Women in Capoeira Songs and the Roar on the Other Side of Silence

26 03 2008

When you clap and sing along in the roda, do you always know what you’re saying, what the words resounding in your ears really mean?  Are you unknowingly patronizing “women [as] the ones who clap their hands” (as opposed to “men are the ones who play pandeiro”), or accusing fellow (female) capoeiristas of being “like a snake / with venemous blood”?  Do you really believe that “woman killed man … / When she doesn’t kill him, she consumes him”?  Are you enthusiastically belting out, “Every jealous woman…I would kill them” and “When a woman is useless / Man sends her away”?

What happened to women in capoeira music?

It’s no secret that capoeira song lyrics contain some questionable and old-fashioned themes about women.  I’ve been thinking about the topic of women and capoeira songs / women in capoeira songs since I came across a thread on the capoeira.com forum, and fully realized that there are actually a lot of sexist, chauvinistic, and misogynistic lyrics in “traditional” capoeira songs.  However, I wasn’t sure exactly how a post on this would work, since such treatment or views of women seemed so prevalent in capoeira songs that either I’d have to make a 20-page study out of it, or simply reduce it all to one obvious sentence (like the first one of this paragraph).

Well, lo and behold, some diligent soul went the route of the 20-page study!  And thanks to the greater diligence of Shayna M., we now have an English translation of it, as well. 😀

Before you read it (link below), just a few comments.  I thought the author, Maria José Somerlate Barbosa, did a good job overall, and she definitely made clear the extent to which capoeira song lyrics degrade and denigrate women.  All of the themes she points out are the typical misogynistic narratives of weakness, deceit, castrating, etc.

However, I agree with Shayna’s note that the author could’ve picked a better choice for the example of a “pro-women” song.  Besides its obscurity, for me, I’m not too crazy about the fact that the song actually reinforces stereotypes of “the feminine”, even if it is to deem them positive instead of negative.  We’ve gone over this issue a couple times on this blog already, so if you would like some elaboration, please read my posts on “The Feminine in Capoeira” (Part 1: Malicia and Part 2: Context), or check out the discussion that developed in the Contra-mestra Cristina post’s comments thread.

Finally, I found it interesting that one of the capoeira songs Barbosa picked to criticize, I actually thought was okay at first.  The song goes:

In order to be beautiful
A woman doesn’t have to wear make-up
Make-up is of the Devil
It is God who gives beauty

Like I said, at first I didn’t see much wrong with that.  In fact, I thought it was a good thing, seeing it as something that spoke out against today’s consumerism and fashion industry, which eats both women and little girls alive.  As you will see though, Barbosa goes on to explain how this song both plays on misogynist themes and demonstrates how men try to control women’s actions.

The fact that I didn’t see this before brought up another important issue for me, something that goes back to that first-year post-modern, feminist, overkill-agenda-pushing English professor I mentioned in my very first post.  The problem my friends and I had with her was that she would bring her feminism into everything, even if the novel we were studying or discussion we were having hardly seemed to have anything to do with gender issues at all.  Eventually, it got to the point where we realized that by continually bringing them up, our professor was doing more to ingrain such narratives into our heads rather than encouraging us to fight them.  That is, by continuing to push how women were seen or portrayed as “lesser”, for example, my friends and I just learned to automatically associate “women” with “lesser”.  See how that works?

So in the case with this capoeira song, is it a good or a bad thing that Barbosa changed my view 180° on it?  This also relates to the larger issue of speaking out against misogyny/sexism in the first place.  As some people think, do feminists “just look for stuff to get mad about”?  And won’t continually pointing out this stuff have the same effect as my first-year English prof on my friends and I, only reinforcing the stereotypes in people’s heads rather than breaking them down?

First, I’ll answer the latter question, quoting the answer I gave to someone in my facebook group.  Their question was, “Why do you think it’s necessary to point out women in capoeira if by doing so, you make a border between men and women?”

I kind of looked at it almost as the lesser of two evils. It’s true that if I do talk about it, it makes people more aware of the “divide”. On the other hand, some divide is there whether I talk about it or not, and if people aren’t aware of it, it will just stay that way. So I guess I’m trying to point it out in order to make people more aware of it so they don’t go along with it unthinkingly, and might even maybe start actively trying to break it down.

So perhaps that was what our English professor was trying to do, as well: make us aware of it so we didn’t unthinkingly go along with everything we read.  However, I still think a lot of what she tried to inject into our curriculum was unecessary, so I’ll just say for my part, as I also told the guy in my facebook group, that I think I do a fair job here on Mandingueira of only touching on feminist issues when they come up naturally, without trying to force the issue in every post.

As for the other question (“Do feminists just look for stuff to get mad about?”), a blog formerly known by the brilliant title of “Shakespeare’s Sister” deals with that issue exactly.  Among her well-written, well-reasoned points, this paragraph touched me especially:

The truth is, if I actually spent my days actively paying attention to every example of misogyny around me, I would be a profoundly unhappy woman. Not bitchy or grumpy or short-tempered, but paralyzingly depressed. Women have to train themselves to avoid consciously reacting to every bit of misogynistic detritus permeating the culture through which we all move, lest they go quite insane. I write about the things I can’t not write about. If I wrote about all the examples of sexism I see every day, I’d never sleep.

This is true, and it resonated especially well with me because it echoes a novel I studied last year, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which is really good, and which you should all read):

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

The point in both passages is that for the most part, we humans have desensitized ourselves to others’ suffering, and to a certain extent, this is actually necessary because if we were to or were able to be truly aware of all the pain and injustices and suffering in the world, every instant of hurt and every moment of wrongness, we wouldn’t be able to handle it; we would break down, go insane, and simply implode from the roar which lies on the other side of silence.

And I feel it, sometimes; all the blogs I read are categorized into folders, and sometimes I skip the one labelled “Feminism” altogether just because I don’t feel like reading yet another post or article about how women make 67 cents to every man’s dollar, or how another university paper wrote a “joke” article on rape, or how another film or TV show portrays a world with powerful women as a miserable world for men, or how women’s equality is the cause of everything from depression to the bad economy, or how another objectifying, degrading, insulting ad has been printed/broadcast, or how another sexist zinger has been used to bring down Hillary Clinton (and I’ve pretty much decided I want Obama to win) or in fact any powerful or political woman.

Because honestly, it is depressing.  It would be as if you went online everyday and read a series of blog posts or articles about how capoeiristas are universally belittled and undermined, how capoeira isn’t considered a “real” sport just because it’s done by capoeiristas, how you have to do ten public street rodas for every one soccer game to be taken seriously, how over half of assaulted capoeiristas were victims at the hands of their partners or mestres, how the rise of capoeira is the reason for all of society’s problems, how an ad sexualized violating a capoeirista to sell some product, how whenever you tried to do anything big or great with your life people argued you moved too fluidly or sang funny-sounding songs as reasons to take you down, how your school paper wrote a fun article about raping capoeiristas just for kicks, how another “study” has shown that capoeiristas are inherently dumber than other martial artists, how every day capoeiristas are brutally assaulted or killed, and just because you’re a capoeirista.  And yes, I realize some of those actually did happen in Brazil during capoeira’s early days, but now imagine it happens today, happens in every country on Earth, and that you didn’t just pick up capoeira somewhere along the way but were born with it in your blood.

So, having said that, please click here and read why feminists don’t “look for stuff to get mad about”.

And once you’ve finished that, here’s the study I promised you!

Representation of Women in Capoeira Songs [pdf]

Picture source:

Playing Women in the Roda

9 12 2007

Never underestimate your opponent in the roda, no matter who she is. 

I came across something written by a capoeirista the other day that pretty much infuriated me.  However, I did promise in my very first post that there would be no ranting, so I will restrain myself! 

(Actually, what I would most like to do is copy and paste what I read here and then carefully, logically, thoroughly deconstruct it line by line for all of you.  However, doing things like that sometimes has repercussions, here in cyberspace.  As a result, we’ll all have to settle for a general post on the same topic, but with a slightly different [read: enlightened =P] point of view.)

When playing women in the roda, do not hold back.
  It irritates me even to be writing this post, as you’d think playing women in the roda (technique-wise, not dynamics-wise) is no different from playing men in the roda; basically, this should be a completely pointless post, with a pointless title, except for the fact that there are people out there who sadly believe otherwise!

Their argument goes like this: Women are naturally physically weaker than men (how true this statement is and its implications, etc., we’ll leave for now).  Thus, men–and let’s say stronger women–should play “down to their level” to level the field, or to protect the woman from accidentally getting hurt in the roda.  Let’s call this the Chauvinist Theory.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the basic intentions behind this way of thinking.  The exact same idea is legitimately applied to beginners: play more slowly and carefully against them because they don’t know quite what they’re doing yet or aren’t strong/quick/good enough yet and might get hurt.  That’s for beginners, people who presumably have little to no capoeira skills yet, and so that makes sense.  It’s relatively safe to assume that you need to go easy on beginners in the roda, because as beginners, they are less skilled by definition.  However, the Chauvinist Theory incorrectly links just strength directly to one’s joga ablity, then assumes that as women, we are less skilled by definition.  Which is interesting, because since there are countless female capoeiristas at levels higher than beginner, do these people think that their mestres have one corda graduation standard for women and another, harder graduation standard for men? 

I’m reminded of a line in the Antigone Magazine blog post to which I directed all of you in my “Why Write About Female Mestres?  The Feminist Catch-22” post.  According to the Antigone post, which was on misogyny in anti-Hillary Clinton facebook groups, “If you dislike a male politician, then there is something wrong with that particular politician. If you dislike a female politician then you often find something lacking in the entire female sex.”  People who buy into the Chauvinist Theory seem to suffer from the same mental lapse: if you accidentally hit a man in the roda, it’s because he wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t quick enough or just basically needs to improve his capoeira skills; if you accidentally hit a woman in the roda, however, it’s because she’s a woman and therefore you should go easy on every woman you play from now on. 

I can hear the bulls bellowing…I think they want their crap back.

What people should do–and this is supposed to be common sense–is assess each opponent individually.  (I’m honestly cringing at this paragraph already; it seems like such a given!)  Maybe she’s a woman who definitely is not athletically gifted, so in this case yes, give her a chance to do something while playing.  And maybe she’s a natural at capoeira, better than you are, and she’s really adjusting her game down to your level.  The point is, you don’t judge someone’s capoeira ability based purely on their gender.  There is absolutely no logic in that–none, whatsoever!  By playing down to all women, you are not only holding yourself back from a chance to improve and from what might’ve become a really good game, you are deliberately stunting the progress of the person you are playing.  This is even worse if you are supposed to be the person’s teacher; your role is to challenge and improve your student’s game, not pander to what you think is their beginner’s comfort zone (if they haven’t progressed beyond it already)!

I know/hope that this post was entirely unecessary for most of you, but I felt it still needed to be put out there.  (Plus, it was either that or physically hunt down the guy and drag him into a few games with some of the girls from my academy, and I don’t have the time for that right now.)

p.s. This entry’s picture was done by a friend of mine!  Isn’t it awesome? 😀

If you found this post useful or interesting, please
click to subscribe to my blog, by RSS feed or email!

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.