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.

The Feminine in Capoeira, Part 1 (Malicia)

12 12 2007

Malicia - the feminine in capoeira?

In my very first post, I mentioned that capoeira seemed to be an art form mostly dominated by men; in fact, it’s one of the main reasons this blog exists in the first place.  What’s interesting is that while some of capoeira may be male-dominated, it is not traditionally masculine, the way people might consider football or rugby to be.  Several fundamental aspects of capoeira have been characterized as belonging to the feminine, in ways I find in equal parts inspiring, thought-provoking, and problematic.

I first encountered this in Nestor Capoeira’s book, Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, in which he deems malicia a manisfestation of the feminine in capoeira.  Unfortunately, I’m living away from home right now and thoughtlessly left the book there, so I can’t quote his exact words to you…but his thoughts were reiterated later on in the book by scholar Muniz Sodré, and due to a brilliant stroke of luck, this particular passage was reproduced in Google’s Book Search Preview:

You also say that malicia belongs to the Feminine aspect of things. I like that. While Masculine is the gender of the defined, the understandable, rational—the gender of power—the Feminine is, on the other hand, the reverse of all this. It is the void. Its power is also of the sort that you don’t know exactly what it is. Its power is “not to be clear” about power itself. It’s the power of the void. Because malicia is exactly that: to go around what is clear and established. And in that sense it is Feminine.  (Sodré as quoted by Capoeira, p. 30)

You can see for yourself (I hope) why statements like that are problematic.  The “void”?  The reverse of “rational”, of “power”?  This is where things get tricky.  As a capoeirista and English lit major, I can appreciate the symbolism in that, the evoked nature of malicia and the dimension it adds to capoeira and the jogo.  And as a feminist, I feel (with all due respect to Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré) that that can’t be right, there must be another way to put it, and that the whole thing should be torn up and sent back into the 19th century, where that kind of thinking belongs!  How exactly do I go about doing this while maintaining the integrity of both capoeira and modern-day/feminist thinking?

The main issue here, I think, is the seemingly necessary genderizing of things, when in fact it’s not necessary at all (let alone the use of capital letters, which just makes the terms look way more qualified than they should).  It’s cool to think of malicia as the “power of the void”, as that unexplainable, irrational thing that gets in through the cracks and hits you where you thought there was nowhere to hit.  When you say that malicia is all these things though–void, irrational, unclear, evanescent–and therefore feminine, that’s where you lose me.  “Void” is exactly what we are not supposed to be! And you can say that assigning feminine and masculine aspects to capoeira adds meaning and depth, similarly to nuance and capoeira movements in the roda, but I think there is a way around that.

The whole reason it’s appealing to associate malicia with the feminine is because of all the things that have been associated with the feminine throughout history.  When you say malicia is “feminine”, you are really saying malicia is mysterious, elusive, intangible, and all those other things that Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré said, thanks to stereotypes that have been entrenched probably since humans first learned to discriminate.  I believe it’s possible to “de-genderize” concepts like malicia while retaining the things one actually means when labelling them “feminine” or “masculine”.  Referring again to the nuance in movements analogy, we do not say that a chapa is “masculine” because it’s aggressive, or that a bait-and-switch sequence is “feminine” because it’s deceptive (or “went around what was clear”)–they are just aggressive and deceptive, respectively.  So why can’t malicia just be what it is, without perpetuating outdated stereotypes at the expense of women and the feminist movement today?

To read Part 2 (Context), please click here.

Picture source:

Why Write about Female Mestres? The Feminist Catch-22

5 12 2007

Catch-22 (noun): a no-win situation

If you read the “Update” section on Mestra Edna‘s profile (previously the first half of this post, but I moved those paragraphs for clarity’s sake), they lead up to the main dilemma I encountered while writing about her: Why?  That is, why should Edna Lima be singled out and featured, among all the other mestres comparable to her and who might have accomplished just as much or more?  According to my own blog, it’s because she’s not just a mestre, but a female mestre.  But isn’t writing about her just because she’s a woman just as tunnel-visioned as ignoring her just because she’s a woman?  Aside from the slightly more justified qualification that Edna Lima is not only a mestra, but the world’s first (a reason that won’t apply to the other mestras and mestrandas I intend to write about), I think my response to that would be yes, to a certain extent, but it’s tricky because right now, the world seems to be stuck precariously in a stage between stasis and regression, feminism-wise. 

We are not so advanced that women are free from discrimination and harassment in business and the workplace, in politics and the government, in entertainment, in the media, in advertising, and in many cases everyday life; yet, we have progressed just enough since the days of the suffragettes for many people to believe that more talk of women’s equality is completely superfluous.  That’s the catch-22: if women really were equal, we wouldn’t have to keep stressing “a woman did this!  a woman did that!”  The actual stressing itself emphasizes the divide.  Yet if we don’t say anything, the divide still remains, and becomes ever more entrenched.  People know, for instance, that women can be CEO’s, doctors, and engineers—but they don’t know that on average, they’d have much lower salaries than male counterparts doing the exact same job, with the same qualifications and experience.  (Apparently, the same goes for short people and tall people, which absolutely sucks because I’m female and short.)  Then there was an article I read about how even though women can run for government, it’s much harder to and they are asked less to than men are, so the overall atmosphere itself still provides an obstacle to a level playing field.  Finally, look up anti-Hillary Clinton groups on facebook, then read this from Antigone Magazine.

Returning to Mestra Edna and the all the rest, I’m not saying that there’s some sort of hidden sexism in capoeira, and I’m happy to say I’ve never encountered anything even near it myself during the whole time I’ve been doing capoeira (although I’ve heard it said, for example, that a teacher would have long been graduated up a level by now if she were a guy).  On the other hand, one can’t really deny the nature of Brazilian culture that of course pervades capoeira, and when Mestra Edna mentioned in an interview that “music is one area in which women…still take part significantly less than men”, it did occur to me that I’ve only ever seen one woman play in or even practice for my group’s performance band, and I haven’t seen that many women play the berimbau during “official” (as opposed to just in-class, for-practice) rodas, either.  Granted, it’s fair enough to say that’s only due to lack of personal initiative on their parts and nothing else, but looking at the big picture, it might still be something worth noting. 

So I guess the conclusion I’ve drawn, then, is that while at times it might seem like making mountains of molehills, or purposely trying to draw things out of thin air, the overall state of things still seems to require that attention be brought to certain issues, lest people settle into casual apathy and slip obliviously into the state of regression mentioned above.  It shouldn’t be that capoeira mestres are spotlighted specifically for their gender, but until society collectively achieves a mentality where gender truly doesn’t matter (aside from the obvious, e.g. repopulating the human species–which itself might be a dubious goal to a lot of people), this seems like the best we can do.

Batizado – The Initiation of Mandingueira

30 11 2007

Mandingueira BlogWelcome to Mandingueira, a blog on women, capoeira, and women in capoeira.  As I’m new to blogging, relatively new to capoeira, and brand new to taking up with feminist issues, this should be an interesting process!  To begin with (as they are wont to be begun with), an introduction: Eu sou Joaninha, and I’ve been training capoeira for just over two years now.  After hanging up my abada at night, I become an undergraduate English major, bona fide bookworm and grammar stickler, and writer/editor/publisher/journalist-hopeful.

Why Mandingueira?  First, I absolutely love and am in love with capoeira, and you know what they say: “write what you know”–and I want to write.  Second, kind of by chance I began reading a lot of feminist-oriented blogs this year, and evidently they’ve had an effect on me.  If you’ve been in capoeira for any amount of time, you’ve probably realized that it’s a fairly male-dominated universe.  The average capoeira group will have more male students, more advanced male students, and–pop quiz!–how many female mestres can you name, compared to how many male mestres?  Then there are the horror stories, courtesy of any given capoeira forum: allegedly rapid promotion of girlfriends or wives in Brazil, teachers hitting on students everywhere, talk of undeserved as well as too-long-unreceived cordas, etc. 

I want Mandingueira to provide a central platform for thoughts, discussion, and ideas related to women in capoeira, or women and/or capoeira, and plan to include as wide a variety of material as possible (e.g. interviews, tips, debates, musings, reviews, current events, links and multimedia, anecdotes, creative work).  I will also try my best to keep this blog overall interesting and relevant to all capoeiristas, not just women, and I can tell you right now that there will be no rants, sermons, or pulling out of issues that aren’t necessarily there.  (Trust me; thanks to a certain post-modernist feminist prof in first year, any sort of down-the-throat-agenda-pushing is now anathema to me.)  But, since disclaimers are a way of life: Everyone makes mistakes (and I already have…possibly more on that later, if you’re good), so that’s what the Comments section is for!

Thank you so much for stopping by, and I hope you will continue to do so often (my aim is a minimum of one post per week).  Play hard, ginga low, and tell all your friends and capoeirista colleagues to drop by!  Muito axé. 🙂