Friday, March 12, 2010

The Bullfighter - Justifying Erotic Violence

It’s hard for me to be objective on the controversial subject of bullfighting. As a child, my Tia Patricia would tell me highly romanticised stories of the heroic bullfighter, or matador; brave, handsome and sexually dominant (she spared me no detail; a nonchalance that became severely thrilling for a curious eight-year-old). Whether it was her fierce commitment to a sense of nationalism or the desperate fabrications woven through dull nostalgia, the matador was hailed as nothing less than a god. So when I came across recent headlines about animal activist groups fighting to ban the traditional custom, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. The distaste for bullfighting is hardly new, though it seems unlikely that the brutal spectacle will be removed from Spanish culture any time soon.

Remembering my aunt’s lustful tales of the bullfight pulled me in to consider its dark and exciting anthropological nature. For decades, artists, writers and film directors have painted the continuum between passion, eroticism and bullfighting. The 1986 film Matador portrays an ex-matador and a woman fascinated by bullfights. Both characters harbour a twisted perversion; to achieve sexual pleasure they need to kill their partners during intercourse. When they are brought together they seduce each other, fall in love, and kill themselves while making love. The link between violent eroticism and the bullfight is constantly examined by many thinkers and writers that become seduced by the brutal and primal spectacle they consider as art. Pitt-Rivers (1984) interpreted the ritual in a very interesting way. He regards the matador as a feminine figure and the bull as a masculine one at the beginning of the fight. The man, by progressively dominating the bull, fights to regain his masculinity and render the bull feminine. The wound made by the matador is symbolic of rape. The sword is the man’s penis, thrusting into the beast’s bleeding wound, which is supposedly the woman’s menstruating vagina. In violating the woman, the man reclaims his procreative power and both sexes return to their culturally appropriate positions.

When I told my aunt these theories she laughed in my face. “Is that what old, horny white intellects come up with?” Perhaps Pitt-Rivers read into things a little too far, but although Spaniards would deny any metaphorical similarities between bullfighting and sex (as well as the bizarre gender role reversals), many acknowledge the structural similarities between the fight and eroticism. The physiological arousal of watching or participating in a bullfight is commonly referred to, with some matadors confessing that the excitement of being in a bullring is akin to sexual thrill and orgasm. Spectators experience intense arousal of either gratification or guilt since the act is transgressive by definition and demonstrates the erotic dynamics of violence. The psychological nature of both performers and spectators is largely sadomasochistic. The public killing of an animal and the unnecessary risk of human life appeals to the cultural appreciation for passion and intense sensations. Not unlike American “slasher” films, the bullfight seems to provide a collective fantasy for people to give way to their primal instincts and violate taboos. Mitchell (1991) describes the national tradition as “the innocent enjoyment of the national pornography,” where one feels his or her arousal to be completely appropriate and, like my dear aunt, associate it with patriotism, heroism and art.


  1. Hello Val! I've often thought about the metaphorical symbology of not just killing a bull, but many things we see in cultures around the world. I see into things many times based on my personal understanding of psychology and associated sciences, but perhaps what the ancients meant was so far removed from today, we may never understand the reasons.

    Anyway, my sister went to Spain years ago and watched a bullfight. She was mortified by the violent act of killing the bull. She didn't expect it. I laughed, and she thought me insensitive. Go figure. I really wouldn't want to see it myself:)

  2. Good to see you back, Valerie! Perhaps it would be too simplistic to suggest that violence and sexual urges are the one and same thing, but there is no denying that there is a connection there. For men I think the greatest pleasure in sex comes out of the feeling of possessing someone (a beautiful woman for instance) and in transgressing/violating her. Therefore although sex is life-affirming and violence seemingly is not, the pleasure in sex itself comes out of some sort of a symbolic violence where you enjoy destroying the constructed self of another by seeing her naked (body and ego) and then transgressing her. Seen in that perspective, bullfighting indeed is a sort of misdirected rape. Thus sex is seemingly life-affirming but in reality there is a life-negating (or ego-negating) force at work there. Similarly, although bullfighting may seem to be an act of gross violence and life-negation, it is also a sort of affirmation for the matador and the populace that watches it (an affirmation of their masculinity, of superiority, of life itself) which is probably why it gives some men great joy to watch bullfighting without getting in the least depressed. If I were to interpret bullfighting I would probably reason such: any act of violence is an admission of impotence. Since a populace cannot effectively take out their violence on other men (that would be contrary to the interests of the society) or on other abstract things which are the cause of the people's anger (capitalism, high prices, unemployment etc.), they have therefore developed bullfighting into a sort of sport where people express their violence and purge themselves of it. In any case it is better than raping an actual woman or blowing up residential buildings, don't you think?

  3. Bobby, I would love to see a fight one day, maybe it’s in the blood! However, when I ask my younger relatives in Spain about bullfighting, none show any interest at all. It’s definitely becoming less popular with the locals and seems to survive more and more as a tourist attraction rather than a celebrated cultural tradition. This definitely makes me more sympathetic towards the people fighting to ban it.

    Roy, that’s an interesting point. It does seem to provide an official “fantasy gratification” as a safe substitute for the real thing. Social order must be preserved even as primitive thirsts demand some sort of release, and bullfighting does allow people to express these desires and as you say, “purge themselves of it.” People enjoy the spectacle without suffering guilt or moral qualms, as it’s not only considered a “group norm” but even something they consciously associate with national virtues, honour and art.

  4. Bullfighting as a sexual metaphor is a very intriguing point of view, regardless of how one feels about it. Am personally exploring it in a short story, but where the roles are reversed, gender-wise: it is the women who are matadors, an idea increasingly fascinating to me, one which in no way renders the feminine masculine, quite the contrary.

    Excellent article

    Ulf Claesson, Sweden