The Body Politic Gender in the New World Order

September 25, 2007

In past NACLA Reports, our coverage of gender has focused on women's long struggle for equality and, more recently, on the liberation movements of sexual minorities in Latin America. With feminism and the movements for the rights of sexual minorities has come a questioning of traditional gender roles and identities, and it is this questioning that motivates this Report. "The Body Politic" focuses on the category of gender itself, on the changing meanings of "feminine" and "masculine," and on the common ground of all these conflicts—the body.

In different ways, powerful forces are in contention over the regulation and commodification of bodies. There is the old moral conservatism, for example, perhaps best represented in Latin America by the Catholic Church. And there is the neoliberal force of modern capitalist production, constructing gender along lines best suited for productivity and profitability. All told, the primacy of the market in neoliberal Latin America has created a scenario that stimulates individual desire—the driving force behind consumption. As individuals make their way, the Latin American majority grows increasingly impoverished, making "the need to deepen democracy and attain economic justice in our countries," as Maruja Barrig argues, a continuing goal of those who struggle for gender equality.

At the same time, movements for sexual and reproductive rights have become more culturally and politically sophisticated. As a result, the body has become a multidimensional, complex object of political struggle—a "cultural battleground" on which a wide array of issues are fought out. In her essay, "Bodies in Contention," Jean Franco says that "clothed or unclothed," the body has become "a site of cultural conflict that is nothing so simple as 'good tradition' and 'bad modernity' or vice versa." The conflicts, of course, occupy several dimensions, and these are our themes:

Perhaps foremost, the body is contested over issues of sexuality and desire. Franco describes how an art installation involving nudity in downtown Santiago, Chile, brought unintended results. A project designed to make the public reflect on the uses of public space exposed the boorish voyeurism of "unreconstructed male sexuality," reminding us that modernization does not necessarily bring progressive attitudes to sexuality. It also demonstrated the ways in which the female body can so easily become commodified in a consumer culture, inviting "immediate gratification." And G. Derrick Hodge's article on male sex workers in Havana explores the ways in which desire itself can be commodified when sex enters the cash nexus. These young men are transforming older conceptions of Cuban masculinity. In both of these cases, the politics of the body reflect a struggle between commodity exchange and free expression.

The body is also contested over questions of reproduction. Marta Lamas argues that as Mexican women enter the workforce in record numbers, the battle over abortion becomes emblematic of the lack of reproductive freedom that is "symbolic of the subjugation of women workers." In Mexico's maquiladoras, for example, working women cannot get pregnant and keep their jobs. Neither can they get legal abortions. "Sexual and reproductive rights," argues Lamas, "while occupying minimal space in the national debate over democracy, allow women to achieve self-determination, and are thus intimately linked to the meaning of modern citizenship."

And in those same factories that regulate reproduction, Leslie Salzinger describes how gender identity is not only regulated but produced on the shop floor. Femininity, explains Salzinger, is manipulated in subtle ways to control labor and increase production. Elizabeth Oglesby tells a similar story about the promotion of masculinity as a labor-control mechanism in the cane fields of Guatemala.

In multifaceted ways, then, the body has become political—an object of contention in this new world order.


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