Sexism as an Issue in Culture and Art:
The Case of Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands
by Ralph Dumain
This review reminds me of how different the period of the late 1970s was from today. Though I wrote it for a cultural periodical that became defunct with its first issue, I put a lot of time and work into this review. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and early '70s was still fresh, battles over the role of women in American society were still being fought out, and I was young and charged up about the prospects for fundamental cultural change, and I thought, finally the human race is confronted with the possibility of becoming fully conscious of itself at last. In many respects this little review was my testament: not only did it deal with the basic assumptions underlying the relations between the sexes, not to mention mind-body dualism, but it delineated my views about art and entertainment, about the reflection of the consciousness of the writer in his work, about the relationship between actuality and imagination, written with absolute clarity and impeccable logic for a popular audience. I also learned the value of working independently of any established institution, or even social movement. I still recall my adverse reaction when a female professor I knew, a professed feminist, defended this film on the basis that its subject matter is a woman's desire. I found her disingenuousness and hypocrisy replicated among most of the middle-class feminists with whom I interacted. From the beginning I rejected the victimology mentality, and I took careful note of the aversion expressed by a number of women to any artistic depiction of sexual conflicts that suggested women were not just innocent victims but could be held accountable for their own collusion in retrograde gender relations. With more than two decades of the experience of such hypocrisy under my belt, and having lived to see that people have learned nothing in all this time, I must confess that I could not write an essay like this now, with the same tone. Its message, though, remains as vital as ever.
Few substances occur in nature in a pure form, says the chemist, and a critic could say the same of entertainment. Pure, innocent, mindless entertainment, if it could be found, would be an occasional welcome refuge from the mental and emotional involvement to appreciate what real art does illuminate the human experience. Entertainment is backed up, however implicitly, by the philosophy of the artist, and is for that reason rarely innocent, and potentially dangerous. When a backward morality is transmitted under the guise of amusement, a piece of entertainment serves to enslave rather than enlighten people's minds.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is an excellent test case. The film version of Dona Flor was based on the novel by Jorge Amado and was directed by Bruno Barreto. Dona Flor is a seemingly innocuous comedy about Brazilian life and sexual customs. On both artistic and moral grounds it is a failure. Dona Flor is shallow, logically flawed, and morally bankrupt in its uncritical support of male supremacy.
Dona Flor is an archetypically beautiful, warm, gentle, submissive woman who selflessly loves two contrary types of men. As a consequence of her strict upbringing, Flor is a respectable, chaste, shy, obedient, church-going woman. She loved her first husband for his ability to break down the barriers of her modesty and inhibition. She could not take sexual initiative with her more reticent second husband.
Her noble, devoted womanly love would he touching if not for its unhealthy consequences. Never asserting herself or making demands, thoroughly passive, Flor fits the woman’s role to perfection. Never failing to tolerate abuse and disrespect, Flor allows herself to be victimized because she loves her man.
Flor’s first husband Vadinho is a drunkard, a compulsive gambler, and a relentless womanizer. Vadinho decides unilaterally when to grace Flor with his presence in between his escapades. He excuses his philanderings with the disclaimer, But Flor, these other women only street trash. I love only you.
Vadinho and Flor also spend tender, happy moments at home together. Vadinho’s redeeming virtue is his skill at lovemaking. The animal passion and masculine charm of this handsome scoundrel endear him to Flor. Vadinho truly loves Flor, on his terms. His selfishness, though, extends far beyond simple lack of consideration. When Vadinho needs gambling money, he demands Flor's savings. When she refuses to give him her own hard-earned money, he beats her and takes it by force.
Vadinho, of course, is the ideal macho male. He is Mars as Flor is Venus. Vadinho is selfish, violent, and mindless. His life is an unending series of compulsive distractions with no underlying purpose. He is capable of love, but there are no principles to guide its expression.
Vadinho dies a young man, a victim of his dissolute lifestyle. After an unbearably chaste widowhood, Flor remarries, to a financially and morally stable pharmacist, Dr. Teodoro Maduerira. Unflaggingly orderly and efficient, Todoro lives up to his motto a place for everything and everything in its place. He is rather pompous. Kind, polite, devoted, perfectly respectable, absolutely monogamous, Teodoro proves to be a model husband in every respect but one. His uninspired, mechanical approach to copulation fails to satisfy Flor.
In response to Flor's secret wish, Vadinho returns from the dead, appearing unexpectedly in Flor’s bedroom. She is glad to see him but rebuffs his attempts to seduce her. Vadinho would be the ideal, undetectable playmate, because he is invisible to all save Flor. Flor refuses to have sex with him on the grounds that she is a decent married woman. Vadiinho reminds Flor that he, too, is her lawful husband. Flor is impervious to this logic, but her mouth is watering at the temptation.
Flor enlists the aid of a spiritualist cult to return Vadinho to the dead, but changes her mind at the last minute and gives in to Vadinho, enjoying a sexual rapture she has not known since his death. Vadinho remains, unbeknownst to anyone but Flor, to form a triangle with Flor and Teodoro, and the tale ends happily.
To the thoughtless, the above conclusion wouId appear to be a flawlessly logical resolution of Flor’s problem. Digging beneath appearanes will reveal severe flaws in the reasoning behind this story, and it will becomes evident that Amado, as well as his characters, has a poor understanding of the relations between the sexes and between the mind and the body.
The mystery of the battle of the sexes is to be revealed by understanding the unhealthy combination of love and violence. People may have genuine feelings of love for one another, but love does not mix well with manipulation, competition, and inequality. Male and female genitalia ought to make contact only on the basis of equality, but men and women are convinced that sexual love is an absolute and compromise themselves by accepting it on any terms.
Love demands equality, democracy, freedom, respect, individual integrity, and rational purposiveness. Injustice, inhumanity, inequality, competition, mindlessness, and meaninglessness are the stock in trade of hate and violence. Expressing love for someone and violating that person's basic human rights create a most confusing situation.
Consider Vadinho’s statement, I love you, and only you. Here is a perennial excuse, an inexhaustibly serviceable device for neutralizing elementary human respect, a license to kill for mass murderers. If I love you, I can do anything to you, for all is fair in love and war. If I love only you, I need not care about or respect anyone else. Instead of rational consideration of what is best for general human welfare in relationships, dog-eat-dog becomes the guiding ethical principle. The logical result is men who kill each over a woman, or men who happily exterminate someone else’s family to increase the social status of ones own family. (Middle-class Nazis did this to Jews and Middle-Americans are no different on first principles.) Women play the game, too, using their subservient role to manipulate men for financial security, prestige, or revenge. A sought-after woman may arrogantly accept rivalry among males as proof that her vagina is important enough for men to fight for.
It is open season in the jungle of machismo. Because love is the deepest of human needs, love baits the trap. Those who live by or under the predatory laws of sexism are the predators, or the prey.
This reality is masked by the phrase, I love only you. People cannot be honest with themselves or each other. Flor carries in her heart dark secrets she dares not communicate to Teodoro, who considers her an angel. These dark thoughts are nothing but desires which violate the institutionalized norms of chastity, monogamy, and obedience. As is quite clear from the story, patriarchal society and the Catholic Church responsible for inculcating these norms in her. The consequences are guilt, suppression of heretical ideas, and persistent naiveté. Unreal notions of life and love are thus perpetuated.
The case of Dona Flor is complicated by another important ingredient mixed in with sexism: mind-body dualism. According to this traditional Western philosophical notion mind and body are separate and contradictory. Vadinho is matter: evil, mindless, brutish, but sensual and therefore tempting. Teodoro is spirit: good, orderly, rational, cultured, intellectual ideal (and unbelievable), but dull. Because goodness is incompatible with sensuality and abandon, unrestrained lust is disrespectful to a cherished wife, and spiritual Teodoro must be reserved in his lovemaking. Screwing is for whores. In Flor's case, spiritual propriety demands the suppression of her physical desires.
In reality, the human being is a unitary organism and acts for good and evil as a unit. The equation of body with evil, and mind with good, is naive, even dishonest. This unrealistic notion impedes a holistic and healthy attitude to life.
The unquestioning, unimaginative idiocy of a woman brainwashed into submissiveness is what we find in Flor. Her unshakable axioms are monogamy — for the woman and sex in marriage only. When she gets two men, she takes not an extramarital lover but her first husband and only after being talked into it.
Why could Flor not fantasize about a kind, considerate person who can also screw? If one can conjure up the spirits of the dead then why not take the pick of the litter? Yes, Flor loved Vadinho, but why? Obviously, her main concern was sexual. A respectful, humane husband was certainly welcome and desirable, but clearly optional. After all, Flor was prompted to seek a second husband out of sexual frustration, not out of a compelling need for intellectual companionship. A man is not indivisibly spirit and matter, a whole human being; he is reducible to a penis, though in this moral tale the penis is only fully effective when the whole man exudes masculine sensuality. When Flor received spirit instead of orgasm from the second husband, she backtracked to the first. Since matter and spirit are incompatible, Flor must receive these two principles from different individuals. This hypocritical solution is Amado's conception of a reconciliation between spirit and matter.
Flor cannot think, because her every action is based on one assumption: a wife must mold herself to the character and whims of her husband. In the end she has two husbands to whom to passively adapt herself. Some innovation!
In real life the oppressive and fundamentally unreal conceptions on which human relations are built generate underlying distrust, resentment, dishonesty, and because critical thought is suppressed, anti-intellectualism as a way of life. Human suffering is the inevitable result. The happy ending of Dona Flor is spurious. Flor has learned nothing and retains her submissiveness. There is no true reconciliation of opposites: matter and spirit, male and female, master and slave.
Dona Flor is essentially a concatenation of tired, banal stereotypes. Perhaps these stereotypes characterize Brazilian culture. Yet, whatever the author’s raw material is, however mindless his characters are, the author himself cannot be mindless. The artist must have insight and a point of view. Lack of insight makes for poor art.
In this case, there is no evidence of artistic distance from the situation, an enlightened perspective, or disenchantment with the morality portrayed. There is no genuine satire: only gentle, affectionate parody. The authorial perspective is evident in film and novel, especially in the novel by its clever and humorous style and its quaint lengthy subtitles and chapter headings. Amado thinks the whole thing is cute. This is corrupt.
Naiveté is a possible excuse, but the novel (rather than the film) proves that Amado is not so naive. Mind-body dualism is not merely implicit, but explicit: Amado subtitled the novel the fearsome battle between spirit and matter. Also, there is a character prominent in the novel, Dona Gisa, an educated woman who constantly obtrudes into conversations her psychoanalytical, sociological, and political-economic interpretations of the issues being discussed. No one takes her seriously, and obviously Amado does not either. Amado’s refusal to consider seriously sophisticated concepts to which he has access is damning.
What is worse is that Dona Floris not social realism, but fantasy (starting from the point Vadinho returns from the dead). If social reality is limited and oppressive, fantasy is the realm of the pleasure principle where the best of all possible worlds can be constructed. Imagination can construct the ideal human relationship and the ideal lover. For this reason, a sexist fantasy is inexcusable. The genre of fantasy opened to Amado limitless possibilities to express any point he could wish to make, yet this banal trash is all he could come up with. Poverty-stricken is the spirit that cannot even imagine alternatives.
Art has to do better than this. In the 1970’s, when sexual exploitation is a crucial issue, the conservativism and complacency of entertainment is not viable. This is true everywhere and certainly in Brazil, where Shere Hite’s revealing book on female sexuality, The Hite Report, was recently banned by a government censor because it contradicts the morals and good customs of Brazil. (Hite retorted that a woman's orgasm is not customary in Brazil.)
If Dona Flor were truly innocent entertainment, one could sit back comfortably and enjoy the sight of beautiful bodies on screen entwined in sexual intercourse. The combination of the pleasure principle with inhumane morals, on the other hand, is insidious. In art as well as in life, the benign matter of sexual love must not be contaminated with the spirit of depredation.
Written December 1978, for publication in The Medaille Muse, no. 1, 1979.
©1978, 1979, 2001 Ralph Dumain
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Uploaded 12 October 2001
© 2001Ralph Dumain