Woman, Body, Space: Rio Carnival and the politics of performance

Lewis, Clare and Pile, Steve (1996). Woman, Body, Space: Rio Carnival and the politics of performance. Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 3(1) pp. 23–41.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09663699650021927


The practices and aesthetics of carnival are hotly debated in Brazilian society, as it is taken to be the expression of 'the essence of Brazilianness'. In this paper, an attempt is made to understand the Rio de Janeiro carnival in ways which are not only sensitive to its maps of power and meaning, but also able to explore the subtle ways in which value hierarchies are displaced. To this end, we suggest that cultural categories 'constitute' what they appear to 'describe'. In this way, the mobilisation of categories of 'woman' make women's bodies seemingly both material and intelligible, while foreclosing on the instability of that category. This paper shows that Rio Carnival is a site not only where categories of high and low value are presented and sometimes inverted, but also where the sight of the female body is both made to bear the full weight of contradictory and unstable cultural values, and to disguise and deny those tensions and instabilities. Yet, the performance of 'woman' in Rio Carnival constantly unfolds through power, knowledge and social equivocation about what 'woman' is- or might be. From here, we argue that the performers are not merely dupes to this system of meaning and power, nor do they merely convey cultural norms through their bodies, but are actively performing and masquerading femininity, and this actually renders femininity indeterminate and unknowable, opening up the possibility that the performance can act as a site of resistance .

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