As a young man, Yunior learns by example. He often compares himself to both his father and Beto, highlighting the masculine traits of theirs that he most admires and even fears. The lessons he learns from his everyday interactions with these two men show that Yunior has a somewhat inflexible, performative, and often destructive concept of what it means to be a man.
For example, Yunior avidly describes his and Beto’s early shoplifting days as “raging” and crazy,” saying they would often go out of their way to start fights and anger people just because they could. Yunior particularly admires Beto’s suave confidence when they’re shoplifting, seeing it as evidence that Beto is naturally masculine. However, While Yunior longs to be more like Beto, he sees his father’s masculine traits as less positive. Yunior describes his father as “a charmer” and “a real asshole” because of his violent tendencies and infidelity, although Yunior seems to believe that these traits are shared by all men. For example, Yunior is anxious about shoplifting in part because he knows that if he gets caught the cops will “hand you over to your old man,” which would mean his getting beaten. When Beto says his father does not hit him in the same way that Yunior’s father does, Yunior is surprised, because he assumes that violence is a trait shared among all Dominican fathers. While the fact that Beto’s dad isn’t violent perhaps explains Beto’s easy confidence about shoplifting (the consequences for him wouldn’t be physical), Yunior seems unable to make this connection, which suggests that he’s unable to truly internalize that Beto’s dad is a man who isn’t violent.
Despite that Yunior admires or accepts as inevitable the masculine traits that Beto and his father embody, Yunior still sometimes resents them for displaying these traits. This suggests that Yunior is conflicted about the kind of man he will become—he hates certain aspects of masculinity, even as he strives to embody those aspects himself. For example, Yunior chides his mother for continuing to speak to his father, even though his father is continuously unfaithful and unfair to her. However, by telling her what to do and by mistreating other women (spending his weekends drunkenly preying on local college girls with his friends), he is falling into the same patterns as his father. Similarly, Yunior is angry when Beto punishes Yunior for knowing a word he doesn’t know by holding Yunior’s head under the water until he can’t breathe, but Yunior finds it funny when Alex threatens to shoot local gay men with a plastic pistol even though it is a similarly disproportionate and violent response to Alex’s discomfort.
Indeed, Yunior’s own conflicted understanding of masculinity comes to a head when he learns—through an experience of sexual violation—that Beto is gay. Yunior has always obsessively focused on the appearance of masculinity and strength, and he has seen Beto as a masculine role model. However, Yunior considers Beto’s homosexuality as a betrayal of one of the central tenets of manliness: heterosexuality. Learning of Beto’s sexuality therefore threatens not only Yunior’s sense of his own masculinity (because it involved him in a gay act), but also Yunior’s general sense of what men are supposed to be. Yunior says Beto is “a pato now but we used to be friends,” which suggests that Beto’s sexuality—and not his violation of Yunior—ended their friendship. This could mean that Beto’s transgression of a masculine norm carries more weight with Yunior than his interpersonal betrayal. However, this statement could also be a ruse—it’s possible that Yunior is too ashamed about the pall that he believes their sexual encounter casts on his own masculinity (he’s terrified that he will end up “abnormal” as a result) to be fully honest about why they’re no longer friends.
Beyond making Yunior feel that his own masculinity is threatened, learning that a man whom he saw as a role model is gay upends Yunior’s masculine ideals. Learning of Beto’s sexuality leaves Yunior with two choices: he can change his definition of masculinity so that it includes his otherwise masculine friend, or he can decide that his idolization of Beto was false and double down on the standards of masculinity with which he grew up. Yunior appears to choose the latter—he shuns Beto and becomes outwardly homophobic, as he and his friends often park near the neighborhood gay bar and shout violent slurs at the bar patrons. Yunior’s inability to reevaluate his rigid and homophobic definitions of traditional masculinity speaks to the profound power of these ideas. Instead of entertaining more complex ideas about men and learning to accept his friend’s sexuality, Yunior emphatically embraces traditional masculinity, even though it means taking on characteristics—violence and cruelty—that he hates in other men.
Sexuality and Masculinity ThemeTracker
Sexuality and Masculinity Quotes in Drown
He's a pato now but two years ago we were friends and he would walk into the apartment without knocking, his heavy voice rousing my mother from the Spanish of her room and drawing me up from the basement, a voice that crackled and made you think of uncles or grandfathers.
He hated when I knew something he didn't. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn't tell him; he thought I didn't read, not even dictionaries.
Both of us had seen bad shoplifters at work. All grab and run, nothing smooth about them. Not us. We idled out of the stores slow, like a fat seventies car.
“They don’t send you to jail for shoplifting. They just turn you over to your old man.”
These days my guts feel loose and cold and I want to be away from here. He won’t have to show me his Desert Eagle, or flash the photos of skinny Filipino girls sucking dick. He’ll only have to smile and name the place and I’ll listen.
He knew a lot of folks I didn't—a messed-up black kid from Madison Park, two brothers who were into that N.Y. club scene, who spent money on platform shoes and leather backpacks. I'd leave a message with his parents and then watch some more TV. The next day he’d be out at the bus stop, too busy smoking a cigarette to say much about the day before.
Mostly I stayed in the basement, terrified that I would end up abnormal, a fucking pato, but he was my best friend and back then that mattered to me more than anything.
After I was done, he laid his head in my lap. I wasn’t asleep or awake but caught somewhere in between, rocking slowly back and forth the way surf holds junk against the shore, rolling it over and over.