Bullfighting is the most controversial of Spain’s popular customs. It is, for many around the world as well as in Spain, a cruel spectacle that should have no part in modern Europe. For others, it’s an art, full of symbolism, tradition, and, ultimately, a deep reverence for the bull.
As I sat in Seville’s bull ring, I thought back to all of my anthropological training in cultural relativism. This is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another. “Civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes,” said Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology.
I remember my Berkeley TA challenging us students – all of us disgusted at the idea of female circumcision – to try and put aside how we felt about the ritual at a gut level, and to be open to what the ritual meant to the people who practiced it. It’s okay as an anthropologist to take a moral stand against something on a personal level, she said, but as anthropologists we also need to step back in order to recognize the moral and cultural codes that shape a practice in the first place.
Whether we can stomach bullfighting or not, the fact of the matter is that bulls and bullfighting are prevalent themes in Spanish poetry, art, and literature. More than the national flag itself, the image of the black bull has come to symbolize Spain.
I was struck by all the contradictions that make up this spectacle – the violence towards an animal bred for this moment, juxtaposed with the dancer-like grace of the matador. There is actually very little suspense in the sense of a true sporting event. The outcome is nearly always the same, with the bull losing (the last matador to be killed was in 2016, and the one before that was in 1985).
I was also struck by the audience – an extremely well heeled crowd. Women in festive sun dresses and glamorous sun glasses, sure footed even in their high heels as they climbed the concrete steps. Men in linen jackets holding plastic cups of Coke and rum. Smiling children. Elderly Spaniards, some with canes, helped up and down the steps by affable strangers. Nothing digital in this place – no loudspeakers, no ads, no vending machines. No Japanese or Chinese or German tour groups taking group selfies. Just the spectacle and a very local audience.
I was struck by the matador himself. The over the top gestures, almost circus like, or perhaps more accurately, operatic. The teasing, flirtatious relationship with the bull. The foreplay. The phallic nature of the sword. The dazzling traje de luces, or suit of lights, with its sequins and gold and silver threads, incorporating imagery of local saints, hugging every corner and curve of the body.
But most of all, I was struck by the matador’s feet. The teeny tiny ballet slippers, which reminded me of the Chinese practice of foot binding. The electric pink socks, that supposedly indicate wealth as well as serve to rile the bulls up for a good fight.
None of these read as “warrior” or “masculine” or “heroic” from the cultures that have shaped me. Yet here he was, matador conquering bull, in the most daintiest of shoes and prettiest of hosiery.
Bullfighting will likely be universally banned at some point, and the vast majority will be happy about that. My guess would be that when we look back on it one day, we will remember it for all of its contradictions, which in many ways encapsulate something universal about us humans: the cruelty, the eroticism, the beauty, the blood, the poetry in motion, the patriarchy, the reverence, the celebration, the death, the waste. The sword and the pink socks.