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.