Is bullfighting a violent display of masculinity protected by patriarchal traditions? Bullfighting, like many traditions finding their place in the 21st century, is a cultural practice struggling to preserve its position within modern societies. We live in a time where sustainability, animal rights, and environmental policy are high on the social agenda. Bullfighting comes across as an outdated and, in all honesty, a barbarian tradition seen by many in younger generations as a form of gentrified animal slaughter. So, should we preserve violence for the sake of tradition or should we accept the values of modern society?

A glittery macho

However, a less obvious character of the corridas can be discussed in the context of present relevant social issues, the matador. Paradoxically, matadores do not fall within the typical hyper-masculine hero typical to patriarchal systems. Contrary, they have a highly stylized manner to the way they speak and move. Their costumes are vibrant in color and highly bedazzled, as well as their hair being perfectly combed with no fly-away in sight. This is contradictory, as supporters and protectors of bullfighting are some of the most conservative groups in the Spanish speaking world. In fact, these same groups are outspoken about their intolerance towards abortion, women rights and LGBTQ+ rights. Interestingly, these groups aim to protect a practice that (in a very inconspicuous way) challenges traditional gender roles.

The preparation of a matador resembles one of a drag-performer, the costume, the make-up, the exaggerated mannerisms, and personality. It all adds in creating a fantasy, a sort of mask, that brings forth a performance and entertains. However, outside of that roman looking arena, every man who portrays those same characteristics is sneered and called out on not being “man enough” as if not portraying the traditional role of a man is a let-down to society, a failure of its traditions. The exaggeration and flamboyance of the bullfighter are praised only in the bullfighting ring and only when it is a he who embodies it as if killing a bull is the only way to forgive a man for acting soft and delicate.

It is sad to think that in an effort to uphold a toxic conception of masculinity; macho societies tend to forget about the power and profoundness humanity can find in vulnerability. Great pieces of art, poetry, and literature have been created by humans who have decided to escape from the social pressure put on them and just bare their emotions on canvas or paper. This vulnerability is also useful for society as a whole, as it adds complexity and depth to the human experience, it shows us that humans are weak and fragile at times, but that these are also vital steps in self-exploration and discovery.    

Romans, kings, and colonials

The history of fighting bulls originates in ancient Rome when it rose to fame in the Iberian Peninsula region of the empire (Modern day Spain). Here, men were confronted by bulls which had previously been angered. Over the centuries, this practice acquired other cultural traits particular to the region and became the modern-day corrida.

The tradition acquired a courtly mannerism adding a baroque quality making it extravagant and performance-based, the matador was at the center of a ritual in which man’s power over animal was to be revered and praised. This mannerism became synonymous with the tradition and with time, the bullfighter was raised to a celebrity-like status amongst the elite social groups in Spain and its colonies. Parallel to the expansion of the empire was the consolidation of a highly sexist and macho culture in which male power and pride became central in social life.

In this context, masculinity grew to be defined by a society of workers, military figures and kings and as such strength, hegemonic masculinity and pride became valued traits of characters in men. Therefore, a highly patriarchal society was consolidated in Hispanic and Iberian cultures that endures in our contemporary society and which has given femininity a secondary role. This has created a group of conservative societies in which change and progress experience a lot of push back when trying to be implemented.

However, a more open-minded generation is on the rise with ideas of improvement on the environment, human rights, and social issues, which will hopefully create a more equalitarian and just society. This makes me wonder if bullfighting will continue to be relevant or even accepted in future decades. Like many other medieval practices, its history might have to come to an end in a society where animal abuse will hopefully not be tolerated, much less a legal sport. So far, bullfighting has endured the changes in both Spanish and South American culture until today. This is mostly due to the fact that it has been attached to the national tradition of the first and as colonial legacy guarded by the higher classes of the latter.

To kill or not kill?

Bullfighting then, comes as an example of an instrument of the double standards characteristic of patriarchal societies. Men, and with this I mean ‘hegemonic men’, have the power to choose what type of masculinity is valid and under what circumstances. By doing so they undermine the power of both women and non-hegemonic men in the social system and assert their own privileged position in it. Here, it is the matador who chooses to be soft, he has the power to and is doing so within a craft that is reserved only for men and which has a tradition of pride and strength. However, in a time where binary gender roles are being questioned more and more, bullfighting comes across as nothing more than a cultural relic of old regimes in which conservatism and tradition are not to be broken.

Naturally, in a contemporary society where cultural tradition is being reworked and negotiated, bullfighting is having a hard time adjusting, not only for its perspective on masculinity but also because innocent animals should not be an instrument for macho displays of strength. Tradition serves as an argument for many cultural practices like bullfighting which intend to uphold values that might be going out of fashion. However, tradition has been responsible for many of the horrible things that have occurred in human history, so questioning it might be the only way for us to move forward and truly change a system of injustice not only to men and women worldwide, but also to our environment.