Post 492.

CARNIVAL cannot pass without calypso and soca flinging up issues of gender and sexuality.

Patrice Robert’s tribute to Penguin comes at a highly contested moment in the negotiation of contemporary manhood, in a region transformed by Caribbean feminist struggle for social justice and a male backlash which retributively accuses women of becoming too powerful.

Yet, feminist transformation also made it possible to speak positively about men’s emotions and allowing boys to cry, men’s emotional fragility under the rigid mask of manhood, and men as human beings who embody qualities of gentleness as well as strength. In this context, there are complex, contradictory and even problematic meanings in engaging Penguin’s Soft Man today.

Much has been written about this 1984 Calypso Monarch winner which documents the threatened status of the erect penis or phallus, or stickman’s bois, as the ultimate representation of manhood and its dominance over women.

Such dominance included a division of household roles into masculine and feminine, such that a soft man was also undesirable because of his failure to live up to an ideal of tough masculinity, instead becoming associated with the emotional and domestic responsibilities expected of women.

In calypso, the threat to the phallus and its sexual potency was frequently portrayed in terms of an emasculating female demand, power and sexuality. Indeed, softness was a kind of death or castration, leaving men aberrant and unwanted. This became particularly risky in a changing world where women were becoming more educationally and occupationally dominant, sexually assertive, difficult to subordinate and unwilling to settle.

As the doyen of calypso scholarship, Prof Gordon Rohlehr, has written, fulfilment of manhood was about having a sturdier bois than rivals, sexually satisfying women with the strength of one’s “boy,” and fulfilling the superior role of a warrior-king-cocksman.

Thus, Penguin’s advice was that women don’t like a man who is easily ruled and advantaged. Instead, a man must “lead/supply all his woman’s needs/never let his yard get weeds/dig the soil and plant the seeds.” In other words, be macho, head the family, be a provider, have frequent sex, and prove virility through impregnation.

In Patrice’s 2023 version, she is a glitteringly hypersexualised and strong black woman surrounded by sweaty, bare-chested, muscular brown and black men, some of whom are soldering in a machine shop while sparks fly. Presumably, this representation of working-class masculinity depicts what remains hard and desirable, though she seems derisive of them all.

Repeatedly, she is shown hanging by her arms while a macho man (or one with such ambitions) throws punches (that do not land) at her stomach while she smirks at his impotence. There’s sexual harassment leading to a woman lashing down a (short)man, who slapped her bottom, while other men laugh at him. The soft man is the one who should have come to her defence, but meekly surrendered, even in a fight he could have won.

The song’s lyrics declare that bacchanal-loving, thirsty, irresponsible, promiscuous, poor, violent and garrulous men are all equally scorned. An incompetent man who makes a woman change a tyre is labelled soft. Patrice further details her defiance of men who tell her what to do by doing the opposite and telling them to hush.

It’s reminiscent of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech when Patrice declares, “I name Woman.” It’s also in the tradition of women calypsonians. In Reddock’s 2004 collection, Rohlehr writes of Calypso Rose’s “persistent rejection” of lovers “who drink heavily, beat women, indulge in rough sex that is close to rape, and, in addition, exist like parasites off the earnings of the working woman.”

Similarly, Patrice lists men whom women love, including those who rough up, cuss and beat them. She distances herself from such enfeebled women and unsatisfactory men, declaring her superiority through what Rohlehr describes as the derisive, “mocking scrutiny of a woman’s eye.”

Here, Patrice is a stickfighter shaming men of broken bois although they comprise different characteristics from Penguin’s original. She is commentator, protester, “rebel against male sexism” and “confident celebrant of her own sexuality…now open in the challenge she poses to the old patriarchal structures” even as she wields its stereotypes.

To return to Rohlehr’s brilliant phrasing, “What phallus, however well-inflated or intentioned, would not quail beneath such withering and contemptuous scrutiny?” Such withering, or an inability to withstand a “running report” on the quality of manhood’s performance, renders a man soft, unsuccessful and out-of-step in a 21st century, gendered gayelle. Such ongoing contestation is the story this calypso tells.

Post 452.

I COULDN’T let this week pass without remembering Andrea Bharatt and the one-year anniversary of her disappearance on January 29, 2021. What words about sexual violence against women could I say which I have not said again and again? 

One year later, women are no less afraid. The macabre irony of another murdered woman found half naked in Aripo Savannah on January 30, almost in the same place and almost to the day, reminds us that the war against women remains alive. 

It is a war in which women are targeted because of their sex and in which men’s sexual violence is part and parcel of their lethality. 

We don’t just live in fear, we live in wait for the next brutality. The story of another lost 18-year-old like Ashanti Riley, innocently travelling to her grandmother, would horrify, but not surprise. Another minor sexually assaulted in a taxi would cause us to caution her to be more careful, warnings that come like a rite of passage, and an unjust responsibility.

There were no marches for Shadie Dasrath, 31, found nude in her bedroom in December. Her common-law husband has been charged with her murder. 

Before men kill there are always patterns of threat, control, anger, cruelty and rape so normalised that they are commonly excused. 

In-between the tragedy of Ashanti’s disappearance on November 29, 2020 and Andrea’s discarded body found on February 4, 2021 is the ill-conceived headline published in the Guardian, “Woman raped after smoking marijuana with attacker.” I use it to teach students about victim-blame and woman-blame, and about those women who are not considered angels or perfect, so often represented as deserving of whatever violence men mete out to them. 

The real story is that the woman was sleeping next to her baby when she awoke to find the man raping her. With her baby as witness, the man pointed a gun at her and threatened to shoot her in her own home. Why didn’t the headline say, “Man rapes and threatens to shoot woman asleep with her baby?” What is the message still being sent about where responsibility for violence lies? 

In the midst of this, men’s rights representatives in Trinidad and Tobago sought headlines for the issue of violence against men and boys. Women feature in such violence as mothers or guardians and intimate partners. However, this is continually hyper-emphasised over men and boys’ more pervasive, dispersed and lethal violence to other boys and men. 

Locally, men and boys are killed in domestic violence disputes (by other men). They also experience sexual and other forms of abuse in their homes (predominantly, though, not only by men). Globally, they die in unspeakable numbers from wars and gang warfare among men. They experience bullying mainly from other boys. Mass shootings in the US are perpetrated by boys and men. 

The language of this campaign to establish an international day for this issue side-steps this reality of perpetration entirely, focusing only on men and boys as victims, citing “invisible” brothers, fathers and sons, “vulnerable boys and voiceless men.” Feminists have long been concerned about these intersectional forms of violence and a lot of money has been spent on them across the hemisphere.

Like women, men fear men. What they don’t fear is the sexual abuse and sexual violence that are a threat to girls and women every day. Competitive men’s rights staking of terrain doesn’t recognise inequalities in perpetration, but Andrea and Ashanti’s memory must not allow us to forget. 

I wondered why this campaign so completely missed the need to name and end male violence, from wars, gangs and prisons to bondage of women sex workers in brothels to the sexual violence which threatens with a gun or instead physically bludgeons at home, stabs to death in front of children, sets on fire in a car, buries in a grave or leaves naked or half-naked raped and dead in a forest. 

I’ll repeat recommendations in other columns as I have before and will again. Today, I’m shuddering with recognition. One year later, even as we still protest, we have not changed the world from which these young women were taken.

Post 278.

Twenty-year-old Christine Chuniesingh lost her life to intimate partner violence this week. She won’t be the last woman for the year to die at the hands of her male partner.

A month ago, the National Security Minister reported to the Senate that police were focusing on responding to violence against women through a visible presence, marked and unmarked vehicles, town meetings and more.

These steps are good news, but as the State Minister for National Security in Jamaica pointed out last year, violence against women is not a police issue, it’s a national issue.

This should be kept in mind by the AG and the National Security Minister when they want to put this problem in the hands of cops instead of recognizing that approval of a coherent strategy is Cabinet’s responsibility.

So, the question is, what is our national response? And, how is this national response rolling out through the school system, the health care system, collaboration with the private sector, and more? How are we explaining the paradox of these murders of women even while reports of domestic violence have been falling?

Is the state’s position that it has no idea how to prevent deaths in these numbers, given that we are already at 50% of the women murdered by their partners for all of last year?

It’s well-established that intimate partner violence is founded in our current ideas about masculinity and femininity, and the association between manhood and power over women. Violence is simply a way to keep this in place when its being challenged in interpersonal relationships.

Already, there’s denial of this association by representatives of the men’s rights movement, who against all national data, including the numbers of intimate partner killings, argue that women are more violent than men.

Already, there’s a myth that women have taken over the state, the court system, the labour market, and the education system, and that men are now the real victims of gender inequality.

Already, there’s a backlash to women doing well in education and employment, with many bringing all this empowerment back to a mythical marginalization of men, and the necessity of making women account to men’s feelings about their goals for autonomy.

This wider societal backlash to women wanting a life beyond male control plays out in relationships too. Containment of women’s empowerment explains intimate partner physical and sexual violence (the male backlash model), such as when women are earning more than men or pursuing qualifications beyond men’s own.

Men also don’t believe women have a right to leave relationships whenever they chose, and deal with feelings of rejection and failure with a reassertion of masculinity and control.

These dynamics get established in childhood, through big processes such as the socialization of children to differences between women and men, and their meanings and their value.

Such socialization isn’t only by mothers, but by all family members, media, peers, educators, neighbourhood members, and more. It is also learned through specific experiences such as witnessing or experiencing familial violence or child abuse.

But, at the heart of all these is a resilient belief in the notions of manhood and womanhood we take to be normal, and in the kinds of respect women should have for male authority and power that we take to be natural. The police cannot transform these beliefs.

As Cabinet is dominated by men, I can legitimately say that it takes balls to decide to go against what falsely appears to be God-given, and instead wake up to what ending this problem really needs.

Somewhere in Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a woman who is going to be the next one killed. It’s just a waiting game until we know her name.

We don’t have an urgent, coherent, cross-sectoral, national strategy to prevent or even systematically reduce this violence against women. I’ll be relieved but surprised if we do by the time we hear that news.