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Actress Roberta Rodrigues who first became famous in her role as Berenice in the 2002 hit film Cidade de Deus (City of God) has decided to go against the grain in the Afro-Brazilian women’s hair revolution. She straightened out her curly locks and added some blonde weave. As we have shown in a number of previous articles, the issue of hair and the infamous “good hair/bad hair” debate is huge amongst black Brazilian women, subjecting them to harassment on the job, disrespectful song lyrics and influencing low self-acceptance amongst children. But the open discussion is also leading many black women to embrace their natural hair in numbers that could be considered revolutionary in a country where straight hair is the standard of beauty. Due to these politics of hair, it seems that Roberta is getting some backlash over her new look.
Below are photos of her current look as well as over the years. With her new look, the Brazilian press was quick to slap the Beyonce label on her (as they’ve done with countless other black women in Brazil) calling her “A Beyoncé do Alemão” (The Beyoncé of Alemão, in reference to Complexo do Alemão, a group of 13 favelas (slums) in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro). Well, in reality, it was Roberta herself who said that the look was actually inspired by the American singer. Again the Beyonce thing. So what does this say about the world’s top black entertainer if she’s inspiring other black women to go blond, straight and weave? It’s funny, around 40 years ago, black American women inspired a very successful black Brazilian actress to accept her natural hair. More on that later in this post…For now, here’s the story on Roberta.
Despite some criticism, the actress is enjoying her new look: “I often say that there is a Roberta before and another after this hair.”
Roberta suffered criticism for straightening her hair
Straightening her hair for the first time, actress Roberta Rodrigues, who plays Maria Vanúbia on the novela Salve Jorge, is thrilled with the radical change in her visual, but confesses that she is hearing criticism about her new look. “There are people saying that I abandoned my roots. The origin has to do with one’s character and not the hair. I’m an actress, I have to change for the characters,” the actress said.
Despite some criticism, Roberta is finding everything wonderful. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done. I often say that there is a Roberta before and another after this hair. I think people really notice blondes more. The hair really calls attention, it’s very funny.”
Roberta doesn’t hide the fact that she loves kinky/curly hair, but says that it is easier to take care of it straight. “Having straight hair is much easier. I wake up, take a bath, run my hand through my hair and I’m ready. Kiny/curly hair requires more care. You have to wash it, put cream in it, dry it with a towel and then use a hair diffuser,” she says.
To achieve this long-haired look, the actress enlisted the help of a weave that requires some caution: “I have to moisturize it a lot and use a special brush. All of the blonde parts are weave. I didn’t dye my hair because it would break everything and I could end up going bald!”
Rodrigues says that the concept of beauty in Complexo do Alemão is inspired by Beyonce. “They like blonde, straight hair. It (Alemão) has Beyonce as reference and they create amazing looks,” she said. “I felt very different, I’m more successful. The guys go crazy, it’s funny. I think that it’s a fetish for men. I put two things together: black and blonde. Now I use red lipstick because it matches. I’m loving myself blond and straight (hair).”
In an interview from July, the actress revealed that she thought of herself as ugly as a child and was the only black girl in a school she went to. But with the support of her father she overcame this bout of low self-esteem. The radical change of hair styles is an about face for Roberta as in that same interview she said that using a diffuser was great for her natural hair saying, “I love it! It leaves my hair super beautiful.” It seems that attention from the opposite sex and local beauty standards have a way of changing one’s tune.
On her latest character, Maria Vanúbia, Rodrigues says that she is abused and loves to appear and show off her body. “She always shows her body and speaks full of gesture. She’s enough all by her self”, she says, noting that the approach of writer Gloria Perez to the favela (shantytown) is real. “We see in the text care, affection. They’re scenes that don’t continue in the stereotype of the slum.”
So let’s consider a few things here. Number one, just curious, what does it say when the world’s top black female entertainer is inspiring women of African descent to go blond, straight and weave? The politics of black hair has also been debated in speaking of the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Is this simply how it is or is it part of the sacrifice that women of African descent must make in order to reach the highest pinnacles of success? I won’t get into that here because it’s already been thoroughly debated. But I will say it’s intriguing to say the least. The most visible persons of African descent in the world are African-Americans, but even they must deny (or would it be sacrifice?) a part of themselves that signals African ancestry in order to achieve mainstream acceptance. Consider this interesting and ironic story.
Zezé Motta (above) is one of Brazil’s most successful black actresses of the past four decades. In the 2005 book Muito Prazer by Rodrigo Murat (Fundação Padre Anchieta), Motta recounts travelling to the United States in 1969 with a theater group of director Augusto Boal. At the time she was accustomed to wearing a straight, Chanel wig.When she arrived in Harlem, she met a group of African-American militants who were shocked at the sight of her wearing this wig. It was at a time when Black Power and “Black is Beautiful” were the slogans of the day. Besides wearing the wig, Motta was also accustomed to using a hot comb to straighten her hair. It was after this encounter with black Americans who were fully committed in accepting and promoting the black aesthetic that Motta began to assume herself as a black woman. As Motta put it: “I went out in the streets of Harlem and I noticed that black Americans walked with their heads held high. I didn’t have this subservient posture that I felt in Brazil and in myself. This trip had this importance (because) it made me see my country from the outside.”
Thus, 43 years ago, African-Americans helped an Afro-Brazilian woman find her identity and pride in her African-oriented features. 43 years later, another African-American, Beyonce, is influencing some Afro-Brazilians to return to the era of the suppression of the African aesthetic. Is this the path to success? Should this even be considered true success when socially oppressed groups accept the aesthetics imposed upon them by the very system that they once fought against? Or is this, as Rodrigues and many other women will argue, simply a question of hair maintenance? Another deep question. Think about that one.
On another topic, Rodrigues says that scenes from the Salve Jorge novela don’t continue with the stereotype of Brazil’s primarily Afro-Brazilian favelas. In a long post from a few weeks ago about the highly anticipated Globo TV series, Subúrbia (which featured a 90% black cast), that ended up descending into well-known stereotypical depictions of Afro-Brazilians, one of the characters we discussed was Jéssica as portrayed by actress, Ana Pérola. Here is what we wrote in that post:
“Speaking of her character, Ana Pérola herself describes the Jéssica character as “vulgar”, “full of attitude”, a woman who “uses sensuality well” and a total “periguete”. In Brazilian slang, a “periguete” is defined as a “woman that goes to the dances to enjoy herself, dance, drink and get with various guys at the same time; she is vulgar in how she dresses, how she speaks, walks and acts.” The type of woman known in African-American communities as a “hoochie”. The character is also a throwback to the old Brazilian stereotype of the “crazy black woman”, the “nega maluca.”
Rodrigues describes her character, Maria Vanúbia, as someone who “always shows her body and speaks full of gesture.” In most of the reviews of the series, Maria is described as a “periguete” (see news clipping above). I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a stereotype to me. And considering how black Brazilian women are portrayed in Brazil’s most popular novelas, is another “periguete” really a good look?
What’s your take on Roberta’s new look? Should women of African descent feel obligated to wear their hair in its natural state while other women have the freedom to experiment with various styles? How much does the standard of beauty of the opposite sex influence a woman’s look? For black girls who continue to feel a certain self-rejection of their natural features, are people like singer Beyonce and actress Roberta Rodrigues sending a negative message about self-acceptance or are they good representatives of individual freedom of expression? Feel free to leave a comment. Below are a few more photos of Roberta, both from the current TV series and over the years.