By Dr. Gabrielle Hosein
This article was originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. An updated version is republished below with permission.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival cannot pass without calypso and soca flinging up issues of gender and sexuality.
Soca artist Patrice Roberts’ tribute to a song that was of a certain time and space comes at a highly contested moment in the negotiation of contemporary manhood, in a region transformed by Caribbean feminist struggle for social justice and a male backlash which retributively accuses women of becoming too powerful.
Yet, feminist transformation also made it possible to speak positively about men’s emotions and allowing boys to cry, men’s emotional fragility under the rigid mask of manhood, and men as human beings who embody qualities of gentleness as well as strength. In this context, there are complex, contradictory and even problematic meanings in engaging Penguin’s “Soft Man” today.
Much has been written about this 1984 Calypso Monarch winner which documents the threatened status of the erect penis or phallus, or stickman’s bois, as the ultimate representation of manhood and its dominance over women.
Such dominance included a division of household roles into masculine and feminine, such that a soft man was also undesirable because of his failure to live up to an ideal of tough masculinity, instead becoming associated with the emotional and domestic responsibilities expected of women.
In calypso, the threat to the phallus and its sexual potency was frequently portrayed in terms of an emasculating female demand, power and sexuality. Indeed, softness was a kind of death or castration, leaving men aberrant and unwanted. This became particularly risky in a changing world where women were becoming more educationally and occupationally dominant, sexually assertive, difficult to subordinate and unwilling to settle.
As the doyen of calypso scholarship, Professor Gordon Rohlehr has written that fulfilment of manhood was about having a sturdier bois than rivals, sexually satisfying women with the strength of one’s “boy,” and fulfilling the superior role of a warrior-king-cocksman.
Thus, Penguin’s advice was that women don’t like a man who is easily ruled and advantaged. Instead, a man must “lead/supply all his woman’s needs/never let his yard get weeds/dig the soil and plant the seeds.” In other words, be macho, head the family, be a provider, have frequent sex, and prove virility through impregnation.
In Patrice’s 2023 version, she is a glitteringly hypersexualised and strong black woman surrounded by sweaty, bare-chested, muscular brown and black men, some of whom are soldering in a machine shop while sparks fly. Presumably, this representation of working-class masculinity depicts what remains hard and desirable, though she seems derisive of them all.
Repeatedly, she is shown hanging by her arms while a macho man (or one with such ambitions) throws punches (that do not land) at her stomach while she smirks at his impotence. There’s sexual harassment leading to a woman lashing down a (short) man who slapped her bottom, while other men laugh at him. The soft man is the one who should have come to her defence but instead, meekly surrendered, even in a fight he could have won.
The song’s lyrics declare that bacchanal-loving, thirsty, irresponsible, promiscuous, poor, violent and garrulous men are all equally scorned. An incompetent man who makes a woman change a tyre is labelled soft. Patrice further details her defiance of men who tell her what to do by doing the opposite and telling them to hush.
It’s reminiscent of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech when Patrice declares, “I name Woman.” It’s also in the tradition of women calypsonians. In Rhoda Reddock’s “Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities,” Rohlehr writes of Calypso Rose’s “persistent rejection” of lovers “who drink heavily, beat women, indulge in rough sex that is close to rape, and, in addition, exist like parasites off the earnings of the working woman.”
Similarly, Patrice lists men whom women love, including those who rough up, cuss and beat them. She distances herself from such enfeebled women and unsatisfactory men, declaring her superiority through what Rohlehr describes as the derisive, “mocking scrutiny of a woman’s eye.”
Here, Patrice is a stickfighter shaming men of broken bois, although they comprise different characteristics from Penguin’s original. She is commentator, protester, “rebel against male sexism” and “confident celebrant of her own sexuality […] now open in the challenge she poses to the old patriarchal structures” even as she wields its stereotypes.
To return to Rohlehr’s brilliant phrasing, “What phallus, however well-inflated or intentioned, would not quail beneath such withering and contemptuous scrutiny?” Such withering, or an inability to withstand a “running report” on the quality of manhood’s performance, renders a man soft, unsuccessful and out-of-step in a 21st century, gendered gayelle. Such ongoing contestation is the story this calypso tells.
Typically, women are castigated for publicly shaming or “'emasculating”’ men because such wielding of power is considered a failure of their assigned responsibility to bring softness to gender relations.
Such gendered expectations limit women's take-up of a traditional masculine art form that involves both boasting and shaming of one's opponents. What could shame a bois man more than a reputedly soft/failed stick/phallus? Its feminisation is equivalent to a lyrical buss head, and a challenge to calypso’s historical celebration of machismo.
Feminist analysis pays attention to the low status of stereotypical qualities associated with femininity, such as softness, and to transforming hegemonic masculinity's repudiation of femininity because it carries such low status. Yet, in a colonial plantation economy, softness was reserved for white femininity. African-Caribbean women calypsonians may therefore have little investment in recuperating softness — whether for women or men.
Also, Patrice’s rejection of softness isn't desire for domination, but dismissal of men who are not as strong or capable as women. She is not looking to be dominated à la Penguin. She is judging whether men are equal to the standard she and other women expect and embody.
Cultural critic Sylvia Wynter is well known for her critique of “Man,” a version of humanity founded on white colonial capitalist model of manhood, from which all others — including and especially black women — were excluded. In this context, Patrice's repeated assertion, “I name Woman,” is a decolonial declaration of being human on African, female terms, which she is defining through her contemporary engagement with sexuality, gender, intimacy, pleasure, and violence. She’s working out decoloniality through calypso in the Creole and Dougla Caribbean.
The video ends with a message that none of the men featured were soft men, just actors. This makes the tribute even more performative, a clap back to Penguin's stage performance, which appears at the end. As a medium, audio-video reconstitutes a gayelle or stage. As a player, Patrice is not necessarily providing a moral ideal for everyday life, though culture always makes art in relation to the everyday.
Still, she ends with affirming that who the men are in their everyday life, beyond actors, remains an unstated complexity and their own narrative. In fact, men are hardly reduced to weakness by this all-powerful woman. Rather, she's engaging the performance of masculinity with her own performance of womanhood, which is precisely the tradition of women in calypso.