Vaquejada, a bull-toppling competition in Northeastern Brazil has recently rocketed from obscurity into big money and legal conflict. In the fall of 2016 anymal advocates were victorious in a well-fought battle against vaquejada resting on nothing less than Brazil’s Constitution. But instead of taking this recent ruling as moral progress, legislative powers capitulated to powerful economic interests and are now seeking to alter the constitution to safeguard vaquejada. An examination of ecofeminism, ethics, and multiculturalism sheds light on the current political debate of vaquejada in Brazil.
Ecofeminism: Bulls, Balls, and Testicle Envy
Ecofeminists have noted an overarching system of oppression that denigrates and disempowers certain individuals (including certain human categories as well as anymals1 in general, plants and the environment, and ecosystems). Ecofeminism highlights a cultural tendency to view the world from a dualistic and hierarchical point of view, elevating some categories while marginalizing, denigrating, and dominating others. Dualism and hierarchy favor all that is envisioned as quintessentially male fostering the cross-cultural phenomenon of man-dominating-bull competitions such as vaquejada.
Ecofeminists such as Carol Adams, Greta Gaard, and Marti Kheel have drawn attention to an underlying yet overarching tendency to view the world through a lens of false value dualisms, resulting in “othering”.2 This tendency is particularly strong in what is commonly called “Western cultures,” which have had tremendous influence on other cultures around the world. False value dualisms juxtapose certain categories as opposites:
In this worldview both women and nature are set apart as “other” and marginalized and denigrated in relation to men and culture/civilization.3 But these stark opposites fail to reflect the complex, interconnected world in which we live. Yet more problematic, these binary opposites are ultimately perceived as hierarchical: man above woman, human above animal, civilization above nature, and so on.4
Ultimately, these false dualistic categories and the hierarchy they support lead to exploitation and oppression of those on the Not A side.5
- Caucasion men have greater access to elite education and jobs such as astronaut, professor, CEO, physicist, Sargeant, judge, and politician;
- Men hold power as heads of families and primary breadwinners (women still get paid less than men);
- Men hold power in interpersonal relations—men typically invite a woman into marriage, not the other way around, and men are not generally responsible for the unending, unpaid menial tasks of cleaning, cooking, and tending children and the elderly;
As women are exploited and oppressed by and in relation to men, so are the natural world and anymals exploited and oppressed by and in relation to humanity. The lives of chickens and fishes are expendable for the sake of human taste and habit, forests are destroyed for ostentatious human homes and toilet paper, and the ocean is choked with dead zones because of our habit of consuming cheese, yogurt, beef, and pork. Similarly, those considered to be “people of color” and “poor” are exploited and oppressed by and in relation to those viewed as “white” and “wealthy”—North Americans enjoy a few more years of petroleum dependence while Native Lands in the United States are trespassed and put at risk with a pipeline and people in Kenya can no longer tell when (or if) the rainy season will grace the crops on which they depend.
Caucasian, property owning males dominate the “A” side, and all that is male tends to be celebrated, including testicles—especially large testicles. Bulls are viewed somewhat universally as symbols of male strength and virility, and have been for thousands of years. Cattle appear to have been domesticated some ten thousand years ago, in what is now Turkey. In the process, humans seem to have discovered the role of men in creating progeny.6 A seven thousand year old image from Sumer reveals early “emphasis on the testicles” providing evidence of a “new understanding” of a father’s role in creating offspring.7 When archeologists were digging up artifacts on the Konya Plain, digging through layer after layer of settlements built on top of one another across about thousand years, they found ancient representations of bulls as symbols of procreation, including decorations on shires suggesting a fertility cult focusing on bulls.8 As humans became more adept at exploiting cattle, they learned that only one male was needed to make many cows produce young, and that castrated bulls were easier to use for labor such as tilling fields and later, pulling carts, but that such bulls did not produce offspring.9 This seems to have led to the “widespread adoption for the bull as metaphor, symbol of the potent human male, and its frequent appearance as lord and creator. . . . In any event, if only one male is to be chosen to survive intact, he must be truly superior to those that are killed or castrated. The emphasis on competition and the fearfulness of the analogies are evident”.10
A bull’s bulky body and pendulous testicles have been critical to Nandi, the vehicle/companion of the Indian deity, Shiva, for hundreds of years. Nandi is often located at the entrance to Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, and “[w]orshipers touch his testicles before entering the temple”.11 Shiva, “god of fertility and power… most frequently worshipped through a phallic symbol,” is known for his sexual energy12. Shiva is never depicted with a cow or steer, but only with a “well-endowed” bull. Halfway around the globe and a couple thousand years later, the “Charging Bull” sculpture was delivered outside of the stock-market in New York City as a symbol of “virility and courage”13. A “bull market” is a market in which investment prices rise faster than their historical average—they are virile14. A couple thousand miles west, in the male-dominated culture of Montana (where I live), people sometimes hang small, stuffed, leather, water drop shaped bags around trailer hook-ups on the backs of trucks, or from rear-view mirrors. These imitation bull-testicles announce manly space around a large-wheeled truck; common silhouetted images of play-boy bunnies serve the same purpose.
Testicles are sometimes referred to as the “family jewels”—suggesting that they are somehow extremely valuable—more valuable than arms or legs—even more precious than eyes or thumbs. Linguistically, the word “testicle” dangles at the core of “testament” (as in the much-revered “New Testament”) and also at the core of “testify”—“bears witness to male virility” and also to the perceived importance of male pronouncements15. Indeed, when men testified in ancient Rome, they touched their testicles as evidence of sincerity.16 “Testament” and “testify” speak to the perceived importance of testicles among those who shaped the English language.17 In the words of Elizabeth Fisher, “one bull, many castrates, and many cows set a pattern which influences [male] psychology for millennia to come”.18
Reflecting the Ecofeminist’s description of an overarching system of false value dualisms, oppression, and denigration, cows in particular and anymals in general are devalued, marginalized, and denigrated. Cows are considered stupidly docile and easily frightened (though anyone encountering a mother cow protecting her calf would wisely and quickly dispose of this false impression). As mere anymals, the well-being and interests of hapless bulls are disregarded on behalf of empowered men who wish to overpower bulls for pleasure, prestige, and possibly profit. Nor is it chance that bulls are the victims of such insecurity-rooted “manly” enterprises. As noted, male-dominated cultures tend to envision large testicles as symbols of all that is desirable and essential to prestige and power. Consequently, toppling a cow is unlikely to be viewed as manly, but dominating a bull with gigantic testicles—now that is a manly-man’s endeavor.
Bulls, with their conspicuously large testicles, have been and continue to be symbols of manliness and machismo. Perhaps long-held ideals of male virility have led to a phenomenon best understood as “testicle envy” (offering an interesting twist to the likely origins and true source of Freud’s “penis envy”). Apparently, on discovering larger testicles on bulls, men have had a tendency to feel threatened and inferior, leading to a desire to dominate these unfortunate bovines, in an attempt to demonstrate that they really are more manly than the large-testicled bulls. Testicle envy is evidenced by a proliferation of man-dominating-bull competitions, as well as art, including religious art, many reaching back thousands of years. “Throughout the Mediterranean the history of sadistic animal games is an ancient one. From Catalian rituals to Cretan bull-vaulting to the Iberian bullfight”.19 A bone-injury found in the archeological digs in Turkey looked consistent with the goring of a bull, “substantiated by the animal games illustrated” on unearthed artifacts, suggesting “sadomasochistic gamesmanship”.20
In North America, cowboys compete to stay atop a bucking bull, never a cow, and bulls are used for traditional buffalo races in India. Spain is famous for bull fighting, not cow fighting, and the running of the cows would not likely be a big hit in Spain, Portugal, France, or Mexico—but the running of the bulls is internationally known as a high-risk (manly) enterprise. It is unthinkable that such sport could revolve around cows because it would be unmanly to dominate an anymal viewed as stupid, docile, and easily frightened. Bulls, on the other hand, trumped up as icons of brute strength and life-threatening rage, envisioned as models of “aggressive potency” due to their large testicles, are worthy targets for any alpha-male.21 Perceived risk—and the courage, strength, and skill that is assumed to be necessary to attempt such endeavors—leading to the assumption that contesters, and especially winners, in man-dominating-bull competitions are the epitome of machismo, and what simultaneously makes those who win or excel into cultural icons and heros. That said, it is surprising—and presumably somewhat embarrassing to any sense of machismo—that Brazilian vaquejada bulls are small: They are roughly one third the size of bulls used for North American rodeos, bull fights, bull-running, and Indian buffalo races, for example, and I suppose that is why toppling these little bulls into the dust can be done by pulling their tails.
Forró music22 blaring over the loudspeaker further supports an ecofeminist analysis of vaquejada. In the nineties, forró bands incorporated elements of international pop music (keyboards, drums, guitar, saxophone, bass, as well as moving from solo singers to multiple singers with sound-and-light shows). In the process of the “spectacularization of forró,” the music and the performance were sexualized. Bands incorporated crass eroticism in both lyrics and choreography, emphasizing sex appeal and celebrating male virility, sometimes referred to as a party-love-sex trinomial. Forró lyrics frequently present women as needing men and sexually driven to men; men are presented as in control and also as taming the uncontrolled passions of women. These changes attracted younger audiences and brought forró into the modern world, drawing big crowds and big money.23 Forró lyrics blaring over the loudspeaker at vaquejada events help to create a space that is alienating and demeaning to girls and women while affirming male power, dominance, and control: “You are not worth a dime, but I like you even so”;24; “I’m grabbing you and you’re licking me, this bloke is fine and also very sexilicious”)25; “I have heard you’re with a new boyfriend, but it’s just a pastime in order not to be alone, because your heart beats for another guy, that is me.”26
Ecofeminism provides context for vaquejada, placing it alongside other man-dominating-bull competitions, as well as critical analysis. Vaquejada celebrates all that is viewed as quintessentially male, while that which is viewed as female—including women and girls—are marginalized and denigrated. Forró music blares unceasingly through the loudspeakers, and there is a noteworthy absence of female competitors. Whether competing to kill a wounded and enraged bull, or to topple a terrified and confused bull, the goal is for a man to overpower and dominate a dangerous and powerful beast, thereby demonstrating courage, strength, and skill—virility. Ecofeminism exposes vaquejada as a competition in which men compete to dominate comparatively powerless bovines who cannot possibly understand why they are abused, tortured, and slowly killed by proud and fragile men who suffer from testicle envy.
Ecofeminist theory, which connects oppressed categories such as women and anymals (as “Not A”), also exposes vaquejada as a social justice concern. Vaquejada, along with other man-dominating-bull competitions, marginalizes and denigrates not only anymals, but also women and girls (and because they are in the “Not A” category, almost surely minorities as well). Instead of encouraging displays of power and dominance rooted in insecurity (testicle envy), those committed to social justice would do well to lobby governments to ban man-dominating-bull competitions, including vaquejada.
Ethics and Multiculturalism
For the purpose of exploration, let us assume that vaquejada is a cultural tradition, as asserted by many working to keep vaquejada in Brazil. Multiculturalism aspires to promote and protect cultural traditions, but what if there are conflicting traditions? Ethics are also part of a community’s cultural traditions, yet even if they are not taken as part of a community’s cultural heritage, core ethics ought to be critical in helping to determine what humans ought to do in any given scenario. How do ethics shed light on the Brazilian question of whether or not to ban vaquejada?
Moral philosophers have been aware for centuries that “there can be no moral justification for refusing to take . . . suffering into consideration”27. Even without any formal education in ethics, human beings tend to be sensitive to the moral weight of inflicting pain, often recoiling or objecting when confronted with extreme suffering—especially when seemingly the result of indifference.
This moral inclination—a general distaste for suffering—is evidenced by polls. For example, a poll on suffering caused to anymals by those testing on cosmetics demonstrates that respondents feel that anymal testing “it is not worth causing this kind of suffering just to test the safety of cosmetics, especially when there are safe ingredients already available”.28 Another poll, titled “Public Lukewarm on Animal Rights” (which actually reveals those who participated in this poll as red-hot against industry practices that cause misery to anymals), demonstrates that 96 percent of U.S. respondents agreed that anymals “deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation”.29
Offering even stronger evidence of a moral imperative against harming other living beings, a 2015 Gallop Poll indicated that more than 33 percent—more than one third of respondents—agree that anymal rights should be on a par with human rights. Meanwhile, very few U.S. respondents—a mere 3 percent—indicate that “animals require little protection from harm and exploitation”30. Though such polls are rare, Brazilian citizens vote similarly: At least one study indicates that 41 percent of Brazilians “fully disagree” with anymal testing, while 18 percent agree only partially with the use of anymals in science (“56%” 2)31.
It is likely that people who lack any formal moral training object to causing unnecessary suffering because compassion tends to be a fundamental, universal ethic—it is part of the morality that most of us learn when we are growing up. This is likely the case because communities cannot survive without compassion—without caring about and for one another, especially the young. Core ethics tend to teach human beings not to lie, steal, or murder because such behaviors are inimical to trust and security, all of which are necessary if humans are to live in close proximity.32 Consequently, causing suffering when one need not do so—especially wanton cruelty of the powerful over the weak—is generally considered immoral.
Consistency is considered particularly important in ethics with regards to words and deeds—people tend to be decidedly unimpressed with hypocrisy. It is rare to find an individual, for example, who admires those who speak much of simplicity while driving an expensive car, or who spend much breath espousing abstinence while mating with random available sexual partners, or who sing praises to freedom while enslaving others. When confronted with the cruelty of the dairy industry, for example, many omnivores and vegetarians become ill at ease with consuming yogurt, cheese, and ice cream—even though such a diet is the norm. This is because they have become aware of the need to change consumer habits—to go vegan—in order to remain faithful to deep, personal moral convictions.
Some cultures maintain age-old sexual ethics, others foster more egalitarian societal norms; some cultures maintain long-standing religious ethics, others have adopted secular ethics—but pretty much every culture maintains a strong moral imperative denouncing cruelty and supporting moral consistency. This becomes yet more evident when we meet someone who does not (or pretends not to) share this fundamental moral framework. In such instances, an individual might express complete indifference to the sufferings of bulls and horses, or they might express complete indifference to maintaining any sort of consistency between words, understandings, and deeds. In such an instance, dialogue quickly breaks down, because in the absence of an (often undetected) underlying moral commitment, there is generally no basis for moral concern, no incentive for change, and no core around which to build a moral dialogue. Fortunately, such relativistic, nihilistic individuals are few and far between—most people readily admit that wantonly causing suffering or premature death, whether to bulls or human beings, is morally problematic. Consequently, core ethics across cultures are likely to support laws forbidding cultural traditions that cause suffering or premature death merely for the sake of competition—even with regard to ancient competitions. Standard universal ethics support the Brazilian constitution as it stands, and the ruling of the Brazilian Supreme Court, which has banned vaquejada.
While multiculturalism cannot defend man-dominating-bull competitions, it is important that change come from “inside” a given culture. People in Spain ought to end bullfighting in Spain, people in India ought to end buffalo races in India, and Brazilians ought to put an end to vaquejada. This does not prevent people in other nations from speaking up on behalf of the oppressed. On the contrary, moral consistency requires that we loudly denounce cruel practices anywhere and everywhere—especially when the comparatively powerful harm the disempowered, as is usually the case (for example, child slavery, burning of brides, kaporos, and vaquejada). “Historically, social justice activists have always been charged with being ‘outsiders’ who have no business interfering . . . but practices that are cruel and unjust are everyone’s business”33. Those who do not dwell in nations that practice child slavery or vaquejada, for example, can and should voice concerns about such practices, while also supporting (materially/financially) efforts to bring change locally. Bull fighting is now illegal in Catalonia (a region of Spain), and so must the running of the bulls, Indian water buffalo races, North American rodeos, bull fighting elsewhere in Spain, and vaquejada in Brazil come to an end.
Ecofeminism highlights a cultural tendency for contemporary societies to view the world from a dualistic and hierarchical point of view, elevating some categories while marginalizing, denigrating, and dominating others. Such cultures tend to celebrate all that is envisioned as quintessentially male, including testicles—the bigger the better. Consequently, men sometimes suffer from testicle envy, and are driven to attempt to prove their manliness by dominating anymals whose testicles are larger than those of human beings. This appears to have led to the cross-cultural phenomenon of man-dominating-bull competitions such as vaquejada.
Core ethics across cultures include injunctions against causing wanton harm. Ethics are central to every community’s cultural traditions. Sometimes traditional practices conflict with core ethics. Those speaking on behalf of multiculturalism must sometimes choose whether or not to defending practices that conflict with core ethics.
Core ethics which speak against causing unnecessary harm stand against vaquejada and other man-dominating-bull competitions. Core ethics do not support harming hapless bovines for sport, in the hope of profit and fame, or because of deep-rooted testicle envy. Man-dominating-bull competitions, even if they are viewed as ancient traditions, are rightly denounced and banned because of the importance of multiculturalism, because of the importance of protecting traditions—including a community’s foundational ethics. It is therefore right that Brazil’s legal system topple vaquejada into the dustbin of history, leaving the little bulls (with large testicles) standing.
The author thanks Franze Matos for making this field research in vaquejada possible, with special thanks to Barbara Bastos and Tiago Barreto.
Banner image: Bull tumbles under a horse during the vaquejada of the city of Surubim, Pernambuco State- one of the biggest vaquejadas of Brazil. Photo: Lisa Kemmerer, September 2015.
- “Anymal” (a contraction of “any” and “animal,” pronounced just as the words “any” and “mal” are pronounced), refers to all animals who do not happen to be the same species as the speaker/author. This means that if a signing chimpanzee signs “anymal,” human beings will be included in this reference, and the chimpanzee will not. In this case, the speaker/author is a human being, so in this chapter “anymal” refers to any animal who is not a human being. Anymal avoids the fundamentally dualistic terms “non” and “other” and is therefore neither dualistic nor speciesist. See “Verbal Activism: ‘Anymals’.” Society and Animals 14.1 (May 2006): 9-14. Article can be accessed at: <http://lisakemmerer.com/Articles/anymal%20article%20Jan%202016.pdf>
- Adams, Carol. Pornography of Meat. NY: Continuum, 2003, p 39 – 59; Gaard, Greta.“Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature.” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Ed Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple, 1993, p 5; Kheel, Marti. Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective. NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
- Adams, Carol. Pornography of Meat. NY: Continuum, 2003, p 39 – 59.
- Gaard, Greta. “Living Interconnections with Animals and Nature.” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Ed Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple, 1993, p 3.
- Donovan, Josephine and Carol Adams. “Sexism/Speciesism: Interlocking Oppressions.” Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Ed. By Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan. Durham: Duke, 1995.
- Fisher, Elizabeth. Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979, p 191-194.
- Ibid p 249
- ibid p 216-218
- Ibid p 191-4
- Ibid p194
- Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1985, “56% dos Paulistanos Julgam que os Ativistas Agiram Bem em Retirar os Cães do Instituro Royal”. Datafolha.p 220. Accessed Oct. 14, 2015. <http://datafolha.folha.uol.com.br/opiniaopublica/2013/10/1363772-56-dos-paulistanos-julgam-que-os-ativistas-agiram-bem-em-retirar-os-caes-do-instituto-royal.shtml>
- Embree, Ainslee T. The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. NY: Vantage, 1966, p118 – 119
- “Charging Bull: History.” Charging Bull. Accessed Oct. 14, 2015. <http://chargingbull.com/chargingbull.html>
- “Bull Market.” Investor Words. Accessed Oct. 14, 2015. <http://www.investorwords.com/616/bull_market.html>
- “Testis (n.)” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed Oct. 19, 2016. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=testis>
- Maestripieri, Dario. “‘Testify’ Comes From the Latin Word for Testicle: Two Baboon Allies Show Their Commitment by Fondling Each Other’s Genitalia.” Psychology Today. Dec 11, 2011. Accessed Dec. 12, 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/games-primates-play/201112/testify-comes-the-latin-word-testicle>
- Online Etymology Dictionary, Op Cit
- Fisher, Elizabeth. Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979, p 256
- Ibid, p 243
- Ibid, p 229
- Ibid, p 219
- Thanks to Francisco for this information.
- Santos, Climério de Oliveira . “Forró X Forró: Discursos, Polarizações e Diversidade num Campo Musical”. 2012, p 9 Accessed October 10, 2016 <http://www.batuquebook.com.br/wp…/11/Artigo_ForroxForro_Climerio_de_Oliveira.pdf>; Trotta, Felipe. “O forró eletrônico no Nordeste: um estudo de caso”. Intexto, Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 2009. 102-116.
- Calcinha Preta. “Você não vale nada.” DVD Calcinha Preta 360º, Calcinha Preta, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cOrtPqlg5g
- Forró do Muído. “Eu te puxo e tu me lambe”. Forró do Muído Vol. 8. Junior Cds. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_cbS2hePsg
- Aviões do forró. “Aviões do Forró – Dá Beijinho que Passa (Ao Vivo em Salvador)”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Jan 2013. Web. 18 July 2016. Bezerra, José Fernandes. No Mundo do Vaqueiro. Accessed Oct. 14, 2015. <http://www.barcelona.educ.ufrn.br/mundo.htm>
- Singer, Peter. “Equality for Animals?” Excerpted from Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1979 Accessed Jan 15, 2017.
- “Global Polls Reveal Consumers Worldwide Want an End to Animal Testing for Cosmetics.” Humane Society International. Jan. 27, 2016. Accessed March 10, 2016. <http://www.hsi.org/news/news/2016/01/global_cosmetics_polling_012716.html>
- Moore, David W. “Public Lukewarm on Animal Rights.” Gallup. May 21, 2003. Accessed Jan. 15, 2017. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/8461/public-lukewarm-animal-rights.aspx>
- Rifkin, Rebecca. “In U.S., More Say Animals Should Have Same Rights as People.” May 18, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2016. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/183275/say-animals-rights-people.aspx>
- “56% dos Paulistanos Julgam que os Ativistas Agiram Bem em Retirar os Cães do Instituro Royal”. Datafolha. Accessed Oct. 14, 2015. <http://datafolha.folha.uol.com.br/opiniaopublica/2013/10/1363772-56-dos-paulistanos-julgam-que-os-ativistas-agiram-bem-em-retirar-os-caes-do-instituto-royal.shtml>, p 2
- Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 8th ed. NY: McGraw Hill, 2015 p 25
- Davis, Karen. “United Poultry Concerns’ Campaign to End Chicken Kaporos.” Alliance to End Chickens as Kaparos. March 19, 2013. Accessed Aug. 29, 2015. <http://www.endchickensaskaporos.com/museum.html>