eyes and the woman a blindfold.
Figures 9.4 and 9.5. One example of how gender roles and norms are changing is the inclusion of fathers in baby shower activities. The pregnant woman and her partner are blindfolded and asked to guess what each baby shower gift is by touching it (Figure 9.4). Every time they guess incorrectly, they are dressed up or made-up by the partygoers. Fathers are usually made to wear women’s clothing and makeup, which they are allowed to see once the game is over (Figure 9.5). Photo by Melanie A. Medeiros.


Men’s Infidelity as Compensatory Masculinity

Brazilian men’s participation in the public sphere affords them rights and opportunities that are associated with normative masculinity. In addition to spending time in the rua socializing with their friends, the ability to have extramarital affairs has long been a gender norm for Brazilian men (Gregg 2003). Another component of normative masculinity in Northeast Brazil is malandragem (roguishness), which is associated with activities such as flirting, sex (including extramarital sex), drinking, and the freedom to be out in the street (Mayblin 2010). Married men’s infidelity is in part (although of course not completely) a reflection of their desire to perform normative masculinity and affirm their masculine identities. For generations, Northeast Brazilian men’s extramarital affairs were considered annoying by their wives but were accepted as long as the husband was financially supporting his household (Rebhun 1999). Essentialist discourses surrounding men’s sexuality that justify men’s infidelity as “natural” exemplify exculpatory chauvinism: “the tendency to absolve men of responsibility for performances that embody negative male stereotypes, while simultaneously offering social rewards [such as social status] for such behavior” (Wade and Ferree 2019, 139). Men in Brogodó reported that “real men” did not refuse sexual opportunities, even when such affairs jeopardized a marriage. Twenty-year-old Tiago explained to me the connection between sex and masculinity: “Men don’t cheat on their wives to be men. Having sex with many women makes a man feel like a man. For a married man to do that, he has to cheat on his wife. Men are starting to learn that being fiel (faithful) is a good thing, but they can’t help themselves. A real man never turns down the opportunity to have sex” (Tiago, interview by author). Both men and women in Brogodó rationalized this behavior by saying that men “can’t help themselves” and that having multiple partners “makes a man feel like a man.” Men who rejected sex from women other than their wives and who spent more time at home than in the rua risk being mocked as homens caseiros (house-bound men; see Hautzinger 2007). So although in Brogodó women expressed a desire for husbands who are homens caseiros, they told me they were difficult to find. This suggests that men in Brogodó did not aspire to be homens caseiros and that there was a stigma associated with being a “house-bound man.”

In Brazil, stereotypes of Black male hypersexuality also naturalize and normalize male promiscuity, often through a discourse of Black men’s blood as quente “hot” (Hordge-Freeman 2015; Mayblin 2010; Mitchell 2015). Discourses surrounding Black male hypersexuality are based in historical constructions of Black men as dangerous and sexually aggressive. These discourses, institutionalized in the legal and medical system, were used to justify the brutal treatment of enslaved men and the post-abolition subjugation of Black men in the late nineteenth century and persist today (Mitchell 2015). In Brogoó, twenty-four-year-old Jacqueline compared Black married men to white married men: “I think at times women think white men are more faithful in relationships. . . . They don’t cheat. . . . Bahians are born thinking that they are everything and that they can be with all the women. . . . Many men, principally the Bahians, they look at other women, even in front of their wives, and show that they are desiring them. They [white men] don’t do this, sometimes they don’t even look. For this I think that they are faithful” (Jacqueline, interview by author). Jacqueline used the label “Bahians” (people from the state of Bahia) as a euphemism for Black men and compared them to white men. The talk of women in Brogodó revealed the continued circulation of such racialized notions of sexuality and fidelity; they sometimes verbally contrasted the infidelity of Black men to the perceived fidelity of white men.

Women’s perceptions were often informed by widely circulated media portrayals of relationships, especially in telenovelas (Brazilian soap operas). The telenovela is the most popular television genre among Brazilian women. For working-class women who cannot afford satellite television, telenovelas and the news are the main genres of television programming available in the evening. Hour-long episodes of four different telenovelas air daily from six o’clock to ten o’clock in the evening, and repeat episodes are often aired during the daytime. These telenovelas portray storylines that associate romantic love with fidelity and depict these values as characteristics of white, middle- and upper-class couples. As Fernandez (2010) described in her ethnography of interracial romances in Cuba, the notion of white men’s fidelity represents a “racialized fantasy,” which people in Brogodó contrasted with tropes about Black men’s perceived inability to be faithful.

In my research I found that as women’s gender roles and their identities changed, they began to desire fidelity in their marriages as part of an aspiration for the ideal of romantic love and marriage qualities associated with romantic love, such as fidelity. Their expectation of fidelity was informed largely by messages in the telenovelas that they consumed and often heeded. While women in Brogodó naturalized men’s hypersexuality, they no longer excused men for this behavior. Even men like Lucas who acknowledged that monogamy was becoming a sociocultural ideal argued that men were not capable of controlling their sexuality in the attempt to be faithful. In this community where socioeconomic change threatened men’s ability to fulfill the masculine role of breadwinner, behaviors such as extramarital affairs functioned as compensatory masculinity—“acts undertaken to reassert one’s manliness in the face of a threat” (Wade and Ferree 2019, 142). Hordge-Freeman (2015) notes that young Black Brazilian men in particular struggle with psychological distress as they “try to cope with racial hierarchies and sexual expectations” (Hordge-Freeman 2015, 125). She explains how “Black men with limited options and faced with structural exclusion, superficial cultural inclusion, and the day-to-day microaggressions that reinforce their devalued status” seek ways to “regain their self-esteem and to assert their masculinity” in order to alleviate their distress (Hordge-Freeman 2015, 125–126). In Brogodó men were challenged with trying to satisfy both normative views of masculinity, including financial support of their households, as well as contemporary marriage expectations that countered normative expressions of masculinity, including sexual behaviors. The very practices that enabled men in Brogodó to assert normative masculine identities—such as being out in the rua and having extramarital affairs—were criticized by their wives whose marriage expectations led to their disapproval of these behaviors. Therefore, men’s efforts to meet standards of normative masculinity were detrimental to their marriages, often resulting in marital conflict and divorce.

Three children hugging and smiling.
Figure 9.6. Children in a rural Northeast Brazilian town. Photo by Melanie A. Medeiros.


Normative masculinity is neither a fixed set of traits or behaviors nor is it universally defined. The characteristics, behaviors, and types of interactions associated with an ideal or dominant form of masculinity change and shift over time and space. In Northeast Brazil, for generations men’s financial support for their families, freedom to have a robust social life outside of the home, and unabashed sexual pursuits were all components of normative conceptions of masculinity. For working-class Black men in rural Bahia, their marginalization at the intersection of various social identities often challenges their ability to fulfill some of their own (and society’s) expectations for their performance of masculinity. In Brogodó, high rates of male underemployment made it difficult for men to meet the expectation of household providership. Although for decades sexual promiscuity was a common practice associated with normative masculinity, and tropes of Black male hypersexuality further normalized men’s extramarital affairs, changes in gender roles and marital expectations in Brogodó affected women’s acceptance of infidelity. Therefore, while for some unemployed men a life in the rua and the freedom to have flirtations and sexual relationships with more than one woman was potentially a form of compensatory masculinity, women were increasingly unlikely to aguentar (tolerate) this behavior. The junction of transformations in women’s gender roles and marriage expectations and men’s experiences of thwarted masculinity resulted in marital conflict and instability among couples in Brogodó.

Review Questions

  • Why is an intersectional approach important for the study of masculinities?
  • What do the concepts of marginalized masculinity, thwarted masculinity, and crisis of masculinity mean? How do these concepts help us to understand the experiences of working-class Black men in rural Northeast Brazil?
  • How is infidelity in northeast Brazil an example of compensatory masculinity?
  • How does the case study in this chapter help to demonstrate the value of an intersectional approach to understanding masculinities?

Key Terms

compensatory masculinity: Acts undertaken to reassert one’s manliness in the face of a threat (Wade and Ferree 2019, 142).

exculpatory chauvinism: The tendency to absolve men of responsibility for performances that embody negative male stereotypes, while simultaneously offering social rewards [such as social status] for such behavior (Wade and Ferree 2019, 139).

intersectionality: Refers to the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, and gender that creates overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage. The goal of an intersectional analysis is to understand how racism, sexism, and homophobia (for example) interact together to impact our identities and how we live.

Resources for Further Exploration

  • Gutmann, Matthew. Changing Men and Masculinities in Latin America. 2003. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Gutmann, Matthew. The Meanings of Macho. 2007. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hordge-Freeman, Elizabeth. The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families. 2015. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. 2004. New York: Routledge.
  • Keith, Thomas. Masculinities in Contemporary American Culture: An Intersectional Approach to the Complexities and Challenges of Male Identity. 2017. New York: Routledge.
  • Mayblin, Maya. Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil: Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives. 2010. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Medeiros, Melanie A. Marriage, Divorce and Distress in Northeast Brazil: Black Women’s Perspectives on Love, Respect and Kinship. 2018. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Mutua, Athena D. Progressive Black Masculinities. 2006. New York: Routledge.
  • Neal, Mark Anthony. Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. 2013. New York: New York University Press.
  • Mitchell, Gregory. Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual Economy. 2015. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pascoe, C. J., and Tristan Bridges. Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change. 2016. New York: Oxford University Press.


Thank you to Rutgers University Press for granting permission for us to use a portion of the original text from Marriage, Divorce and Distress in Northeast Brazil. Thank you also to the women and men in Brogodó, Bahia, Brazil who generously opened up their homes and shared their stories with me.


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About the author

Melanie A. Medeiros is an associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her research examines the experiences of cisgender Black women in the Americas, and Latinx im/migrant farmworkers in Western/Central New York. As a cisgender woman with US and Portuguese citizenship who identifies as a white person, Melanie is committed to using her multiple levels of privilege to address health inequity through both her research and teaching. She is the author of Marriage, Divorce and Distress in Northeast Brazil: Black Women’s Perspectives of Love, Respect and Kinship. 



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