From the kitchen to the bedroom: A brief historical analysis of the role of black women in Brazilian novels, television and film

1. Capa

Note from BW of Brazil: With the debut of the new Globo TV series entitled Sexo e as negas and its accompanying controversy, it is important for anyone who is not familiar with the Brazilian media’s portrayal of black women over the years (as well as those who are familiar) to take note of the continuous place of this parcel of the population in the mass media of which cinema and television will be analyzed in this article. Recently, both the creator of the new series as well as the black actresses appearing in the program have come out in defense against accusations of racism due to the plot, title and representation of black women. But for the novice viewer, a fair assessment of the accusations and denials cannot be fully or even partially understood without a brief history of the images of black women divulged in television, film and novels. When news of proposed program first became known to the public, there was already concern on the part of black feminist activists that the program would simply add to the legacy of the hyper-sexualized manner in which women of visible African ancestry are presented to millions of viewers, both in Brazil and around the world. In the title alone we have the terms “sex” and “negas”, referring to black women, an association that has long been firmly established globally in the racial imagery of a world population.

This brief analysis is by no means meant to represent a thorough anaylsis of the historic portrayal of Afro-Brazilian women in the past half a century of Brazilian media, but it will introduce the audience to a clear historical pattern in representation in the context of which the new television series much be considered. In previous posts, we have already introduced the stereotype of the “crioulo doido”, or the “crazy negro”, a jolly, happy, smiling, dancing negro character that has been featured in countless television programs over the years. We also briefly touched on the clever, street-wise malandro type as well as the sexually satisfying stereotype of the negão. These are all male figures. But none of the male stereotypes are quite as well-known or prominently featured as the sexually alluring mulata. To begin, we touch upon the image of the quintessential “Mulata Boazuda”, meaning the beautiful mulata-negra woman with a shapely, sexually appealing body. The text below is taken from João Carlos Rodrigues’s classic work on Afro-Brazilians in film, O negro brasileiro e o cinema (the black Brazilian and cinema).

João Carlos Rodrigues's classic book "O negro brasileiro e o cinema"
João Carlos Rodrigues’s classic book “O negro brasileiro e o cinema”

The Mulata Boazuda

The companion of the malandro (hustler) and (also) his female equivalent, the archetypal Mulata Boazuda brings together at the same time characteristics of the orixás (orishas, African deities) Oxum (beauty, vanity and sensuality), Yemanjá (arrogance, impetuosity) and Yansã (jealousy, promiscuity, irritability). In her most aggressive forms she can acquire the vulgar and mocking attitudes of the Pomba Gira, an entity of Umbanda (Afro-Brazilian religion), attired as a mix of gypsy and prostitute.

In the 18th century the Bahian poet Gregório de Matos hailed the erotic exploits of the mulata, and previously we described Xica da Silva, the negra that they say was not even very beautiful, but who conquested a high dignitary of the Portuguese crown in Vila Rica (current day city of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais). Manuel Antonio de Almeida immortalized mulata Vidinha in Memórias de um sargento de milícias (Memoirs of a militia sergeant), and in O cortiço (The tenement) we have the seductive Rita Bahia. But it was really in teatro de revista (similar to vaudeville) that the archetype of the mulata crystallized completely. Already in Maxixe (1906), of Bastos Tigre and Costa Junior, the cançoneta (ditty) Vem cá, mulata (come here, mulata) achieved a resounding success. The same happened with the character of Zeferina of the burleta (burlesque) Forrobodó (1912 opera). And finally, in 1922, debuting on the stages of Tiradentes Square was the singer Araci Cortes, sex symbol of the popular classes, called “the mulata”. It was the consecration later pursued by Horacina Correia, Wanda Morena, Lady Hilda and Aizita Nascimento.

Brazil's media 'mulatas' - Horacina Correia, Lady Hilda, Araci Cortes and Aizita Nascimento
A few of Brazil’s famous ‘mulatas’ – Horacina Correia, Lady Hilda, Araci Cortes and Aizita Nascimento

Araci, unlike her successors, was very light-skinned, almost white. Racial standards were much more stringent in the past. The novel A escrava Isaura (the slave Isaura) (1875), by Bernardo Guimarães, deals with one of these captives of those “passing for white” in the era of slavery. The melodramatic weight is very strong, and the book was adapted for the cinema twice (1929 and 1949) and twice for television (1976 and 2005), these two with great success, including internationally.

Zezé Motta in 1976 film "Xica da Silva", Léa Garcia in "A escrava Isaura" also from 1976
Zezé Motta in 1976 film “Xica da Silva”, Léa Garcia in “A escrava Isaura” also from 1976

The character, as required by the phisique du rôle (physique of the role) was always played by white actresses (Fada Santoro, Lucélia Santos). The same would not be necessary with the cabrochas (young, happy mulatas) Guiomar de Gimba and Rita Bahia in O cortiço (Gracinda Freire and Betty Faria super made-up), with the maid of Samba em Brasília (1958) (the blonde Eliana Macedo) and with some characters played by the brunette Sonia Braga (the voluptuous Gabriela of Jorge Amado, in the 1975 telenovela and 1982 movie). This was a great retreat from the beautiful “mestiças de traços finos” (mixed race women with aquinine features) that emerged in the late 50s as sex symbols. The most celebrated were Lourdes de Oliveira (in Orfeu Negro) and Luiza Maranhão (in Barravento). Only in 1976, when Zezé Motta played Xica da Silva, did a black woman with the face of a black woman appear in a sensual role, forever breaking this taboo.

Lourdes de Oliveira and Luiza Maranhão (in scene with Antônio Pitanga)
Lourdes de Oliveira and Luiza Maranhão (in scene with Antônio Pitanga)

The sexual success of the “Mulata Boazuda” is not small; it’s enough just to analyze popular songs, or bestselling novels of Jorge Amado. With the sole intention of exploiting this, in the 1970s a set of steamy movies were released, featuring actresses Aizita do Nascimento, or Julciléa Telles or Adele Fátima. It’s enough to simply examine their titles and subject matter: Como era boa a nossa empregada (how good our little housekeeper was) (a boazuda domestic perturbs a middle class family), Uma mulata para todos (a mulata for everyone) (an honest manicurist is saved from being auctioned in a cabaret), A mulata que queria pecar (The mulata who wanted to sin) (propaganda phrase: “She knew that with that body she could conquer all men in the world”), A gostosa da gafieira (the foxy woman of the gafieira) (outgoing mulata sleeps with everyone but does not like anyone), Histórias que nossas babás não contavam (stories that our nannies didn’t tell) (Snow White mulata in comic-erotic version). In exalting the Mulata Boazuda, these sexist films are actually extolling its white side, and reducing her to a mere object of sexual consumption.

Lucélia Telles in "Uma mulata para todos", Adele Fátima in "Histórias que nossas babás não contavam" and Aizita Nascimento in "Como era boa a nossa empregada"
Lucélia Telles in “Uma mulata para todos”, Adele Fátima in “Histórias que nossas babás não contavam” and Aizita Nascimento in “Como era boa a nossa empregada”

Much more interesting and complex are the Adelaide of Rio, Zona Norte (1957), Maria of A grande feira (1961), Mira from Orfeu (1999), Aurélia of Garotas do ABC (2003) or the protagonist of Antônia (2006). The first two are single mothers without great prospects in a marginal environment. The second has a great aggressiveness, using the razor with mastery, but puts her daughter in a convent school, and even makes plans for the future. The third, a passsista (Carnaval dancer) of a large samba school, poses nude for men’s magazine, but seeing herself passed over for a white woman, prefers to kill her lover rather than lose him to another woman. The fourth despises men of her race, and oscillates between a neo-Nazi and a Japanese man. In the same proletarian environment on the outskirts of São Paulo, Antônia and her companions are better resolved and fight for their place in the sun.

11. Newer films

Note from BW of Brazil: Continuing with the analysis, the following reports are taken from “Da senzala à cozinha: Trajetória das personagens negras na telenovela brasileira” by Danubia Andrade and “A Representação da Mulher Negra na Teledramaturgia Brasileira: Um Olhar Sobre A Helena Negra de Manoel Carlos” by Juliana Mendes Santana and review a few characters portrayed by Afro-Brazilian actresses in novelas from 1975 to 2008.

  • “As filmmaker and critic Joel Zito Araújo correctly surmises, ‘black women are always in roles in the sphere of subordination and sensuality.’”

In an article featuring the role interpreted by actress Cris Vianna in the Globo TV novela Duas Caras, the April 2008 edition of the magazine Boa Forma describes her character as “the domestic Sabrina that drives her boss’s son crazy” and emphasizes the actress’s dance and passion. The material about the actress once again resorts to stereotypes disseminated by the media, especially in novelas. One clearly perceives the subordinate and subservient roles that black actresses portray in novelas: Domestic servant, the white man’s object of desire, lascivious, available for sexual relation and stereotype of the sensual mulata.

Actress Cris Vianna in various scenes from "Duas Caras" (2008)
Actress Cris Vianna (with Duda Azevedo) in various scenes from “Duas Caras” (2008)

Duas Caras has other moments of discussion of racism. In this same nucleus (the Barreto family), the young lawyer Barretinho (Duda Azevedo) falls in love with Sabrina, the black maid of the house portrayed by Cris Vianna. In the beginning of the novela, however, the two perform in scenes in which Barretinho uses a sexist language that embodied concepts still present in the minds of the Brazilian people that the maid must serve employers in all senses, including sexual favors, as slaves once did. Sabrina, for the most part, rejects this language, but all her gestures and reactions indicate that she was interested in the advances of the boss’s son.

In the 1976 slavery era novela Escrava Isaura, the character Rosa, portrayed by long-time actress Léa Garcia maintained sexual relations with various men to avoid going to the tronco (whipping post).

The 1999 Araújo documentary A Negação do Brasil (Denying Brazil) reinforces that the model of an actress is the white woman, recreating in the imagination of the population an image that white actresses are better prepared than the black actresses. A clear example of this thought is in the 1975 Globo network novela, Gabriela, that presented “an almost white woman and not black like the protagonist.” “The middle class, the Brazilian elite would not feel comfortable seeing black men and women interpreting roles of protagonists in this era, the 1970s.”

Sônia Braga in "Gabriela" 1975
Sônia Braga’s skin was artificially darkened to portray the mulata “Gabriela” from 1975

The novela Mulheres Apaixonadas (2003) was the debut of a black actress who showed talent, but as a stereotypical character, the maid Zilda portrayed by Roberta Rodrigues, is a sensual woman who was harassed by the teenage son of her employers.

Zilda brings one of the worst stereotypes attributed to black women, as highlighted Lucia Loner Coutinho (2010) “This image of the lewd black woman, corrupting the element of family order, represented in an almost animalistic manner, is one of the biggest stereotypes that accompanies the culture and image of blacks.” She points out, citing philosopher Sueli Carneiro (2002), the image attributed to the black woman was fixed to Brazilian culture due to the relations of the times of slavery when the slaves were accused of corrupting the family order to seduce their masters. “The slave and colonial society contributed immensely to the creation of the myth of hot women, assigned, still today to black and mulata women by oral tradition and disseminated in the intellectual realm through literature.” (Carneiro cited by Coutinho, 2010).

Roberta Rodrigues as the maid Zilda in "Mulheres Apaixonadas" (2003)
Roberta Rodrigues as the maid Zilda in “Mulheres Apaixonadas” (2003)

Note from BW of Brazil: While on the topic of black women, the media and sexuality, we must also mention the 1996 novela Xica da Silva, which was a re-make of the 1976 film of the same name. This novela was somewhat of a scandal at the time due to the then 17-year old actress Taís Araújo being featured in various semi-nude scenes. The counsel of Children and Adolescents (Criança e Adolescente) of Rio de Janeiro requested that the network at the time, Manchete, take the novela off the air. Instead of removing the novela, the network invited an Italian porn actress to heat up the scenes of the series until Araújo turned 18. As if taking advantage of the story to heat up the filming of the novela, the story of Xica da Silva is based on the story of an 18th century slave who is thought to have used her sexuality to entice a rich white diamond contractor into making her a rich woman and bestowing upon her a social status unheard of for black women in colonial Brazil. 

17-year old Taís Araújo in "Xica da Silva" from 1996
17-year old Taís Araújo in “Xica da Silva” from 1996

In another movie, the 1999 film Orfeu, a remake of the 1959 classic Orpheu Negro, a depiction of the connection between “place” of color once again plays out in a love triangle between the characters Orfeu, Eurídice and Mira. The couple, Orfeu and Mira, is portrayed by a black actor and actress, Toni Garrido and Isabel Fillardis, respectively. The film opens with a scene of the two making love as the camera gives viewers shots of the naked torsos of the brown-skinned actors. Later in the same setting, as Orfeu is seen at a computer typing lyrics to a song, Mira asks if he is composing the song for her. When he responds negatively and says it’s for no one in particular, we see a full backside nude of Fillardis as Mira leaps out of the bed to confront him.  The point of this brief scene of nudity is nothing shocking as feminine nudity is pretty normal in mainstream films. The difference as seen from a racial perspective comes from an historical analysis when we see how Fillardis’s character is showed in comparison to the Eurídice character portrayed by actress Patrícia França.

Toni Garrido and Isabel Fillardis in "Orfeu" (1999)
Toni Garrido and Isabel Fillardis in “Orfeu” (1999)

França is not exactly white in a European or North American sense, but would more likely be viewed as a Latina woman by US standards, but from the Brazilian lens, the light-skinned woman could be considered branca, or white. We must first note that in the original 1959 version of Orpheu Negro, both Mira and Eurídice are portrayed by black actresses. In this re-make in which Orfeu becomes enchanted with Eurídice and betrays Mira, on screen we see a black man leaving his black girlfriend for a “white” woman. Also, in a later scene in the film in which we are to imagine that Orfeu and Eurídice make love, we don’t actually see the couple in their intimate moment as we do in the opening scene with the black woman. In fact, we don’t see any nudity on the part of França as the scene between the two passionately kissing fades into the next morning allowing the viewer to imagine what took place. In the dialogue, it is confirmed that the two made love as Eurídice tells Orfeu it was her first time.

Toni Garrido and Patrícia França in "Orfeu" (1999)
Toni Garrido and Patrícia França in “Orfeu” (1999)

The following morning in bed, Eurídice/França is completely covered in bed sheets perhaps to signal the innocence of her recently lost virginity. In fact, in reference to the sexuality associated with the “negão” (big, black man), it is Garrido’s derriere that is exposed as Orfeu gets out of the bed and briefly glazes outside of the window. In the next shot of França, she is out of the bed and completely clothed. As such, what we have in the end is a “rough and tumble” sex scene with a black woman contrasted with a more tender approach to intimacy with the light-skinned mestiça (mixed-race). It’s fitting here to remember the old Brazilian saying: “Branca (white woman) for marriage, mulata for fornication, negra for work.

Actress Heloísa Jorge in 2012 remake of "Gabriela"
Actress Heloísa Jorge in 2012 remake of “Gabriela”

Next, we consider the 2012 re-reading of the popular novela/film Gabriela, where we once again see a common theme and stereotype associated with black women: the sexually available maid. In this latest edition of the Jorge Amado classic, the womanizing Tonico is married to Olga, but has his eyes on the maid Fabiana, portrayed by actress/singer Heloísa Jorge. In numerous scenes, Tonico is seen attempting to seduce Fabiana behind his wife’s back, staring at her ass, fondling her (“Que seios”, meaning “such breasts”, he is heard uttering in one seen). After much pursuit, Tonico finally manages to get Fabiana into bed, but as the two initiate their intimacy, his wife Olga, awaken by the noise in the middle of the night, walks into the room and catches the two in the act. Outraged, her screams awaken everyone in the house and she then demands that the maid be fired for shamelessly attempting to seduce her husband.

The next article, an overview of the 2005 film Benedito Fruto is taken from the article, “A naturalização do racismo” (the naturalization of racism) by Júlia Guimarães.

Actress Zezeh Barbosa in "Benedito Fruto" (2005)
Actress Zezeh Barbosa in “Benedito Fruto” (2005)

In the film Benedito Fruto (2005), directed by Sérgio Goldenberg, the character Maria, portrayed by Afro-Brazilian actress Zezeh Barbosa, is a maid who has a relationship with her boss, with whom she has a son. In the privacy of the home they are a couple like any other. But, outside of the home, her husband, Edgar, does not publicly acknowledge their history, motivated by racial and social stigma implicit in the union.

The cinematic representation of the character was the starting point for the student Juliana Silva Santos wrote the article “A legitimação do silêncio no cotidiano da mulher negra brasileira a partir do filme Bendito Fruto” (The right of silence in the everyday of black Brazilian women in the movie Bendito Fruto) The work earned her the award “Construindo a Igualdade de Gênero” (Building Gender Equality) in the undergraduate category, of the CNPq (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico or National Council of Scientific and Technological Development).

2005 "Benedito Fruto"
2005 film “Benedito Fruto”

According to researcher Juliana Silva Santos, the discourse of the text demonstrates how stereotyping by the media contributes to silencing the historic racial inequality in the country.

“I sought to understand what kind of image that was seen as ‘natural’ was constructed by media about black women, and how this image silences and conceals a historical relationship of prejudice which refers to the period of slavery,” said Santos.

Santos weaved parallels between the structure of the Maria character in the film and the slaves in the “casa grande e senzala (big house and slave quarters)”. According to her text, they would come together for integrated hours, living in the boss’s house and maintaining loving relationships without being taken in front of society, besides representing an intense sensuality. In Santos’s opinion, the film “demonstrates the maintenance of symbolic slavery to which black women are still submitted” without any form of denouncement. In this sense, the film contributes to the continuation in the belief of the infamous myth of a “racial democracy”: “By strengthening the maintenance of racist structures, the media influences this view that there is no racism in the country. And the consequence is the lack of a critical view that impels transformation.”

Note from BW of Brazil: We would like stress here that Afro-Brazilian women in film, television and novels are not always portrayed as sexually alluring mulatas or maids, but it is extremely rare the cases in which they secure roles as protagonists in which they don’t fit into this description in addition to being from lower class origin. This is well documented in various reports. In fact, the connection to these roles is so normalized that most people probably don’t even notice a consistent pattern. But the fact is, if we remove the roles in which they are not sensually alluring, nearly completely naked in something connected to Carnaval season or are cooking and/or cleaning, Afro-Brazilian women would be almost completely invisible in Brazilian film and TV. And this is the reason so many are sounding the alarm on the new Sexo e as negas series. And if the makers of this program were just honest about this history, they would understand why we make the charge of racism. 

Source: Black Women of Brazil. Andrade, Danubia. “Da senzala à cozinha: Trajetória das personagens negras na telenovela brasileira”. Santana, Juliana Mendes. “A Representação da Mulher Negra na Teledramaturgia Brasileira: Um Olhar Sobre A Helena Negra de Manoel Carlos”. O TempoArquivo da Fama

About Marques Travae 3221 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. Hey, I love this blog! I’ve found out so much information that I’ve been studying for an essay on ‘representations of black women in independent cinema’. One of Araújo’s films, Filhas Do Vento, is apart of my study.
    I’m having trouble finding a citation source for this…

    As filmmaker and critic Joel Zito Araújo correctly surmises,

    >‘black women are always in roles in the sphere of subordination and sensuality.’<

    … Could you help me out?

    Thanks a lot!

    Keep at it, sisters!

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