Another View of Women In Mas
By ABBIGAIL AJIM
Some years ago a young male student told me that while on the streets for carnival, video camera in hand, he was surprised by the reaction from the many female revelers he encountered. He was amazed at their wild abandon and collective “performance” for his camera no matter where he went. This in itself was not striking or extraordinary; after all carnival is a time when we are licensed to “free-up” and as he reminded me he was a media student trying to hone his nascent skills in videography. What was remarkable, however, was his admission that the battery in his video camera was not charged.
Such performances before a camera are not isolated to the two-day Carnival celebrations, but can also be seen at the numerous carnival fetes which begin as early as August where a key feature is the roving photographer eager to generate an iconic photograph which can draw viewers to an advertiser’s website or social networking page and ultimately convert them into consumers. The image of the female is central to the carnival celebrations, not only because of the continuing aesthetic and gender shift which see streets dominated by women as opposed to by-gone years when male revelers ruled, but because it is now one of the main driving forces behind the marketing of Carnival for international visitors. One needs only to look at the images used to sell the festival by the growing number of Carnival magazines and on fete tickets, and websites for carnival bands, hotels, and the various Ministries responsible for attracting the modest 60,000 visitors (according to the Prime Minister’s estimates) to appreciate that Carnival bears the likeness of the female figure.
But it is not just any female figure. It is one that is youthful and slender and bears European features—long hair (often purchased), light-coloured eyes (courtesy contact lenses) framed by false eye-lashes; perfect skin, vision, and teeth. The perfect woman having the time of her life – liberated, confident, in control, happy, and earning enough money to pay for prohibitive costumes which can exceed the monthly salary of many. Quite often, these images seem foreign, because indeed they are. They are not your typical Trinidad and Tobago female and as a result they are illusory at best. A figment of our imagination – a look which has become iconic because of the pop and porn-culture world we inhabit and just another aspect of our ceaseless appetite for American culture. This unquestioning imitation sees us sporting leather jackets, scarves and thigh-high boots at Movie Towne on humid Saturday evenings.
They are the images that shape the standards of beauty our young women aspire to – even the ones whose body type will never allow them to attain such a physique regardless of countless hours of exercise or dangerous diet plans. For decades the Barbie Doll has helped shaped the concept of beauty for five year-olds across the world. From a tender age the image of beauty has been clearly drawn for us. This has placed a primacy on physical traits like “good hair,” “nice complexion,” “light eyes”, and “straight noses” while children with features further removed from the European/Western ideal have regarded themselves as ugly. Worse still is the inability to even recognize ourselves. In the award-winning film Precious, the title character, a young black girl, played by Gabourey Sidibe, sees her mirror image as that of a young white woman.
This outlook on beauty lasts well into adulthood when it is ossified by Hollywood and MTV. In his book The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon noted that the major weapon of the colonizers was the imposition of their image on the subjugated people – a point perhaps not considered by Mattel, the makers of the Barbie Doll, but one with lasting consequences for the people of the Caribbean region. It is no coincidence that television and newspaper coverage of the Carnival festivities makes distinctions in the subjects photographed for “pretty mas” on Monday and Tuesday and “dirty mas” for j’ouvert celebrations.
Andrea Shaw notes in her book The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, that women’s bodies are used to signify the nation in ways that are ultimately harmful for them. She observed the “fat black woman’s unruly political body is out of place especially at Carnival which has become a more commodified, commercially driven enterprise which re-inscribes class divisions rather than turning them on their heads as Carnival has been expected to do.” When Kerwin DuBois was joined on stage by a large young scantily clad member of the audience at the Battle of the Sexes concert, her presence signified matter out of place; one that was ridiculed and laughed at, particularly as she was also sharing the stage with Destra Garcia considered a sex-symbol by many. She was viewed as the archetypical modern-day jammette and her presence was precipitated by cell phones illuminating the front of the stage to capture and share the public performance of what Shaw calls an “unruly” and “disruptive” body. The stage that night was the site of the simultaneous celebration and denigration of the female form.
Despite Gordon Roehler’s view that carnival affords women the same sexual and social freedom which men enjoy and cherish (summed up in the popular notion that “Carnival is woman”), the festival continues to reinforce deeply regimented patriarchal, social and cultural constructs. Notwithstanding the popularity of female soca artistes over the years, men maintain a firm grip on all major competitions and the prize monies that go with them. In its eighty year history, only three women have claimed the Road March title. Female performers often perform songs written by male composers and must continuously push the envelope in acceptable behaviour and attire. Women must appear attractive by donning revealing outfits and dangerously high-heels to compete for the male gaze. At one popular fete on Carnival Saturday women of all ages, undeterred by the onset of cellulite and other “hazards” of ageing, wore the shortest of shorts to keep up with girls half their ages. While the female form is objectified and fragmented into body parts (illustrated by the close-up shots in advertisements by many alcohol and beer manufacturers) women continue to view the celebration as liberating.
But Peggy Phelan puts an interesting perspective on this discourse. She reminds us that if wearing a bikini is liberating, then “almost-naked young white women should be running western culture.”
(Abbigail Ajim is an educator in the field of media and communications)