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:
http://www.capoeiraarizona.com/images/calendar.jpg
http://www.sfmai.org/karate/images/stories/darwin1.bw.jpg
http://blog.syracuse.com/video/2007/11/110207_capoeira.jpg

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10 responses

18 03 2008
qualahda

where is it you comment on me, or my sayings?
your blogs are very nice and written. specially enjoyed this last one on how women represent themselves in capoeira. you think you have a very interesting point there!

18 03 2008
Joaninha

Hey Qualhada, thanks, and check your email!

18 03 2008
Shayna

You would really like the booklet Caxixi which was published at the conference; I bet if you e-mailed FICA-DC they could mail you a copy for a small amount. It contains stories, poems, thoughts, pictures, etc. from female capoeiristas – both on the mestre-level and on the everyday-student-level – some really good stuff. I skimmed through it; wish I’d bought a copy.

I’d once again emphasize how important it is to include representations of women in “normal” capoeira stuff, not just stuff that specifically focuses on “women in capoeira.” For example, Mestre Paulinha gave the example of the recently-produced documentary “Mandinga em Manhattan” (which is excellent, btw). 60 minutes of documentary about capoeira inside and outside Brazil, and the presence of women is minute. Did the filmmakers just not even think of asking Paulinha and Janja and Jararaca to contribute?

As you pointed out, sometimes lack of representation is due to simple unbalanced numbers (18 men and 2 women in a group’s roda or whatever), but nowadays, especially outside Brazil, that’s not the case.

Side note: I think a great post would be something about “Why women quit capoeira” or feel discouraged from continuing. Capoeira has been legal in Brazil for 80 years and spreading outside of it for 30, yet we still don’t see very many women at advanced, instructor-levels (10+ years). Do women quit because they have children? Do they quit because they feel they hit a glass ceiling? Do they quit because of mistreatment from their mestres? Do they just invest themselves in other things in life and move away from capoeira?

And – “women capoeiristas” sounds incorrect because it is. Women is a noun, not an adjective. I guess it would be “female capoeiristas.” Interestingly enough, according to dictionary.com, the singular noun “woman” CAN be used as an adjective, so it’s technically correct to say “woman capoeirista.”

18 03 2008
Shayna

P.S. I didn’t mean that last paragraph to come off quite so snobby… meant to put a winky-face 😉 and a statement about my grammar-nerdery! 😀

18 03 2008
Joaninha

Hey Shayna!

Ironically enough (so ironic), Mandinga em Manhattan was the very documentary that “awokened” in me the sense of “HEY, there are female mestres in capoeira?!?!? Why haven’t I heard of them before now?!?!?”

Yes, I agree with that re-emphasis too, and that uneven numbers isn’t really the case outside of Brasil anymore either. And that does sound like a great idea for a blog post! I don’t think I’ve had enough exposure or been close enough to women who have quit to write anything comprehensive on it though…but it’s definitely worth thinking about.

Haha, no worries, and as a fellow grammar nerd I completely understood! Only…you didn’t really answer my question. 😛 I said “women capoeiristas”—so I guess “woman capoeirista” sounded okay, while “men capoeiristas” didn’t; so it’s exactly what dictionary.com said, that “woman” can be used as an adjective, while “man” isn’t. I wonder why that is/how that happened?

20 03 2008
Brotheromi

i will say this, there needs to be MORE women in capoeira PERIOD. there are some urban areas such as NYC and LA where women make up a substantial majority in some schools but outside of those urban centers, you find schools with maybe a handful of women.

then we have to remember about the capoeira attrition rates. it’s easy to say that most people stay in capoeira for a good three years at best and then stop taking it altogether for several reasons (financial, career, time, etc.) . Now let’s apply that attrition rate to genders.

I don’t see ANY issues with the representation of women in Capoeira because there isn’t THAT many women in Capoeira. PErsonally, I can count on one hand how many women I know very well who have taken capoeira consistently for the entire time I have been taking. I have several female acquaintances who take Capoeira but all but one have taken capoeira for less than a year so I can’t really count them.

good points but I don’t think they are valid at this point. In ten years, maybe…

21 03 2008
Joaninha

Hey Brotheromi,

That’s actually a really interesting point you brought up, that I didn’t think of before. So you’re saying that it’s not that there’s too little representation of women, it’s just that there are too few women to represent? So almost as if by increasing representation we’d be “inflating” the appearance of women in capoeira… hmm.

On the other hand, that’s interesting that you know so few women who have trained consistently for a long time, because I know tons who have trained the entire time I’ve been doing capoeira or longer, having started before me! (Although, wait…it’s true I’ve been training less than three years though. How long have you done capoeira for?)

Back to the representation thing though, it’s possible that it could be a cycle…there are few women in capoeira so there is little representation…since there’s little representation some women might think it’s not really for them so they don’t join or quit…and so on…

Either way, I don’t think it would hurt to increase representation (on the contrary, I still believe), especially when it’s in terms of archiving events and accomplishments rather than just some sort of publicity campaign!

4 04 2008
Brotheromi

actually, i am not saying that if more women came into capoeira it would be an inflation. i am saying capoeira needs MORE women!

I have been training for 7 years now. it’s funny cause 3 to 4 years seems to be the point where many capoeiristas either stop playing or really minimize their involvement. this can be found in almost all martial arts where there are high attrition rates. it does get tougher since the longer you stay in, the more advance you become.

i agree there is a cycle. a young lady comes to a class and sees a bunch of dudes, some of who are salivating, some of whom want to kick her around, and some who are just cool.

there are more reasons why a woman would stop coming to capoeira than there are for a man. i have heard the complaints.

i dig the posts on the women in capoeira. thanks for responding and i apologize for taking so long to respond to this.

4 04 2008
Joaninha

Oh, I meant would it *look* as if we were artificially inflating the appearance of women in capoeira, if we were representing more women than are actually in capoeira at the time! (I hope that made sense =S)

Seven years, wow. I guess I’ll be coming up to that test point soon, since I’ll be rounding out my 3rd year come August!

Thanks, I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts, and no problem!

13 01 2009
Angolinha

Joaninha, Shayna and Brother Omi,

What a great article and discussion! After reading this some time ago I had two thoughts. I found a few minutes to share these now.

The first is in regards to Brother Omi’s observation in the responses. He writes, “there is a cycle. a young lady comes to a class and sees a bunch of dudes, some of who are salivating, some of whom want to kick her around, and some who are just cool.” I can not say for sure but my guess is that the same circumstances may hold true for any young gentleman who comes to class.

The second is in regards to Joaninha’s observation in the article. She writes about “the (over?)sexualization of women in capoeira.” I would argue that there is an oversexualization of women everywhere right now. No need for the question mark or the parenthesis. Perhaps it would not be far flung to argue that men are being oversexualized everywhere right now too.

Hope to see you in a roda!

Muito obrigada,
Angolinha Mandinga

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