Feminism and Other “-isms” in Capoeira: Explanations, Not Excuses

9 11 2008

Believing in an ism may not mean it works for EVERYTHING...

Last year, I randomly came across a blog that said something along the lines of, “Feminism is a crutch that self-indulgent people use as an excuse to keep themselves and other women in a state of perpetual, self-exonerating victimhood.”

(I tried to find an exact quote that summed up the argument, but had to stop after an unsuccessful and depressing hour and a half of trawling through antifeminism blogs and articles.)

Basically, the statement says that feminism is just an excuse for people who haven’t achieved more to go, “It’s not that I’m lazy; the system is working against me!”

While I firmly disagree with the overly reductive and pretty offensive idea that that’s all feminism is (the system and society DOES in one way or another work against practically anybody who isn’t all of white, heterosexual, and male), I have to say that I can see how becoming invested in an “ism” can cause somebody to inadvertently end up using it the way antifeminists mean it. Interestingly enough, I came to this conclusion through capoeira—more specifically, through a maturing of my ideas in last-last week’s post about floreios, strength, and image in capoeira.

When Explanations Go Wild

First off, let me make one thing clear: ISMS (feminism, sexism, racism, homophobia, agism, etc.) are meant to be explanations, not excuses.  If a woman who has earned and deserves a promotion does not get it because of sexism, that is an explanation, rightly used to point out social injustices in the world and how they work, in hopes of fixing the system. If, however, the woman has not earned nor deserves a promotion but cites sexism as the reason for not getting promoted, then she is using sexism as an excuse, in order to exonerate herself from the fact she didn’t work hard enough or needs to work harder in the future.

What I think is that while everybody starts off with -isms as explanations, the more they become immersed in the world of their particular -ism and the more they learn about it and see just how prevalent it is, eventually, there may emerge a potential danger of unconsciously using that -ism as a personal excuse in addition to a legitimate explanation for “failure” or lack of achievement.

As I mentioned, this thought came to me while further thinking through my views on the “floreio effect”. (If you have not yet read the post I wrote on that, it might be a good idea to do so before continuing, so you don’t get lost.  Click here to read it. Don’t worry; we’ll still be here when you return!)

One Thing Needful

In the floreios post, I pinpointed two things that I believe contribute to a capoeira training system that allows certain capoeira students to derive additional benefits from their capoeira training, as compared to less athletically-gifted capoeira students.  These were (1) having or looking as if you have much physical strength and (2) an academy-wide strength-oriented, floreio-centric attitude regarding capoeira training that I termed “weight-class mentality”.

In truth, there’s a third major factor involved, which I left out because I didn’t think of it until after having formed the full theory as I presented it, and because I was saving it for today’s post.  The third factor is the mentality of the “bigger/stronger” capoeira students themselves.

What I realized is that even though capoeira students do benefit hugely if the first two conditions of the “floreio effect” apply to them, it’s not as if they just sit back and do nothing all the while.  Part of how the floreio effect works is that not only are premature impressions of the student’s “advancedness” reinforced in other capoeira students’ and teachers’ minds, they are reinforced in said student themself. So then it becomes a case of them not just attracting “enriched” training, but one where they also gain the confidence to put themselves in positions that enriches their capoeira training.

For instance, sure big/strong capoeira students are challenged more often (and thus have their skills developed at an accelerated pace) by advanced belts in the roda, because some advanced belts assume that because they’re big and strong, of course they can take it, nevermind how long they’ve actually been training for.  But part of the reason that happens is that the students themselves have the confidence to, and do, regularly buy in to play with the advanced capoeiristas!

Are you turning your -ism into an excuse?

“Anything You Can Do…”

Here’s the important thing: That third factor?  It’s not an external circumstance. It’s completely in the person’s control how much confidence they exude and whether they behave like they’re a beginner (shying away) or a more advanced capoeirista (taking chances and putting yourself out there), triggering further impressions in others that affect their perceptions of you as a capoeirista, despite whether or not you actually are beginner or advanced.

Once I realized that, I felt that my floreio theory had begun to show a slight tear between the stitches.  In a way, it was another -ism. For the purposes of this post, let’s call it “strengthism”. So while I still believe “strengthism” provides a legitimate explanation, without recognizing that third factor it was also possibly functioning as an excuse.  Full disclosure: I never bought in with solidly more advanced capoeiristas in the roda, in my own group, before the “floreio effect” theory and everything I just wrote about occurred to me. I do now!!!

Returning to feminism, or sexism/misogyny, in the context of capoeira there is also a danger of falling back into that as an “excuse” for not advancing.  First, in no way am I discounting the sexism and misogyny that exists; it does, in all the forms and with all the effects on people that feminism describes. At the same time, the point where you take an -ism beyond what it can explain is when it turns into an excuse.  Thus, sexism affects women in capoeira, but since there are still many women succeeding and advancing in capoeira, if you are a woman who isn’t, then it’s probably (for the most part) not completely fair to blame non-success totally on sexism.  Does that make sense?

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

To make it really clear, I’ll use another “strengthism” example from my own experience.  Over the past couple months, for one reason or another, I’ve started to hear a refrain that goes, “technique’s fine, just need more strength [to do the move properly]”, or “good game, you would’ve killed if you were bigger”, and other similar comments that eventually did make me feel strength[ism] was the ONE thing holding me back from actually being good (or, to follow Angoleiro’s prudent example: “good” 😉 ). To be honest, I’m pretty sure my frustration over that was what brought the “floreio effect” to my attention in the first place.

What made me realize the danger of stretching an explanation into an excuse was just another normal instance of the above during a capoeira class: I couldn’t quite get a certain move, and sure enough…”your technique’s fine; it’s just strength”.  By then, I think I’d heard this message often enough that my mind reached a certain point and almost got sucked into some sort of ironic backwards somersault: “Okay, you would be good if you were stronger.  So basically, you are good, since the only thing missing is strength, and you can’t help that so it’s not your fault, especially with the floreio effect in play.” (The unsaid implication: “So now you can rest on your system-is-against-me laurels and become a complacent capoeira student.”)

So obviously, a few problems with that. Firstly, lack of strength is definitely not “the one thing missing”; it’s the weakest point, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m particularly good at all the other stuff.  Secondly, not having more strength is my fault if I know that’s the problem but still do nothing about fixing it when I have the means to. (Just so you know, I started working out regularly for the first time in my life this past summer, precisely to get stronger for capoeira, and that was before all this came up. And yes, I am proud of myself for actually having kept it up, thank you very much. 😛 )

Finally, what?! “Would be” to “is” represents a somewhat large mental leap there.  It’s like that comic strip with a huge scientific equation on the chalkboard, and halfway through there’s step labelled “then a miracle happens”!  This is complacency: if I really did believe I was already “good” in all the non-strength aspects of capoeira (which I’m not, assuming good means “above average”), then it would be easy to blame all future non-success on lack of strength alone and not on possible weaknesses in those other areas. So then, I’d end up dismissive of moves I can’t get, stop paying attention to non-strength abilities, and ultimately become weakened in everything.  Complacency is sneaky like that.

Of course, that hasn’t really happened.  But it did make me realize the potential “trap” one could inadvertently slide into by investing too deeply in or drawing too deeply on the explanatory powers of a particular -ism.  It’s becoming complacent in the face of discrimination or extenuating circumstances, precisely because you’re so aware it exists. The ultimate irony is that if that happens, you will have kept yourself down even further than discrimination alone might have, completely defeating the purpose we have and learn about -isms in the first place.

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