Gender is inescapable. It does not matter whether one agrees with the emerging progressive narrative of gender being a construct or not. Being a male or a female comes with its own set of expectations, codes, and experiences, which are impossible to run from. Junot Diaz’s “Drown” does an excellent job at highlighting the toxic beliefs centered on gender, which shape the mindsets of so many young boys. The stories “Fiesta” and “How to Date a Brown girl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” explore the effects the constant dehumanization of women has on the protagonist’s attitude towards the opposite gender. “Drown,” on the other hand, focuses on Yunior’s perception of himself through the prism of make assertiveness, violence, and homophobia. Moreover, the boy’s Dominican upbringing combined with the socio-cultural implications of being an immigrant has had a tremendous impact on his understanding of masculinity. Yunior’s relationships with his brother and father imprinted on his perception of what it meant to be a man. Despite the numerous positive examples, which combat the dogma of Rafa and Ramon, the protagonist fails to reject the toxic ideas of masculinity and continues to judge himself and others based on them.
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Dehumanization of Women
Dehumanization of women is a recurring theme throughout the book, which influences Yunior’s attitude towards females. Rafa is the closest figure of authority Yunior has since his father left to make a life in the United States. Thus, Rafa’s constant dismissal of women as individuals as well as his exclusive focus on trying to sleep with them affects Yunior. In “Fiesta,” Yunior watches Rafa amount girls to their genitals as he warns his brother that “It’s the only pussy you’ll ever get.” Rafa acts as a womanizer and tries to teach his little sibling to be just as chauvinistic. It is important to note that the message goes directly to the impressionable Yunior’s head as he muses about Leti’s “serious tetas” as he ponders about Rafa’s sexual escapades. Devaluing women seems to become a part of Yunior’s “male arsenal” at a young age as a result of his brother’s behavior. The things one learns during childhood continue to haunt them for the rest of their life.
In “How to Date a Brown girl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” Yunior exemplifies the misogyny that young men carry into adulthood. As Yunior gives dating advice, readers begin to understand just how destructive Rafa’s comments have been. The narrator first states that “you’ll at least get a hand job” if you are pursuing a white girl. His advice becomes more and more degrading throughout the story, which includes discussions about girls’ virginities, hips, and “thick asses.” Yunior subjects females to being sexual vessels for men’s pleasure, completely stripping women of their individuality.
In addition to female sexualization, Yunior learns of toxic assertiveness and oppression from his father Ramon. Through his actions, the protagonist’s father shows his son the essence of what being a “real man” is. Ramon constantly mistreats and abuses his wife in order to establish himself as the main authority of the household. Yunior is introduced to the idea of male dominance through his father’s machismo. In “Drown,” Yunior is now in charge of the house, which leads to him asserting dominance over his beloved mother. Walking in on his mother talking on the phone with her husband (who is in the United States), the protagonist hangs up the phone and tells his mom “That’s enough, I say.” With Ramon out of the picture, his son is determined to become the new provider of the family. In turn, Yunior wants to control his mother’s actions since she becomes dependent on him. Despising his father does not stop Yunior from following in his footsteps and asserting his masculinity by mistreating his mother. Despite the protagonist’s disappointment in Ramon after his infidelity, Yunior still manages to repeat his father’s mistakes by partaking in toxic masculinity.
Another important theme that ties into the protagonist’s perception of masculinity are sexuality. Growing up Latino implies that Yunior’s environment tends to be rather intolerant to homosexual men. Moreover, the 1980s were not so progressive in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance. Immigration often puts additional pressure on children, who are expected to follow their parents’ plans for them. Kids of first-generation immigrants fear disappointing their parents the most since they have done so much for their children to have a better life. Due to the constraints of Yunior’s environment, he often engages in homophobic behavior. He rejects his best friend Beto out of fear of accepting his own sexual preferences. Yunior uses slurs to describe his friend after he finds out the boy is gay. It is even more tragic than the protagonist’s need to disassociate himself from Beto stems from his failure to come out. Yunior’s falling out with Beto has had a lasting impact on his inability to commit in relationships. This demonstrates how harmful and destructive homophobia and toxic masculinity can be.
The Definition of a “Real Man”
Yunior’s reasoning behind the dismissal of women and his internalized homophobia has two main fallacies. The first one revolves around his emotional relationships with the women in his life. Despite having a rather misogynistic upbringing, Yunior deeply cares about and loves his mother. From an ethos standpoint, Yunior’s mother should have served as a role model for him, and not his dad or Rafa. The contradiction is apparent when the readers learn of the protagonist’s affection for his mom. Yunior mentions that he “wanted to go over and hug” his mother just to show her how loved and appreciated she is. This example goes against the protagonist’s tendency to devalue and dehumanize women as he tries to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Yunior’s mother is the only person he can trust to be himself with. This is emphasized by his inability to hug her in public due to “eleven fat juggling bodies” separating them. These strangers symbolize the challenges in Yunior’s relationship with his mom due to the external pressure to appear manly. Yunior refuses to express his feelings in front of everyone, which exemplifies his failure to reject his childhood dogma rooted in toxic masculinity. With so many loving and nurturing women in his life (including his mother and sister), Yunior is still unable to recognize females as individuals.
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Another fallacy is displayed in Yunior’s belief of what constitutes a “real man.” The readers assume that the perfect example of someone Yunior aspires to be is his father. It is apparent that the protagonist’s repression of his sexuality and a falling out with Beto that follows is the reflection of the flawed perception Yunior has in terms of being a man. According to the protagonist’s logic, Beto is somehow less of a man because he likes men. Yunior’s logical chain, however, is broken.
The man Yunior once idolizes turns out to be a cheater, who tries to escape his family and get rich in America. Ramon’s assertiveness originates from the belief that he needs to care for his wife and kids, which is why he often allows himself to abuse his authority as the one in charge of the household. Yunior’s father contradicts himself when he cheats on his wife and partially abandons his children, which is the opposite of care. He also shows off his “brand-new, like-green car bought to impress,” which symbolizes his infidelity and makes Yunior physically uncomfortable. Every time the boy drives with his father, his stomach turns. Despite realizing Ramon’s flaws as a father and a husband, Yunior fails to reject his father’s ideas of masculinity and continues to imitate him in his relationships with his mother and other women in his life.
In conclusion, it is important to recognize the effects of a young boy’s upbringing on his worldview and beliefs. “Drown” is a real work of fiction that manages to explore the themes of masculinity and sexuality through the character of Yunior. The protagonist follows the examples of his brother and father by dehumanizing women and judging men for their sexual preferences. Yunior is ultimately trapped by the damaging ideas engraved in his mind by his family. Toxic masculinity takes away the protagonist’s ability to be vulnerable and display affection publicly. Moreover, the example of his father traps Yunior in a cycle, where he repeats the mistakes of his dad. Yunior is unable to accept himself fully and come to terms with his sexuality due to the pressure put on him by his circumstances, being both a Dominican and an immigrant.
Diaz, J., Davis, J., & Audio, P. (2007). Drown. Penguin Audio.