Every year, we go through the ritual of airing views on the morality of Carnival masqueraders, with religious leaders, political officeholders, columnists, and older people, among others, condemning as immoral, disgusting, lecherous, base, corrupt, and Brazilian (yes, Brazilian!) the scant, imagination-defying attire of (mostly) women and the no-holds-barred wining of, again, (mostly) women. This year is no different. We have heard from Archbishop Joseph Harris, Pundit Maharaj, Mayor Tim Kee, columnist Raffique Shah, and Leela Ramdeen, for example.
The condemnation is all highly predictable, but is it helpful, sensible, or illuminating? Beyond it, beyond the manifestation that the commentators present themselves as something akin to (self-righteous) moral guardians, how is our understanding or our behaviour advanced? After all, the same kind of commentators will tell us next year that things have got worse.
Masquerading, as we all know, is multidimensional. It has economic, entertainment, aesthetic, and moral dimensions. Some people get rich(er) from it, while others get themselves exploited. Some women do an artistic, sinuous dance, teasing imagination and appreciation while others women wine in flagrant, iconoclastic public self-play, accommodating licentious rapprochements from total strangers. Some female masqueraders will give these strangers the eye or angle themselves out of availability.
All these women have their different moralities — she who commandeers the bumper, giving it extension, revolution, and rhythm on thighs strengthened and toned by endless spin classes, who delights in the majesty of youthful muscle; and she who chips easily along, stopping sporadically for a waist-preserving half-wine, and disallowing male collaboration or intrusion.
Do they have the wrong morality? Is there some universal benchmark morality that public wining violates? If so, where is it to be found? In Roman Catholicism? In a local brand of Hinduism? In some morality forged by and agreed to by Trinidadian society?
Is public female wining during Carnival responsible for sexual crimes, including incest, against children in Trinidad and Tobago? Does it contribute to what has been called ‘serious crime’? Does it cause dangerous driving that takes lives? What does it do that violates anything really serious?
For me, some of the more critical questions we should be asking about it are: Does it break any of our laws? Is it an activity that is beneficial to the masquerader as well as the consumer/spectator? Is it harmful to the masquerader and the consumer/spectator?
I know of no law that public female wining breaks. And while it might injure some of the women physically, I do not know that it injures them emotionally or psychologically. On the contrary, it seems to bring them exhilaration of spirit, exhalation, and bodily and emotional pleasure. It is quite clearly cathartic, and psychologists tell us that catharsis, whether through dance, song, or whatever celebrates our fundamental humanity, is good for our well-being.
And we must remember that many of those who complain about female public gyrations revel in them in private spaces, which suggests that it is not the activity per se that is morally objectionable but its performance in public spaces. But consider that the public display is a social, not an individual, phenomenon. It is not isolated individuals that take to the streets and stages, but people in their thousands. The masquerade is not unusual; it is an institution. Because it is, the public female wining is tolerable, and, in any event, social pressures within the society will set the limits of female abandon in the bacchanal.
It cannot be successfully legislated away, nor can it be sanitised by private or sectarian moral perspectives.
I will assume that many of the scantily clad, wining people I saw on the streets go to church and serve their gods. But they saw nothing wrong with either their dress or their behaviour. It cannot be doubted that they came to play themselves, and part of the proof is that many of them did not leave their fat at home, or feel obliged to hide their bulges or cover up their expansive, own-way bumpers. Indeed, it was a thing of wonder for me, this freedom to come out and play regardless of the state of the flesh!
Catharsis it was, not immorality.
There are far worse things to condemn in this land — and from both a moral and legal perspective. Like corruption by officials in high public office; relentless unsolved crime; criminal drunkenness; administrative inefficiency and waste in the state sector; exploitation and abuse of children; medical negligence in the treatment of the poorer classes; inequality of opportunity.
The girls know that they need the catharsis of the once-in-a-while public wine.
Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst