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?


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


Picture source: http://www.baurock.ru/kostik/capoeira.htm

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11 responses

12 12 2007
Mike

I think you have really hit on something here Joanihna. I think all stereotypes inherently underestimate the potential of the individual. Case in point, my older sister is about 5’5″ and 125lbs, but is a Minneapolis Vice Cop and exudes power. Her power is tangible in body and spirit. I have heard many tales of her subduing men over twice her size. While on the other hand I consider myself a sleeper when it comes to physical strength. What I mean by this is I am typically underestimated in physical prowess. In the end I believe that those who believe in stereotypes are weakened by their belief. True strength is from knowing your own capability. As the chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” This may be pharaphrased, and if so please forgive the quotations. 🙂

12 12 2007
Mike

Remind me to proof read more intensely as I meant to say paraphrased. Aarrgghh! 🙂

12 12 2007
xixarro

Capoeira comes from slaves and later poor Brazilians who had little to no chance to educate themselves. In such a society things have to be simplified or you can’t make sense off the world.

Could it not be that when they speak in this context of masculine and feminine, that they not so much mean this in a macho way, but more like a yin & yang thing? In the end they all know that without malicia you are a poor player. Your play needs to be both masculine and feminine to become a complete player.

12 12 2007
Joaninha

Mike:

That’s a really good quote, thanks for sharing it–and I checked, and you did get it right 😉 Your sister sounds like a awesome (in the sense of awe-some) person! And that’s so true, what you said about stereotypes. I’m a huge believer in “mind over matter”, so part of that involves not letting stereotypes weaken your mind, because it’ll just spread and affect everything you do from there…
p.s. You are one of the very few people I’ve ever met (“met”?) who actually double posts to correct spelling/grammar mistakes, aside from myself! Definitely appreciate that, haha 🙂

12 12 2007
Joaninha

Xixarro:

I agree that context is important when looking at these things, and thank you for bringing that up. I’m not as sure, though, about everything needing to be simplified for the world to make sense (it seems a little reductive), or if it is true, that it means we have to continue doing that today, especially when it’s at the expense of a whole group of people and how they are seen by the rest of the world.

I also think you’re exactly right about the yin and yang, and yes I don’t believe they mean it in the macho way either, like in football or rugby as I mentioned. The issue for me isn’t so much what kind of masculine/feminine they mean, but the fact of emphasizing that divide in the first place. What you said perfectly demonstrates what I mean–why does our play have to be called “masculine” and “feminine”? We can easily use other words, the words we really mean when we say those terms, without reinforcing the stereotypes of “masculine” being this and “feminine” being that. We can just say “you need strength as well as malicia to be a complete player”, for example. This is really getting into minute details here, but I hope you know what I mean! 🙂
p.s. Thank you for bringing up those points also because my reply here I think might evoke a reaction (well, it did in me) that touches on what I want to discuss in Part 2 (“Does it really matter?” and “What’s wrong with being ‘feminine’?”). I hope you come back to check that one out!

13 12 2007
Tigresa

You make some good points in this entry. I personally don’t mind the characterization of certain facets in capoeira as masculine/feminine in part because of the context within which it was manifested. The engenderment ( I just made up a new work, woo!) of attributes/symbols/mystical movements of the universe are something that we can all recognize and I believe that political correctness in this case can take a back seat. We can definitely describe malicia without bringing in words like “feminine-dark-yin-yang-void” and still have people understand. But I think that bringing in a whole history of the word “feminine” and all that implies really adds texture to it.

You could go farther than just this example and debate on whether or not certain aspects of capoeira are obsolete/outdated and have no place in the contemporary practice (and add on “outside of Brasil” for further discussion). I say this because Brasilian culture is very sensual and the divide between masculine/feminine has a very strong presence in this cultural phenomenon. So does that Brasilian cultural influence have a place in the practice of capoeira outside of Brasil? It’s hard to get away from that.

I am all for bringing in this vocabulary of the feminine and masculine–it’s in a very positive manner and it implies strength without directly saying so (malicia, eh? eh?).

That was a little jumbled, sorry, but I hope that I made my point without coming off as argumentative. :o) I find your entries very interesting and thought provoking.

Peace.

13 12 2007
Joaninha

Thank you, Tigresa, for that! It wasn’t argumentative at all, and like Xixarro’s, your comments are very helpfully leading into things that started dawning on me as I wrote this post, and that I want to write about next. 🙂

Like the role/importance of context, for example. And I definitely would not look upon any fully politically corrected form of capoeira happily–it’d be like returning to a beautiful mansion and seeing it’s been turned into a washed out apartment building!

Hmm, the bringing in of masculine/feminine is done in a positive manner, but if you look at the specific details, they’re not all positive…like assuming female = not-power, not-rational, not-there…for example! But maybe they’re not big/exposed enough to matter in the big picture? Or is it actually little things like this that affect the overall picture? More food for thought!

As for separating capoeira from Brazilian culture outside of Brazil…haha, considering capoeira IS [Afro-]Brazilian, I think that really would be asking for a bit much. =P Not that I am asking, nor do I want to! I know what you mean though, and I think I briefly mentioned it in my introduction post, how capoeira is infused, naturally, with Brazilian culture so you can’t really separate them, nor should you, but also how Brazilian culture involves exactly what you said it does, so how do you reconcile it all? Maybe if I keep my blog running long enough we’ll eventually figure it out…or we’ll realize it doesn’t need figuring out to begin with 😄
By the way, it just occurred to me that your question about Brazilian cultural influence may have been rhetorical…so I’m sorry for missing that if it was!

13 12 2007
xixarro

Hi Joaninha,
I think our opinions are getting closer together now. I just think it’s important to realise the there’s a difference between reality and symbols. With symbols I mean words like malicia that in capoeira are called feminine.

I strongly believe that this roots from the same culture that brought us the game we love so much and therefore I blindly accept these symbols. On the other hand, I am who I am, and so reality is important to me as well. I don’t want to see any discrimination of any kind (sex, colour, religion) in capoeira.

There used to be time that women were not regarded as equals in the roda, but surely that is changing rapidly.

And oh, not all feminine symbols are so bad I think. Did you know that the berimbau gunga in capoeira angola is regarded as the mother?
I hope you know the angola toques or what’s next won’t make much sense to you:
The mother plays the basic toque
The father plays just the opposite
The kid plays his own playful toque

Axé

14 12 2007
Joaninha

Hey Xixarro,

It is important to distinguish between reality and symbols, but it’s also important to realize that these symbols can have an incredibly strong underlying impact on society and how we think, especially if they become so ingrained that we take them for granted. If you’re brought up with hundreds of years’ worth of stories that represent “the feminine” as weak, ambiguous, and emotional, for instance, it doesn’t matter whether “the feminine” is just being used as a symbol or not; ultimately that symbol affects reality, as I think is clear in this case, or we wouldn’t have a need for feminism! At some level I still think you are right; the only problem is that it’s not actually always that easy to separate symbols from reality, as in the big picture, they often help form the basis of people’s realities, culturally speaking.

And no, definitely not all symbols of “the feminine” are bad; it’s just when they have bad effects (like people making unqualified judgements and that affecting everyday things like job opportunities, salaries, politics), or when they actually are bad that there are problems. But that’s a really cute image of the “berimbau family”!

2 11 2008
skymandr

Hi Joaninha,

Thanks for a very interesting blog, and an extremely relevant and interesting article. I recently (re-)read the part you’re quoting, and I am relieved to see that I’m not the only one who was taken aback by his gender-biased terminology. In general I find Nestor’s writing very interesting, and he poses many good questions and raises many issues I have thought about myself. His discussion of malicia is no exception, but that was unfortunately clouded for me by choice of vantage point for the discussion.

On the other hand, to play devils advocate, I think that he wrote (more or less) explicitly in the beginning of that part of the book that much of what was to come had to be seen from a Brazilian cultural perspective to make real sense. Perhaps the use of the Femininity/Masculinity dichotomy was, in part at least, a way to impose such “cultural glasses” on the reader, as that is a very real part of Brazilian everyman’s culture, as well as historically in Candomblé etc? (As I recall, it is also used to motivate tapping into similar dichotomies in other cultural contexts for comparison.)

I don’t think, however, that this excuses what I can scarcely perceive as anything but the trite perpetuation of stereotypes. The fact that the piece of writing makes perfect sense–and more importantly: gets the point across–if you replace Femininity and Masculinity with eg. Appleity and Pearity is testament to the lack of necessity for this particular terminology. Its removal, in my view, would retract solely from the mystical tone of the writing.

(As for your note on power in the follow-up, I read (“masculine”) Power in the sense that you describe it there (ie. as brute force or raw physical strength), and I think it was clear that (“feminine”) Malicia was regarded as power in itself. A confusion of terms in the translation perhaps?)

Axé!

/Skyman

7 11 2008
Joaninha

Hey Skyman,

Thanks so much for your comment, and I apologize for taking so long to reply to it!

I think my reaction to Nestor Capoeira’s choice of words was very similar to yours, in all the aspects you mentioned, and I liked that comparison to “appleity” and “pearity”. 😛 You’re right, the only thing it might detract from is the whole “mysticality” of it (which is slightly ironic, since the mystical is related to the super/natural, and gender is an artificial construct…then again, we ourselves define what “mystical” is and that becomes narrative structures as well…), and it really does not seem necessary to use “male” or “female” when all we really mean, in this case, is “strong” or “unclear”, for instance. When you look at it like that, there’s no logic to it whatsoever. It’s all completely arbitrary!

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