I Learnt About Masculinity From a Colombian Telenovela

Unfairly maligned as a 'woman’s genre,' the telenovela is a perfect vehicle to look at the lessons taught to young boys like me

Screenshot from "Hombres"
Screenshot from the Colombian telenovela Hombres

The telenovela gets unfairly maligned as a “woman’s genre,” but its stories make the shows perfect vehicles through which to look at the lessons these hit dramas were teaching young boys like me. This is why Hombres, a 1996 Colombian telenovela I watched avidly as a teen, felt so revelatory: The groundbreaking series riffed on telenovelas while borrowing freely from prime-time American dramas. Its ensemble depicted a cross section of the new kind of man who roamed the streets of Bogotá. Our lead, a redhead named Julián Quintana (Nicolás Montero) is, as it turns out, the blandest of the bunch, an everyman designed to anchor the more outlandish characters around him. There is Santiago Arango (Luis Mesa), a rampant misogynist who abuses his wife and proudly tells his friends that a fist is the best way to keep a woman in check. Then there is, as if to balance such un- savory behavior, Ricardo Contreras (Gustavo Angarita), an older man whose decades-long marriage is the kind his colleagues aspire to have, especially Tomás Holguín (Ernesto Benjumea), a mustachioed young man whose romantic aspirations are constantly sabotaged by his own desperation. Rounding out this sprawling cast of characters are Daniel Rivera (Luis Fernando Hoyos), a self-avowed womanizer with a dis- taste for emotional intimacy, and Simón McAllister (Orlando Pardo), the most junior of the associates, whose wife’s death leaves him as a single dad of two young kids.

Compared to telenovelas with historically flattened male characters, Hombres was grounded in a multifaceted reality. The series tackled contemporary plots (death, divorce, AIDS, and changing sexual mores, among others), and made a point of thinking beyond romance as its central narrative engine. At times it felt more like a character study than a Colombian melodrama, as it posited inquiries into modern manhood that felt incredibly timely. And there was a familiarity at play here. My private, elite school was populated by many boys who would (and did) grow up to be the kind of men Hombres depicted and spoke to. These were the boys whose approval I craved and yet who amused themselves by riling me up and then mocking my emotional outbursts. “Ay, se puso salsita!” one would needle me, calling me out for losing my temper and not taking their jokes in good stride. I often hated how much I hoped to be liked by them (and, actually, how much I was attracted to some of them), but that just meant any attention I got from my schoolmates was always tinged with ill-placed jealousy and self-hatred. What was most annoying—if not outright embarrassing, for them more so than me—was the way such taunts always felt like they reinforced their own bonds. I could get along with one or two of them at a time (especially when we were assigned group lab projects or classroom presentations to work on), but there was something about their pack mentality that brought out the worst in them. They boosted each other up whenever they punched me down (figuratively, thankfully). In this, Hombres was just as enlightening. After all, the series couldn’t escape the oppressive nature of its own gendered ideals. Its title defined an essentialist proposition that could only ever fall short for those of us who knew that notions of Colombian masculinity were defined in our absence.

To watch Hombres is to see a world where men and women are cut from such different cloths it’s a wonder (and an everlasting mystery) how they ever find ways of living together. If telenovelas writ large were enamored with romantic plots that upheld social mores (and yes, prim and proper heterosexual pairings), Hombres posited a different possibility for mainstream television. Here was a conscious exploration of modern Colombian masculinity that was nevertheless not as culturally expansive as its simple title promised. The show’s pilot episode, for instance, opens not with its male ensemble, but with a scene at a restaurant where we hop from table to table and listen in on several conversations women are having about the men in their lives. A middle-aged woman bemoans the fact that her husband left her for a younger woman; her friend tells her she should be lucky he was honest. Hers has been seeing someone behind her back for years and she wishes he’d just own up to it. Another wonders aloud why it seems men nowadays want the very thing they’ve long villainized. Don’t they hate and denigrate stay-at-home moms and housewives? Why, then, do they insist now on wanting their spouses to stay home, play house, and cater to their every whim? Others pride themselves on their newfound assertiveness: “So I told him, leave,” one says. “There’s the door. You think I’d be the first woman to raise a kid by herself?” Another: “What I do with men is what, historically, they’ve done to us; I just bed them.” Later, we see a young woman crying after sharing that her boyfriend wants to stay together (but still see other people) as a nearby waitress worries the guy whose baby she’s now carrying may ghost her after hearing said news. As the waitress then makes her way through the dining room, the din around her takes over; every table is full of women talking about nothing but men, offering a perfect example of how to fail the Bechdel test.

The kicker for this prologue is a brief vignette focused on a young girl set against a white backdrop. She is impeccably dressed, as if styled for a family portrait, in a cutesy dark-blue sailor dress. As she plays with a ball, a young boy comes in and smacks it right out of her hand, only to laugh loudly when he gets a glimpse at her frilly bloomers as she bends down to retrieve it. The camera closes in on her as she grimaces. “Hombres!” she spits out, “Guácala!” (“Men! Yuck!”).

Years before Sex and the City turned girl talk brunch into a tired TV trope, Hombres creator Mónica Agudelo understood the cultural importance of enshrining the intimacy such a setting afforded women in the mid-90s. What’s striking about these vignettes is how they neither seek to villainize men nor outright excuse their behavior. Against an entire genre that so exalted marriage, monogamy, and the nuclear family, Hombres set out from the start to ground us not in the aspirational images of church weddings and picture-perfect images of wholesome happy families (the kind that littered too many a telenovela ending) but in the messy and modern conflicts that were, as was the case in these conversations, the talk of the town. To open with women’s complaints and to tie them to concerns about divorce, motherhood, and courtship remains as revelatory in the 21st century as it was in 1996. These may have once been private concerns, but by staging them in a public setting like a restaurant, these groups of female friends created a choral effect that rippled out from every table. Agudelo made clear this series would air out stories long kept hidden behind closed doors.

Likewise, the modern men at the heart of Hombres would come to feel oddly familiar, contemporary avatars of a generation that was remaking the narratives around romance they’d long been fed. Stock-brokers by trade, they were associated with a cosmopolitan environment and thus a vision of Colombia that imagined the country as economically forward-looking and ready to shed its bad rap. They were, in many ways, grown-up versions of my own schoolmates—many of whom would, in fact, go to Colombia’s top two schools to study Administración de Empresas, the catchall business major preferred by the country’s upper class. Our school was all but a conveyor belt toward early twenty-first-century yuppiedom. Hombres offered a glimpse into a possible future and a rare window into an alien present. For, if these stockbrokers weren’t older facsimiles of my fellow classmates, they were easily legible as their fathers, who ran multinational corporations, were executives at oil companies, or were otherwise part of the movers and shakers in a city that was desperately trying to rebrand itself into a future where it needn’t have to be associated with drug cartels, car bombs, and a decades-old violent conflict that seemed to have no end in sight. Given that my mom worked in a creative industry, those suit-and-tie men were foreign figures to me. I knew—or gathered, more like—that I was supposed to see in them an aspirational image, their menswear supposedly projecting a seriousness to look up to. Our school uniforms instantiated this, in fact.

Had I followed a different path in life—had I, for instance, stayed in Bogotá and gone to either Los Andes or La Javeriana for school— I’d have likely moved in circles like those depicted in Hombres. Revisiting the show all these years later, I am reminded, though, of why I left. For even as the show presents a wide variety of high-powered men who struggle with issues as varied as marriage, parenthood, friendship, dating, and yes, even a crazed female stalker, Agudelo’s show can’t—and didn’t try to—escape the subtle homophobia that undergirded all its commentary on contemporary Colombian men. One that, in this case, nevertheless came wrapped up in a rather tepid push for tolerance and acceptance.

If telenovelas writ large were enamored with romantic plots that upheld social mores, Hombres posited a different possibility for mainstream television.

For, alongside the Juliáns and the Santiagos of the group, Hombres offered audiences a token gay guy. As ’90s tropes required, Marcel was a limp-wristed, fashionable “gay best friend” who ran a clothing boutique and spent many evenings gabbing about with de Francisco’s Antonia. And, though we first meet him having a meltdown over his recent breakup, his romantic (and sexual) life is all but nonexistent. On-camera at least. During one episode, when Antonia cancels their plans as she opts to go out on a date with Julián, we see him joking that he’ll spend the evening reading One Thousand and One Nights, as if his social life were only tethered to her availability. He was, in a way, the Will to Antonia’s Grace before that U.S. sitcom had even been conceived.

Played by Claude Pimont, Marcel was coded as different—as foreign, even. Pimont’s accented Spanish (he was born and raised in France before kicking off his acting career in Colombia), not to mention his shoulder-length hair and endless collection of fancy silk scarves, set him apart from the show’s cast of characters, whose cleancut near-identical looks stressed and encouraged homogeneity.

At the end of the day, the boys club Hombres depicted depended on setting itself apart from men like Marcel. For, in a series known for its battle of the sexes theme, Marcel usually found himself grouped (willingly and giddily, I must add) with the girlfriends and mothers present in the show. This was nowhere more evident than in a two-part episode cheekily titled “Detrás de un gran hombre hay una gran mujer” (“Behind every great man lies a great woman”), which is centered around Julián’s best friend Mafe’s thirtieth birthday party. Wanting to buoy her spirits over crossing that milestone, Marcel suggests she host a raucous costume party for herself. A gender-bending party, in fact: have all the men dress up as women and all the women as men. The ladies are thrilled! At last, a chance to wear baggy suits and play at being men for a day. The boys, though, are less than thrilled. The mere concept of taking up drag for a day appalls them even as they (mostly) begrudgingly agree to take part in such a lark. The only holdout is, unsurprisingly, Santiago, who badgers and belittles his friends for letting themselves be so emasculated as they opt to wear miniskirts, makeup, wigs, and even heels.

The pathetic attempts by these men at finding the humor in their plight is what should make us chuckle; we’re encouraged to laugh at, not with them.

Much of the humor of the episode centers on the inherent hilarity of seeing grown men in feminine clothing. Tomás’s choice to don a wedding gown elicits plenty of quips about being a virginal bride, Julián’s smoky eye makeup and fishnet stockings earn him several lady-of-the-night jokes, and the men’s high-pitched vocal affectations as they role-play are all done in jest, pointing out the hilarity of what it takes to be—to become, really—a woman. In an ironic twist, though, Marcel does not arrive all dolled up in a corset and a killer wig. Instead, he arrives in full Rambo drag, all camo gear and fake guns ablaze. “I couldn’t betray my inner woman,” he explains, “It was easier to betray the man in me.” It’s hilarious to think that such betrayal involved conjuring up this particular image of a “man.” He reached into the far recesses of American pop culture iconography but there was no denying the way his military garb visually invoked a Colombian reality the show otherwise kept decidedly off-screen.

Masculinity and homosexuality were, in the show’s framework, not only incompatible but diametrically opposed. As this double episode illustrated, masculinity is not something you have; it is something you do. Something you perform, really. And, more crucially, something you perform for other men. It is not enough to be a man; you must act like one—and sometimes, that was as difficult for guys like Julián and his friends as it was for those of us who have become canny observers of men to better mimic them and thus hide our desire for them.

Intertwined as they were, homosexuality and masculinity were, from a young age, parts of myself I knew were overly scrutinized. The visibility of one came at the expense of the other. Both were configured in our culture as things to look out for both because they can be seen and because we might not see them. As these episodes of Hombres suggest, the kind of masculinity Santiago so extols is fragile precisely because it depends on its insistent visibility—it’s why he doesn’t dare not wear a tuxedo to Mafe’s party and why he thinks a mere wig will unravel the assured sense of manhood he wishes and demands of his friends. And, while the show does nudge us toward scoffing at Santiago’s retrograde ideas, the twists in the plot all but hand him a win. Shortly after leaving the party together, the men are arrested for being intoxicated. That they’re suffering this humiliation while still wearing skirts and heels is almost too much—and that’s before the cops tease them about their outfits. The police at the precinct all assume they are “transvestites,” and thus worthy of their scorn; they throw the boys out into the gated yard, where they’re further harassed by the other jailed men who are both threatened and amused. Julián worries they’ll be raped and hopes they won’t have to fend any men off, a line that gives them all a chance to curse Marcel again for this ridiculous idea. And, true to form, they do end up needing to fight to prove their masculinity and strength.

When they’re finally picked up by the women, they bemoan their decision to have played along to Mafe’s ridiculous gender-bending party, all while their fellow inmates marvel at their fighting prowess, offering the kicker that captures the incongruity of the entire scenario: “Esas locas terminando siendo unos varones!”: “Those fags turned out to be quite the men!” Though perhaps fags isn’t the right translation. For loca (literally “crazy”) is used as a way to call out effeminacy and homosexuality in a way that conflates them with mental illness, and is most often used as a derogatory insult against trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, the kind who would don wigs and dresses to hit the streets at night. Though, similar to fag, loca is a term that’s continually being reappropriated, used as a way to embrace the scorned femininity it’s supposed to pathologize. By throwing punches and asserting their dominance in the only way they know how, these mocked men end up proving their masculinity by behaving like their most primal selves.

Throughout the show, masculinity—whether championed by Santiago’s retrograde machismo or the cops’ open homophobia—was constantly being negotiated by Julián and his friends. Quite predictably, the series would eventually frame such questions about masculinity in terms of violence. For that is what a varón is: even in a dress, if a man can beat his assailant, he can get away from hurtful labels like loca. As if to nurture their fragile egos, Julián and company decide on a whim to go on an all-boys camping trip, a laughable attempt to reassert whatever authority they believe had been wrestled from them. All alone, away from the prying eyes of the women in their lives, they revert (or become) the most machista versions of themselves they can dream up. At one point they go around in a circle sharing funny jokes that all depend on the gentle misogyny they feel all too comfortable performing for each other: “What does a woman do after making love? Get in the way.” “What would man do without women? He’d domesticate another animal.” The laughter these jokes elicit is rooted in the kind of feminist intervention Hombres was gunning for. The pathetic attempts by these men at finding the humor in their plight is what should make us chuckle; we’re encouraged to laugh at, not with them. For, again, the storyline ends with Mafe and the girls coming to their rescue, further painting these men as hapless fools who can’t go a full weekend without their every whim taken care of.

The series was an answer to an incongruous-sounding question: What would it mean to write a male-centered telenovela?

Reviewing Hombres upon its release in 1996, Colombian magazine Semana singled out how the show presented a necessary corrective to the way telenovelas had been produced in the country’s history: “Although the audience for melodrama is composed mostly of women,” the review argued, “in Colombia the writing of matters of the heart has always been a matter of men.” Some of the biggest homegrown hits had been developed and written by a cadre of talented men who’d created a string of powerful heroines, including Café’s Gaviota, whose love stories had wooed and wowed audiences for generations. With Hombres, Mónica Agudelo was turning such tradition on its head: “Although for many it may look like a sign of a move past melodrama, the show is, on the contrary, firmly rooted within the rules of that genre, only seen with the keen-eyed outlook of a modern woman, for whom Agudelo is undoubtedly becoming, for all her merits, her new priestess.”

The series was an answer to an incongruous-sounding question: What would it mean to write a male-centered telenovela? To write a melodrama about men? What emerged was a bold offering, a series that took men’s inner lives seriously and dramatized that clichéd and endlessly recurring concept of the “crisis of masculinity.” Though perhaps, given its plural title, we should amend its take on such a theme. Maybe Hombres was a series about the crises of masculinity. Or better yet, about the crisis of masculinities. If it feels like masculinity is constantly in crisis, that is because such is its very nature. It may well be that the crisis itself is masculinity. Or, at the very least, the patriarchal masculinity whose fragility masks the very strength it purports to project.

If the tenets of masculinity, as Hombres shows time and time again, are inherently performative, depending on and constantly reinscribed for and by those around us, it’s hard to not both commend the show for that push and pull and to condemn it for so tactfully tackling its male protagonists. In hindsight, its attempt at satire never went far enough—and this had everything to do with the way it careened ever closer to the generic telenovela trappings it was so intent on serving up. Was this a modern dissection of the fragile masculinity that so enthralled well-to-do Colombian men? Or was it an apology for their actions, a way to not merely explain them away but validate them? The fine line between description and prescription, between representation and aspiration, can’t help but be blurred when in episode after episode, Hombres insisted on giving its titular straight men so much empathetic leeway. This was a show, after all, that ended its series finale with the women playfully excusing the men for their shortcomings, teaching the audience an insidious lesson: “Les perdonamos su género,” the women tell the men in the final tableau the show left its viewers with: “We forgive you for your gender.” 

Excerpted from the essay collection The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me about (Desiring) Men by Manuel Betancourt, published by Catapult.

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