FROM FETING TO FEMINISTING
by Malene Alleyne
Originally posted on Fringe Unicorn, August, 2018
While many have associated Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival with misogyny, there is a radical feminist discourse that sizzles beneath the glitter. In this brand of bacchanal feminism, female feters are negotiating spaces of liberation and agency within Carnival culture. And in true Carnival spirit, this discourse is bold and provocative, engaging every platform of expression, including the female body itself. This article takes a musical journey through two strands of feminist thought that are making waves at Carnival: the rejection of rape culture and the reconstruction of female sexuality.
REJECTION OF RAPE CULTURE
Some of the hallmarks of rape culture include victim blaming, “slut shaming,” and the “boys will be boys” narrative that coddles toxic masculinity.
As the Caribbean region continues to grapple with high levels of gender-based violence, women are using Carnival as a space to challenge rape culture, a phenomenon that refers to the trivializing and normalization of sexual violence. This culture is perpetuated, in part, by stereotypes of masculinity that encourage aggression and by the myth that “misbehaving” women are “asking for it.” Some of the hallmarks of rape culture include victim blaming, “slut shaming,” and the “boys will be boys” narrative that coddles toxic masculinity.
These markers were on full display during the 2016 Carnival season after the murder of female carnival-goer, Asami Nagakiya. In a classic case of victim blaming, the then Mayor of Port-of-Spain suggested that Asami Nagakiya’s murder was linked to her carnival costume. He told Trinidad and Tobago—and the world—that women have the responsibility to ensure that they are not abused by refraining from “lewd” and “vulgar” behavior.
These comments sparked outrage and a national conversation about rape culture. Following in the footsteps of the SlutWalk movement, Trinidad and Tobagonian protesters took to the streets with signs bearing slogans such as “sexual assault predates Carnival”; “the Masquerade is not an invitation”; and “violence against women is the problem, not our clothes.” The #NotAskingForIt campaign was also launched to reject victim blaming in cases of gender-based violence.
But it was Soca artist, Calypso Rose, who put the feminism in bacchanal—or the bacchanal in feminism, depending on how you look at it.
Her 2017 hit song, Leave Me Alone, was described as a “rallying cry of women festival-goers in a stand against the misogyny and gendered violence of Carnivals past.” In this feminist anthem, Calypso Rose casually sings, “boy don’t touch me, like you goin’ crazy. Let go my hand, when I jump up in the band.”
Behind its jovial melody, Leave Me Alone presents a powerful critique for those men who see the Masquerade costume, and the female body itself, as an invitation to treat. Importantly, Leave Me Alone provides a well-needed rejoinder to Carnival songs that portray men as being genetically programmed to harass women—the “boys will be boys” narrative behind rape culture. In Tempted to Touch, for example, Rupee tells women, in a beguilingly soft voice, “I lose all control when I see you standing there in front of me…Please forgive me, please excuse me, but there’s nothing else that a man can do.” Calypso Rose literally says this is crazy, rejecting the normalization of sexual violence and standing firmly behind the woman’s right to say no—even at Carnival.
This strand of feminist thought is clearing space for a new culture of consent in Carnival and beyond. During this year’s Carnival season, the Trinidad and Tobago police warned carnival-goers that they can be arrested for unsolicited gyrating or, in local lingo, “tiefin a wine.” Speaking directly to those who are “tempted to touch” and elevating Calypso Rose’s discourse to the level of law enforcement, the police announced that any physical touching where there is no consent with one of the parties involved is in fact unlawful and can be deemed an assault. Simple yet revolutionary.
RECONSTRUCTION OF FEMALE SEXUALITY
“I wan’ sing like Destra, but still wuk it like Lucy. I wan’ get on nasty, but still wan’ keep it groovy. Storm the road like hurricane, but still wan’ keep it classy. I don’t know, I don’t know. But the way I feel in my soul, I feel so right.” – Destra
But bacchanal feminism goes far beyond the rejection of rape culture. Rather, it captures the very essence of female empowerment. In the second strand of feminist thought, female feters are redefining stereotypes of female sexuality with their own narratives of discovery and agency. Destra Garcia, the “Queen of Bachanal, provides the perfect example. In a remarkably creative trilogy of songs—Lucy, Destra versus Lucy, and Lucy Show Off—Destra skillfully navigates the complexity of female sexuality while challenging the notion of women as passive repositories of meaning.
The first song, Lucy, is about the awakening of female sexuality. In this song and video, the carnival spirit transforms Destra from a “real good girl” to Loose Lucy. That is, bikini-wearing, dutty-wining, Lucy. Lucy “drops it hot,” wines and grinds on the speaker box, and she loves it. Destra uses Lucy to embrace the bacchanal spirit with a subversive narrative that is bold and provocative. Society calls her Loose Lucy, but she says “I’m looser than Lucy!” Destra was raised to be a “real good girl,” but Lucy says, “now show me your slackness!” In Lucy’s world, “slackness” is not a sign of moral turpitude or internalized victimization; it is a source of liberation and sheer joy.
While the first song was about Destra’s discovery of Lucy, the second song in the trilogy is about the struggle between Destra and Lucy. Destra versus Lucy delves into the dualism of female sexuality in a society that still peddles sexist notions of “ladylike” behavior:
“I wan’ sing like Destra, but still wuk it like Lucy. I wan’ get on nasty, but still wan’ keep it groovy. Storm the road like hurricane, but still wan’ keep it classy. I don’t know, I don’t know. But the way I feel in my soul, I feel so right.”
Here, Destra desperately seeks liberation, but she is restrained by a moralizing discourse that defines what female sexuality ought to be, if at all. And this moralizing discourse is as much internal as it is external.
Destra knows that, in real life, society will define Lucy as either a victim of internalized objectification or a “lewd” and “vulgar” woman who is “asking for it.” And yet, being Lucy feels so right.
The third song in the trilogy takes us from the depths of dualism to the apogee of agency. In Lucy Show Off, the video opens with a shot of a woman erasing the name “Destra” and replacing it with “Lucy.” The woman in doubt disappears and the narrative that ensues is powerful:
“You feel you have all that bottom for nothing? And you feel you looking good here for nothing? And it seems like you don’t really know what you have, then let me tell you something. Gyal Show off! You look sweet. So sexy in your designer physique. Show off! Wave when you pass, in your costume playing your mas. Gyal parade it, parade it, parade it! Don’t be afraid to wine and misbehave.”
Here, Lucy does not need society to sanction her sexuality and she is not a passive repository of meaning. Rather, she exudes meaning. Armed with the autonomy of self-definition, Lucy positively reconstructs the negative image of the so-called “slack” or “misbehaving” woman. In the new narrative that emerges, the female body is a site of strength, not shame. And female sexuality is a force to be celebrated, not chaste-ised. Importantly, beyond the joy and celebration of it all, female sexuality is about power. Lucy makes it clear that she is not a victim of objectification, but instead has the power to dominate male sexuality. In the most decisively powerful part of the song, Lucy, sings, “and look they coming. Two, four, six, eight, ten man coming!” In the video, these men are visibly “tempted to touch” and advance with a caricatured stereotype of masculinity that would prompt Calypso Rose to say “leave me alone.” But Lucy says, “kill them with the wuk!” And in the animated video, Lucy levitates in the air and slaps a man across his face with, presumably, the most powerful muscle on her body—the gluteus maximus! Simple, yet revolutionary.
FEMINISM IS EVERYWHERE
This journey through Carnival culture reinforced for me that, even in spaces that are associated with misogyny, feminist discourse is present, powerful, messy and thought-provoking all at the same time. For instance, some feminists will see Lucy as a reductive, anti-feminist portrayal of internalized objectification or dismiss Destra’s videos as outrageously lewd, especially those audiences who are unfamiliar with Carnival culture. Others will praise or even envy Lucy’s liberation. Many more will be confused and will not know what to think. I say that Carnival is a site of feminist thought, not because it provides consensus about feminism, but because it pushes us to think boldly and inclusively about the feminist agenda, no matter where we may find ourselves.
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