Not long after you start learning Spanish do you learn that a huge difference with English is that Spanish has genders, as is the case with other Romance languages such as French. All words are either masculine or feminine in other words. For example “el hombre” (man) is obviously masculine and “la mujer” (woman) is feminine, but other words such as “map” (el mapa) are masculine and “rain” (la lluvia) are feminine, words that have no explicit gender reference.
Point 2: The masculine gender dominates the language. For example, if you have “brothers” and “sisters” together, instead of being forced to use both words as you would in English (unless you say siblings), in Spanish you say but one word to mean both—“hermanos.” ”Hermanos” could also mean more than one brother, however, so despite being confusing at times the masculine dominance is clear.
Point 3: A common stereotype in Latin countries, some more than others, is that ‘machismo’ is ever present among the men, and some say among women too. Machismo is synonymous with excessive masculinity, both apparent in attitudes and actions. For a more academic analysis of machismo, go here… Now. 🙂
A BBC article entitled ¿Es sexista el idioma español? (Is the Spanish language sexist?) threw out the question if language is a reflection of the culture or vice versa? One journalist and magazine director, June Fernández from Píkara Magazine, was quoted at saying that the masculine factor in the language is both a bias and a view of reality for how women are treated. It seems that Fernández supports the theory that language is a reflection of culture.
Gender is a language trait that politicians take full advantage of in Spanish. Cristina Kirschner, the current Argentine president, directs both “Argentinos” and “Argentinas” in her speeches, instead of the standard Spanish way which would be “Argentinos.” Another example is the Venezuelan constitution which includes a long list of positions, including “presidente” (male president) and “presidenta” (female president), ministros y ministras (male and female government ministers), y viceministros y viceministras (you have the idea by this point.)
I see aspects of machismo in the culture, and even in my own culture I saw it. It is close to what some North Americans would call being a “chauvinist.” It also struck me when several Latin men told me that they considered women to be the actual machistas in society, as women either demand (or allow) men to treat them a certain way and as mothers, “they taught us to be this way,” one said.
So, gender dominance exists on both a grammatical and a societal level. The sexism debate isn’t a new one, but what never gets old are the examples of it in language and culture. One that stood out to me is the translation for handcuffs—a symbol of dominance in itself—“las esposas”, which means “wives” in English.
Need I say more? (Hehehe)