There appears to be an Eva Perón industry in the United States. Eva Perón by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro is only one of several full-length biographies published in the last five years. Faye Dunaway recently appeared in a heavily publicized made-for-television film about her, and the long-running broadway musical Evita continues to draw large audiences in New York while the road-company plays to full houses everywhere.
What accounts for this remarkable phenomenon? Does Eva represent an appealing reconciliation of feminism with old-fashioned glamour? Is she a role-model for the new woman, or does she appeal to the incipient authoritarianism in the collective American psyche?
One cannot begin to answer those questions without first confronting the fact that there is an enormous difference between the historical Eva Perón and the many myths that attach to the political creation named “Evita.” According to Fraser and Navarro, her own autobiography is a self-serving idealization characterized by distortions, omissions, and outright lies. The totally unreal set of virtues that have become part of the pro-Perónist myth are matched by the equally unreal collection of lies and distortions promoted by the enemies of Juan and Eva Perón. When Perón was overthrown in 1955, the new leadership set about systematically discrediting Juan and Evita and the newspapers freely published as facts all the vicious gossip about them that had circulated for years among their enemies. Consequently, when Fraser and Navarro set out to produce a convincingly researched and historically accurate book, they had to use available sources with extreme caution.
One of the most influential and most misleading books on Evita, The Woman with the Whip, was published in English while Perón was still in power and was translated into Spanish and published in Buenos Aires in 1955. The polemical intent of the book is revealed by its title, which is taken from one of the most vicious remarks ever made about Evita. An anti-Perónist politician called her “a woman who would stand by and see someone to whom she had made love, whipped to death.” All of the information in the book was taken from the opposition and the book is consequently a compendium of the most virulent anti-Perónist gossip.
As the first book about Eva published in Argentina that was not mere Perónist propaganda, it became the source for much that appeared in subsequent works about her. Although Eva was the first woman to be a powerful political force in Argentina and was promoted for a while as a possible vice-presidential candidate, her image in America today is not the favorable one those facts might suggest to a supporter of the women’s liberation movement. The musical Evita, for example, is based on the Eva Perón created by malicious anecdote and innuendo in The Woman with the Whip.
The Perónist and anti-Perónist myths about Evita are based upon the same Argentine cultural view of the proper role of women. In that view a good woman is nurturing, chaste, supportive of her man, unambitious for herself, and lets him be the strong one who deals with the harsh realities of the external world. Given that traditionalist view of femininity, it is easy to see why the regime’s opponents would prefer to think that every advance in Eva’s career was accomplished by sleeping with yet another influential man. Yet Fraser and Navarro’s account suggests that neither the positive claims of almost saintlike virtue nor the negative picture of carnal vice fits the complex reality.
Both the Perónists and the regime’s opponents depict Evita as fearless, strong, and sure of herself in a moment of crisis. As a result, the anti-Perónists have joined the pro-Perónists in crediting Evita with an important role in the crisis of October 17, 1945. Yet Fraser and Navarro found that contemporaneous accounts of those events and interviews with direct participants fail to provide any substantiation for that claim.
On October 9, 1945, Perón was forced to resign the positions of Vice-President, Minister of War, and director of the Secretariat of Labor. He was then arrested and imprisoned on Martín García Island. Enormous workers’ demonstrations on the 16th and 17th of October, however, secured his release and set the stage for his subsequent election to the presidency. Some have said that Evita masterminded Perón’s return to power following his arrest in October, 1945. More recently, others have claimed the idea that Evita played a forceful role in the October crisis was an invention created by Perónists. Fraser and Navarro, however, find that the myth of her active and energetic participation seems actually to have started with anti-Perónist sources.
Evita became important, in fact and in public perception, after Perón’s ascent to the presidency. It was only then that Perónist sources began to attribute a role to her in the events of October, 1945. They did not attribute a militant attitude to her, but maintained only that she remained loyal to Perón. After Evita began to play a forceful role in Perón’s government, the opposition also began to attribute an important part in the crisis of October 17 to her. Evita supposedly warned Peron’s friends and together with them engineered the workers’ demonstrations. Once the myth was created, Evita’s active and forceful participation in the October crisis was widely accepted by both Perónists and anti-Perónists.
The Perónist version of her participation, however, still placed her in a traditional woman’s role. She was depicted as faithful and supportive even in her man’s darkest hour. In the opposition version, it is Evita, not Perón, who strongly resists his arrest and takes the lead in organizing his release. While on the surface the opposition descriptions of Evita’s role might appear to entail a recognition of some positive qualities in her, they have, in fact, strongly negative connotations and are disparaging both to her and to Perón. By taking on a role assigned to him by social convention, she acts as he should have, emasculates him, and reveals her own masculinity.
Recognizing the negative connotations of this portrayal in the Argentine context alerts the reader to the possible meaning of the current American fascination with Eva Perón, which may be caused by ambivalence about the new role of women. On the surface Evita is appealing as a strong woman who provides feminists with a role-model whose success far exceeds that of any current female politicians. Yet it may be that the deeper appeal of the books, the play, and the film about Evita is their implicit attack on the character of a woman who leaves her traditional sphere. After all, until Fraser and Navarro, Evita had been depicted as an obscure, uneducated, and vulgar upstart who climbed out of the gutter by using men. She is a scheming woman who manipulates herself into a powerful position. Given the negative connotations of that depiction, the current popularity of the musical Evita may reflect a broad popular need to find respectable outlets...