Post 350.

As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.

Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.

This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.

There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.

There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls. Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.

The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die”, and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking, women-only wining and queer potential in a safe space created by women themselves.

Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. Only four brands are visible in the video. It’s almost blatantly an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense. Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.

The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more.

In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels.

Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out. It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma. One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.

Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 217.

Contemporary celebrity-led, liberal feminism mass markets a super-feminine image to young women today. This brand of empowerment-on-stilettos shouts out independent ladies who make their own money and it promotes unapologetic sexiness as ultimate self-expression and woman power.
 
This ideal didn’t come from nowhere. In the last decades, as women began to enter the formal economy in droves, they encountered a backlash telling them they were stepping out of their pre-ordained, natural spaces, jobs and roles, and were acting like men or like they wanted to be men. Imagine the pressure to find ways to not be de-sexed, to not be considered the wrong kind of too-mannish woman, to access the validation of femininity as well as education and the economy. Women were, after all, still being brought up to identify with and desire all three.
 
They had to be better than boys at school and men at work to get to the top, but they also had to make sure they didn’t end up without a man, marriage and children, in case they failed to be ‘real’ women. In addition to leaving room for men to be men, desirability was the other key balance all women had to negotiate, or be labeled too masculine. Failure to be successful in this way came with myriad costs. The fashion industry stepped in to make sure that brains in no way made beauty obsolete.
 
This brief history explains how smart, qualified women all over can today be seen in offices in five-inch heels, unheard of thirty years ago. It explains how women came to see shoes and makeup as empowering, and why so much hard-earned money is cycled back into lipstick rather than owning land. Do as well as they could in the job market, women would be left feeling like the carpet if they were also not responsible enough to become ‘appropriately’ feminine, meaning as they are expected and are told.
 
Women get endless messages that being sexualized remains important and defines our worth. Scan months of Carnival photos, magazines that stare from racks, billboards and commercials. We produce a brilliant array of women’s mas, yet one newspaper’s Carnival Wednesday front page was a full-page photo of Amber Rose. You are invisible and undervalued if you are not sexy and beautiful. Even independent ladies hear this loud and clear.
 
Except Shannon Gomes. She’s among young women denied by such packaging. Intending to be beautiful without stilettos. Looking good and being empowered on her own terms, wherever she goes. Wanting to be seen and valued as a woman without Maybelline making her ‘you, only better’. What happens to her form of femininity in this terrain of empowered womanhood as stereotypically sexy?
 
Unsurprisingly, it becomes cast as failure, as disallowed, as inappropriate, as ‘man’. And, there are costs for such women. There was a cost for Shannon. Denied her womanhood. Denied her femininity. Denied self-determination regarding her body. Stigmatized for not obeying the fashion fix. Told that this is private property, you have no rights. Made to pay.
 
Imagine your daughter or sister being told that if she does not make herself desirable on the most patriarchal of terms, then she is not a woman at all. This is how sexism and homophobia police sexuality and gender.
 
For months I wanted to write this column, highlighting the risks of selling women’s empowerment within hyper-femininity, sexiness and beauty. These normalize and glamorize narrowed options for women to challenge power. They create hierarchies between women. Exclusions are borne by those who don’t conform. Aria Lounge’s petty tyranny isn’t just theory.
 
Young people are protesting there on Friday night, as they should, for sexist discrimination is worth shaming wherever it occurs. Support them with engagement rather than ridicule. Shannon’s experience is but another example of negations reproduced in media images, religious messages, workplace expectations and relationship negotiations. This is why feminists challenge the beauty myth, though its glamour appears innocent. This is why schooling and jobs don’t mean women are yet free. Women should not be forced to fit stereotypical femininity, and feminist bright lights should also highlight those who don’t live by such rules, and who more greatly face a reality of being denied and demeaned. #solidaritywithshannon