Patriarchal Masculinity as Learned Behaviour in Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is the first film to be discussed in our new Male Allies Film Review series, which is dedicated to dissecting representations of masculinity in popular films.

By: Dan Rankin

Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944 and begins with the young protagonist Ofelia traveling with her pregnant mother Carmen to their new home in the Spanish countryside. This home is where Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal has been sent to hunt leftist revolutionaries who have refused to surrender to General Franco’s fascist government. During a brief stop in their journey, Carmen requests a drink. In response, a soldier in the convoy shouts: “Water for the Captain’s wife!” This line is emblematic of gender relations within our patriarchal society. That is to say, Carmen is defined by her husband; reminding the viewer that a woman is only important insofar as she is related to an important man.

When Carmen arrives at her new home she exits her car and is greeted by three men, Vidal, a soldier, and Dr. Ferreiro. As she exits the car, visibly pregnant, the men insist she use a wheelchair. Although initially resistant, Carmen eventually acquiesces to their suggestion. Here, then, is an example of a woman’s mobility and independence being limited by men’s actions. Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich explores motherhood and some of the ways in which patriarchal discourses function to shape women’s lived experiences. In this seminal text, Rich argues:

“There is nothing revolutionary whatsoever about the control of women’s bodies by men. The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected.”

Indeed, Carmen is ultimately subject to the will of the men around her; and these men exercise their power to control her body.

In Understanding Patriarchy, feminist theorist bell hooks suggests:

“Patriarchal gender roles are assigned to us as children and we are given continual guidance about the ways we can best fulfill these roles.”

To be sure, children are often schooled by their parents to take up an “appropriate” gender identity; and these lessons are later reinforced across multiple sites by threats of violence – both real and imagined.

Throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, Vidal demonstrates an understanding of the role that parents play in defining acceptable behaviour for their children. As an example, when Vidal is scolded by Dr. Ferreiro for having Carmen travel with him during her pregnancy, he bluntly states: “A son should be born by his father.” It should be noted that this response does not stem from Vidal’s concern for his wife or unborn child. Instead, this response stems from Vidal’s patriarchal belief that only fathers can raise boys into “real men.” When Dr. Ferreiro asks Vidal how he knows that his unborn child will be a boy, he quickly responds: “Don’t fuck with me.” This line highlights a central pillar of patriarchy — the devaluation of women. Only a son would be acceptable to Vidal and he is willing to risk Carmen’s life by forcing her to travel with him so that he can be present when she gives birth. Vidal’s patriarchal beliefs can also be seen when he is instructing Dr. Ferreiro on what to do if complications arise during the birth: “If you have to choose, save the baby. My son will bear my name and my father’s name.” Vidal’s obsession with a male heir to carry on a family name further highlights his devaluation of women.

Undoubtedly, Vidal’s relationship with women is a learned behaviour. Throughout the film, Vidal is constantly checking his pocket watch. It is later revealed that Vidal’s father was a soldier who died in battle. With his last breath, Vidal’s father smashed his pocket watch because “he wanted his son to know how a brave man dies.” From a young age, then, it is clear Vidal internalized unhealthy ideas about what it means to be a man. This can be seen during a combat scene in the film, wherein Vidal tells another soldier that dying in battle is “the only decent way to die.” Before Vidal engages in the gunfight he is shown putting on his military cap. While this action is ostensibly to keep the sun out of his eyes, it also demonstrates the performative nature of gender. The cap is part of his military uniform and being a member of the military is what allows Vidal to engage in conflict; and thus, affords him the opportunity to die like a man. Without question, Vidal’s patriarchal belief that a violent and bloody death is the only acceptable death for a man calls attention to the self-destructive nature of manhood as a learned behaviour.



Daniel Rankin is a gender equity advocate, working to end gender-based violence by engaging men and boys to counter dominant and narrow understandings of masculinity. Originally from Northern Ontario, Daniel attended Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo for English, and recently completed a MA in English also from Laurier.

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Male Allies

A Public Education program of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, engaging boys and men as advocates for positive social change

One thought on “Patriarchal Masculinity as Learned Behaviour in Pan’s Labyrinth

  1. This is a movie that would not immediately draw attention to its patriarchal symbolism, however this film review seems to insists that patriarchy can be seen anywhere. Well written. Very insightful.

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