Did the white women of the reality show ‘Big Brother Brasil 20’ emasculate black male participant Babu Santana by putting him in a dress? Depends on who you ask

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Did the white women of the reality show ‘Big Brother Brasil 20’ emasculate black male participant Babu Santana by putting in a dress? Depends on who you ask

By Marques Travae

Well, Big Brother Brasil’s 20th season has done it again! It’s actually quite fascinating how much the goings on on this reality show are debated via social networks. The ratings and the numbers of trending topics on Twitter are proof of this. Recently, the show entered the record books after becoming the most watched seasons in this decade. Obviously, the pandemic of the coronavirus and social isolation practices are playing a role in the increased numbers, as well as the fact that televised futebol (soccer) games have been cancelled.

Even so, the numbers are impressive. The 20th edition is now the top ranked BBB season of this decade and comes in third all-time only behind seasons 12 and 18. As I’ve repeatedly written, I’ve never been a fan of the program as I lost interest in reality shows years ago. But even this being the case, Big Brother Brasil is such a cultural phenomenon in Brazil that, even not watching it, I’ll catch wind of what happened on a recent episode from people I know, Tweets or articles written by people who follow the show regularly.

The origins of today’s report actually came about in the same way that ideas for previous posts did: via social networks. Sometimes I’ll hear about a particular incident when 1) people learn about it from the mainstream media and then comment on it, or 2) something happened to a common person and the noise behind the story gets so big that the mainstream media picks it up. Today’s story fall under number one.

Sometime last week, in the black Brazilian men’s WhatsApp group that I participate in, I started seeing photos of Big Brother Brasil 20 participant Babu Santana wearing make-up and a turban with some of the brothas making comments about it. As I don’t watch the show and hadn’t seen the photos previously, I had to find out what this all about.

Babu_drag 2
Actor and BBB20 participant Babu Santana after being dressed up by the women on the show

True enough, I went over Twitter and punched in the words “Babu” and “maquiagem” (make-up) and there was a long stream of tweets by people commenting on that particular episode. It was there that I saw the first vídeos of the scenes of Babu sashaying around the room in the turban, make-up and improvised dress that the girls on the show made for him.

“Well, I wonder how this came about”, I thought.

Here’s what happened.

On that particular episode, perhaps in an attempt to overcome boredom, during a conversation in one of the rooms, one of the participants, Mari, came up with an idea to play with Babu. “Will he accept [letting us] make him up and dress him as a woman?”

All were encouraged to create a look for Babu in the style of John Drops, an Afro-Brazilian male blogger famous for reproducing costumes of famous women with low cost elements, such as garbage bags and aluminum foil. Calling Babu into the room and presenting the idea to him, the women were pleasantly surprised when the actor accepted the idea only requesting that they didn’t shave off his goatee.

John Drops styles
John Drops, a popular blogger who imitates the looks of personalities such as Rihanna, Anitta and Sabrina Sato

With that, two of the women, Rafa and Ivy, took responsibility for the makeup, while Thelma, Manu and Mari took care of the clothes. Sitting patiently as he was being made up, the Rio-native sent a message to one of his daughters, who could have been ashamed of seeing what was happening to her father: “Laura, I know you won’t forgive me, but I have nothing to do here,” Babu said.

With false eyelashes, eyeshadow and an improvised turban, the actor famous for portraying Brazilian soulman Tim Maia in a film, looked in the mirror and liked the result. “I rocked it,” he joked. “Let me drink some more, so I can look at it tomorrow and say I don’t remember”, he said with a laugh.

The next thing you know, now christened “Bubu”, the overhead camera showed Santana sashaying on a make believe catwalk to the sounds of the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” with all of the women applauding his transformation. They loved it, and judging from the comments on Twitter, Brazilians loved it too.

Tweet - Bolsonaro country

Tweet - With you...

Translation of above comments

  • In Bolsonaro’s country, a fat black man being dressed up on national television has a very powerful symbolic strength. Long live the diversity, the feminine, the art! Long live @BabuSantana! VIVA (LONG LIVE) BUBU! ?????????????
  • With you, the new bbb sister, bubu # bbb20
John Drops - Babu - Twitter
Blogger John Drops also weighed in on Babu’s transformation

John Drops himself even weighed in on the hot trending Twitter topic. Reacting to Babu’s transformation, Drops made a video on Twitter: “I feel like I’m losing my profession to him and the girls in the house. They are producing high fashion. But I couldn’t help doing my look, right?”, joked the blogger, who also recreated Babu’s new look.

John Drops, Babu
Blogger John Drops quickly copied Babu’s look

As the conversation about putting black men in dresses and presenting them as imitation women has been a hot topic among African-American males for years, I immediately knew I wanted to discuss this subject.

If you’re not familiar with the topic, you can find countless articles on the subject by just googling the words ‘black men in dresses’. A few titles that recently caught my eye were NPR’s story “A Black Man in a Dress: No Laughing Matter”, Blavity’s “Why Male Comedians Wearing Dresses Isn’t a Black Thing”, and The Root’s “Why Do Black Men Wear Dresses?”. “Emasculating the Black Male” on the Style Magazine website also captures the sentiments of many black men in the African-American Community. There’s a long history behind this practice but the debate and conversation about it and why it seems so common in the entertainment industry is rather recent.

Although the conversation has been going on for a number of years, I would say it became more than just discussions in the black barbershops across America in 2006 when popular comedian Dave Chappelle asked the question on Oprah Winfrey’s long-running talk show. In that episode, Chappelle, after admitting he was a “conspiracy theorist” to a certain degree, mentions how he wondered why so many black males had worn dresses at some point in their careers. It was common in both film and television productions.

Chappelle went on to detail a situation he experienced during the filming of one of his movies when someone he believed to be one of the writers of the film explained what he called a “hilarious scene” in which Chappelle would put on a dress. Chappelle immediately rejected the idea. After the writer debated and tried to convince him to put on the dress he gave up and left the room. Shortly afterward, another man, the director, comes in again, insisting that the comedian don the dress. Chappelle again stands firm refusing to put on a dress for the role. Interestingly, they almost instantly came up with another (pre-planned?) script without the dress scene. It was almost as if the filmmakers were testing Chappelle to see what he would be willing to do in a film.

As Chappelle said, repeating what the writer had said, “all the greats have done it”, referring to black male comedians and actors such as Flip Wilson, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Tyler Perry, Shawn and Marlon Wayans and so many others have worn dresses or women’s apparel for roles in films. The Wayans brothers 2004 film White Chicks, released as As Branquelas in Brazil, was a big hit in Brazil.

Wayans - white chicks
Shawn and Marlon Wayans in the film ‘As Branquelas’ (White Chicks)

To be honest about it, seeing men in dresses has never really appealed to me. And it doesn’t matter whether this was on TV, in comedy skits, films or even cartoons. I don’t care for it. I remember vividly the first time a friend showed me the 1982 film The Toy starring legendary African-American comedian Richard Pryor and long-time actor Jackie Gleason. When I saw Pryor enter the scene dressed as a maid, I remember getting a certain squeezy feeling. It just didn’t sit well with me.

1982 the toy
Richard Pryor (center) in the 1982 film ‘The Toy’

Incidentally, I had somewhat of a similar feeling a year later when I saw Pryor in the 1983 film Superman III. Pryor didn’t wear a dress in that film, but I still remember seeing the poster of the film which showed the lead character, Superman, played by Christopher Reeves, flying through the air with Pryor in his arms like a little baby or something. Mind you, I had enjoyed the Superman series and had seen Superman and Superman II and was as much into the whole fantastical men with superhero powers theme as any other kid of my age bracket.

I had also grown up watching Pryor’s standup routines, as my father was a fan of the comedian. But even being a child, I felt a certain discomfort in seeing the white Reeves as the all-powerful, superhuman figure and the black Pryor looking rather weak in comparison. In that respect, the feelings were similar in watching Pryor in The Toy and Superman III although seeing Pryor dressed as a maid bothered me more between the two.

Rafael Zulu Encontro
Actor Rafael Zulu appears on Globo TV talk show ‘Encontro’ wearing a skirt

In both Brazil (see here and here) and the United States, one can find plenty of images of men, both black and non-black wearing women’s apparel in front of the camera. It’s nothing new. But I would say it’s in real life wear these similarities end. I can say with relative certainty that it’s just not very common to see specifically African-American males putting on dresses for some sort of social event. In my experiences, the only everyday African-American males I’ve ever seen put on a dress or women’s apparel were gay. That’s not necessarily the case in Brazil where it’s not shocking to see men of any race throw on a dress for certain events, specifically Carnaval.

10 mil homens vestidos de mulher desfilam em bloco na cidade de Barras - Piauí
Men participating in Carnaval in Barras, in the state of Piauí
Porto Velho, capital de Rondônia, Carnaval
Men in Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia

I think this would make an intriguing comparison in terms of the reaction to someone like Babu Santana putting on a dress on a show that millions of people across the country watch. But before I get into that, let me present a little background info on the program to catch readers up to date as to what’s going on on the program to put all of this in its proper context.

As my coverage of Big Brother Brasil’s 20th season, like any other post, comes from the perspective of race, my previous pieces, like this one, centers around the experiences of the only black male on the program, actor Alexandre da Silva Santana, better known as Babu Santana. Please see previous posts here for a more detailed analysis of his participation on the program. A few key points from those posts are:

  • Santana, as mentioned above, is the only black male on the program. There is another black participant, a woman, Thelma Assis.
  • If he manages to win the on the top rated reality show, Santana would be the first clearly black male victor in the program’s history.
  • Throughout his participation, Santana has been the constant victim of subtle and blatant forms of racism as well as exclusionary practices.
  • Santana recently set a record for the most times being placed on the ‘paredão’. The paredão is a regular part of the program in which participants choose three contestants to enter a round in which television viewers vote for who will should eliminated from the program. This is called ‘eviction’ in the American edition.

With a prize of BRL $1.5 million in the balance, every participant’s worst fear is having to go the paredão or the wall as in, “you, you and you, up against the wall”. Imagine how Babu must feel having been to the wall eight times and recently making his ninth trip to the paredão. Babu’s girlfriend, Tatiane Melo, discussed the anxiety of his family having to see him being sent to the wall so many times.

santana Tatiane Melo
Santana with girlfriend Tatiane Melo

“Another wall. I trust you, I trust you…I’m for ‘out with Gizelly’. My tears are because it’s the eighth wall. It is difficult for the family, so often (for him) to go to the wall. To be chosen for each argument that I won’t even comment on,” she said.

BBB20 - Babu, Manu Gavassi e Victor Hugo formam o sétimo paredão
Santana, at right, has been sent to the paredão a record nine times

Returning to the paredão for the eight time, Santana sent a message to viewers: “Brazil, I don’t know what to ask for you anymore. I fought here in this house against a segregation movement where people chose behavior and isolated others. And suddenly, that’s why Thelminha didn’t identify with my behavior at any point.”

With his latest escape from the wall, one could say Babu was the proverbial cat with nine lives. Even with such huge odds against his being crowned the winner, in his first eight appearances on the wall, Santana did remarkably well. In six of the eight elimination appearances, Santana received na average of about 2% of the viewers voting for his ouster. In one of the other two, the 4th, he came the closest to being eliminated, receiving 47.71% of the votes while in the eighth he got 12.28% of the vote for an average of 29.99%.

Considering how the women had labeled Santana a monster, aggressive and made all sorts of other demeaning comments about him in prior episodes of the program, one can help but wonder if this played a role in his being sent to the wall so often. Ale Santos, who has a popular Twitter feed and now podcast, has gained quite a following over the past few years with his exposure of the history of racism in Brazil and around the world.

In a recent article, Santos pointed out how one of the many white women on the program, Ivy, has said that black is beautiful, and uttered the typically Brazilian phrase that “we are all equal“, but always seems to indicate black people to be judged on the wall. Were all of those calls for Babu to go to the wall calculated attempts to remove him from the show? Being the only black male who had already been the target of very demeaning comments and exclusionary behavior, I would suppose that this is just a coincidence.

At this point, only four participants remain of the original 20: Manu, Rafa, Thelma and Babu. With that, I want to return to the original topic: Babu in drag.

As I don’t watch the program, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss a few questions and opinions I had about that particular episode with a friend of mine, an American journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Kiratiana Freelon, who admits to developing a sort of addiction to the show. In a recent discussion, I wanted Kiratiana’s opinion, agreement or disagreement on what I was thinking. After a brief explanation of what I wanted to discuss, here’s how that conversation went.

Marques: Could this possibly be a situation where these same white women who have been throwing explicit and subtle forms of racist comments, reactions and behaviors toward Babu during this whole reality show…They dolled him up, put makeup on him, a make believe dress, makeup and all of that and now he appears less “aggressive”. Remember? They labeled him as being “aggressive”, probably just because of what he looks like, not even mattering what type of person he really is. But you take the same guy, put him in a dress, makeup and, I don’t know if he was wearing high heels, I’ll have to look again but, you know, you doll him up to look like a woman and now he’s less aggressive appearing and all of these white women are cheering him on. You know, “you go, girl”. That’s the first question.

Could it be that they dress him that way and he come across as less aggressive now because they got him looking feminine?

Regardless of how Brazil would react to it or the United States would react to it, I’m saying, now he’s less aggressive appearing because he looks more like a female, he’s less threatening.

The second thing is. What would have happened if he would have said ‘Aw, hell naw, I’m not putting that dress on’? Considering the fact that he’s been put on the paredão more times than any other participant in the show’s history, what would have happened if he would have said ‘Naw, I’m not putting a dress on on TV, I don’t feel confortable with that. There’s already people saying he’s a machista, he’s a sexist and you said you don’t pick up that vibe from him, like, ‘what else can you say that proves that he could be a machista?’ (A question Kiratiana once posed via social media). What would have happened if Babu would have said, ‘I’m not putting that dress on’? Is it possible that people watching the show could have been like, ‘Well, I don’t like him no more, let’s get him off the show.’ How would society have reacted if a black man had said, ‘Naw, I’m not putting on a dress’. Would that have threatened his possibility of staying on the show? Could he have been put on the wall again and people say, ‘He got to go’?

Kiratiana: So I actually agree with everything you said. Now, even though I agree with everything you said, I still believe that a man putting on a dress is not necessarily considered a strike against his masculinity..in Brazil. And this is because there are various practices around the country where supermachista men will put on a dress whether it’s for Carnaval or for some event. I think in your article you have to bring up the fact that in Brazil, a machista, sexist man is just as likely to put on a dress as he is to dismiss women in positions of power. Whereas I feel like in America, we do not have a custom of heterosexual men  or sexist men actively putting on women’s clothes in some sense of the matter.

Now that we’ve addressed the issue that a machista, homophobic man is just as likely to put on a dress in Brazil as they aren’t in America. I think we got that out of the way. Now I will say that probably amongst Evangelical men, men who grew up in an Evangelical church, that they are probably the ones that will consder putting on a dress demeaning to a man over, say, a Catholic or someone who has been raised culturally Catholic. Second, Babu has been pictured as this monster. That’s basically what they said, he appeared to be a monster and that he was aggressive. He was not aggressive, he’s not a monster at all, but this is the image that the white women in the house, particularly, projected to their friends about Babu. And so, I do think that…I personally think that…Babu putting on a dress was an unconscious attempt to make him more docile. Make him less threatening. And when I say unconscious attempt, I don’t think they had a mind to, “Oh, Babu is this monster and we need to make him less threatening”, no, they were not thinking that but I do think it was an unconscious attempt. And I actually do think it succeeded. It very well succeeded.

Now to your second point. Do I think that, if he had rejected it, I do think he would have been voted off because I think that people would have called him, they would have called him machista, or homophobic, I mean really…The one thing I don’t like about Big Brother Brasil is that that the public that watches Big Brother Brasil, like you can do one thing and they will label you something. Like, one thing. Now granted, there’s some white women on this show who did several things that people would consider racist so I do think that they should deserve to be called racists, but if Babu, like the one thing that he did that was homophobic, is he called something ‘gayish’, a ‘viado’, which is a slang for gay that gays use but I guess a non-gay person shouldn’t use it. He did that one time. So I do believe that that was a homophobic statement but I actually don’t believe that Babu is homophobic. Like I just don’t, just based on everything he’s said and his actions I don’t, he doesn’t come across to me as homophobic. Now, if he had said, ‘Oh hell no I’m not putting on that dress!’, he would have been labeled as machista, machista in the sense that he’s unwilling to let go of his male mannerisms to just put on a dress.

So, to conclude, was Babu emasculated on BBB20 last week after the women of the house put him in make-up and women’s clothing? I guess it depends on where you’re from. Clearly in the US, within the black community, this is clearly how it would have been intepreted. But in Brazil, only a small group of black Brazilian men, a group far more militant than most black Brazilian men I know, had any reactions suggesting the feminization of a black male. Going through numerous comments on Twitter posted by Brazilians watching the show, I didn’t find any such comments suggesting Santana had suffered an attempted of his effeminization.

OK, fair enough. But damn, it still seems to me that a brotha gotta go through an awful lot to get his hands that million and half reais. I jus’ sayin’…

About Marques Travae 3382 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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