Women in Capoeira: No Traction without Representation!

18 03 2008

This post is based on the second discussion topic from the recent FICA Women’s Conference in Washington, DC: Memory, Media, and Representation of Women in Capoeira.

From the FICA write-up:

This group discussed the perceptions of women in capoeira, and who controls the images presented of women. The group resolved that women need more control over the images of themselves within the capoeira community, and as such, they are going to start a website to present more realistic images of women capoeiristas, document the planning of women’s events, and create an archive of past women’s conferences.

Wait, women don’t already control images of themselves?  Except for those instances when my unruly friends post unflattering photos of me on facebook, I haven’t really come across this as a problem!

I think the lack of representation of women in capoeira is more of a problem than the type or way of representation. If you google “women in capoeira”, you get pictures of rodas, training, capoeira stances…all pretty normal and “realistic” to me! Having said that, I can pinpoint two areas where representation of women in capoeira would be considered a problem.

Do women in capoeira really want to be seen as bonecas (dolls)?The first, as I said, is the mere lack of representation of women in capoeira, but I will get into this secondly because it covers a lot more ground than the other problem area: the (over?)sexualization of women in capoeira.  This type of “representation” could be what the conference discussion group meant by “unrealistic”.  For instance, have you seen the “Bonecas da Capoeira” calendar created by Capoeira Brasil ArizonaReally not the kind of representation we’re looking for!  In my post “Capoeirobics and the Female Chauvinist Pig“, Soneca gives a thoughtful take on the calendar (click here to read it), which more or less articulates my own. 

The bottom line of her comment was—and this is where we get directly into the idea of women controlling their own representation—while we found the calendar objectifying and possibly inappropriate for capoeira, let alone women in capoeira, shouldn’t those women take responsibility for choosing to participate in the project and be represented as they were in the calendar?  Even if they do, however, it’s still problematic because although these particular women controlled how they were represented in capoeira since it was their own choice, as a representation of women in capoeira in general, I would say the calendar is far from most female capoeiristas’ idea of fair representation!

That is really the only major example I’ve seen so far of women being represented in capoeira “unrealistically”, but now that leads us into the other part of it: not enough (“realistic”) representation of women in capoeira.

Many capoeira group websites don’t feature anyone below mestre or contra-mestre level (in photos, bios, etc.), and since it is mostly men in these positions, they have a lot more presence and representation on the internet than women do. The same goes for live (re)presentations in public; since capoeira groups would probably mostly only recruit higher-level students for shows and performances, and there are in general more male higher-level students than female higher-level students, again outsiders (and some insiders) get the impression that there are more males than females in the sport, which often may not actually be the case.

Balance (in more ways than one)! 

And sometimes, women aren’t represented even when they’re already supposed to be the centre of attention! I don’t know know if it’s through ignorance, apathy, inability, plain laziness, or what. I came across a prime example of this while looking up information on Mestra Jararaca. The original article I translated was all about Mestra Jararaca, but of whom did they place a picture, to accompany it? Mestre Curio, her husband! The article’s headline, by the way, was “Mestre Jararaca shows that capoeira is a woman’s place”. Irony, much?

Speaking of which, that’s one form of representation that falls between non-representation and distorted representation: when women capoeiristas are referred to by their relationship with a male capoeirista.  Not Mestra Jararaca in her own right, but “Mestre Curio’s wife”; not famed bandit Maria Bonita, but “mulher de Lampião“.  I’ve done this myself; if someone asked me who a certain woman in my capoeira group was, I might’ve said something like “she does this, she does that…oh, you know, she’s so-and-so’s girlfriend/wife”. 

This alone might not be so bad (I mean, they’re facts), but the thing is, you never hear it go the other way around.  Who says, “Mestre Curio, you know, Mestra Jararaca’s husband”?  It’s the inherent idea that men are the standard/reference point/default and so anything not-men, i.e. women, is affirmed by their association to men, not just by their own individual identities and accomplishments.  Granted, in most cases for now the relationship references are probably because the male capoeirista is more likely to be recognized than the female capoeirista, but then that only goes to show us how everything is connected, in what would be a continually female-negating/downplaying cycle unless we do something about it.

Odetta Norton, from Capoeira Mandinga

However, we run into another problem when it comes to this “doing something about it”.  The first step, you would think, is simply to increase the profiles of women capoeiristas, using the same methods by which male capoeiristas have built their own profiles. [Something I just noticed, by the way:  Why is it that “women capoeiristas” works, while “men capoeiristas” sounds funny and grammatically incorrect?]  Shayna, though, explained while commenting on one of my earlier posts (about women’s capoeira events) why this might be difficult:

I agree with your proposed solution to invite high-level women to “normal” events more often. Though one thing that makes this a bit difficult is that, from my experience and observation, high-level female capoeiristas tend to be very committed to their work and communities, and tend NOT to be “traveling capoeira superstars” (you know, the mestres who somehow appear at 85 batizados a year, and their own group barely ever sees them), so women are probably going to be choosy about which events they are going to attend.

To that, I also want to add that based on my experience writing this blog’s Ie Viva Meu Mestra series, it’s much more difficult to find extensive profiles or biographies of high-level female capoeiristas as opposed to high-level male capoeiristas, and honestly speaking, I would attribute that to the idea that a lot of mestres in the capoeira world seem all too happy to toot their own horns, especially when it comes to the internet or other forms of media, whereas the same can’t be said for mestras in general (though of course, there are always exceptions to the rule).

But for instance, when it came to capoeiristas such as Mestra Suelly, Mestra Jararaca, or Contra-mestra Cristina, I all but had to dig through their alleyway trashcans to come up with something!  As Shayna said, this is most likely because many mestras are more concerned with what they are doing than with promoting the fact that they’ve done things; I noticed this myself when most of the search hits I got for Mestra Janja and Mestra Paulinha were articles or references to projects they were or had been in the midst of, rather than full articles about the mestras themselves.

This, then, is part of why I think what the FICA conference capoeiristas came up with is such a great idea: a website archiving all the annals of women in capoeira.  As the post title says…women in capoeira won’t get much traction until we have more representation!

Picture sources:

Capoeirobics and the Female Chauvinist Pig: When Good Things Go Bad

21 12 2007

Cardio CapoeiraHave you ever seen something happen, take hold, and spread as you helplessly looked on, thinking, “Something has gone very wrong here”?

Capoeira and feminism both began as movements of resistance. Feminism remains one, of course, and arguably capoeira as well in many cases. In her paper Resistance through Movement: Women & Capoeira, Djahariah Katz makes an intriguing connection by pointing out how capoeira and some of the stereotypes that feminism fights against today both grew out of a state of disempowerment:

Seduction and manipulativeness are stereotypical qualities assigned to women. They are qualities that arise out of disempowerment, they become strategies of resistance. There is a discourse that these qualities are innate in women, that we inherently lie and manipulate. These qualities are celebrated in capoeira as malícia, using trickery to beat your opponent. This is a way that capoeira takes a social reality in the present and uses it to its advantage to turn the tables on their position. Most capoeiristas were and are disempowered in society. The philosophy of capoeira is about survival. It teaches you how to walk through the world with your own power.

I found this to be an interesting paradox. Today, women are disempowered because of the existence of such stereotypes, that they are inherently this or naturally that. Yet in the past, women who really used manipulation and whatnot did so because of the same sort of disempowerment, having no other options at hand. What was, in a way, the original feminist movement helped give rise to part of what hinders its modern day successor.

Similarly, capoeira is starting to encounter some backlash from its historical self-preservation. Mestre Bimba moved capoeira off the streets and into training rooms and academies, taking what may have been the single most influential action in the advancement of capoeira’s preservation and popularity. But now, we see such a model making the art vulnerable to things like inferior teachers who are only after money, to the risk of losing roots and traditions as academies and their teachings become more contemporized, and to the ever-hovering net of corporatization—not to mention spin-off “capoeirobics” classes reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. [Note: I’m not going to post a video here because that’d be roughly four minutes of your life that you’d never get back, but if you’re really curious you can look up “capo-robics” on youtube, “cardio capoeira”, or “capoeira class” by username darksamuraix.]

Katz says that what capoeiristas did was take the “social reality” and manipulate it for their own purposes. When Brazil’s government wanted to promote the national image of Brazil, for example, Mestre Bimba helped to incorporate capoeira into this image, thereby ensuring the protection and continuation of capoeira, as an [Afro-]Brazilian art form. As inspiring as it would be to say that feminism should look to capoeira as an example, however, one thing concerns me.

Capoeira preserved itself not by just taking advantage of “social reality”, but also by conforming to this reality. Fighting outdoors was not okay, fighting indoors was; enter the academies. That’s (partly) why it was allowed to survive, and in the case of capoeira, it worked out. The equivalent of women doing such a thing today, though, might be the phenomenon that writer Ariel Levy terms the “female chauvinist pig”:

Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman’s job is to excite and titillate – to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and—more insidiously—by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism. (Jennifer Egan, New York Times)

To me, this takes “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” to new and twisted heights. Excerpts from Levy’s book add how these women are also thought of as “post-feminist”, how wearing the Playboy bunny logo is no longer a symbol of degradation and patronization, but of liberation. How can you be post-feminist in a world that has yet to be feminist? Conforming to “social reality” in this case, even if with self-mockery or deliberate irony, is to regress, not progress. No advantage is even gained, beyond what was described as “sexual power confused with power”.

The point of movements of resistance is not to conform to but to break “sociality realities”—because they are social, i.e. man-made, not true, natural, objective “realities”. Just like “capoeirobics” are considered a perverse form of capoeira—if not immediately denounced as not capoeira at all—“female chauvinist pigs”, while they or others may think they are somehow helping the cause of feminism, are only hurting and demeaning it.