How long will black women be maids in your novelas (soap operas)? Why Brazil’s media needs more black writers and directors

Actresses Aline Dias (right) and Erika Januza portray a cleaning woman and a maid in Globo TV programs
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Actresses Aline Dias (right) and Erika Januza portray a cleaning woman and a maid in Globo TV programs

Note from BW of Brazil: The more things change the more they stay the same. That’s my basic assessment of black characters on Brazilian TV series novelas (soap operas). Since the debut of this blog, we’ve kept an eye on the role of Afro-Brazilians in media as these images have such a powerful influence on the society. And in six years, we continue to see the same ole same old. The 2000 book and documentary A negação do Brasil – o negro na telenovela brasileira (Denying Brazil) by filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo continues to be the benchmark through which we analyze the long-time, tried and true stereotypes of black people on Brazilian airwaves. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of programs that were presented as supposed advances for black representation, but invariably, if you look a little closer, you’ll always find the stereotype. In the piece below, Stephanie Ribeiro asks the question, “How long will black women be maids in your novelas?”, novelas being the ever popular soap operas that continuously capture the attentions of tens of millions of viewers on a daily basis.

My response to that question, based on what I’ve seen on American as well as Brazilian television is that I don’t expect this stereotype to fade away anytime soon. Why? Well, black Brazilian women continue to be occupied in a high percentage in domestic and cleaning services. In my experiences, in various cities, it never seems to fail. When you go to the homes of middle class white families and meet the maids, note the women picking up the trays at mall food courts, or the women doing the clean up work at office buildings, it seems to be the rule. This is not to say there are no white women performing such services. I’ve seen a few. But in my experiences, and I always take note of such things, if there are women employed to provide such services they are usually black. It’s really obvious if one were to just pay attention. And because black women have for centuries been associated with such work, even when they attain a university degree (see here or here) and live in middle class neighborhoods people continue to imagine that if they are present in one of these houses or apartments, they must certainly be “the help”.

Considering the American perspective doesn’t offer much to be emulated, and as anyone who has spent any time watching Brazilian TV and is familiar with American TV can tell you, Brazil copies liberally from their North American counterparts. But is the American portrayal of black people an better than the Brazilian one? I would say yes, but….

In recent years, there has been much chatter among black Brazilian TV viewers who have access to cable TV and thus watch American television series regularly and ask, why don’t we have programs with a majority black cast or black lead characters in top rated series and point to recent successes such as Scandal or Empire. What they don’t seem realize is that there has been great debate among African-Americans in relation to prevalent racial stereotypes in those series. The other point here is that, for every prominent role African-Americans have on television, there are many more that present them as dysfunctional, particularly reality shows.

For me, the reality of the game is that if one can control how an oppressed group sees itself, for the most, you won’t have to worry how the group reacts. Having internalized images about themselves will often stop individuals of the group from realizing their full potential. The war nowadays is psychological and with this in mind, I don’t honestly expect Brazil’s media to stop using such stereotypes about black Brazilians. If the object is to continue to oppress the oppressed, what interest would there be in discontinuing such stereotypes. Brazil’s media is European, and as such, it will continue to present European people as the superior and dominant group.

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Caio Paduan and Erika Januza in a scene from ‘O Outro Lado do Paraíso’ (Globo TV)

How long will black women be maids in your novelas?

By Stephanie Ribeiro

Columnist Stephanie Ribeiro reflects on how Brazilian TV stations represent blacks in characters who are poor, suffering and are trapped in the unique plot that is to confront racism

I confess that I love novelas (soap operas), even if my more “conceptual” friends don’t: “Turn off the TV”. I really think it’s important for me to find out what’s being broadcast in the medium of communication that reaches most Brazilians, and I love to notice how there is an internet influence on channel programming. So I don’t think Rede Globo, the country’s largest broadcaster, which boasts of reaching over 100 million people per day, has a teen novela in which racism is addressed daily, simply because they are cool and concerned about this issue. I believe that the racial agenda in Brazil and in the world has gained visibility with social networks, and to remain outside of it would be to lose a huge line of the public – and that’s the reason.

However, even if the racial agenda seems to be on the rise, the way it is approached sounds like more of the same, and this is probably because of the absence of racially conscious black people with final decision-making power. If the new Malhação has more emphatic discourses about racism being an oppression faced by blacks, it evidently has to do with the fact that one of its writers is a black woman who is on the radar of racial and gender debates – two facts that seem to be details, but they change the whole way of addressing these issues. So much so that, in 2016, Rede Globo debuted its first Malhação with a black protagonist where there was antiracism lines, however, the end of the novela was Joana (the Aline Dias character) and her racist half-sister marrying together overcoming “rivalry” , as if racism ended with a veil and wreath.

2 - Aline Dias, que interpretou a personagem Joana em Malhação
Aline Dias, who played the character Joana in Malhação (TV Globo)

Laziness. Racism is violence, did she commit racism and regret it? Go to a police station, report a crime of racism or injúria racial (racial injury/slur), and deal with the consequences of your crime. And that serves for gender violence as well, thinking about the character Gael, from the novela O Outro Lado do Paraíso (The Other Side of Paradise) and her likely regret. Good repentance is not only that of crying and asking for forgiveness. It is the one that the person takes his little body and tears, goes to the police station and self-denounces. Violence against women is a crime. Racism is a crime. And they need to be treated as such.

Finally, returning to the 2016 Malhação: as soon as it was announced that we would have the first black protagonist, we learned that she would also be a faxineira (cleaning lady). In my social networks, a movement of denial to this narrative and boycott emerged on the part of black people. It is worth remembering that in 2014, when the series Sexo e as Negas was announced, we did the same thing, and I include myself in the group of people who totally denied this narrative that placed the black woman in a place of professional and sexual subordination. Strangely, even if the series was based on Sex and the City, in the Globo series we didn’t see women writers, lawyers, producers, wealthy housewives, but poor black women linked to subaltern work, in a narrative in which racism was used for irresponsible jokes. In one of the episodes I watched, a character, after suffering racist retaliation from a security guard, had sex with him at the end of the episode. Hello?

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The actors Rafael Zulu and Karin Hills in a scene of the series ‘Sexo e as Negas’ (Photo: TV Globo)

About the excess of black women as cleaning ladies, maids, babysitters, we would have no problem with that representation, if it were not the only thing TV stations make of us. And we know very well that Sexo e as Negas had a very low audience, and that a series like Mister Brau has as a sign an audience so good and surprising that it continues to be renewed. An example that black protagonism needs to be reviewed in this “inclusion” of our agendas, not only for good audiences, but for socially responsible discourses.

Tais Araujo e Lázaro Ramos, protagonistas da série Mr. Brau
Tais Araujo and Lázaro Ramos, protagonists of the series Mr. Brau (Photo: TV Globo)

Many of us are the children of women who cleaned up toilets and did a lot of cleaning, precisely so that we would not have to clean toilets and do cleaning work. So, please, soap operas should spare us from trying to indicate cleaning as our unique place. In Malhação itself, however much that Joana has changed social place, she continued being the garota negra num mundo branco (black girl in a white world) – and that is the norm in Brazilian novelas. Writers generally do not realize that their black characters are severely isolated from contact with other blacks. Blacks don’t have black parents, usually the characters are daughters of single mothers who die or appear very little. Remember Preta, played by Tais Araujo, in Da Cor do Pecado (The Color of Sin)? The mother dies early in the plot.

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Reynaldo Gianecchini and Taís Araújo in a scene from ‘Da Cor do Pecado’

The black characters also don’t have black friends, they are often only the black friends who serve as support for the suffering of the white friend, a recent example of this being Dandara Mariana’s character as Marilda, the friend of Ritinha (Isis Valverde ) in A Força do Querer. The characters of black women are also usually single moms, only remembering Camila Pitanga as Regina in Babilônia. Is there a problem? No. I am the daughter of a single mother. However, when I watch a series like Black-Ish, which has become a hit in the US, I see a black family with a medical mother and advertising father, discussing real life issues such as postpartum depression, as well as in Insecure, in which there are black women with human problems, not just being racism victims of their boyfriend’s white relatives. It seems that suffering at the hand of the father-in-law, mother-in-law, racist half-brother is our only drama in novelas.

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The American series ‘Blackish’

In Brazilian serials, I see black women being portrayed as strong in an inhuman way, a force that must always respond to the racist, gender and class violence to which they are subjected. At the same time they are totally lonely waiting for a homem branco (white man) who functions as a príncipe perfeito (perfect prince) immune to racism and ready to fight for the love of the couple, saving his beloved from violence of gender, race and class. I’m really, really bothered as all the characters I’ve mentioned here, except for Marilda, all the black characters get involved with white men who were in a financially privileged position and were regarded as princes.

Preta (Taís Araújo ) and the Paco (Reynaldo Gianecchini) fall in love, Paco is rich and his father thinks that Preta is a gold digger because she is a black woman and poor, she suffers very much from the hand of Bárbara (Giovanna Antonelli), the ex-girlfriend of Paco, a racist woman. In the end, Paco and Preta end up together, overcoming the racism of the father and the inequalities, this basically is the script of the Da Cor do Pecado.

In Malhação (2016), 12 years after Da Cor do Pecado, Joana is the faxineira (cleaning lady) who goes to work in a gym and then falls in love with a successful volleyball player (Gabriel). Joana then begins to suffer humiliations from the owner of the academy and also girlfriend of this guy, another Bárbara. And there Joana falls in love with Gabriel’s brother, Giovane, and goes on to suffer racism from his mother, who does not accept her son with a black ex-cleaning lady. The teen soap opera plot has now gained a new status with the arrival of the novela O Outro Lado do Paraíso, in which Erika Januza plays Raquel, a quilombola maid, who starts dating Bruno (Caio Padua). Because of this relationship, she starts to suffer an even more violent racism from her “boss” and now her mother-in-law, Nádia.

When I saw the calls of this soap opera, I thought, “Wow, again with this?”

And then, commenting with some actor friends, I was told that this novela will have a “twist” and that I had to wait. Unfortunately, these friends of mine, and the writers, products, television channels, have forgotten that we black people have been waiting for more than 300 years after abolition for a representation that is not more of the same. We are tired of the homem negro traficante/bandido/safado (drug dealer/criminal/shameless black man), the interracial couple who has to overcome racism and the black maid who suffers racism from her white mother-in-law. It is tiring to have to wait for a “twist” when in 2017 we have all the basics and the possibility of starting a soap opera by putting a black woman somewhere else, to make soap operas featuring black couples and to see black families living united and full. What if A Grande Família (the Great Family) was played by atores negros (black actors)? But the writers seem unable to write personagens negras (black characters) who are not socially marginalized. An example of this is the character Leila, played by Lucy Ramos, in A Força do Querer, that disappeared, because she only served as a dramatic support.

I doubt that if she were a cleaning lady, suffering the racism of the family, she would disappear with the ease that she disappeared because of being an architect in the hands of a writer who probably does not know how to write about black architects as easily as he does about poor blacks suffering racism waiting for a white man to save them. After all, in all the novelas, the white partner stands out as someone superior for a black woman to date.

Tired as all Brazilian writers are graduates of the Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), and they love to assume that racial democracy resides in interracial relationships, in which the white person shows to society his “non-racism” for having a black person next to him – this is a subject for the next text. The message that remains is that, perhaps, the Brazilian broadcasters are accustomed to making poor black women suffering, it is high time for us to write our own scripts. It’s past time… for black writers, directors, playwrights reaching more than 100 million people.

Source: Revista Marie Claire

About Marques Travae 2894 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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