Beyond the Beads and Feathers: Unpacking the Subversive Potential of Carnival in the Atlantic World

Written by Angela Davis

Carnivals have a long and storied history in the Atlantic World. Many of the cities and nations in this diaspora have their unique carnival traditions. Still, they all share a common origin in the celebrations held by enslaved Africans brought to the region by European colonisers. Historically, carnivals in the Atlantic World challenged ideas of class, race, gender, and sexuality by providing a space where many could suspend the rigid social hierarchies that typically defined their lives. This article will explore how participants challenged European-constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity in the colonies through subversive masquerades, performances, and music. Specifically, it will discuss cross-dressing, calypso music, and female sexual expression as forms of transgression that challenged dominant societal norms and power structures.

In Carnival, participants used the body to challenge traditional gender roles through makeup, costume, and performance. A key feature at carnivals in the Atlantic World is the cross-dressing of male participants. Cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin states that the inversion of gender roles allowed Carnival to become a site of resistance and subversiveness through the suspension of hierarchical ranks, norms, and prohibitions. An early example of transgressive cross-dressing in Carnival is Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Koo, Koo or Actor Boy (1837-8) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Koo, Koo, or Actor-Boy. Illustrated by Isaac Mendes Belisario.

The cross-dressing character, usually referred to as a John Canoe, challenges the dominant socio-economic norms of the plantation era through their employment of elaborate and colourful “finery”. Their costume encapsulates the essence of parody by borrowing and exaggerating aspects of European iconography with the pompous peruke and colourful Antoinette headpiece. Their performance, which included reciting Shakespeare, is a direct challenge to the colonial belief of the inferiority of non-Europeans. Perhaps most poignantly, the performer in this illustration uses feminine dress to defy the hyper-masculine stereotype typically prescribed to the black male body (Fig. 2). Additionally, when two John Canoes duel in the street, as Belisario describes, the combat ends in “the total demolition of their garments.” One could interpret this act of dismantling the clothing of the John Canoe as being laced in meaning. Not only do the clothes worn by the cross-dresser act as a gender signifier, but the deconstruction of the dress highlights the artifice of gender identity. The act of cross-dressing alone is highly transgressive, considering the rigid gender norms they parody. The addition of provocative performance further highlights the intention of the performer to disrupt societal norms.

Fig. 2. A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo (1810), George Dawe. Oil on Canvas.

The tradition of cross-dressing by men in Carnival also enabled a safe space for queer and trans expression, thus marking Carnival as a site of transgression and resistance. Bakhtin argued that the carnivalesque was a way for people to express their creativity, sexuality, and other aspects of their individuality that were suppressed in everyday life. He believed that this spirit of Carnival and festivity was a counterbalance to the oppressive and authoritarian forces in society, and that it allowed people to develop a sense of community and collective identity. In a society of rigid gender roles and hyper-masculinity, cross-dressing and displays of “campness” by queer folk at Carnival, as argued by Lewis, is undeniably a radical act of resistance. As discussed in a 1986 magazine article in the Gay Times (Fig. 3), Martin Foreman describes that cross-dressing is celebrated and performed by both cis and queer participants. Yet, after the Carnival,

“The caricatas [caricatures] disappear, but the transvestis remain. These are young men from the shantytowns and slums, poor and uneducated, whose life is spent on the fringes of society, legality, and violence… transvestis are easy targets for a police force that is generally corrupt and seldom restrained in its behaviour.”

This text highlights how Carnival can create a dynamic and transformative atmosphere, leading to a day of celebration of queer expression. Additionally, Foreman lifts the curtain on the glamourous performance of “transvestis“, showing us the tragic life that performers must endure when the festivities are over. Thankfully, today the image of Rio has transformed into a gay tourist destination – a testament to the cultural impact of the transgressive act of cross-dressing and queer expression at Carnival.

Fig. 3. “DRAG IN RIO,” by Martin Foreman in the Gay Times.

Calypso music, a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, is an integral part of carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. Calypso lyrics often transgressively address controversial or taboo subjects, such as politics, race, and sexuality. In the past, calypsonians, or calypso musicians, used the genre to express their opinions and critique the ruling class, and this tradition of subversion has continued to the present day. “Calypso singing is such a technical thing, it was not made for one and every to sing,” sang Lord Invader in “Calypsonian War” with Macbeth the Great and Duke of Iron. Quick, witty, and eloquent lyrics, as seen throughout the entirety of “Calypsonian War”, paired with sophisticated suits, clearly challenged ideas of racial inferiority that permeated through the British Empire. The popularity of calypso forced the attention of citizens and politicians to listen and engage with the opinions of those that historically fell on deaf ears. Notably, Growling Tiger’s “Money is King”, which addressed societal corruption, led to the complete censorship of calypsonian music. These lyrics, and their popularity, demonstrate a growing class consciousness which, according to Marxist theory, threatens the ruling or bourgeoisie class. The censorship of the song further cements the effectiveness of calypso as a form of transgression, an inducement for political participation, and a conduit for colonial rebellion. These performers’ critical role in engaging and increasing political participation among the masses cannot be understated.

Notably, the sexual expression of women, in particular, has been the cause of much anxiety and debate surrounding the festivities. These anxieties stem from a legacy of misogynistic constructs of femininity that positioned women, especially women of colour, as objects to be controlled. The colonial European gaze defined the sexualities of black women (considered ‘backward’ or ‘animalistic’) as savage, primitive, and promiscuous. Violent fantasies projected on colonised populations were limitless since the body of ‘the other’ was outside the legal framework. In Trinidad, these representations were arguably fuelled by the existence of the jamettes.

The word ‘jamette’ derives from the French word for ‘diametre’, which referred to the working class that lived below the diameter – the underworld. The jamettes were “band members… singers, drummers, dancers, stickmen, prostitutes, pimps, and “bad johns” in general.” By the 1860s, the Jamettes had effectively taken over the Carnival. The jamettes outraged respectable Trinidadians and forced the carnival performances of the upper class off the street. Inside, they scored carnival street performers, aiming mainly at black jamette women. Furthermore, women who were deliberately sexually subversive were one of the most degraded social groups in any colonised society.

While there were attempts to ‘clean up’ or ‘tame’ Carnival in Trinidad in the mid-twentieth century, the Rio carnival saw intense discriminatory beauty standards perpetuate the eventual ‘undressing’ of female performers at Carnival. As depicted in Fig. 4, semi-nude, young, beautiful, and slender women became central to Carnival. Scholar Clare Lewis argues that these intense beauty standards were perpetuated by the complex struggle between Samba Schools (who produce and sell costumes; enforce strict beauty standards on performers) and the heterosexual male audience’s appetite for pleasure, excess, and sex that radiates from the female body. Moreover, it was not socially acceptable for women to violate traditional gender roles in the way men could through cross-dressing. In this case, it could be argued that if women are pressured to self-objectify, dressing sexually is no longer transgressive.

Fig. 4. The caption reads: “Carnival, Your Name is Woman”.

In contrast to Bakhtin’s theories on the carnivalesque, scholar Terry Eagleton suggests that Carnival’s licenced and temporary rupture of hegemony reinforced stereotypes and power relations outside Carnival. However, other scholars, like Lewis, claim that whether dressing up sexually results in the forced self-objectification of women depends on the individual’s motivations and feelings. Lewis says that while the women who parade in Rio Carnival “enter a contradictory and contested, masculinised, Brazilianised public space which places them unambiguously as objects of desiring male gazes,” they should not be reduced to passive actors purely reproducing the male gaze. Instead, Lewis argues, the self-sexualised woman is empowered through her decision or desire to be sexual or erotic. Moreover, if that woman was to benefit financially through commodifying her body, thus transferring the power from the consumer (usually a man) to her, her actions can be considered transgressive as she is disrupting the male/ female dominant/submissive power dynamic. The image in Fig. 5 of a white man embracing a woman embodies this argument. While the man is the dominant subject in the picture, he is the submissive actor, captivated by the woman’s desirability. Furthermore, the disengaged expression on her face projects a sense of power – the divine feminine. These arguments have been echoed throughout the modern Atlantic World and in fourth-wave feminist theory. Moreover, the fact that female sexuality, especially in pop culture in the Atlantic World, has been reclaimed in such a dramatic fashion that extends far beyond the carnival context is a testament to brave and transgressive acts performed by women of colour in Carnival.

Fig. 5. A white man embracing a bejewelled and semi-naked woman during carnival celebrations.

Carnivals in the Atlantic World often feature performances, costumes, and other forms of expression that challenge conventional notions of gender, sexuality, class, race, and morality. A hallmark of carnivals in the Atlantic World is satirical humour, parody, and other carnivalesque techniques to critique oppressive political or social systems, as seen with the rise of Calypso music. Additionally, performers, like the jamettes, continue to utilise carnivals as a space to publicly reclaim their sexuality, despite the mal opinions of spectators. These acts, in turn, have created a dynamic and transformative atmosphere at carnivals, which has been seen as a leading driver towards broader social and cultural change.


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Image Credits

Dawe, George. A Negro overpowering a buffalo. Oil on canvas, 204x205cm, [England] 1809-1811. Retrieved from Blanchard, Pascal, Nicolas Bancel, Gilles Boëtsch, Christelle Taraud, and Dominic Thomas. Sexe, Race & Colonies. 2018. 40. 

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Mendes Belisario, Isaac. ‘Koo, Koo, or Actor-Boy.’ 1837-38. Published in Kingston, Jamacia. Original holding at Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora.  

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