Prescribed Masculinity in Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Seung Hwan Kim

Junot Diaz calls his 2007 novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a “feminist-allied project” (Connell). Diaz has assembled such a project by examining the concept of hegemonic masculinity, which is defined as “the configuration of gender practice which…guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” Part of Diaz’s exploration is to measure the strength and permanence with which hegemonic masculinity takes root. In Diaz’s book, three characters, Yunior, Beli, and Oscar, grapple with Dominican versions of hegemonic masculinities as they navigate life in the Dominican Republic and the Dominican diaspora in America. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz uses characterization of three main figures—Yunior, who adheres to hegemonic masculinity and thrives, Beli, who assumes a hegemonically masculine role to escape its retribution, and Oscar, who is punished for his inability to adhere to hegemonic masculinity—to show that hegemonic masculinity establishes a persistent grip over conditioned individuals in a system of rewards and punishment.

Diaz characterizes Yunior as a man who adheres to hegemonic masculinity despite a conflicting, non-masculine side. Yunior performs a stereotyped persona of the “typical Dominican male,” which stipulates toughness and strength. A few of Yunior’s qualifications are that he is so “hard” that he risks walking through a “mess of New Brunswick townies” (167), and he is able to bench 340 pounds (170). Despite this presentation, Yunior has a nerdy side. Not only does he like “shit like Akira” (172), he makes references to over 200 works of literature and film over the course of the book. He even admits that his decision to live in Demarest with the “weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots” was motivated by something beyond “philanthropy” (170). However, his nerdiness is incompatible with hegemonic masculinity—Oscar’s door sign is disparaged as “gay-hay-hay” by a friend of Yunior’s, for example—and Yunior works to conceal it (172). Telling the reader the door sign is in Elvish, Yunior pleads,“Please don’t ask me how I know.” Unlike Oscar, Yunior maintains an image of hegemonic masculinity by hiding “his otakuness” (21).

Yunior’s hegemonic masculinity requires him to maintain and protect it, which he does despite the negative inner consequences. Yunior’s masculine presentation is sexually rewarded, but only when it is maintained. Yunior is a “playboy,” a term later qualified by telling the reader he sleeps with “three fine-ass bitches at the same time” (185), but as soon as he moves in with Oscar and indulges his nerdy side, his “balls-out” life ends (175). Although Yunior tries to blend nerdiness with hegemonic masculinity by getting Oscar to exercise with him, he is unsuccessful and only able to go “back to being the ill sucio” after he abandons Oscar (180). Although Yunior’s hegemonic masculinity prevents him from attaining deeper relationships, he still upholds it. Even after losing Lola, “the ciguapa of [his] dreams” (327), and marrying another woman, Yunior admits he still cheats though he claims otherwise.. Hegemonic masculinity maintains its grip over Yunior by prompting him, with sexual rewards, to choose maintain his own performance even in the face of so many losses of intimacy.

Diaz characterizes Beli as a woman who is initially rewarded by conforming to hegemonic masculinity, which expects sexual availability and housework from women. At first, Beli has the opportunity to defy hegemonic masculinity by gaining social standing through education. Put in a school by La Inca, Beli herself has aspirations to become “a doctor with [her] own hospital” (97). However, as she grows, Beli perceives a reward in sexual availability. Beli realizes that her “desirability…was, in its own way, Power” (94), and uses it to obtain Jack Pujols, one of the “high-class boys she so desired” (88). Beli’s newfound power is not free of drawbacks—her interactions with men are now “fetid with lust and threat,” and her relationship with Pujols gets her expelled from school (93). However, Beli continues to seek the rewards of hegemonic masculinity in the form of an even more stereotyped male, The Gangster. In exchange for sex and good, the Gangster provides affection which “[feels] unbelievably good” (127) and “expose[s] her to the fucking world” (124). Beli finds that conforming to hegemonic masculinity provides her with a certain agency.

However, Beli realizes that hegemonic masculinity is gravely dangerous if acted upon women. After Beli becomes pregnant with the Gangster’s child, the Gangster’s wife has Beli beaten in a way “that breaks people….utterly” (147). To avoid such dangers, Beli takes up the male role in hegemonic masculinity. She abandons her houseworking and maternal roles, becoming an “absentee parent” who scares her children more than “the dark or el cuco” (54), and instead assumes breadwinning and aggressive male roles, “work[ing] three jobs” and “slap[ping] grown men” (59). But instead of breaking the gendered cycle of hegemonic masculinity, Beli, now a masculine figure, expects Lola to conform to its female expectations. Not only does Beli “order Lola to stop wearing bras” in order to encourage her breasts to develop (52), she also ignores Lola’s sexual assault, telling her to “shut [her] mouth and stop crying” (56). Both moves threaten to reduce Lola’s value totally to that of her body and to the possession of a man. In escaping the dangers of hegemonic masculinity to women, Beli only passes on the female role in hegemonic masculinity to her daughter.

Finally, Diaz portrays Oscar as a male who is initially able to conform to hegemonic masculinity, but cannot keep up as its expectations grow. Earlier in life, when the demands are low, Oscar is able to pass safely and enjoy the benefits of hegemonic masculinity. His identity as a nerd “who fell in love easily and deeply” worked well for him at a young age (23), transforming him into a “preschool loverboy” (1) with “girlfriends galore” (2). However, the demands of hegemonic masculinity increase as he grows: Oscar is told he must slap Maritza in order to “make the little puta respect [him]” (14) and abandon his interest in sci-fi works to avoid “being a loser with a capital L” (17). Oscar is unable to abide by these new demands—he lacks aggressive composition to slap anyone, and his “commitment to the Genres is absolute” by high school (20). Oscar loses his membership to Hegemonic masculinity because he cannot and will not fulfill the new demands that come with age.

Hegemonic masculinity persists, then, by silencing Oscar’s voice and therefore his backlash. In order to retain its value, hegemonic masculinity cannot allow nonconformists to enjoy the same status as conformists. Oscar, then, must face retributions, both sexual and social: not only do girls say “the vilest shit” to Oscar (177), but also other Dominicans deny him his identity, saying, “tú no eres nada de dominicano” (181). Despite these punishments, Oscar discovers that there are, in fact, rewards in defying hegemonic masculinity. When Oscar finally loses his virginity, there is “beauty” in the “little intimacies” of sex (335), whereas for others, there is only “fucking each other to scrap” (196). Hegemonic masculinity cannot allow this truth to be exposed, and the book itself seems to conform to its demands by silencing Oscar. Although Oscar writes constantly in the novel, he never narrates in the book. In fact, the package containing “everything [he has] written on this journey” is lost, and the readers hear Yunior’s voice instead (333). Although Oscar discovers rewards to nonconformity, hegemonic masculinity is still the only voice of the book.

Ultimately, Diaz explores the prescription of hegemonic masculinity in terms of characterization. Those who follow those prescriptions, like Yunior, succeed, while those who want to escape its punishments, like Beli, must usurp the role of the male, and those who cannot comply with it, like Oscar, are silenced. Through The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz shows that hegemonic masculinity maintains a deep and tenacious grip on society, particularly the Dominican Republic, through a system of punishment and rewards. Diaz intended this novel to be a “feminist-allied project.” It is, in fact, a meticulous analysis of hegemonic masculinity’s system of maintaining control and silencing any opposition that recalls the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Perhaps Diaz has two things in mind when he comments that there is something “sinister” about the novel.

Works Cited

Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. Berkeley: U of California, 1995. Print.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.