Just as Maria is sexually objectified, Sebastian and his two friends are violently treated by the hacendado’s men after attempting to free Maria and burn down the hacienda. The episode possesses a strong dose of homoerotic sadomasochism in representing “men as helpless victims.” (Harry Benshoff)

“Maguey” and the film’s most violent sequence: Sebastian and his friends, buried up to their necks, are stampeded to death by horses...

...causing their ultimate objectification by the bourgeoisie, now nothing more than corpses.

As Maria escapes from the hacienda, she's now shown as sharing the common oppression that plagues all peons. The following image suggests Maria’s unity with the land: her face rests against the desert’s sand as Sebastian’s corpse is displayed for all to observe.

Various peons who look on from undisclosed locations share in Maria’s suffering.

A vision recognizes all of their fates as linked.

A collective lower-class consciousness ensues. There are no hierarchized gender looking-relations. The peons see Sebastian as a symbol of their own oppression. It's an image burned into collective memory where unified revolutionary resistance will eventually emerge.

“Sanduga” shares strong ties with Engels’ notion of primitive communism at work within matrilineal societies. Concepción, the main protagonist in this episode, has a name with positive connotations. Also, the episode's visuals are now more diffused and softer, suggesting how “Sanduga” opposes those gender and class relations found within “Maguey.”

Here the matriarchs are the main decision-makers in the community. Once again, trinity symbolism visually represents women’s power.

In direct contrast to “Maguey’s” upside-down “U” symbol, “Sanduga” uses the “U” shape as symbolic of harmony and fertility.

The flower necklace dissolves into Concepción’s dowry necklace, which will allow her to choose a husband, and it ...

... dissolves into the hammock where her future husband, Abundio, lies.

This episode reverses the gender looking-relations found at the beginning of “Maguey.” Here women gaze actively while men serve mostly as spectacle for the women’s looks.

“Sanduga” emphasizes women’s labor as fostering their independence.

Women’s labor also creates strong female bonds and fosters female communities, as in the marketplace.

That labor creates intergenerational ties.

But “Sanduga” also over-idealizes women’s labor and female community. Men serve mostly as spectacle for both heterosexual female and homoerotic male gazes. The women do the work—both domestic and community labor.

“Sanduga” resonates with the very same problems that the Bolsheviks had in women's emancipation. They introduced women into the workforce, but without the necessary infrastructure that would socialize domestic work away from the private sphere. Hence, “Sanduga” also represents a utopian male community where the women do all the work and men reap the benefits as well, as can be seen in the following frame where a man is visually prioritized, lounging in the foreground of the frame. His leisure dependent upon the women’s labor behind him.

“Maguey,” on the other hand, represents how female labor is replaced by the all-male labor of pulque production. The Diaz regime removed women from production, suggesting that women lost their liberty precisely when primitive communal life transformed into relations of private property.

Upper-class pulque consumption becomes a metaphor for both class and sexual exploitation. The peons don't own the means of pulque production, which not only keeps them in a perpetually destitute state, but allows the hacendado’s men to believe that they own both the pulque and the laboring bodies that produce it.

Commodity and producer are conflated, making the peons a disposable product for the upper-class’s amusement.

This general conflation of the human being with the commodity further explains the display of Maria before the hacendado’s men. Intercutting the men drinking pulque while gazing at Maria suggests the similar place that both the pulque and Maria occupy: things to be consumed either orally, visually, or sexually. Yet the upper-class’s appetite is never satiated, as a metaphor of pigs suggests..




Que Viva Mexico! and gender  

The film's fourth and fifth episodes, “Maguey” and “Soldadera,” most centrally deal with the growth of revolutionary consciousness and its outbreak, and explore its intimate relationship with gender issues. As mentioned before, “Maguey” concerns the exploitation of the peons by the hacendados (the landowners) during the time of the Porfirio Díaz regime (1876-1909). “Soldadera” takes place during the Revolution of 1910-1911 through the point-of-view of a woman, Pancha, who fought alongside the revolutionaries of Villa and Zapata. I would like to first focus upon “Maguey” and its relation to the film’s first episode, “Sanduga,” since these two episodes establish the primary causes for revolution— with women’s exploitation taking a central role. Then I will examine how “Soldadera” and the “Epilogue” expose how radical transformations in gender roles are necessary for successful revolutionary action.

Overall, Que Viva Mexico! situates a patriarchal male gaze as the product of a capitalist economy and class system. It thus suggests the contingent nature of such patriarchal and class-based looking relations and the potential to replace them with a more equitable and socially just ideological structure. In his script for “Maguey,” Eisenstein emphasizes, “Aggressiveness, virility, arrogance and austerity characterize this novel”—a masculine focus unlike all the other episodes that either address women’s importance in Mexican civilization or take a more gender-neutral approach.[54] The episode begins by emphasizing the predominance of the male gaze with a medium shot of a painting of Porfirio Díaz in uniform looking sternly outwards from the hacienda’s wall. There is a cut to a close-up of his face. We see in the top part of the painting’s circular frame an upside-down “U,” subtly suggesting a critique of the masculine gaze in a period of Mexican history linked with the exploitation of the Spanish Conquest. The first use of that kind of image came in earlier episode, “Fiesta,” which presents an Aztec warrior bowing in submission before Conquistadors with a ceremonial band forming an upside-down “U” in his hands. As a result, “Maguey’s” opening upside-down “U” suggests a similar violence, supplication, and oppression occurring throughout its narrative.[55]

“Maguey” reinforces the ubiquity of the male gaze not only through repetitive close-ups of Díaz’s portrait, but also when the hacendado displays the peon’s bride Maria. A long shot shows the hacendado sitting in a throne-like chair near the top of an open courtyard as Maria walks past him and stands to his right. A medium shot follows of Maria removing her kerchief so the hacendado can see her face. In close-up, the hacendado examines her body, looking her up and down. A medium shot switches to the man who will eventually rape her, as he examines her and drinks his pulque. She looks back skeptically at the man in a medium shot. A longer medium shot frames the rapist, sitting back on his chair, left leg arched as his foot rests on another chair. His crotch is in dead-center of the frame, suggesting not only the assault that will soon follow, but also how the male gaze of this episode is inextricably linked to the phallus. But this shot also deconstructs the abstract male gaze with a literal cock-shot of the rapist.

Here male, heterosexual desire is self-consciously and critically marked as the determining factor of women’s oppressed position in the narrative. Although the hacendado never touches Maria, the linking of his gaze with that of the rapist suggests that their vision of Maria is all a part of the same gender (if not class) visual economy. Furthermore, by initiating the episode with Diaz’s look, Eisenstein symbolically links the political economy that Diaz represents with the sexual economy that leads to Maria’s rape. The connection between Diaz’s look and Maria’s rape is further emphasized when she walks off-screen in this scene and stands against the hacienda’s inner wall. As the sunlight enters a buttressed doorway, its light frames an upside-down “U” around her, showing how she is a part of the political and sexual economy that frames Diaz’s portrait in the episode’s opening. [56]

By situating the male gaze within the “historically shifting economic conditions” of the Porfiriato, Eisenstein is further able to expose an alternative looking-relation at the end of the episode.[57] Sebastian, Maria’s husband, and his friends have been trampled to death. Maria is crouched down by his side. A medium shot frames her looking at her husband’s crushed body. She does not have an expression of grief or shock. She is merely taking in what has happened. From a distance in the maguey fields we see a medium close-up of a peon who has survived. The peon lowers his head, his sombrero covering his eyes as Maria lowers her face to the desert, lying beside Sebastian. After cutting back from Maria, a series of extreme close-ups follows of other peons who observe the scene clandestinely—where from, we are not entirely certain. The eyes multiply, taking in this moment of defeat under Díaz’s rule. It seems as if all of Mexico’s downtrodden observe this event since none of their gazes are linked to an identifiable place. But, now, both the peons’ and Maria’s vision are united due to their identical stoic expressions, suggesting a shared emotional state. She no longer represents a sexualized object but a person who suffers from the common oppression that plagues them all, emphasized by the scene’s mise-en-scène: her face in the lower left corner of the frame as Sebastian’s trampled torso juts out center frame against the clear sky. Maria shares the space with Sebastian, but she is not fetishized as she was with the hacendado since Sebastian’s corpse dominates the frame and our vision.

Additionally, Harry M. Benshoff explains how the episode also inverts the representations of men found in classical Hollywood cinema by presenting them “as helpless victims.”[58] Due to the scene’s religious evocation of the crucifixion with Sebastian standing in for Christ and his two friends as the thieves, Benshoff notes how it “invokes a heady mixture of sadomasochism and homoeroticism that marks so many depictions of Catholic icons/martyrs.”[59] But unlike traditional Catholic imagery where its religious connotations make the viewer unconscious of such sadomasochistic impulses,

“Eisenstein foregrounds these sadomasochistic signifiers, and in so doing, de-represses the impulses that lurk beneath the signifieds of Christianity.”[60]

As a result, one can observe how “Maguey” represents Sebastian’s fall from a privileged male subject position to that of a literal object, a corpse, whereas Maria moves from an objectified status to that of a subject by the end of the film. Yet the presence of the peons within the scene prevents it from being merely interpreted as a reversal ofgender roles. Rather it is a unification of men’s and women’s looks into a collective and egalitarian observation of the tragedy that has befallen upon Sebastian, his friends, and them as a people. Furthermore, as Benshoff rightfully notes, Sebastian’s object status nonetheless transforms him into a powerful symbol for all of those who observed the tragedy:

“Sebastian has become part of the land, the land that the Spaniards have stolen, raped (both literally and metaphorically), emasculated, and trampled down.”[61]

It is this transformation and unity of vision that serves as a necessary precursor to the revolution that will take place in the next episode.

But Que Viva Mexico! goes even further than suggesting that revolution is dependent upon more equitable looking-relations in the future. It exposes how more equitable looking-relations existed in the past with its focus on female labor in the matrilineal society of “Sanduga.” The film’s focus on a “primitive” community serves as an alternative example to the patriarchal relations of “Maguey” by showing how unalienated labor and independence must be intertwined for women to gain autonomy. The episode functions in the film much like primitive communism functions in Engels’ work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels relies on the findings of ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan to argue that matrilineal kinship relations predominated before the emergence of private property and exchange relations, which began to dominate and reconfigure such societies into patrilineal forms. Engels, however, does not use such earlier societies to argue for a return to them but in order to expose the transitory and limited existence of patriarchal, capitalist relations. Eisenstein, similarly, situates “Sanduga” near the beginning of the film to show how such a society pre-dated the Porfiriato’s patriarchal, capitalist regime, emphasized in “Fiesta” and “Maguey.” These two episodes are then book-ended by “Soldadera,” which addresses the Revolution and shows many of the ways in which it used some aspects of matrilineal culture to effect change against the Díaz regime.


“Sanduga” also dramatizes Engels’ belief that many of the tendencies of communism existed in incipient form in primitive communities. Production in these communities was tied both to the individual and the community. Items were produced for direct consumption and use. “Sanduga” shows a civilization where production is still in the hands of the producers. Concepción and the other women of Tehuantepec sell their locally grown fruits and vegetables in the market in order to obtain gold pieces for their dowry necklace. But the gold necklace does not simply represent some abstract unit of exchange whereby other commodities are measured against; instead it is subsidiary to the ultimate goals of unifying the community. The gold coins are connected to the community through lap-dissolves that link it to the “U” shape of flower necklaces and the hammock in which Concepción’s future husband lies. Furthermore, the emphasis on women’s labor in this episode suggests women’s importance in this type of society. As Engels notes,

“People whose women have to work much harder than we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for theirs.”[62]

Women’s equality depends upon their having access to the means of production, which affords either equal or superior status in the community. “Sanduga”’s focus on female labor emphasizes that the means of production are intimately connected with the more equitable looking-relations that predominate throughout the episode.

Yet “Sanduga” can also be seen as Eisenstein’s over-idealization of the two central but interrelated tenets that the Bolsheviks proposed for the emancipation of women: the abolition of private property and full integration of women into the workforce.[63] Indeed, “Sanduga” exposes both the value of communal life and the importance of women’s work, but it tends to show the men doing nothing at all except mostly lounging in hammocks. Harry Benshoff reads such gender representations in progressive ways, since it creates a homoerotic gaze for “the naked male torso” and shows respect for matriarchal society and women’s active roles, which undercuts the traditional homophobia and sexism that underlies much of classical Hollywood cinema.[64] All of this is true. Yet the episode is troubling to me in the ways that it mostly reverses gender positions by making women more active and men more passive rather than sharing more equitable positions in regards to labor.

By having the women conduct all the labor and men none, “Sanduga” resonates with the very same problems that the Bolsheviks had in creating women’s emancipation: women were introduced into the workforce, but the necessary infrastructure that was supposed to socialize domestic work away from the private sphere never materialized, therefore, creating a “double burden” of work for women.[65] Yet “Sanduga” represents this “double burden” in the most idealized of ways: smiling women who connect with one another across generations and families and gaze at beautiful male bodies while the men lay back and rest. It fails to represent the mandatory ingredient in creating equality: men contributing their own labor to the community and making it a truly communal endeavor.[66]

To be fair to Eisenstein, it must be recalled that the episode was only supposed to represent primitive communism at work, not communism proper, so one can read the episode’s very short-comings in regards to equitable labor as one of its very points. And, as we will see in my analysis of “Soldadera,” revolutionary gender roles and labor issues are represented quite differently, yet not entirely unproblematically, from those in “Sanduga.” Yet the very filming of “Sanduga,” its soft-focus, halo-like lighting, and curving, sensuous male and female bodies and faces, tends to undercut seeing the episode as anything other than as representative of a paradise fallen.

Within the film as a whole, the idealized shooting of “Sanduga” serves a more thematically significant purpose of making it jarringly contrast with the hard-focus and angular, phallic forms that dominate “Maguey.” If “Sanduga” represents primitive communism, which Engels speaks about in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and The State, “Maguey” represents its destruction by capitalism. It exposes how, with the growth of capitalism, the producers gradually lose control of their products as an exchange system begins to determine all social relations—thus alienating individuals from one another and their community. Producers no longer know what becomes of their product, “and the possibility arose that the product might some day be turned against the producers”—a possibility that “Maguey” exposes with the peons’ harvesting of pulque.[67]

Initially, most noticeable is how the female labor of “Sanduga” has been replaced by the all-male labor of pulque production, showing how the Diaz regime has removed women from the means of production, suggesting that women lost their liberty precisely when primitive communal life transformed into relations of private property. Patriarchal society alters women from being an end-in-herself to a sexual commodity for men’s desires, as my earlier analysis of “Maguey” supports. In terms of the male workers, close-ups and medium shots accentuate the peons’ intensive labor of extracting the juice from the maguey plants that is fermented into pulque. But rather than fermenting the juice themselves, they take it to the hacienda where the hacendado oversees the pulque’s production. After fermentation is complete, the pulque is sold back to the peons where, according to Eisenstein’s scenario, it “drowns sorrows, inflames passions and makes pistols fly out of their holsters.”[68]

But these sorrows and passions are often caused by the alienating production system for harvesting pulque that keeps the peons dispossessed of their land and in a constant state of abject poverty. The phrase “pistols fly out of their holsters” is a double-entendre that further emphasizes how the pulque consumed by one of the hacendado’s men encouraged his rape of Maria and led to Sebastian’s armed rebellion. “Maguey” reveals how economic and sexual exploitation are a part of the same economy. The peons’ inability to own the means of production of the pulque not only keeps the peons in a perpetually destitute state, but that allows the hacendado’s men to believe that they not only own the pulque but the laboring bodies that produce it. The commodity and the producer are conflated, making the peons a disposable product for the upper-class’s amusement. This general conflation of the human being with the commodity further explains the display of Maria before the hacendado’s men. Eisenstein’s intercutting of the hacendado’s men drinking pulque while gazing at Maria suggests the similar place that both the pulque and Maria occupy: things to be consumed either orally, visually, or sexually.

The film’s next episode, “Soldadera,” strikes me as the film’s most interesting section, with its focus on the women who fought beside the revolutionaries between 1910 and 1911. It is also most problematic to analyze. Since Eisenstein was unable to shoot this episode, we only have his written scenario and random accompanying notes on it as sources to determine what might have appeared on film. Yet, as Harry Benshoff observes,

“It is interesting to speculate whether this sequence would have proven to have been one of the earliest statements of feminist action to be seen in Soviet film.”[69]

Based on Eisenstein’s written scenario, “Soldadera” would have emphasized the revolutionary importance of women’s action and labor to enact revolutionary change. Yet rather than deeming such an outlook as “feminist,” I consider “Soldadera” to be more representative of an “anti-feminist” Bolshevik position that nonetheless acknowledged the importance of women’s liberation through class struggle. The episode represents one particular Bolshevik stance towards the woman question that dismissed “feminism” as “bourgeois feminism,” regarding it as a liability that would remove focus from the class struggle and undermine collective political action. Therefore, instead of “viewing the liberation of women as a desirable object in itself …,” this stance viewed “the mobilization of women in more instrumental terms as a potential contribution to the larger revolutionary struggle,” which is exactly what “Soldadera” seemed to set out to do.[70] Yet the scenario of “Soldadera” is interesting in the way that it predominantly focuses on the women while visually minimizing the men’s importance. So even though the episode adopts an “anti-feminist” Bolshevik position towards the woman question, its very structure would highlight the importance of the women’s actions and community in ways that usual adherents of such a position did not.

Contrasting with Maria in “Maguey,” the women of “Soldadera,” as a whole, take a more active stance by utilizing an interesting mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits to serve the Revolution. They take empty gun cartridges and allow their children to suck on them for a lack of candy.[71] They apply tortillas to the men’s wounds and fasten them with willow fibers.[72] In essence, the women take military objects (the cartridges) and domesticate them while seizing on the domestic (the tortillas) for military uses. Much like the unity of visions at the end of “Maguey” that establishes a revolutionary perception, the mixture of the domestic and the public suggests that the “masculine” and “feminine” spheres in revolutionary action are no longer mutually exclusive but must be fused for social progress to take place.

This conflation of the “masculine” and “feminine” is particularly noteworthy when one keeps in mind that Eisenstein typically “uses the crossing and blurring of traditional gender lines to caricature figures he does not like [in his films].”[73] Al LaValley cites the “masculinized” women’s death battalion in October and Efrosinia’s “mannish” features and Vladimir’s “feminine” look in Ivan the Terrible as particular examples.[74] Although some exceptions to this rule can be found, such as Marfa’s final “masculine” image in The Old and New and Fyodor’s gender-bending dress and actions in Ivan, Part II, “Soldadera” offers Eisenstein’s most sustained and nuanced focus on the need to problematize traditional “masculine” and “feminine” roles in order to foster revolutionary activity.[75] And because “Soldadera” refuses separate gender spheres, it shows how women are no longer forced to choose between either having a family or a career, as patriarchal, capitalist ideology asserts, but they can do both, once-again as we have seen in “Sanduga.”

Yet, like “Sanduga,” “Soldadera” exposes a “double burden” of work for the soldaderas by having them tend to both domestic labor and fighting in the revolution. Rather than lounging around as in “Sanduga,” men here are busy fighting. Yet, “Soldadera,” seems more aware of the “double-burden” imposed upon women than “Sanduga.” We see this in the way Eisenstein’s scenario describes Pancha, the soldadera whom the episode mainly focuses upon:

“a machine-gun ribbon hangs across her shoulder, a big sack containing household utensils weighs heavily on her back.”[76]

Pancha’s very image represents how this “double-burden” literally weighs on her back. “Soldadera” tends to emphasize hardship, privation, and suffering inflicted on the women by the revolution. This is not a fallen paradise like “Sanduga” but a transitory hell towards liberation. Yet through such suffering and pain, “Soldadera” seems to suggest how revolutionary activity nonetheless enacts important transformative changes upon traditional gender and familial roles that are necessary in creating a more egalitarian and just future.

Que Viva Mexico! ultimately aims at transcending the limited categories of “masculine” and “feminine” by exposing how the experience of ecstasy allows all individuals to move beyond their gendered, racial, and socio-economic limits. Ecstasy is a moment when the self is no longer divided from its surroundings. It is not, however, simply the incorporation of the external into one’s “I” but a dissolution of the self into its surroundings, what Kaja Silverman deems “excorporative.”[77] As many Eisenstein scholars have noted, Eisenstein primarily viewed ecstasy in religious terms, “like the saint’s loss of self in the Other.”[78] Individual control no longer exists, as the experience becomes totalistic, fusing consciousness with processes that exceed and determine the ego’s gendered, racial, and socio-economic limits.

The fiesta, for Que Viva Mexico!, becomes an important site where people as a whole can temporarily gain access to ecstasy, which is why the film ends with the Day of the Dead. The holiday highlights the Mexican “vacillada”—where the ridiculous and the sublime, the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the animal intermix.[79] By challenging the categories and logic of patriarchal, capitalist Mexican society, Day of the Dead provides the potential to access collective ecstasy, where people can re-envision society as a totalistic whole and where more equitable and pleasurable structures can be established out of the exploitation of the present. Octavio Paz has most clearly noted the revolutionary potential of Day of the Dead in The Labyrinth of Solitude when stating,

“It is … a sudden immersion in the formless, in pure being. By means of the fiesta society frees itself from the norms it has established. It ridicules its gods, its principles, and its laws: it denies its own self.”[80]

In Que Viva Mexico!, Day of the Dead reveals how revolutionary potential lurks in the present moment—within every sugar skull, at the bottom of every cup of pulque, in between every musical chord.[81] Although the conflation of the “masculine” and the “feminine” seen in “Soldadera” is still far from the transcendence of such categories, the episode indicates a desire to move towards a better, more equitable future. What exactly this future will look like is not entirely certain, but the film suggests that it most definitely will not resemble those class and gender positions that constituted the bulk of “Maguey.”

(Continued: U.S. Left critics and gender)

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