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.

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6 responses

31 12 2007
Shayna

There was one mestre in Brazil who held a “Top Model Capoeira” competition. He wanted to have a contest where “the participants are not judged only by the quality of their capoeira, but also by their physical beauty.” The competition was for both men and women, but STILL…

…and they say we foreigners are ruining capoeira :-p

31 12 2007
Joaninha

I like how he made it sound like we’ve been lacking for judging people only by capoeira skill–how shallow of us! It does make it better that it was unisex, but wouldn’t do a lot for the self-esteem of people who lost!

6 03 2008
GCAP and Capoeira Identity Politics « Blue Snake Books

[…] it is far from a perfect one), these people might be Moraes’s personal version of “female chauvinist pigs“, passively or actively complicit in their own oppression, however gradual or subtle it may […]

11 03 2008
Soneca

It is interesting for me to read this post and really turn it over in my mind. A couple of months ago my friend showed me a “Bonecas Da Capoeira” calendar that he had bought (ranting and raving about what a pig he was rained down upon him immediately) and my initial reaction was disgust. Here it was again, the sexualization of women in Capoeira, my mind was racing. How would we be seen as fellow capoeiristas if we continually put ourselves in situations that objectify us? I was really taken aback by it, the thought that girls willingly took this art and turned it into semi-porn made me sick. Then I looked at the pictures.

Maybe it’s because I’m an artist, or maybe it’s because I can appreciate beautiful girls, but I have to admit: the photography was beautiful, the shots were beautiful, the movements were beautiful. These girls looked strong and powerful, they totally owned it. But for them to show their inner strength and beauty- did they have to do it in their bikinis? Or call themselves Capoeira dolls? I was and still am very conflicted by this.

After reading what one of the “bonecas” wrote I turned everything over in my mind again. This girl wasn’t a bimbo, she’s very intelligent and funny, and talented. She’s worked really hard to be where she is, to be at the level she’s at, so why is it “wrong” for her to show it off in this manner?

“This calendar is a celebration of the beauty and strength of the women of Capoeira–an art that allows us to play at an even level with men, but at the same time to retain our full feminine identity. And we are, unapologetically, women. We have our own unique strengths and energy that we add to each game, and it is a vital and complementary component of the men’s participation. In an art form birthed from the challenges of inequality that forced a need for malicia, trickery and wit, Capoeira seems almost made for women. Who better to explore the finer points and hidden meanings behind such a visually stunning martial art form? In the last several years, both outside and within Brasil, the female presence in this art/sport is growing. We are becoming stronger in so many ways. And in the next several years, we will begin to see women leading more rodas, commanding more games and becoming a determining force in the direction that Capoeira is going to take. Enjoy.”

I don’t mean any disrespect to her by posting her words, or questioning her participation- to each his own. But I have a right to question what her actions mean for women in Capoeira- are these girls putting out there that it is ok to be sexualized and objectified? In my class, and in other groups I’ve visited, there have been comments made about the girls in the class. For example, anytime someone looses or gains weight there are comments made, and the fact that you’re “supposed” to be a certain size or look a certain way is enforced with these comments. “You’re gaining weight, are you having personal problems?” Things such as this enfuriate me- but do I have a right to be mad or take offense, when girls purposely put themselves out there in a way that opens up criticism of their looks/physique? If women in Capoeira are making it seem like it’s ok to be looked at and judged by one’s physique- do we have a right to complain?

Shayla comments the beauty/Capoeira competition and the Mestre who held it. But should we be questioning him or the participants? There had to be some sort of interest displayed by the group, or the participants themselves that sparked the idea that he should host such a competition. The fact that these girls agreed and happily partook in this is more of the question to me.

14 03 2008
Joaninha

Hi Soneca,

Thanks so much for your comment (and I’m sorry it took me so long to respond!). It’s definitely a valid question to ask whether we should hold participants at least partially, if not as, responsible as the people who are exploiting them. The CEO of Playboy, for example, is actually currently a woman. (Oh, the irony.)

I’ve also heard this issue come up in discussions about porn, for instance—i.e. aren’t women in those videos choosing to do it? The difference, of course, is that some of them most likely didn’t have a choice, whereas that “Bonecas de Capoeira” calendar does seem like something pretty optional, to say the least.

And yes, showing the “strength” and transcendence of women beyond gender barriers by doing something like this and calling themselves “dolls” does seem extremely contradictory and self-defeating. I do like what the woman wrote though, although again, I could do without so much focus on What It Means To Be “Feminine”. However, her write-up doesn’t explain at all this calendar—if they purely wanted to show women’s advancement in capoeira, sell DVDs of them playing in a roda! And I think that partly answers the question of why it’s “wrong” for her to show off in that manner; because there are many other, less exploitative and more effective ways of showing off her skill than taking sexy photos with a berimbau, in a bikini on a beach! If she wants to show off her body, that’s fine, but I think we can all agree that there are much better ways to show off how well you can play capoeira. 🙂

That’s actually really shocking about the capoeira classes you’ve visited! I haven’t ever heard anything like that in my classes…someone might refer to size or weight, but it’ll always be in passing, while talking about a sequence, for example; they would never comment on the size/weight itself for the sake of it.

And I say we have EVERY right to complain! As long as we are not the ones saying and acting like it’s okay, why must we suffer for it and take responsiblity for the ones who are? Just because someone in your capoeira group lets herself be ogled does not mean that the oglers can treat you that way too. Not AT ALL. To each her own, right? 😉 On that note, however, I also think we should be careful about extending the actions/decisions of the particular women who chose to do this calendar to “women in capoeira” in general. I wouldn’t say women in capoeira as a group put themselves out there at ALL, like the women in this calendar. And as for women or girls who start training solely to “look cute” and “check out the guys”…I don’t consider them “women in capoeira”!

But yes, returning to the calendar, everything about it except for possibly the write-up screams sexualization and objectification. As for whether they’re putting it out there that this is okay…well, I can’t imagine that they’d do anything like that intentionally, but it’s true that the mere existence of the calendar itself seems to suggest that. Perhaps they just didn’t think it through very far, or didn’t consider any of the issues we are? Maybe we should get one of them over onto this blog and ask her…

7 12 2009
Alicia

Hi. Ok, so here is the woman who wrote the message coming to blog. I’ve read what has been written here, about myself and the others who participated in this project. I have also read your opinions on the deeper ramifications of what was, to us, a very fun experience where the group of us went on a road trip to play some capoeira and came back feeling very beautiful. During that trip, I saw girls who had never thought of themselves as sensual become so. I saw a woman who had a baby six weeks before rediscover that part of her as well. Before all of you continue into the finer points of objectification, I suppose that I need to also ask you which of you find it objectifying and sexualizing for men to play capoeira with their shirts off? I have had men come up to me before and give me crap for wearing a half shirt while they stand there shirtless. I have also seen countless photos of men playing on the beach in their sungas. Hmmm, fair? Hardly. I find it funny how men, particularly Brazilian men, are very much focused on their physiques in this art–the strength, lines and deep physical fitness that does, or should, come along with intense training. Why should we be any different. Most women I know who have begun training have seen a wonderful change in their bodies, and that is a good thing. If they want to show that, what is the problem…that it makes someone who isn’t in shape uncomfortable? That it makes the feminists upset? Well girls, sorry about that, but you are really just going to have to get over it.

Frankly, I find it amusing that so much has been made of this calendar, and so many girls have screamed, “objectification”. You ask if we think it is ok that this makes it so we are ogled. Did you really think that we are not ogled already? Have you forgotten every batizado where Mestres are inappropriate with young white cords, or married men pick up on females? Or the ass grabbing that comes along with each cord? For me, this is a much bigger issue, but quite frankly, dressing in baggy clothes and pretending that I am not a beautiful woman is not going to solve that. The interesting thing to me also is that, to a woman, every person in this calendar has shown exemplary character, moral judgement and control (read, doesn’t sleep with Mestres, upper cords, or participate in the disgusting almost incestual partner switching within the group that is so common) throughout their capoeira careers.

The point of my write up in combination with (what to you seems contradictory) photos of bikini-clad women playing capoeira is to underline the point that we are women. It was a bit of the tongue-in-cheek, and also a bit of the finger to the boys who do harass us. Do we also show our capoeira skills in other ways? Yes. Look up pregnant capoeira on YouTube. Both of us were in that calendar, and in this video we are playing at 7 and 5 months pregnant. These days, we attend rodas with toddlers in tow and help the lower cords avoid the pitfalls of groping Mestres and getting in shape. Being a woman is a kaleidescope of sides–sensual, strong, pregnant, the list goes on. This calendar was a slice of one side, never meant to be taken as a whole. But, we really weren’t that concerned to overly clarify that for anyone. Especially the girls. We thought you all would get it. Oh well, back to the roda.

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