Are two of Spain’s leading fiestas sexist?

Questions are being raised over the sculptures at the Fallas in Valencia and the songs performed at the Carnival in Cádiz

A scene from Valencia’s famous Fallas festival.
A scene from Valencia’s famous Fallas festival.Mònica Torres

Hypersexualized women with large breasts and bottoms are part of the classic repertoire of papier mâché sculptures on display at Valencia’s famous Fallas festival. Meanwhile, the lyrics of satirical songs performed at Cádiz’s highly popular Carnival constantly resort to stereotypes about the evil mother-in-law, the controlling wife, the attractive neighbor, the local busybody and the nitpicking old hag.

So does this mean that two of Spain’s most prominent street celebrations are sexist?

I don’t think the Fallas objectify women any more than other fields like politics or sports Mónica Oltra

The Association of Falla Studies and Valencia University asked this question a few months ago in connection with their own fiesta, which Unesco added to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in November 2016.

Their question sparked a growing debate over whether the ninots, short-lived sculptures that get burnt down on the night of March 19, are sexist or not.

“Satire is the essence of this fiesta, and it targets men and women alike, as it does the rich and the poor,” says Pere Fuset, president of the Junta Central Fallera, the fiesta’s governing body. “The image of women at the Fallas is neither better nor worse than what you see in the movies, in advertising or in humor programs.”

“I don’t think the Fallas objectify women any more than other fields like politics or sports,” says Mónica Oltra, the deputy premier of the Valencia region, regional commissioner in charge of gender equality issues, and a known fan of the Fallas who regularly participates in the parades. “Sometimes I get the feeling that we ask the Fallas for things that we don’t demand from the rest of society.”

Not everyone is happy about a decision by the Municipal Women’s Council of the City of Valencia – a body that includes unions, feminist groups, university gender equality departments and others – to create a committee to analyze whether the Fallas are sexist.

Considering that the entire fiesta favors exaggeration and irony – the ninots are used for political and social satire – the debate is taking place on slippery ground.

We are tired of sexism, so we are also tired of sexism in the Carnival

Carnaval Feminista

“This is not about confrontation. Of course there is sexism [in the Fallas], as much as in society in general. We are going to exchange opinions from a position of mutual respect. Nobody should fear debate,” said Isabel Lozano, the city’s chief of equality issues and president of the analysis committee. “We are not here to impose anything or open new trenches, but rather to encourage positive practices.”

The point, says Lozano, is to bring the fiesta into the 21st century.

In the space of three years, the new government that replaced the long-serving Popular Party administration in Valencia has introduced changes to the Fallas, encouraging women to join the governing body and the juries that decide on the winning ninots.

Jesús Peris, president of the Association of Fallas Studies, says he is happy with the idea of taking a gender perspective to the fiesta. “It’s not about prohibiting, but about giving visibility to unacceptable things,” he said.

Cádiz carnival

Meanwhile, down in Cádiz, an initiative called Carnaval Feminista has sprung up on social media. “We are a movement seeking to evidence sexism in the lyrics [of carnival songs], whether explicit or there inadvertently.”

“We are tired of sexism, so we are also tired of sexism in the Carnival,” reads a statement by Carnaval Feminista, whose members remain anonymous.

This group has been analyzing the lyrics of songs that were submitted to the Official Competition of Carnival Groups (COAC). According to the official website, 138 groups will be performing this year in the preliminary round.

Targeted songs include La familia Verdugo (The Executioner family), in which a group of executioners behead ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, and almost do the same with an adulterous woman, but spare her the axe at the last minute because “it would be a waste.” The song goes on to say that “this girl makes me hard, so instead of with an axe, I killed her with a cudgel.”

This song was performed at the Gran Teatro Falla on January 9. Carnaval Feminista pointed out that the lyrics “are not funny” and that “sexism kills.”

Las Irrepetibles offer a tribute to the victim of the alleged gang rape in San Fermín.
Las Irrepetibles offer a tribute to the victim of the alleged gang rape in San Fermín.

Women are still a minority in the official song competition. There are a few all-female groups such as Las Irrepetibles, who were recently applauded for a song defending a victim of alleged gang rape in Pamplona.

Last year, the carnival eliminated the practice of electing nymphs and goddesses (the equivalent of the festival queens); additionally, several female groups made it to the competition finals.

“Women’s presence in the fiesta has made tremendous progress in the last 30 years,” admits Ana López Segovia, who heads the group Las niñas. She still recalls how, back in 1981, Adela del Moral made history by introducing a singing group made up of men and women alike.

There has also been a rise in the number of female groups performing unofficially on the streets of Cádiz. “The Teatro Falla [where the official competition takes place] is more conservative, as with everything that is institutionalized,” says López Segovia. “But for the last 15 years there has been a female revolution at the Carnival.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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