Note from BW of Brazil: If there is one thing that I’ve learned continuously in studying history and viewpoints; we must always consider the other side of the story in order to get a full understanding of any given topic. Sometimes we will agree with alternative viewpoints, sometimes we will disagree. In some cases, the debate is more valuable than the conclusion itself! And as I’ve written in other posts, I am always willing to present different views so as to give my readers a balanced understanding of the issue at hand. It’s not possible for an audience that has little experience with a given topic to understand what is at stake unless they can see both or all perspectives on any particular topic. The best example I can provide is the topics this blog covers. While the focus is on black women of Brazil, for readers outside of Brazil to get an understanding of why such a blog is even necessary, it’s essential that I feature issues that contribute to reality of black Brazilian women. It is from this same angle that I present today’s material.
Numerous black Brazilian women have voiced their rejection of the image of the naked, dancing black woman presented year in and year out during Carnaval as the only widely divulged image of Brazil’s black women. By participating in their own exploitation, these women are not advancing the cause of Afro-Brazilian women who wish to open other avenues of representation of women of African descent in Brazilian society and media, according black female activists. But, as we have shown, many black women involved in Carnaval related occupations want it to be known that they are artists who should be respected as legitimate representatives of (black) Brazilian culture.
The women voicing their opinions on the issue are college-educated and want people to understand that what they see during Carnaval shouldn’t be necessarily construed in only one manner. Being black and women, they face many issues in participating in the world of samba and it should be necessity that the issue is debated so that stereotypes can be put to rest. With that said, let’s hear what they have to say!
New generation puts the stereotype of the Carnival dancer in check in Rio de Janeiro
By Ronald Lincoln Jr, all photos by Kelly Lima
They have gained fame worldwide with the “mulatas of Sargentelli”, with the sculptured body and the samba no pé (samba in the foot) symbolizing the beauty of the Brazilian Carnival. But the young generation of passistas (Carnaval dancers) from Rio’s samba schools want to give new meaning to their work inside and outside of the sambódromo (Carnaval stadium). And they guarantee: this has nothing to do with the Globeleza passista (Carnaval dancer) being naked or dressed up on a national network. “Globeleza will be dressed on TV, but she won’t be on the avenue and the guy will continue to think that we are a pedaço de carne (piece of meat), will continue to offer money,” says Larissa Neves, 21, a psychology student and Salgueiro samba school passista for ten years.
Larissa is part of the Samba Pretinha collective, created in 2016 by four jovens negras (young black girls) who propose to debate the stereotype of the “mulata brasileira” (Brazilian mulata), glamourized in Carnival and discriminated against for the rest of the year. Sexual harassment, racism – even in a predominantly black environment – and professional devaluation are some of the challenges that women living on dancing samba face. “These girls, making this debate, can re-signify the idea of the passista”, says historian Janaína Oliveira, who coordinates the Nucleus of Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Studies (or just NEABI) of the Federal Institute of Rio de Janeiro.
Prejudice and racism
Born in Salgueiro, the movement was well received by passistas from other traditional associations, such as Mangueira and Beija-Flor, who participated in the lectures of Samba Pretinha. The initiative came after the passista Mirna Moreira, 22, also from Salgueiro, suffered racism in social networks by participating in a beauty contest among UERJ students (Rio de Janeiro State University), where she studied medicine. She earned the solidarity of Larissa, Rafaela Dias and Sabrina Ginga, colleagues of the Salgueiro wing, that created the project. Mirna joined them, as did Sabrina Ginga, a passista for eight years.
Created to debate themes such as racial and feminine issues within the carnival universe, the movement grew and extrapolated the courts of the samba schools. A few days after Carnival, the group participated in a debate promoted by the Movimento Negro (black movement) in Lapa and discussed racism and sexism in samba at an event held by a brand of sandals in the heart of the southern region of Rio de Janeiro, in Ipanema.
Judgments occur on and off the samba school grounds. Former passista of Império Serrano, one of the most traditional samba schools in Rio, Monique Oleotério, 26, reports that she suffered prejudice even in movements of militância negra (black militancy). In a debate about black feminism, she heard that being a passista was an offense to black women and that she should reject this role of object. “I see this as a very well done job of racism: our forms of expression are criminalized and judged from the point of view of the colonizer, no matter what meaning they have to us, how they emerged or what role they play.”
At the other extreme, they face resistance within schools of accepting and wearing cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). At Samba Pretinha, they all show their Afro hair with pride, but it was not always that way. After ceasing to wear the long braids, ideal for “throwing the hair”, a common movement in samba dancing, Sabrina Ginga, 28, had to abandon the school’s passista shows. “They said, ‘You have to put some hair on.’ But I always resisted,” says Sabrina, who is wearing natural afro-textured, colored hair, combed to stand at maximum height.
Having graduated in social sciences at UERJ, she also felt the strangeness of her college colleagues early in the year. The approach was subtle, but prejudice was between the lines. “I know people knew about my condition as a passista and that they found it weird. ‘Wow, she’s studying social science and is a passista?'” she reveals.
In the courts and barracks of the schools, they often hear that “a passista is not a woman to date, a passer is a woman só para ficar (just to ‘kick it/have sex with’). Mirna, from Salgueiro, says that the prejudice echoes between the artists of rhythm themselves and colleagues in the wing of passistas in Carnival parades. “They, more than anyone else, know that being here has nothing to do with being available. It’s the machismo of our everyday.”
Julyana Clara, muse of Mangueira (a prominent position among the passistas), says that she faced resistance from her husband. “When I met him, he was very jealous, he asked me not to do any more shows, but I didn’t samba dancing, he met me like that, he had to accept it, today he takes it well, but there are rehearsals that he prefers not to watch. He gets annoyed at the other men looking at me.”
For Janaína Oliveira, from NEABI-IFRJ, the concept of the mulher negra (black woman) as hypersexualized is a mark of slavery. “In this imaginary, the woman’s body is made to be enjoyed even without her will. On the other hand, feminism advances by saying that a woman can do what she wants with her body.”
The nudity or the use of bikinis in costume, which leaves the body of the passista exposed, is a frequent theme in the debates of Samba Pretinha. The costumes they wear are no justification for corroborating the objectification of their bodies. “When we’re on the stage, we’re artists. The bikini is the most comfortable outfit,” Sabrina argues. “When I samba, I don’t think of seducing anyone, I am practicing my art.” (see note one) For Larissa, the costume of the passista doesn’t carry the symbology of exploitation of the sexuality of the black woman that is attributed to it. “It’s in the head of the beholder, for us it makes no difference.”
Rafaela, 27, the muse of Salgueiro, is the only one who lives on dancing samba and feels the prejudice up close. In shows in which she is hired for events and weddings, she says there are common photo requests where people want to touch the breasts and buttocks of the passistas (see note one). During performances, men ask for “private shows” and try to put money subtly into the hand of the passistas.”In the samba world there is a woman who prostitutes herself, every place has them, if she wants to do it, it’s her body and she does it, the problem is they think that’s it’s everyone,” complains Larissa.
Carnival researcher Rachel Valença says that the use of the bikini today by samba dancers is an evolution of the class. “In the 1960s, the schools reflected the characteristics of the time, they were conservative, the passistas wore a short skirt, but today you go to the beach and the women wear bikinis, and at the dances they wear short clothes (see note two). Samba is sensual and can’t be attenuated.”
The passista character was born along with the creation of samba schools, says historian Luiz Antonio Simas. According to him, the dancers “represent the very foundation that samba depends on of an integration between rhythm and body”, something that, in the original conception, didn’t have a burden of hypersexualizing the woman’s body. For Simas, the objectification of the women passistas “portrays the machismo naturalized in the Brazilian social formation, in which the woman, especially the black woman, was seen as an object.”
The passistas also believe that part of the blame for the prejudices that they suffer is due to the lack of professional recognition of the class. Although they receive fat sponsorships for the parades, many schools do not offer adequate structure for their members.
One of the main references of the Carioca (Rio) Carnival, Aldione Senna was a passista for more than 50 years. Today, she is 61. Winner of several prizes, she says that, in her prime, the passistas were well paid. Currently, says the veteran, the directors of the samba schools don’t pass on fair payment to the passistas. “When the contractor comes to the school wanting the show, the management makes the budget, with the number of baianas, rhythm artists and passistas, and the contractor doesn’t usually complain about the price.”
For Sabrina, the preparation and technique of the passista are not taken into account because dancing samba is seen as something natural for negras brasileiras (black Brazilian women). “If they were dancers who hired for a party, I think the treatment would be different because dancers are seen as professionals.”
For Aldione, it is up to the passistas to demand valorization. She advocates that the new generation questions the invitations to shows where fair pay is not offered. “Even knowing the show is free, they go, they’re afraid they’ll be excluded from the parade, if they don’t demand it, who will do it for them?”, she questions (see note three).
Researcher Rachel Valença, who has previously presided over the Império Serrano samba school (one of the most traditional samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, currently in Series A), believes that the professionalization of samba was only in some segments. “There is an interpreter who wins a car, an apartment to change schools. Except that this professionalization has not reached the bateria (drum troupe), the baianas and the passistas.” Even if it is complicated for the school to pay all the members, which are many, if one wins, the others are discontented, says Rachel. “We need to rethink this management model.”
Globeleza is a reference
Anyone who thinks that the new generation of passistas sees Globeleza as an example of objectification of the body of the passista in the TV vignette can’t be more mistaken. In an emotional statement, Larissa says she came into conflict with herself by realizing that the controversy over the wearing of regional Carnival costumes in this year’s vignette might require her to stand against Globeleza. “Since she was a child, she has always been a positive example for me, someone who exalts the black woman on a national network. That’s when I realized that someone would have to talk about it, and I discovered that it would be me to speak up,” her voice choked up.
In Samba Pretinha, Globeleza is a reference for the empowerment of black women. “When do you see a black woman shining on TV on her own?”, asks Larissa. Among the young passistas, she says, it’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t wish to be next to star in the Carnival vignette (see note four). But the presence of the black population in positions of prominence in the TV – besides the Carnival – needs to increase, says the passista.
- These points are some of the principle reasons for the whole debate. I don’t condone the behavior of over-zealous men around scantily clad women, but is it ever reasonable to believe that such behavior will change? Right or wrong, men DO approach women based on the image they present. Is it not believable that a man would approach a woman differently depending on whether he met her in a church, a nightclub or a strip club? I don’t say this as a justification for objectionable behavior but rather a question for consideration.
- If the times dictate the fashion, are women doing themselves a disservice by not drawing a line in the sand as to what should be considered appropriate attire?
- Excellent point which I would apply to note two. If women perform for free, do they not undermine their own work just to stay in the game? In this same manner, referring to note two, if they allow fashion to be dictated by trends, are they not creating a situation that will be continuously out of their control? If they allow such fashion trends and in the future if there are calls for complete nudity in Carnaval parades, will they also allow the market to dictate what is acceptable for their profession?
- In reality, this is whole point of the debate. Of course there are perhaps millions of black women who wish to be in the position of the Globeleza as it is one of the only roles that a black woman is deemed to be fit for according to Brazilian society. The point is, as she points out, is to expand the realm of what is possible for black women so that just as many of them can dream of other viable possibilities.