gall and gumption

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Jean and Dinah and Winston

Steve Gilliard posted this review of a new film about the rent-a-dread phenomenon in the Caribbean, and the fact that older white women from North America and Europe go there looking for romance which they are quite content to pay for. Some of his posters are scandalized to learn of this, and Gilliard finds exploitation in it. Here's what I posted in response.

If this is news to you, you have never spent time on a Caribbean beach outside of those all-inclusive resorts. If you have you are aware that there are all sorts of peddlers -- of handmade jewelry, T-shirts, sarongs, little pipes, weed, massages, hair braiding, and yes, romance.

I have known men who get into these affairs, and some women. Sometimes it ends well, sometimes it ends badly. You could say the same about the romances that are not for pay. These have the advantage of both parties going into it with their eyes wide open. It has gone on for a long time, I can remember tourists being squired around by "tour guides" when I was small (my grandparents owned a hotel for a while). I prefer to think of it as mutually assured exploitation and as long as nobody gets hurt, I don't see what the problem is.

Certainly one of the things that could be done is for these guys (AND the women) to put their heads together to get some of the protections that sex trade workers get in the most civilized countries.

You might not be aware that there is a whole sort of subgenre of calypso, going back probably to the 1940s, in which a white woman comes down to the islands, drinks some rum, marches in a carnival band and goes wild.

And that real calypso that the Andrews Sisters made so popular, "Rum and Coca-Cola?" What do you suppose the line "working for the Yankee dollar" means? In every single calypso referring to the Americans, who had a base in Trinidad during WWII and for some years after, the word "Yankee" was shorthand for sex for money.

The Mighty Sparrow's greatest songs, the ones that made him the acknowledged greatest calypsonian of all time, were almost all about sex for money. In "Jack Palance" the old grannies (with their face like Jack Palance) are getting into the Yankee action, in "Don't Go Joe," a woman steals her Yankee boyfriend's wallet while crying because he's leaving. And in "Jean and Dinah," a local man gloats because now that the Yankees are gone the prices are within his reach again.

These are very funny songs; all the characters in them are spirited and perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Calypso fans of the 1950s and 1960s, when Sparrow and Lord Kitchener were putting out songs like this, speak of both these guys with reverence. Because they recognized and made art out of what is common knowledge in the Caribbean: that outside of marriage, most sexual relationships have some kind of financial component. (As do many marriages, here in the U.S.) But there are all sorts of shades and degrees to these relations. For a lot of people, money ("He looks after me") is wrapped into their idea of a viable relationship. That it is potentially exploitative and often really so, everyone acknowledges, and has acknowledged for hundreds of years. Some people think it the exploitation is worse now than it was under colonialism.

Something else to point out is that in the colonies there was a shortage of white women. Far more men went out than women in the early days, because working there was something you would do if you couldn't find anything in England, or if you had disgraced yourself and got a fresh start.

Black women who entered into liaisons with such men got some distinct advantages, and so did their mixed children: by the time Anthony Trollope toured the Caribbean in 1858, Jamaica's legislature was made up mostly of mixed brown people, the children and grandchildren of slaves.


And, I'll just add, they owned land.

21 Comments:

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Lisa said...

I just read all the other comments (mostly scripted, as in "the other") also posted to Steve's site in response to his blog on the movie review, along with yours, Kia. Yours suggests the the harder, fuller picture of how people in the sex trade keep some dignity (and families) together. There's a good book about Bangkok sex workers, Patpong Sisters, written by an anthropologist--you can get a similar sense of the life lived from the point of view of those who've had to make the choice to live by paid sex, with all the emotional entanglements, manipulation, damage, and gain that can involve. There's a recent series (if it is a series--so far, two are out) of crime novels set in Bangkok that also deals with similar topics (the narrator is the grown son, now a police detective, of a Thai sex worker and an American GI, the latter long since gone, of course, and the mother a wonderfully difficult character who opens and runs a brothel): Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo. The books are not without their flaws, but they're at least about a range of experience told from a point of view the other "others" like to imagine they are qualified to rant about, but don't have a real clue.

 
At 4:19 PM, Blogger Kia said...

The books sound interesting. Thanks for the suggestions!

 
At 11:58 AM, Anonymous caroline said...

My last comment is totally nonsensical because I thought Leslie was responding to the calypso piece.

 
At 2:14 AM, Anonymous leslie said...

Romance is a euphemism here, isn't it? I mean, the women aren't paying for anyone to bring them roses. But I'm very interested in the point you make about most sexual relationships having some financial component, and I would go on to say that the issue is bigger than that. People take care of each other in all kinds of ways, some of which involve money. Each person performs his or her own cost/benefits analysis in order to decide whether the relationship is working or not.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Leslie
I suppose it is a euphemism, or maybe just a pretty widely descriptive phrase. The most successful guy I knew at this, started out with nothing but a pair of those little swim trunks known as a "banana hammock." He used to go to a hotel wearing this swimsuit and skim the swimming pool. He wasn't employed there, he just did this voluntarily. He worked his way up to a barbecue grill. That is, he got a barbecue grill and kept that on the beach, and also kept himself in the romance game, by being part of the social scene. He got into contention with a beach bar owner over a woman, the beach bar owner was an ex-prizefighter, and my guy decamped to the next island, where things took off for him beyond the wildest dreams. Partly because his beach bar/barbecue/restaurant operation is so good at customer service, at all these little extra touches. His beach bar is now a popular destination -- on New Year's Eve Night it is so packed with people from all over the world that you can't find a bare patch of sand to fall down drunk on. The walls of the beach bar are lined with celebrity photos. He is a wealthy man now, married to an Americcan woman who comes from some money (the line between romance and professional work is not so strictly drawn).

In this business, as in others, the ability to deliver all those extra touches that make a person feel special and that they are having a special experience, makes all the difference.

There is probably a whole range between the straight out money for rumpty dumpty transaction and something that is a lot more like a relationship, even old naggy relationships -- which I have also seen. And you know, for women, being found attractive is a turn-on. So the guy has to be able to play along romantically at least that far. Which is maybe one way it's different from the way it is when it's men who are paying.

 
At 1:40 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Hi Kia. I'm an old friend of some mutual friends, one of whom dared me to blog on, if that is what this is called. Well, what is being said here is interesting. Most of what I have read, the review and the comments are about people making their way in the world, no matter what circumstance might be. I went to a meeting a couple years ago. What people look like oughtn't matter these days, I know, but they are almost always part of my story, so indulge me. The speaker was a funny looking guy, long blond hair and a sort of American Indian looking hat, black with a wide brim, skinny and with a scruffy beard. I go to this meeting often and so know the people and I noticed a new woman in the circle. She was attractive and I started thinking about her while he spoke. As he explained, they were a couple. and for several years, their relationship had been defined by one year contracts, renewable each January if both consent, after negotiations. No second parties are involved. The contract covers whatever is of concern to either party. Additional negotiations take place, should problems or concerns surface between Januarys. Nothing works out perfectly I know, but the explicitness of their apparent arrangement appealed at the time, Of course, I was going through another divorce at the time and was probably a fairly soft target for such an arrangement. I kept trying to figure out who had the power. I watched the woman as her partner talked and she was nodding as if in total agreement, and with each bob of her head, her beauty grew.

 
At 1:41 AM, Anonymous leslie said...

Dang, Kia, you make me laugh every time you put pen to paper (as it were). I love that story. Can we call it a happy ending?. And I have a need to say to Mike: when did it stop mattering what people looked like? I missed the memo.

 
At 8:44 PM, Anonymous tom said...

It seems to me you're getting at something significant here, in part by avoiding the well-trod path of righteous blather, and looking at this whole phenomenon more richly, as something that is both very human, and something very inhuman - a market - in which contracts, agreements, understandings, negotiated and merely conned, are worked, as the saying goes, for mutual benefit. What's more, one does not hear turns of phrase like "banana hammock" in Florida - alas!

 
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