Back in September when I first read the news that Brazil’s biggest TV network, Globo, was producing a new TV series that featured a 90% Afro-Brazilian cast, I can’t lie, once again I hoped for the best. As we have shown consistently shown on this blog, the Brazilian media, be it print media or television, continues to ignore a non-white population that declared itself 50.7% of the population in the 2010 census. Week after week, month after month and year after year, we see images of a Brazil that looks as if its population was from Western Europe. We know from history that Brazil’s elites envisioned and created policies so that Brazil could become more European-looking at the end of the one of the longest, most brutal eras of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. With this in mind, the invisibility or extreme underrepresentation of Brazilians of visible African ancestry is actually not a surprise. Invisibility was part of the plan.
Even so, with past depictions of blackness on Brazil’s TV stations or cinema either leaving much to be desired on the one hand or representing images of black criminality, violence or dysfunction on the other, anticipation ran high for the coming series entitled Subúrbia. Hyped as having a 90% black cast with the creative input and direction of two highly-respected visionaries behind the scenes, surely this new series wouldn’t disappoint in the same manner as past series like Record TV’s Turma do Gueto, which, although having an 80% black cast, “ended up sliding into violence and becoming a stereotype of a true ghetto” (1) or 2002’s Cidade de Deus(City of God), which while visually superior, represented spaces primarily inhabited by Afro-Brazilians, the favela/periphery/suburb, as a “places favorable to murders, gang fights, drug trafficking, robberies, rapes and every species of violations of the law.” (2)
Writing about his anticipation of Subúrbia, sociologist/journalist Marcos Romão wrote:
“I watched the first day of Subúrbia, with great expectations; after all I could see blacks on Globo TV in the role of principal protagonists. I just wonder what will come in the next chapter, after a glamorous introduction and a scene typical of the movie Tarzan that always had many blacks dancing and gesticulating but that didn’t speak or think.”
For example, see the commercials promoting the arrival of the new series:
It is against this backdrop that one must judge the representations of black Brazilians in Subúrbia and any other mass media disseminated representation of society. One cannot separate the moment in time from which a particular image arises from the social context that it is inextricably connected. In the 1970s, American blaxploitation films came about during a time of great change in black communities in the United States. After the marches, protests, demands, riots and assassinations in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, black Americans were thirsty for new images on the big and the small screen. No longer satisfied, or better yet, outraged by the continuous images of blacks as maids, drivers, thieves or subservient, “coonin’”, “shuckin’ and jivin’” imbeciles, the new negro black was “bad”, proud of his/her blackness and stood up to “whitey”. As in the theme song of the TV sitcom about black social ascension, the Jeffersons, black Americans were “movin’ on up” and wanted their “piece of the (American socioeconomic) pie” of which they had been denied for so long. This era (early to mid 1970s) would lead to a few great television and cinematic moments before ultimately becoming a caricature of itself.
With the Afro-Brazilian struggle starting to claim some important victories such as the implementation of affirmative action policies, the naming of the first black president of the Supreme Court (Joaquim Barbosa), a highly successful television actress (Taís Araújo), a magazine dedicated to the black population (Raça Brasil), a national holiday dedicated to this struggle along with other groundbreaking occurrences, the moment would seem to be right to feature the black Brazilian in a new light, different from similar stereotypical images that they shared with their African-American counterparts. Maybe all of this was a bit much to expect from one TV series, but you get the idea. Well, let’s get right to point. With seven of its eight weeks on the air already having been shown, the verdict seems to be in on the miniseries Subúrbia, and the results have been disappointing. For our audience that hasn’t seen the program, we will try to give an overall review of what has transpired up to this point. For those of you who know nothing about this series, please take a look at our introduction of the series here and here. So, in few words, what is it that’s gone wrong with Subúrbia? To be honest, it’s pretty simple: clichés, stereotypes and more of the same.
The Belezas Negras blog described it this way:
“Subúrbia has plenty of action, youth, booty, beach and violence. Ah, it has love, it’s inevitable! Subúrbia is the new series of TV Globo debuting in November, and according to its director Luiz Fernando Carvalho, ‘in his quest to portray the reality,’ the cast included people with life trajectories similar to those of their characters. It has the former drug dealer turned evangelical pastor, as in real life, it has the “negona (hot, black chick)” with the “big, beautiful ass”, short “Daisy Duke”-type shorts working in a car wash putting a Brazilian cultural spin on a scene from the 1970s movie Car Wash, a successful film with a black American cast.” (Note: Or was it throw back to the 1995 video “Top Down” by rapper Too Short?)
In his review of the miniseries, filmmaker Déo Cardoso considered the relationship between “the black body, which in itself carries emblems and historical stigmas and becomes, from the ominous days of captivity, the object of economic value and often social recognition.” Cardoso anxiously awaited the “perfect marriage” of visions as this series was created by “one of our own”, speaking of Afro-Brazilian writer Paulo Lins whose book, Cidade de Deus, was the basis of the 2002 film of the same name, and respected director Luiz Fernando Carvalho.
Paulo Lins, writer of book Cidade de Deus and co-writer of Subúrbia
Wander Filho Pavão shared his view on the technical attributes of the series and the early plot….“Subúrbia has an enviable technical quality; improvements in art direction, beautiful photography for black skin (something that has been pointed out by Brazil’s black movements and artists for years as a disability and deliberate indifference of the culture industry), with a black majority of actors, etc.
“However it seems that all the technical improvements have nothing to do with the advancement in the representation and content of the story. The ‘dark fable’ brings the story of the ‘poor black girl’ from another state (no one knows for sure, but it appears to be the southeastern state of Minas Gerais) who arrives in Rio de Janeiro.” (Note: More specifically, the main character, Conceição, wants to escape the miserable destiny of her parents and the risk of tragedy like the coal mine explosion that claimed the life of her brother.)
“Upon arriving, ‘by chance’ she is mistaken for a street girl (pickpocket), is arrested and taken to a ‘shelter’. An excerpt from the series suggests that the girl is abused by another older girl. In her escape, our ‘heroine’ is ‘saved’ by a white woman who takes her to her house and gives her a home (read: home, food and work). That’s right, our ‘heroine’ becomes the family’s maid at only 12 years old. After growing up, Conceição ‘almost’ (a part of the) family visits the subúrbio (3) and there she gets to know the typical BBQ and samba backyard parties.”
Erika Januza as Conceição
Arriving in Rio, Conceição becomes friends with a maid named Vera (played by Dani Ornellas) who takes her to her home in the neighborhood of Madureira where her parents, Mãe Bia (Rosa Marya Colin) e Seu Aloysio (Haroldo Costa) will adopt her.
Along the way, at one of the infamous “bailes funk (funk dances)” (4) Conceição’s beauty and sensuous dancing catches the attention of Cleiton, a conflicted young man traumatized by the abandonment of his father and the murder of his brother by drug traffickers. Cleiton makes a request of Vera to start dating her friend. The new couple would soon share many open displays of affection.
As the series was promoted as having a “90% black cast”, Cardoso reminds us that “the global black body is a body that shines and glitters. Rather than being a political body, it becomes a commodity in all its ephemeral power. A dominant cultural construction, designed to satisfy needs – sexual, social and aesthetic.”
“It’s not rare the interviews and texts in which art directors of broadcasting channels admit to oiling up black actors and actresses in order to emphasize the muscular outlines, objectifying them in a mercantile attempt of the exotic/erotic virilization of the black body.”
Throughout the series, camera angles consistently zoom in, focus and follow the brown-skinned flesh of the body of protagonist, Conceição, (often dressed in revealing attire that reveal her statuesque frame) portrayed by newcomer Erika Januza. These camera shots help to stamp the sexualized image of the black body in the mind of the viewer. The focus on the physical attributes of the protagonist is also consistent with Globo TV’s record of black invisibility during most of its yearly broadcasts only to bring endless shots of gyrating, nude, black flesh to millions of homes throughout the world during Carnaval season.
“At the end of the first episode, the body of Conceição is marked by a violent rape that takes away her virginity. Raped by her white boss (boss’s boyfriend, Cássio) in the house where she worked as a maid. A body marked, as in the days of the slave quarters.”
As Cardoso described, Conceição’s rape in the household of her white boss is not only a shocking moment in the series, but also historically accurate. As mentioned in a previous article, “One of the progenitors of the mythical Brazilian “racial democracy” ideology, anthropologist Gilberto Freyre himself wrote that “it was the bodies of the black girls, sometimes 10-year old girls…that freed white women from sexual assault. Moreover, the virginity and chastity of white women during the colonization of Brazil was protected through the prostitution of the black female slave.” Freyre also documented the fact that it was common practice for the sons of slave owners to have their first sexual experiences with young, black female slaves.
Quiet as its kept, today there continue to be whispers and “erotic stories” posted on Brazilian websites detailing sexual exploits with maids. In her 1998 book Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil, France Winddance Twine, a professor of Sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara, wrote about the practice of middle class white Brazilian families going to poor communities (favelas/periferias/subúrbios) and “adopting” poor, young black girls into their homes where they will become maids. While these young girls become servants in the homes, they are trained to take care of the household instead of going to school while the white children of the household continue with their education.
Continuing in his analysis, Cardoso writes:
“What one can observe in the appropriations of the black body by the ‘aesthetics of the Globo TV network’ is the mercantile spectacularization of this body, precisely to dilute this moment in the montage. And that is precisely what bothers me as a filmmaker and researcher.”
The scene depictingConceição’s rape caught the attention of many viewers and critics of the series. How could it not? These are Universidade Federal do Ceará Professor Lola Aronovich’s thoughts on the rape scene, the first of two in the series:
“The images are terrible and could trigger (activate bad memories) for those who have already gone through this. In the first rape, aired on the first day of the series, the protagonist, Conceição, who is a maid, is raped by Cássio, her employer’s boyfriend. I don’t know why the title of the page (Globo TV’s website) says ‘tentar estuprar (tries to rape).’
The worst thing is that the background music chosen for the scene was a romantic song by (Brazilian music legend) Roberto Carlos. It’s unclear in the scene what that song is doing there. In the description of the Globo TV website it’s written that ‘o desejo de Cássio falou mais alto (Cássio’s desire spoke louder)’. Rape is defined as desire speaking louder.
“In another episode there was the second rape scene. Conceição accepts going to a motel with her boyfriend (Cleiton) to celebrate his birthday, since he ‘respects her’ and ‘won’t go past the signal’ because she wants to marry as a virgin (which is strange, because she had been raped before, but I don’t know if Globo TV follows the same concept of rape as written in Law No. 12.015, of 2009). At the motel, the boyfriend does not accept no for an answer and tries to rape her several times until she escapes.
“Again, the description on Globo’s website talks about ‘not being able to hold himself back’ and ‘pushing the envelope.’ Rape culture is just that: making rape not appear to be rape. When using a euphemism (‘desire spoke louder’, ‘could not hold back’, ‘pushing the envelope’), it’s saying that rape does not exist or is not a serious crime.
Taken from Globo TV’s Subúrbia website
“Not all rape scenes encourage rape. I think you can see the two rape scenes of Subúrbia as a denouncement against rape, which is quite different from misogynistic films such as 1971’s Straw Dogs in which the victim ‘provokes’ (as in the concept of ‘cockteaser’) and likes the rape. In Subúrbia, Conceição definitely does not want to have sex with any of her assailants. I believe even the misogynists on duty can interpret the scenes as undesirable and without consent. But when the series adds ironic details, such as the Roberto Carlos music, or describes horrific scenes with euphemisms in its pages of disclosure, the damage is done.”
Romão remembers the first rape this way:
“Appearing in the plot as if falling from another planet and ending the 1st episode, the big scene of an interracial and interclass rape, the romantic sound of Roberto Carlos’s music, carried out standing and practically with no resistance, as the former Senator Demóstenes Torres would have imagined, he being the man who coined the famous phrase “consensual rape” between slave and master.”
In this passage, Romão refers to the infamous comments of the former Senator Demóstenes Torres from the central region state of Goiás who outraged black women’s organizations in 2010 when he stated that:
“It is said that black women were raped in Brazil. It is said that miscegenation in Brazil owes itself to rape. Gilberto Freyre, who is today is renounced, shows that this owes itself to a much more consensual form (of sexual relations).”
In other words, in Torres’ view, sexual relations between black female slaves and white male slave masters were of a more consensual nature, which bloggers and black feminists interpreted as “consensual rape”. Indeed, as the ex-senator mentioned, the works of historian/anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in his analysis of slave relations have been denounced and repudiated by many in black movement circles as portraying master-slave relations as being more “benign” than they actually were, thus laying the groundwork for what some imagine to be more harmonious race relations in Brazil.
This takes us to the depiction of Conceição’s second rape. Analyzing the images of black female sexuality in Subúrbia, Cidinha da Silva writes:
“It’s hopeless watching the debased sexuality of Conceição in Subúrbia: in FEBEM*, in her boss’s house, by her boss’s boyfriend, on the job at the gas station, by the biker, in a cheap motel by her boyfriend. Incidentally, I haven’t seen the 4th episode and I hope Conceição sends Cleiton on his way. It was stupid that he tried to rape her like the previous men with whom she had no emotional relationship. It’s good that, in front of the viewers, the authors demonstrated this understanding.
Here, Cidinha refers to not only the second rape as analyzed previously by Professor Aronovich, she also eludes to two other scenes in which, 1) she is sexually harassed at her job at the gas station by two customers in a car, and 2) when she is kidnapped by the biker, Bacana. After previously encircling and making “indecent proposals” to Conceição, he drags her away face down on his lap as he speeds away on his motorcycle. Luckily, she was rescued by Cleiton.
“Conceição’s delicacy of enforcing her will is admirable. The situation is emblematic of Episode 3. Cleiton tries to give money to Conceição to finance her independence from her parents on exactly the day that she is officially registered (adopted) as their child. On the day of her new birth, her boyfriend tries to buy the girl’s freedom, as men have done for a long time. Cleiton should have learned from his elders, in the bars and at work. They come from the perspective that women must be purchased daily with small treats, including money, something important to demarcate territory as owner-provider. The path is paved for the charge to be paid with sexual whims and favors. Conceição, despite having little experience in emotional/sexual relationships rejects the money wanting to acquire her own resources by working. (Note: Conceição and Cleiton work together at a gas station)
“Conceição’s sexuality is not experienced in the field of pleasure, it is, at most, a reward to be given to the man she loved. After Cleiton saves her from the biker, she confesses to her Our Lady of Aparecida trinket (given to her by her mother before leaving home)that she thinks of making love with him. Conceição dances to funk sensually, (but) just that. Sex and the sexual act, are things that are very distant from her. They are in the guys’ minds, even in the other girls’ minds who compete with her for the place of being looked at, desired, and elevated to the rank of queen.
In this passage, Cidinha refers to the bailes funk competition in which Conceição dances onstage and competes with her rival, Jéssica (played by Ana Pérola), for the title of “Miss Subúrbio”.
“I remember in the late 90s, early 2000s, when many girls were raped at dawn or in the morning after pagode dances, in Salvador, Bahia. They danced seductively with and for men all night, and if they followed their own will, it would stop there. Males undaunted, however, claimed that they had excited them the whole night and by the morning, they had no escape, they would have to satisfy their physiological needs. And the rapes took place in alleys, on the hood of cars, on the winding roads of the streets, and inside the cars of the more prosperous participants. Conceição’s sexuality represents to a large extent, that which is experienced by black women and girls, to whom have been denied the right of appropriation of the body.”
Cidinha’s memories of sexual aggression in 1990s northeastern Brazil speaks to this passage written by Movimento Mulheres em Luta (Women in Struggle Movement) on historic sexual ideologies in relation to black women:
“The ideological remnants of slavery are still very strong in Brazil. The slaves were identified as women of ‘free sex’, which could provide the pleasure that the ‘holy body’ of the white woman didn’t allowed. There are countless stories of forced sex by the masters, colonels and farmers on the slaves. This ideology today identifies in the Brazilian black woman the possibility of easy pleasure, payable and available.”
After watching several episodes of Subúrbia, I don’t know if others noted, but it seemed that Conceição spent a large part of her time on screen either crying or screaming being caught between her desire for happiness, love and attention in the midst of challenges, turmoil and misery of which any viewer would be led to believe is a part of the daily lives of those who live in these areas. After Conceição rejects his sexual advances in the motel, Cleiton, wanting to provoke jealousy in Conceição, would later go back to the funk dance and attempt to win the affections of Jéssica, her rival, in the middle of the crowd at the very moment in which Conceição is performing her dance routine on stage with her dance partners. Jéssica tells Cleiton that she is no longer with Tutuca, the kingpin of drug trafficking of the neighboring community, and the two cause a scene in the middle of the dance floor.
Note: In referring back to Cidinha’s previous comments on the debasement of Conceição’s sexuality, there is also a later scene in which Cleiton and his new conquest, Jéssica, act on their sexual attraction in a room as well as a brief shower scene where camera angles show just enough of Jéssica’s bare backside that the viewer is assured of the nature of the scene. The funk music playing in background gives the scene an air of spontaneous, quick, throwaway sex, which is perhaps Cleiton’s revenge after having been rejected by Conceição. Although in the series there are scenes of tenderness, embraces and affection between Cleiton and Conceição, the other scenes of sexual aggression toward Conceição as well as the scene between Cleiton and Jéssica seem to confirm opinions that Brazilian society sees in the black feminine body, women to simply have sex with.
While on the topic of the image of black women in the series, another consistent presence was the character Jéssica portrayed by Ana Pérola. Throughout the series, Jéssica dances suggestively, wears form-fitting clothing, talks loud and comes off as aggressive and confrontational. 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.” (One has to wonder, with black women in Brazil being regularly spit on, insulted, sexually stereotyped in advertisements or disrespected even when they have important titles, was this role really necessary?)
Meanwhile, Cleiton’s advances on Jéssica also provoke the wrath of Tutuca, who starts a fight with him and marks him for death. Cleiton asks for protection from Reinan, the head of the dope game in his own community, and discovers that Tutuca is also the murderer of his brother, who wasn’t involved in drug trafficking. Enraged with his discovery and marked for death, Cleiton sees no other way out of the situation but taking out Tutuca. With the assistance of Reinan and his posse, Cleiton suprises Tutuca in the still of the night and kills him. In the confrontation between the two warring factions, Reinan is also killed and Cleiton assumes leadership as the don of the dope game. The resulting scene is a melee of flying bullets.
Already caught between the good and the bad because of his life experiences, Conceição’s rejection of his sexual advances coupled with the discovery of his brother’s murderer marks the beginning of a change in character of the brooding Cleiton, which would drive a bigger wedge into his relationship with Conceição. The scenes of this transformation, including his plan of revenge on Tutuca, his surrounding himself with dope dealers and the visuals of Cleiton emerging with powerful weapons are reminiscent of not only the ruthlessly murderous Zé Pequeno of Cidade de Deus, but also the many “in the ‘hood” American movies of the mid to late 1990s.
As the series begins to wind down, we see more images of Jéssica “shakin’ what her mama gave her” and enjoying the company of her new man. On the hill, Cleiton’s alcoholic mother approaches him and begs him to leave this lifestyle before he is killed like his brother. Ignoring his mother’s pleas, Cleiton dismisses his mother and tells her to go home.
We are exposed to another scene where “straight-gangster Cleiton” steps to his former boss at the gas station and demands back payments that are owed to him and Conceição. When his former boss refuses, Cleiton and his boys riddle the place with a hailstorm of bullets making off with a bag of cash.
So what could possibly follow all of this? Does anyone care to guess? Let me give you a hint: think Cidade de Deus, Set It Off or Training Day. In the end, after having his office shot up and nearly killed, Cleiton’s ex-boss wants revenge and puts in a call to the biker, Bacana, the same guy who provoked jealousy in Cleiton after kidnapping Conceição. Later, Cleiton is confronted by his old adversary (Bacana), and led into a trap. In a few minutes of a scene loaded with guns and gun fire, he meets his end after being shot to death. The visuals of the scene offer a sharp contrast in the lives of the former couple; the scenes of gunfire and Cleiton’s demise are intertwined with the blending of fireworks at a birthday party that Conceição attends. She also receives news that she has been chosen “Rainha da bateria (Queen of the Drumbeat)” at a local Samba school.
So we have instances of sexual harassment, rape, provocative attire, booty-shaking, drug dealers, weapons, violence and murder. As such, one must ask, exactly what is it that the Globo network is trying to say with these types of images in a series featuring a 90% black cast, a rarity in Brazilian television?
Déo Cardoso saw it this way:
“Semiologic stigmatization of this black body ends up becoming a concept and is absorbed as the most authentic path of representation of this suburban reality.”
But surely these are not the only images that Globo could have come up with to present a 90% black cast. As various reports have shown, somewhere between less than 1% to 2% of the population of these suburban communities are actively involved in drug trafficking (5). There are all sorts of untold stories that could have influenced the making of a TV series about Afro-Brazilians, many of which are actually featured on this blog; women who overcame the long odds to become successful people in society. In choosing to consistently show the same images that have been featured in series and films like Cidade de Deus, Turma do Gueto, Cidade dos Homens, couldn’t this be construed as being stereotypical and racist, particularly if created by white elites who have no contact or otherwise knowledge of how things go down in poorer areas inhabited primarily by people of color. Well, there is actually a way to deflect these types of accusations. Cardoso hints at this possibility as well:
“The discourse of the authors and broadcasting station (Globo) deconstructing stereotypes about ‘the other’ is legitimized, once again, by the participation of an insider (meaning ‘from within’, i.e. someone who belongs and comes from within the culture portrayed). The ‘foreign look’ on a given subject no longer has space in the new context of the ‘politically correct’ audiovisual, which I find to be a mistaken discourse, but understandable. This insider is precisely Paulo Lins, renowned screenwriter, an engaged activist of the aesthetic of black causes; an author of a passionate and unique style.”
This idea was actually covered in Spike Lee’s 1999 satirical film, Bamboozled, which portrayed the politics and decisions made in airing successful stereotypical black images in the media. In the film, television writer Pierre Delacroix, played by actor/comedian Damon Wayans, must come up with a hit black TV show or face getting fired. All of his previous attempts at portraying African-Americans in a positive manner have been set up to fail or rejected as being too clean cut, “buppy-ish” or “boughie” by his black cultural expert, “keepin’ it real” white boss Thomas Dunwitty (played by actor Michael Rappaport). If Delacroix quits, he would be in violation of his contract but if he gets fired he could seek employment at other companies. Delacroix decides to create the most outlandishly racist, stereotypical show featuring black actors wearing blackface makeup harking back to an era in American vaudeville minstrel shows in which white actors painted their faces black, sang, danced and made blatantly racist depictions of the African-American population. To Delacroix’s surprise, not only does Dunwitty love the idea, but the show goes on to be a huge hit across the US. Although Delacroix’s conscience would trouble him throughout the successful run of the show, he also becomes accustomed to the success and awards that the show would bring him. Dunwitty, realizing that such a racist show could lead to protests from African-Americans and African-American leadership, hires a public relations consultant, a white Jewish woman who is a specialist in African-American culture, to spin the idea that the show can’t be racist because it was all the idea of Delacroix, a black man.
Could it be that after the success of Cidade de Deus, which was based on the novel written by an Afro-Brazilian (Paulo Lins), Globo decided on the same approach by bringing Lins on to write for the series? In an interview, filmmaker and critic Joel Zito Araújo, who released a documentary and book about the image of blacks in Brazilian novelas, said that the film Cidade de Deus was based on an image that Brazil’s middle class has of the favela/suburbio. Before the release of Subúrbia, Paulo Lins said that the series would portray the black community without stereotypes and pretty close to reality. But did Subúrbia accomplish this?
So what are the people saying about Subúrbia?
Let’s go back to the comments of Marcos Romão:
“The history of Globo TV has been this for 50 years. And when it’s not, there are the dozens of re-recordings of Sinha Moça (a slavery-era Gone With the Wind type drama/novela) (6), or the latest novela Lado a Lado, through the modern Cidade de Deus (City of God) and its offshoot Cidade dos Homens (City of Men, miniseries and film) derivative thereof, Histórias do Carandirú (7), among others and now Suburbia. Time goes on but not the representations.
“And to top off everything I said, the director Luiz Fernando Carvalho said in an interview that he was thrilled to be making a tribute to a person who was part of his life, the “mãe preta (meaning “black mother”, Brazil’s equivalent to the “black mammy” stereotype)” that the family hired to take care of him as a child (8). If that alone does not certify the social distortion in the mind of the figures that create, direct and produce these contents of ‘fiction’ and ‘entertainment’ at the studio I don’t know what else can show this.
“It couldn’t be Paulo Lins who wrote the script. WHY PAULO? You have to work, huh, my old friend? And he thought that City of God was stereotyped. Then what is Suburbia? The series started off poorly, what else is being reserved for this story?”
In Lins own research of the favela/suburbia regions for the book that would become the basis for the film Cidade de Deus, he admits that the vast majority of inhabitants of these slums are good, honest, hard-working people who have no connection to crime. Indeed, as he also said he sought to do with Subúrbia, Lins didn’t seek to stereotype the favela (in Cidade de Deus), however, he chose to devote himself more to one aspect of the various prisms of which to portray reality: that of criminality (3).
The point here is that no one denies that the lifestyles and characters that are presented in Subúrbia exist. But it is pure stereotype, fear-mongering and sensationalism when 98-99% of the people that live in these areas have no connection with drug trafficking or the violent lifestyle portrayed in a series that will surely attract millions of viewers. So what else could be driving these types of images?
In the first place, with ongoing and recent statistics showing the alarming numbers of young, Afro-Brazilian men being murdered in Brazil, this could be the Globo TV network’s way of persuading the Brazilian public to simply accept that this is the destiny of poor, black Brazilians. In other words, if everyone already believes this or the idea is planted in features like Cidade de Deus, Turma do Gueto, Cidade dos Homens and now Subúrbia, who will care about the lives of black Brazilian youth? After all, if all of “those people” are like Zé Pequeno or Cleiton, wouldn’t society be better off without them anyway? The problem with this type of thinking is, again, the fact that such a small percentage of people are involved in crime in these areas. Murders of Afro-Brazilian youth are due to a number of reasons: 1) Those who are actually involved in a life of crime and die as a result, 2) They are killed by police by “accident” or on purpose, 3) They are killed by drug kingpins either as revenge, punishment or mistaken identity, 4) They are killed by death squads who are sometimes off-duty police or 5) They are killed by police because of they are of the “standard color” associated with a criminal lifestyle.
Singer, TV host and São Paulo politician, Netinho, may have provided an affirmation of assumptions several years ago. Netinho’s goal as one of the creative forces behind the 2002 TV series Turma do Gueto was to portray the periphery in a different way and avoid widespread stereotypes associated with black people who lived in these areas. But according to Netinho, the broadcasting network of Turma, Record TV, requested that more violence be featured in the series in order to improve the show’s ratings. For anyone who understands the politics and money involved in television and entertainment in general, this should not be a surprise. It would also not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that this is also what has influenced the direction of Subúrbia. If one compare a few of the following images, it is easy to detect a pattern in how young black males are portrayed in Brazilian TV and cinema.
Regarding Subúrbia, another blogger, Wellington, voiced his opinion this way and posted an image rejecting the series, both of which were being circulated and commented on in Facebook:
“The story of a poor, black girl that loves to dance and dreams of going to Rio to make something of her life. Coming to the periphery she hangs out, grows up and gets a body and with her sensuality calls the attention and envy of people around her, a black funk dancer and girlfriend of the neighborhood gangsters. (Definition given in the site itself)”:
“Here is the link, we can find the profile of each character of the series and understand what is Globo’s concept of the black, in other words, how it wants to transmit the image of the black to people.” :
“Black Culture is Zumbi (9), Black Panthers, Quilombo (10), Protest, resistance to Apartheid, struggle, revolt!! Black culture is not a poor girl being seen as a sex object, black culture is a poor girl that dreams of a university, grows up in life and the system with all the tools to impede this, THIS IS BLACK CULTURE, it is RESISTANCE, it is not ALIENATION.”
“Paulo Lins is a Globo serf, he is a CONFUSER of black culture, he is a tool of manipulation of the TV network that tries to pass off what is black; in truth, in his intimacy he seeks to create the image of the black in order to be assimilated by society as it (Globo) finds convenient: THE BLACK IS DIRTY, SEXY, HAPPY (STUPID HAPPINESS) AND AN IDIOT. This is the image that Globo wants to spread of the black with the signature and consent of Paulo Lins.”
I received this message from a friend on Facebook a few days ago:
“The other day in November, a friend who aesthetically reminds me of actress Erika Januza, who plays Conceição, the “protagonist” of Subúrbia, was mistaken for her in Cinelandia, in downtown Rio de Janeiro, and a man told her that he didn’t like what he saw, of how the young woman is/was being directed in Suburbia. It’s a shame, I pulled for the series for several reasons, and especially because the cast is made up of great actors and actresses, like Daniele Ornelas … Again, Globo stabs us in our face!”
So, in conclusion, we must consider a very popular question in regards to black representation on the big screen, the small screen and the media in general. Is it more important to have continuously stereotypical images used to portray persons of African descent just to have a presence in the media or is it better to remain invisible? While I will admit that there were touching, memorable moments in Subúrbia in the end I must ask: considering that the society in which we live has been groomed to crave sex and violence stimulated by a endless supply of such images in videogames, films and TV shows, which of the scenes of the series will be those that remain in the memory of the majority of people? Which of the scenes will be the ones that will be demanded by the studios to attract this same audience to the next movie or series? My final question is this: Subúrbia was released a little more than 10 years after the runaway success of Cidade de Deus, and in reality, didn’t offer much difference in its formulaic portrayal of black people. This blog, along with millions of black Brazilians, would love to see more persons of visible African ancestry on television, in the movies, on the modeling runways, in Congress and everywhere else in Brazilian society. But after viewing the past several attempts at portraying black Brazilian life, including in Subúrbia, I have to wonder, is this the best that can be done? The second question would be to the community. If this is indeed the best Brazil’s largest TV network can do, is this better than no representation at all? It’s your decision.
* – Fundação Estadual para o Bem Estar do Menor or State Foundation for the Well-Being of the Minor (FEBEM) – Foundation whose function is to carry out educational measures applied by the judiciary to adolescents aged 12-21 who have infractions, as determined by the Statute of Children and Adolescents
1. ECA-USP. “Realidade de mentirinha”. July 2003.
2. Bruno Dias Franqueira, Lídio de Souza. Cidade de Deus e as Representações Sociais de lugar pobre e lugar violento. 5º Congresso de Estudantes de Pós-graduação em Comunicação, Universidade Federal Fluminense, Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. October 24-26, 2002.
3. It is important to point out here that the term “subúrbia” or “subúrbio” is understood as the complete opposite of the meaning of its English translation “suburb” as used in the US. While the English term suburb as used in the US conjures up images of middle class lifestyles, the terms “subúrbio” and “peripheria” (periphery) (along with favela, meaning slum or shantytown) as used in Brazilian Portuguese, are in some ways reminiscent of the images associated with the term “ghetto”, meaning a location outside of the central area of a city, the favela (slum/shantytown) an area inhabited by the poor and excluded from society. In the social imagination, it also conjures up images of various stereotypes, danger, against the grain lifestyles and drug trafficking.
4. Bailes funk are popular dances in the periphery areas of Rio de Janeiro attended by young Cariocas (people from Rio). Although the music that is played at these dances is called Funk (pronounced “foon-ky”) in Brazil, the sound is actually highly influenced by the graphic sexual lyrics and fast beats of the 80s/90s Miami Bass sound coming out of Florida in the United States. Funk Carioca and Bailes Funk have been highly criticized for their obscene, vulgar lyrics, exacerbated sexuality and connections to crime, violence and drug trafficking. The dances are often held and financed by drug traffickers to attract potential drug consumers to the periphery.
5. Rapazote, Nuno Miguel Almeida de Sampaio e Melo. Estudo comparativo entre a Cidade de Deus de Paulo Lins e a Cidade de Deus de Fernando Meirelles. Master’s Thesis, Universidade do Algarve, 2008. See also Costa who found that in the neighborhood of Jacarezinho in Rio, with a population of more than 150,000 people, the number of people involved in drug trafficking didn’t exceed more than 150 people, or 0.07% of the population. Vargas, João H. Costa. “Apartheid brasileiro: raça e segregação residencial no Rio de Janeiro”. Revista Antropologia 2005, vol.48, #1, pp. 75-131 .
6. Sinhá Moça is a novel written by Brazilian author Bernardo Guimarães. A movie based on the novel was made in 1953, and two TV novelas in 1986 and 2006. The story centers around supporters of slaveholders and abolitionists shortly before the abolition of slavery in 1888. Tensions get more intense as slaves continue to escape and revolt against slavemasters.
7. A 2005 TV series based on the Carandirú prison in São Paulo that was the location of the infamous massacre of 1992 in which 111 inmates were killed. The prison was demolished in 2002.
8. In a recent interview about the series, writer/director Carvalho spoke of his relationship with his family’s black maid when he was a child: “Betânia was a “mãe preta (black mother/mammy)” that I had for over 25 years. She started working as a maid here at home, but soon she became instrumental in my life, through the affection we shared for each other. Black and illiterate, but full of life and intelligence, occasionally I reminisce about her life trajectory, doing this with great detail while preparing my lunch and cleaning my house.”
9. Zumbi dos Palmares, or Zumbi of Palmares (1645-1695) was the last, greatest and most celebrated leaders of all of Brazil’s quilombos (in the northeastern state of Alagoas), runaway slaves societies where inhabitants erected their own communities. Today, is honor of Zumbi, there are countless black organizations named in his memory and he is unquestionably the most important symbol of black consciousness in the country. Read more about Zumbi here.
10. Maroon societies established by runaway slaves. More here