Carnival controversies: Foreign cultural imports, social decadence and women’s sexual objectification
The very founding of carnival in The Bahamas was fraught with controversies. A central controversy was the privileging of a foreign festival rather than promoting our indigenous festival, Junkanoo, that has not been able to sustain itself privately.
It is estimated that between 2015 and 2017 the Christie administration spent over $20 million subsidizing carnival events with cost overruns (especially in the inaugural event). There was a backlash from Junkanooers and the political opposition (FNM). Carnivals are big business. The Bahamas government sought to take advantage of this cultural event to boost tourism and Bahamian employment.
The West Indian Day Carnival generates over 300 million tourist dollars in general. Trinidadian carnival/Jovert that traditionally emphasized folkloric heroes, resistance to colonialism and racism and social criticism was replaced by one that increasingly resembles Brazilian carnival’s skimpy swimsuit outfits and feathery headpieces along with more wining and sexy music (soca).
Soca has been growing in popularity world-wide since the 1980s and is currently at its zenith. This Trini innovation allowed not only locals but tourists to buy outfits and participate in carnival groups. It created profitable small enterprises that generate between twenty-something to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to rough estimates. However, this transformation in the early twenty-first century also produced a lot of controversy from traditionalists who wanted to preserve the purity of traditional carnival.
Junkanoo innovated in the 1980s with female dance participants, and in the 1990s by importing feathers and beads from the Trinidadians and Brazilians. It also transformed from a non-ticketed to a ticketed event, but that has not been sufficient to make the event a cultural product that would allow Junkanooers to support themselves as artists.
Costume-making is costly. Materials are imported primarily from China. Costume production and music rehearsals are time consuming, taking the better part of a year. Junkanooers have not been able to transform Junkanoo music and rake and scrape into a commodity that has strong international appeal. This is difficult in an environment in which Bahamian cultural identity is strongly attached to traditional forms of these cultural expressions, especially Junkanoo. Junkanoo has deep emotional and spiritual meaning for the Bahamian people.
Historians have linked the roots of Junkanoo to the folklore of John Kenu, a legendary, Axim Ghanaian, anti-colonial freedom fighter who won battles against the French army and who was celebrated during slavery on the few days that slaves had off. This mythical figure represented the promise of freedom and enabled the creative expression of elements of African culture. He was celebrated in The Bahamas, Jamaica, North Carolina, Barbados and other countries in North America.
It is also rooted in African art and ancestor worship. Elements of African culture remain repressed rather than self-consciously expressed within Bahamian culture, a legacy of slavery, colonialism and Christianity. Today Junkanoo is a source of artistic expression, national identity and unity. Bahamians are very Westernized and African culture in on the margins of their cultural radar. They have yet to self-consciously cultivate their African heritage. Consequently, Junkanoo fills a huge, unconscious, emotional/spiritual void. Hence, it is not at all surprising that many Bahamians do not support a further commodification, deemed corruption of Junkanoo and even lament the changes that have already occurred, namely, beads and feathers rather than crepe paper, and the reduction of the festival primarily to a spectator event rather than elevating its participatory roots.
Those who favor commodification want to commodify an existing tradition and do not wish to make any major innovation. Therefore, the association of Junkanoo and carnival and the attempt to create a Junkanoo Carnival produced strong reaction from Junkanooers and traditionalists, ostensibly because carnival is foreign; but the root of the resistance runs deeper. Junkanoo has spiritual value that many do not wish to degrade. This is the internal, albeit unconscious, psychological dissonance at the root of the resistance to Junkanoo Carnival and innovation more generally.
The Minnis administration sided with the traditionalists against the appropriation and funding of foreign cultural forms and followed through on a campaign promise to de-fund carnival in 2018. We live in an age of heightened global exposure. Bahamians have ready access to many cultural forms through interaction with immigrants, travel and various mediums – cable television, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, among others – and have developed an appreciation for them. I expect the cosmopolitan character of Nassau and Freeport to grow. Hence, we ought to continue to find a way to accommodate this trend rather than seeking cultural purity.
The second major controversy centers on the morality of carnival. The Bahamas Christian Council argued that carnival promotes decadence, namely sins of the flesh such as fornication, promiscuity, rape and incest and the treatment of women as sex objects. This is a reiteration of claims made after the inaugural carnival event in 2015. After the 2018 carnival the Christian Council called for a dress code during carnival. Michael Pintard, the minister of youth, sports and culture, countered that the dress during carnival is no different from what we see daily from tourists clad in bathing suits downtown. He added that only health and safety issues would warrant such censorship.
Carnival in The Bahamas is one of the most modest carnivals in the region. Like many other carnivals there is sexy soca music, alcohol and dancing. The attempt of the Christian Council to compete/suppress sex is a losing proposition. The irresponsible, fear mongering, rhetorical association of carnival with rape and incest by the Christian Council and sexual conservatives ought to be dismissed. The social burden of such violence should be appropriately placed on men who de-personalize women and deny them sexual agency.
This preoccupation with fornication and promiscuity reflects a sex-negative ideal among conservative Christians. Most Christians in The Bahamas are sex-positive, but even this majority is silenced by the social power of the ideal of sexual conservatism espoused by Christian conservatives. What we need is an emphasis on responsible sexual behavior by teenagers and adults that is reflected in social policy to discourage unwanted pregnancies and the transmission of STIs. The Christian Council could make itself socially relevant by promoting sexual responsibility rather than pushing a rhetoric of sexual abstinence, a practice that is ignored.
It is routine for many carnival goers at Madi Gras, Trinidad, Brazil and elsewhere to be nude except for G-strings, nipple covers and decorative paint. This is the exception in The Bahamas. Carnival in The Bahamas is woman-centered. Most carnival participants are women. It allows women to beautify themselves, look and feel sexy, dance and have a good time. Carnival stimulates the drive for pleasure (Eros), so it is no wonder that there are no incidences of violence. Soca concerts likewise have few to no incidences of violence for the same reason.
Carnival in this jurisdiction does promote the objectification of the female body. Sexual objectification is a normal part of life. It only becomes problematic in a culture that privileges the objectification of the female body over character, skills and abilities. This is indeed a world-wide problem. Even in non-Western societies where women’s bodies are covered up, women are no less sexually objectified in such instances because they are still valued primarily for their bodies.
It is precisely because Moslem women’s bodies are highly objectified that they are covered up. The only way to address this problem is to de-center the sexual objectification of the female body. This will not happen overnight, nor will dress censorship change this condition. This requires a cultural sea change in which the whole of a woman’s person is valued.
If the Christian Council and other members of society are truly concerned about excessive female sexual objectification, then it should support gender equality. Gender equality is an agenda that the Christian Council and conservative Christians have consistently opposed. A commitment to gender equity means putting an end to gender discrimination and supporting equal opportunities for women and girls at all levels of society. It is only when the multi-dimensional character of women’s existence is valued will excessive sexual objectification come to an end.
– Dr. Kreimild Saunders
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