[image from here]
One permanent focus of attention, and controversy, in Women’s History has always been their body. Most prominently their body shapes and sizes, but also other issues surrounding it, such as their control over it and the perceived notions of its femininity and fecundity, or lack thereof. Underlying these issues (some of them recently raised here) is, alongside those of 'elegance' and 'respectability', the always present notion of ‘decency’ and the moral values upon which it is set and conceived, which may (or not) vary from one society to the other.
Therein lies the crux of the matter of what can, or not, be considered acceptable, i.e. ‘decent’, public (or, indeed, private – as in “private dancer”) display of the female body. Dance being, par excellence, the main 'artistic' vehicle through which all these themes, issues, notions and questions come to public consciousness and discussion, it is all too common to find it at the centre of 'moral judgments' about a woman’s ‘character’, or lack thereof…
I bring this subject a propos of some highly controversial music and dance fads apparently springing ‘out of the blue’ within some segments of Angolan society, especially in the capital, Luanda. Kuduro – at its best (as in here) dubbed “the darling of some European DJs” and, at its worst, as something akin to “the music/dance of the devil” (as in here) – might be the most widely spread and generally known outside the country, but there are others, especially in dance form, succeeding each other in recent years and, apparently, each one ‘worse’ than the previous.
They come with sexually-suggestive names like “kambwa” (something dog-related), "tchuku", "windeck", "xupa-la’", etc., and are generally thought of, and perhaps rightly so (I can’t really join in any “judging bandwagon” as I haven’t seen any of them yet - in fact, I'd rather do as Toni Morrison on the face of it: hum...), as ‘obscene’, ‘indecent’, ‘immoral’, ‘pornographic’, etc., by some commentators in the Angolan media – in a society, it must be said, which cannot exactly pride itself in having much of a solid moral values system, after the degradation and erosion of traditional values and customs wrought in by centuries of colonialism and assimilacionist policies under the colonial and the post-colonial regimes, followed by decades of a fratricidal war and destruction of the country’s already damaged and fragile social fabric amidst, up until recently, the all but total prohibition of religious beliefs and practices under a Marxist regime in the three decades since independence…
Is there any wonder then that such a rather permissive , superficial, materialistic, physically, psychologically and sexually violent (Luanda, the capital, is reported to register at least 8 cases of rape daily!), yet highly hypocritical, society - where sex became the main, if not the only, 'driving force' behind all sorts of social, including professional, relationships (as discussed here) would somehow produce "loose women"?!
[This being said boldly here by a black woman who comes from a strong Christian background and has been struggling to overcome the moral, psychological, professional and material damage inflicted upon her in various ways, including relentless sexual harrassment and pornographic attacks and attempts at tarnishing her public reputation, for no other reason than having had the ‘audacity’ of denouncing such attacks, by "respectable" members of that same society, especially some in the media – and, prominently among them, a white blond sex kitten, who also happens to be a blogger and dancer (profiled in the text on this post) that, in a bid to protect her own turf, hypocritically pretends to be 'outraged' and 'disgusted' by these new ‘dance trends’ (performed predominantly by young black females), while (after allowing herself practices such as desecrating the deepest intimacy of a group of older traditional African dancers - a practice that I strongly condenmed here only to get from her as a response the most sordid, demeaning, anti-personal campaign) appearing half-naked in one of her so-called contemporary dance shows (she actually happens to think that her blood was made bold by classical ballet and coronets and piano keys... yes, she claims that kind of power!), which, interestingly enough, she only managed to put together after a decade of idleness thanks to unashamedly aping the "mermaid pose" of a black artist, Cassandra Wilson, in the cover of her album New Moon Daughter, and appropriating herself of that image only to totally decontextualise and denigrate it, as denounced here…]
Having said all that, perhaps it should not strike us as surprising that what seems to be generally lacking in most 'judgements' of these trends coming to light recently from Angola - which do not go beyond blaming and criminalising the young women who practise them - is something that, for instance, Toni Morrison , skilfully, sensibly and maturely does in the opening of her novel Love [*]: while decrying it, the factoring in, even if only briefly, of the emotional, psychological, sociological, historical and even political dimensions of such phenomena. She does so in relation to some observed trends of ‘female body exposure’ in American society up to the 1990s – and since then, based on the echoes I get from time to time through the media, I surmise that they may have evolved to even ‘worse’ forms. Nevertheless, I never got news of a ‘total breakdown or collapse’ of the moral and spiritual backbone of America’s mainstream values system (or, for that matter, of that of any other society where such phenomena may occur), because of those fads - which is not meant, of course, to condone them.
So, without further ado, here are some extracts from the introductory pages of Morrison’s said novel:
The women's legs are spread wide open, so I hum. Men grow irritable, but they know it's all for them. They relax. Standing by, unable to do anything but watch, is a trial, but I don't say a word. My nature is a quite one, anyway. As a child I was considered respectful; as a young woman I was called discreet. Later on I was thought to have the wisdom maturity brings. Nowadays silence is looked on as odd and most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little. Now tongues work all by themselves with no help from the mind. Still, I used to be able to have normal conversations, and when the need arose, I could make a point strong enough to stop a womb - or a knife. Not anymore, because back in the seventies, when women began to straddle chairs and dance crotch out on television, when all the magazines started featuring behinds and inner thighs as though that's all there is to a woman, well, I shut up altogether. Before women agreed to spread in public, there used to be secrets - some to hold, some to tell. Now? No. Barefaced being the order of the day, I hum. The words dance in my head to the music in my mouth.
What's the deep in you? It's way down below, and has nothing to do with blood made bold by coronets and piano keys, does it? Of course, I don't claim that kind of power. My hum is mostly below range, private; suitable for an old woman embarrassed by the world; her way of objecting to how the century is turning out. Where all is known and nothing understood. Maybe it was always so, but it didn't strike me until some thirty years ago that prostitutes, looked up for their honesty, have always set the style. Well, maybe it wasn't their honesty; maybe it was their success. Still, straddling a chair or dancing half naked on TV, these nineties women are not all that different from the respectable women who live around here. This is coast country, humid and God-fearing, where female recklessness runs too deep for short shorts or thongs or cameras. But then or now, decent underwear or none, wild women never could hide their innocence - a kind of pity-kitty hopefulness that their prince was on his way. Especially the tough ones with their box cutters and dirty language, or the glossy ones with two-seated cars and a pocket-book full of dope. Even the ones who wear scars like presidential medals and stockings rolled at their ankles can't hide the sugar-child, the winsome baby girl curled up somewhere inside, between the ribs, say, or under the heart. Naturally all of them have a sad story: too much notice, not enough, or the worst kind. Some tale about dragon daddies and false-hearted men, or mean mamas and friends who did them wrong. Each story has a monster in it who made them tough instead of brave, so they open their legs rather than their hearts where that folded child is tucked. Sometimes the cut is so deep no woe-is-me tale is enough. Then the only thing that does the trick, that explains the craziness heaping up, holding down, and making women hate one another and ruin their children is an outside evil.
*[Thus presented by its publishers (Chatto & Windus, 2003): "This audacious vision of the nature of love - its appetite, its sublime possession, its dread - is rich in characters and dramatic event, and in its profound understanding of how alive the past can be. Compelling, sensual, elegiac, unforgettable, a major new work by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, its narrative reflects the different facets of love, shifting from desire through lust, obsession, yearning, and ultimately comes full circle to that indelible, overwhelming first love that marks us forever."]
"The Sex Lives of African Girls"
[By Tayie Selasi]