When BJJ bloggers offer critiques of what they view as sexism in our beloved BJJ – bloggers such Jiu Jiu, Georgette Oden, Megan Williams and Can Sönmez – responses range from applause to threats of violence to indifference. One theme that I have encountered when challenging sexist representations of women in BJJ, especially when discussing Manto’s now infamous nipple + grappling photos, and which has resurfaced in discussions of Kyra Gracie’s gi-and-arse photograph, is the idea that non-Western cultures have set a different bar of acceptability for sexual representations of women.

This idea bugs me for a variety of reasons:

  • The idea that women in the West have a ‘more evolved’ status in society has been used by Western leaders from Disreali to Bush to justify imperialist or quasi-imperialist action to ‘save’ women, coincidentally while bombing, enslaving, and otherwise economically and socially oppressing those women and their families.
  • The suggestion that women in the West are ‘more equal’ than elsewhere minimises and dismisses the real challenges to gender equality that persist in Western cultures.
  • The notion that Western women enjoy higher status than elsewhere demonstrates a distasteful paternalism that pats itself on the back for ‘allowing’ Western women such status while subjugating non-Western women.

During discussions of the Manto photoshoot, there were suggestions that the shoot was done in Eastern Europe where pictures of boobs aren’t a big deal; that it was somehow not problematic to sexualise women in Eastern Europe. Similarly, for the Kyra-butt shot, this comment appeared on Reddit:

I have the overwhelming feeling reading the Megjitsu blog that it’s a very Anglo-centric view of feminism. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but I think Brazilians (and Latin Americans as a whole) have a very different view of all of this. These sorts of images are celebrated there not just amongst the men, but the women as well. I guess I look at carnivale as examples of this.

I don’t like mixing the ideas of sex and jiu-jitsu, but Brazilians think about things very different than the Anglo world.

I think that this comment comes from a good place – one that is seeking to empathise and to understand – and it does make some valid points. Of course, there are broad cultural differences between Western Anglo-American culture and other world cultures. Sure, every individual Brazilian has a different perspective on, for the purposes of this post, gender issues. Absolutely, Brazilian feminisms can and do have distinct agendas. Most definitely, my feminism is informed by my culture, my class, my ethnicity – all the things that are jumbled up to make my personal subjectivity. Similarly, there certainly are tensions between the agendas of feminisms in different parts of the world and a certain complacency around the sexualisation of women in emerging economies, camouflaged as cultural-sensitivity, can be apparent in the writings of Western feminists; check out Megan’s honest introspection into her own views of the sexualisation of Brazilian women. I think apologies for the sexualisation of women in non-Western cultures mistakenly conflate a societal tolerance for the sexualisation of women and (local) feminist tolerance for the sexualisation of women.

The reputation Colombia has for ‘its women’ is notorious and stereotypically sexist…What many fail to notice, however, is that this ‘hotness’ comes from a sad place, from a deeply patriarchal Catholic society that cannot see women outside the virgin/whore dichotomy. (Jaramillo)

Rather than seeing the sexualisation of Latin American women as unproblematic, isn’t it possible that Latin American cultures may be more subject to expressing the priorities and desires of a dominant masculinity? While I have no expertise in Latin American feminisms, Brazilian culture or other salient subject areas, I set out to see what I could see.

Permeated by a patriarchal political culture, they [the political elites] have remained notoriously resistant to the inclusion of women. This has resulted in a major paradox for Brazilian feminists: on the one hand, the presence of a wide and well articulated women’s movement, and on the other, a notorious absence of women in decision making positions. (Alcântara and Sardenberg)

I’ve tried to educate myself with some online research into Latin American feminisms. What are the issues central to Latin American feminisms and, in particular, what are the perspectives of Latin American feminists on sexualised representations of women? Clearly, this research is limited to easily accessible online material which is published in English. Though very cursory and narrow, I do think my reading has given me a feeling for the issues that excite Latin American feminists, such as significant activism around reproductive rights, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the sexualisation of women is an issue for feminists in Brazil and neighbouring countries.

…western feminists aim for sexual liberation, while in other parts of the world women want freedom from sexualization (Kimball)

Discussions of feminism in Brazil confirm that there is a vibrant women’s movement extant in Brazil and that Brazilian feminists struggle with a complicated intermingling of class, race and religion: ‘…it is the most marked form of a post-slave society, which despite the myth of its racial democracy, still has an internal social and economic division with strong ethnic distinctions, and of class and gender as well’ (Maluf). It is clear that Brazilian feminists work through a variety of channels for women’s reproductive and sexual rights and to encourage and demand women’s role in decision-making processes. The Brazilian women’s movement is making advances and Dilma Rousseff, a self-identified feminist, seeks to use her position a Brazil’s president to advance the country’s women’s movement. However, as women increasingly enter previously male-dominated spaces, such as the Rio police force, sexualisation continues to undermine and cheapen Brazilian women’s achievements:

Every day I hear [jokes about being a woman]. Today they said, go and put on your bikini for your interview. (Phillips)

While Brazilian feminists agitate for greater access to power, for the rights of all Brazilian women including Afro-Brazilian and indigenous women, sexualised and objectified portrayals of women’s bodies persist. For instance, the ad campaigns of the Devassa bear brand, devassa meaning ‘slut’, elide women’s bodies and beer, offering both for sale to male consumers (Britto). Where they encounter objectified representations of women, it seems that Latina feminists deride rather than celebrate these depictions.

Brazil 'Slut Walk' 2011
Brazil SlutWalk 2011

So, what the heck am I getting at? I find the implication that because Brazil (or any other country) has a ‘sexier’ culture, sexualised representations of women aren’t really sexualised at all – ie sexiness is a ‘norm’ so there’s nothing problematic or demeaning about these sorts of images – to be incorrect. On the one hand, I believe there is confusion between ‘sexy’ images of women (or men), and sexualised or objectified images of women (or men). I tried to unpack this difference here, and JiuJiu has recently published a useful discussion of sexy versus sexualised. On the other hand, I believe this point of view is rooted in a post-imperial Western smugness which claims the relative equality of women in one nation versus another as, essentially, a badge of patriarchal honour and tolerance rather than a reflection of feminists’ own struggles and achievements.

The argument that in cultures where sexualised portrayals of women are more mainstream those images are insignificant in the undermining of gender equality was also employed during ‘Manto-gate’, with the insistence that East Europeans just see sex differently so we can’t use our Anglo-American values to judge their representations of women. I say, this response to feminist – Western or otherwise – condemnations of sexualised representations of women is fallacious and based on an acceptance of how patriarchy may operate in any given culture. While certainly my feminism is informed by my own white, middle-class, American background and there are certainly important differences between feminisms informed by different ethnic, cultural and geographical factors, it is clear from even a narrow reading of Brazilian feminisms that women in Brazil (and Latin America more widely) struggle for sexual equality and against the stereotype of the sexy Latina. Thus, sexualised representations of women in Brazil are indeed problematic and can be seen as representing the dominance of a patriarchal masculinity. Of course, I am not a Brazilian feminist and I don’t wish to layer my subjectivity onto a cultural milieu I have very little understanding of. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed trying to broaden my perspective and understand issues in contemporary Brazilian feminism and I hope this post has showcased some of the views of Latin American feminists, themselves.

References and Further Reading

Alcântara, Ana Alice and Cecilia Sardenberg. ‘Brazil: “State Feminism” at Work’. OpenDemocracy.net, 18 Apr 2012. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Frayssinet, Fabiana. ‘New Feminism Tears Down Walls in Brazil’. GlobalIssues.org, 4 Jan 2013. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Jaramillo, Juliana Jiménez. ‘The Secret Service Prostitution Scandal in Colombia Proves Sexism Alive and Well’. Slate.com, 17 Apr 2012. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Johansen, Julia. ‘BJJ Ads: Sexy vs Sexual’. JiuJiuBJJ.com, 28 Sep 2013. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Kimball, Gayle. ‘How Third World Feminism Differs from First World Feminism’. Fem2ptO.com, 4 Mar 2012. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Britto, Juliana. ‘Devassa’. LatinaFeminista.com, 29 Mar 2012. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Maluf, Sônia Weidner. ‘Brazilian Feminisms: Central and Peripheral Issues’. Palgrave-Journals.com, 2011. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Phillips, Tom. ‘Feminism and M-16s: Transforming Macho Policing in Rio’. TheGuardian.com, 28 Jul 2009. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Sardenberg, Cecilia. ‘Brazilian Feminists On Alert’. OpenDemocracy.net, 28 Feb 2010. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Schmidt, Rite Terezinha. ‘Refuting Feminism: Brazilian Lettered Culture’s Complacency/Complicity’. Estudos Feministas, 2007. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Tarlau, Rebecca. ‘Experiencing Feminism in Brazil’. The Journal of the International Institute, Winter 2006. Web. 10 Oct 2013.

Williams, Megan. ‘My Mistake in the Kyra Gracie Hullabaloo..’. BJiuJitsu.blogspot.co.uk, 20 Aug 2013. Web. 11 Oct 2013.