Brazilian Telenovelas and the Myth of Racial Democracy
by Samantha Nogueira Joyce
When Brazil hosts the World Cup next summer, both local and international audiences are likely to see street protests with their soccer, as they did earlier this year during the Confederation Cup.
The public discontent began when bus fares rose in mid-June. Lower-class Brazilians went into the streets and the roused crowds of Brazil compelled the world media. In the first days, local television stations dwelled on crowded city squares, figures running from police, and the fires some protesters set in thoroughfares and public buildings.
The president gave in and lowered the bus fares. But the protests swelled as the middle class also raised a ruckus, demanding improved schools and better hospitals, and solid infrastructure. This second protest wave shouted about corruption. The government, the protesters accused, was spending the people’s money on soccer stadiums.
The timing could not have been better. The international media were already in the country for the Confederation Cup. They simply had to rotate their cameras to send home powerful protest footage.
On Independence Day in September, Brazilians reminded their government they were still angry, with protests in such large cities as Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Maceió, Fortaleza, Curitiba, and São Paulo. In some places the protesters surrounded the soccer stadiums they have turned into symbols of a government that chooses expensive and glamorous sport over its people.
The below review offers a glimpse of this complicated, compelling, and increasingly influential country by examining the Brazilian telenovela, or soap opera—a popular prime-time cultural form that (not unlike street protest) helps propel social change.
Telenovelas, or soap operas, are the main staple of television entertainment throughout Brazil and in many other Latin American countries. Unlike in the United States, where soap operas can run for decades, in Brazil telenovelas end after presenting their storyline over a six- to eight-month period. They are designed to attract men, women, and children as viewers and have dominated in television’s primetime slots for the last thirty years. Although the plotlines, characters, and settings are fleeting, telenovelas have remained Brazilians’ favorite form of primetime entertainment.
Often Latin American telenovelas have served as vehicles to introduce social issues by depicting a common problem, such as gender inequality or limited access for the disabled, in order to raise awareness and stimulate discussion. In Brazilian Telenovelas and the Myth of Racial Democracy, Samantha Nogueira Joyce takes one particular telenovela, Duas Caras (Two Faces), as her subject of study. Running for eight months in 2007–8, this telenovela deserves particular scrutiny because it was the first to include an Afro-Brazilian actor as the lead character and the first to make race relations and racism a constant theme. Joyce uses this telenovela as an opportunity to examine the role of television in contemporary currents of social change in Brazil. Through her analysis of Duas Caras, Joyce aims to demonstrate how “telenovelas are a powerful tool for introducing topics for debate and pro-social change, such as the instances where the dialogues openly challenge previously ingrained racist ideas in Brazilian society.”
The myth of racial democracy to which Joyce’s title refers is the Brazilian national narrative that defines the country’s citizens and identity as racially mixed. Put simply, it is generally thought that the Brazilian populace and culture emerged from a mixing of European, indigenous, and African people. Many believe that because there are no rigid racial lines that delineate black from white in Brazil, racism and racial discrimination do not exist there. In contrast to the “one-drop rule” of the United States, where “one drop of black blood” renders a person black, in Brazil, Joyce explains, “the racial blending has been validated not into a binary, but a ternary racial classification that differentiates the population into brancos (whites), pardos (multiracial individuals, also popularly known as mulatos), and pretos (blacks).”
Typically, Brazilians explain inequality on the basis of hereditary social class and income distribution rather than race. However, like the United States, Brazil has a history of slavery. After slavery was abolished in 1888, Afro-Brazilians were integrated into the labor market unevenly. Social scientists have uncovered entrenched and consistent forms of racial inequality that continue to relegate the Afro-Brazilian population to the economic, political, and social margins. “Whites and to some extent pardos were the ones with access to money, education, and opportunities, creating the reality that equates blacks with poor and all the cultural and social-economical downfalls that are connected to this”.
Racial inequality shows up in television through the stereotypical rendering of Afro-Brazilians in particular roles and the dominance of white actors; the effect, Joyce says, is to shore up assumptions about “the physical attributes of whites as the beauty ideal for all Brazilians.” Representations of race on television in Brazil and the United States largely parallel one another in the proliferation of racial stereotypes and the privilege conferred on whiteness. The idea of racial democracy has only masked the persistent forms of racial inequality, rather than prevented them.
Since the late 1990s, however, Brazil’s government has implemented programs that take account of race, such as affirmative action for Afro-Brazilian, poor, and indigenous people. These new policies have provoked public discussions about race, blackness, and racial inequality. The winds of social change are blowing strong in Brazil, and Duas Caras served as a powerful venue where this national drama of race could play out.
Brazilian soap operas have a history of including interracial relationships to represent the unity of the nation through racial mixture. Duas Caras follows the love story between Evilásio Caó (Lázaro Ramos), a black man from the slums, and Júlia Barreto (Débora Falabella), a white woman from a wealthy family. Joyce explains that the writer, Aguinaldo Silva, used the relationship between Júlia and Evilásio to probe tensions and preconceived notions about race in Brazil, rather than to emphasize racial democracy. The story includes scenes of overt racism. For example, Evilásio meets Júlia when a flat tire strands her near a slum area. He approaches the car to help, but Júlia cowers in fright at the approach of a black man and locks all the car doors. Ignoring her reaction, Evilásio simply proceeds to fix the tire. After she acknowledges her prejudice, Júlia and Evilásio begin a courtship that eventually blossoms into their marriage and the creation of a family.
Joyce finds that the story both departs from and reinforces stereotypes of Afro-Brazilians. It is innovative in casting Lázaro Ramos, an Afro-Brazilian actor, as the romantic lead—a first for Brazilian soap operas. Additionally, the show includes provocative scenes and discussions of racism that contradict the national narrative of racial democracy. However, some scenes depict Evilásio as an oversexualized “buck.”
After analyzing Duas Caras and its representations of race and blackness, in chapter 4 Joyce analyzes the blog written and moderated by its writer Aguinaldo Silva. She argues that the blog created a metadiscourse about the telenovela, or a mediated dialogue about the meanings of the telenovela text. “Meaning is not contained within the telenovela or the specialized media,” she says, “but is active in a continuous flow permeating numerous and diverse segments of society thus creating an open text.” Joyce includes long excerpts from Silva, who writes about encounters with viewers and commenters and answers viewers’ questions about the telenovela’s plot. For example, a viewer asks Silva why he killed off the character Mãe Bina, a leader in Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. Silva answers, “This story is not about Mãe Bina, but about Andréia Bijou, the young girl. . . . Andréia will adopt the name Majé Bassã . . . and being the new Mãe de Santo [Candomblé leader] in the terreiro [temple] will be enthroned according to the customs.” This conversation between the writer and the viewers is an example of the metadiscourse to which Joyce refers, which makes the blog a site in which the telenovela is produced beyond the bounds of television. Joyce also includes blog posts from other journalists, writers, and critics offering their interpretations of the telenovela. The Internet’s function as a public sphere for viewers to voice their opinions and question the writer on his decisions is changing the viewing of telenovelas in Brazil and cultural analysis of media more generally.
Joyce could have pushed this theme of a metadiscourse further by considering what end this dialogue about race and the telenovela serves. A metadiscourse for whom and for what? If the media constitute a site that sustains ideas about race and racial democracy in Brazil, how do they also act as sites of disruption? Joyce leaves such questions unaddressed. A robust body of social science literature examines the mechanisms through which the racial democracy myth maintains a foothold within many Brazilians’ conceptualizations of their own identities, their relationships, and their ideas about what it means to be Brazilian. In her article “Exposing Silence as Cultural Censorship: A Brazilian Case,” for example, Robin Sheriff points out that silence is one of the chief ways that racial democracy continues. People will actively silence another person who wishes to discuss race or the notion of racial inequality. But by nationally broadcasting a plot that actively recognizes and portrays racist practices and acknowledges that racial inequality exists, Duas Caras shatters the silence.
The book should call into question any notion that race relations in Brazil are more benign or gentle than in the United States. In fact, by comparison the United States may appear relatively progressive in its racial representations on television. But there can be no doubt that both countries still have much work to do.