Gender in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
In many cultures, including Dominican culture, rigid and binary gender roles have shaped and reinforced the development of a mostly patriarchal society. Indeed, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents the traditional gender expectations of males and females in the Dominican Republic. Yet the novel also offers a pointed commentary on the ways in which the main characters, the members of the De León family, subvert these roles.
A major element of Diaz’s novel is the Fukú americanus, also known simply as “fukú” or the “curse or doom of some kind” that plagues the title character Oscar and his family, as well as their entire culture (Diaz 1). Although the fukú remains a mystery to the characters within the novel, its effects on the De León family indicate that the “curse” can be considered the patriarchal oppression that is ingrained in both the political system of the nation, as well as its historical and cultural atmosphere. By undermining the gender norms of their male-dominated society, Oscar and his family members act as the “zafa” or “counterspell” to the fukú curse that is the central influence on the family’s story (Diaz 7). Throughout the novel, Diaz uses historical information alongside the narrative, as well as the inclusion of some important minor characters, to demonstrate the deep-rooted patriarchal structure evident in Dominican culture.
In the preface, the narrator introduces the concept of the fukú as “the Curse and the Doom of the New World” and the “fukú of the Admiral,” which establishes the idea that “the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world” (Diaz 1). Diaz attributes this curse, in part, to the colonization of the Dominican Republic, thus introducing the concept of patriarchy and its institution in the nation. Colonialism and patriarchy are linked by the idea that “women and land are both means of reproduction,” meaning that without the ability to dominate the land and the women, men find it impossible to support the “existence of a people” (McAlpine 1). The colonization stage of the Dominican Republic acts as a kind of patriarchy, where the central goal is both “conquest and control,” just as patriarchal systems in society dominate and therefore oppress women (Loomba 1101).
In Oscar Wao, Diaz links together his fictional narrative with historical and factual details of the Dominican experience under dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose reign is a continuation of the same type of domination and control that originated with the Dominican Republic’s colonization. Many of the footnotes chronicle the history of the Trujillo regime; Oscar’s own grandfather Abelard is tortured after refusing to allow El Jefe to have his “delicious” daughter (Diaz 218). Trujillo is described by the narrator as being “five thousand times worse” than the “average Dominican,” due to his objectification of women, especially as communicated to the men he has hired to “scour the provinces for his next piece of ass” (Diaz 217). As a result of Abelard’s refusal to give up his daughter, he is tortured and imprisoned, a process that the narrator calls, “outstanding karmic debt, or something else. (Fukú?)” (Diaz 248). The nation’s and more specifically the De León family’s oppression and misfortune under the masculine-led society headed by Trujillo support the idea that the fukú is a manifestation of the culture’s patriarchal ideology. Trujillo’s position as a cruel, ruthless dictator, as well as his exploits with women, helps him serve as an archetype for many of the other Dominican men in the novel, and also introduces the standards of masculinity for males in Dominican society. Both Beli, Oscar’s mother, and Oscar himself encounter Dominican men who take advantage of women and exert a power and control, similar to Trujillo’s, that directly aligns with the traditional male gender role.
Based on the nation’s history of colonization and dictatorship, the Dominican ideal of “machismo” or hyper-masculinity coincides with the “contention that sex, gender, and heterosexuality are historical products” (Caamaño 1, Butler 905). Even the novel’s narrator Yunior describes himself as “a guy who could bench 340 pounds” and who has multiple women in his life at once (Diaz 170). Similarly, Beli’s first love, Jack Pujols, is described as having “physical swagger” but has no respect for her and uses her only for her body (Diaz 89). Her next love, The Gangster, has a ”pimpdaddy style” and allows a pregnant Beli to be beaten by his wife (Diaz 121). The men in the novel are physically attractive and powerful, but are also cowardly, disrespectful, and abusive towards the women around them. Oscar encounters this traditional gender norm in the boyfriends of the women he falls for, specifically Ana and Ybón. Both Ana and Ybón are physically abused and mistreated by their boyfriends, but still choose to stay with them. This choice only further exposes and affirms the success that comes with adhering to the existing gender roles laid out for Dominican men.
Throughout adolescence, Oscar is constantly reminded of the gender expectations he is expected to fulfill, but his lack of conformity to traditional ideals of masculinity establishes him as a kind of “zafa” to the fukú curse. Even from a young age, Oscar knows that he is not what a Dominican male is supposed to be, as he has “none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it…couldn’t play sports for shit” and is “beyond uncoordinated” (Diaz 19). The other males in his life, who do live up to these ideals, his uncle and Yunior, reinforce the importance of “gender essentialism” and the danger of ‘performing one’s gender wrong,” through their efforts to get Oscar to change his ways by losing weight and giving up his passion for science-fiction (Butler 909). Another way in which Oscar subverts his male expectation is through his interactions with women. Rather than being dominant or abusive, he instead spends time talking and gaining “some knowledge of self and of women,” rather than seeking out the purely sexual gratification that typical Dominican men are after (Diaz 41). By going against the gender norms of society, Oscar feels the disastrous effects of the fukú curse strongly throughout most of the novel, especially in his failed attempts at relationships. However, in his relationship with Ybón, he is finally able to enjoy the “little intimacies” of requited love, thus becoming a zafa by remaining true to the honest, respectful love he values most (Diaz 334).
Similarly, Lola De León, Oscar’s sister, also subverts her expected feminine gender role in several ways throughout the narrative. Early on, the reader learns that Lola is very athletic and powerful, and she begins to dress in all black and even “shave[s] her head down to the bone, Sinéad-style” and convinces everybody that she’s “turned into a lesbiana” (Diaz 37). By straying dramatically from the type of physical femininity that Dominican culture and specifically her mother value, Lola reinforces the idea that “sexuality and gender…do not align with simple polarities” (Rivkin and Ryan 887). Lola also avoids falling into one of the two binary female character types in literature: “the extreme images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’” (Gilbert and Gubar 812). She is independent and goes out on her own, rather than becoming a subservient “angel,” but also overcomes the “monster” image through her genuine care for her brother Oscar. She is headstrong and stubborn in her relationship with Yunior, which she “put an end to,” rather than letting herself be completely controlled by a man (Diaz 169). Despite challenging the feminine ideal of her culture, Lola does struggle with the curse of the fukú in her few destructive relationships. However by the novel’s end, she, like Oscar, is able to become part of the zafa and find happiness and love with a family of her own.
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, author Junot Diaz provides a commentary on the social atmosphere of the Dominican culture in relation to a set of pre-established gender roles. Title character Oscar Wao and his sister Lola each break with the rigid preset masculine and feminine ideals, respectively, that have defined and shaped their culture for generations. In addition to the pressure of adhering to gender norms, the De Leóns, and many other Dominican families, feel the negative impact of a curse, the Fukú americanus, which originated with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World and continued with the repressive and tyrannical rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Because Lola and Oscar deviate from what is traditionally expected of young female and male Dominicans, they have effectively brought the wrath of the fukú down upon them with special intensity. However, the redeeming elements at the end of the novel, particularly Oscar’s final intimate experience with Ybón and Lola’s fulfilling relationship with her husband, demonstrate that by challenging the expectations of their genders, both Oscar and Lola become the ultimate counter-spell, the zafa.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 900-911. Print. Caamaño, Ana Chavier. “Gender Roles in the Dominican Republic.” Moon Travel Guides. N.p., 03 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2015 Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print. Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 812-825. Print. Loomba, Ania. “Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 1100-1111. Print. McAlpine, Mhairi. “Patriarchy and Colonialism: Making the Links.” Second Council House of Virgo. N.p., 8 Apr. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: Contingencies of Gender.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 885-888. Print.
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