Return of the 'soft man'
DR GABRIELLE HOSEIN
CARNIVAL cannot pass without calypso and soca flinging up issues of gender and sexuality.
Patrice Robert’s tribute to Penguin 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, Prof Gordon Rohlehr, has written, 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 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 Reddock’s 2004 collection, 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.
Diary of a mothering worker
"Return of the ‘soft man’"