Racism and television: New prime time soap opera features 56 characters, none of which are black

Eight of the actors and the characters they portray on the novela, "Amor à Vida"
Eight of the actors and the characters they portray on the novela, “Amor à Vida”

Note from BW of Brazil: The idea of black exclusion and the concept of whiteness has been a frequent topic on this blog over the past 18 months, and today’s feature is a perfect example of why this topic must continue to be discussed. Brazil’s most powerful television network recently began airing its latest prime-time novela and it is perhaps its most blatant example of black invisibility yet: in a cast of 56 characters that have prominent or minor roles on the show, NONE are black! While one could see this happening in a majority white but increasingly non-white Europe, this is simply shameful in a country where the majority of 200 million citizens proclaim themselves to be non-white. If one ever gets into a discussion with a Brazilian who insists on pointing to the US as a country with racial inequalities (and no one can deny this), allow us to point out that Brazil has a LONG WAYS to go in terms of race and representation on its magazine covers, modeling runways, beauty conteststelevision programming, government, diplomacy, universities, university faculty, literature, storefront layouts and a host of other areas. But even so, with no black actors in a novela featuring 56 characters, Globo really outdid itself this time!

Network defends itself and says that it does not choose actors using skin color as a criterion

The Globo TV network defended itself against accusations of racism that were made on social networks in recent weeks. There have been claims that the station is being prejudiced for not having any black actors in the cast for its newest prime time novela (soap opera) Amor à Vida. Protesters on the internet point out the fact that the novela also features a gay character.

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Nevertheless, as reported by the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Globo TV said it does not choose its cast through the color of the actors, but because of “artistic compatibility of the character and story.”

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Through Twitter, user @anaclaudis commented: “I don’t understand why there are no blacks on prime time.”  @ryanhuj wrote: “Globo maintains its racism in a novela without black actors #AMORÀVIDA?”

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For those who are not familiar with the popularity and influence of the Brazilian novela, consider the opinion of Antonio La Pastina, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied the influence of the programs on Brazilian society. According the La Pastina, “Novelas have become very much a part of the fabric of Brazilian society” and “It’s hard to think of contemporary Brazil without thinking of novelas.” That’s saying a lot for Brazil, “a country that watches more television on average than any other besides Britain.”

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Novelas portray the “small, beautiful, white, healthy, urban, middle and upper middle class consumerist family,” according to a study. Scholars say Globo’s novelas have played an outsize role in shaping opinions in Brazil because, for many years, they were one of the few forms of free entertainment available to the masses. “What’s absolutely unquestionable is that the novelas have a big impact on people’s lives; they pay attention,” said Joseph Potter, a University of Texas sociologist. “It’s not a literate society, it’s not a place where there are books and newspapers, outside the upper 10 percent, and television fills that space.”

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70-80 million Brazilians regularly watch nighttime novelas and the Globo network dominates the national production of novelas, those which generally show a very specific model family (small, attractive, white healthy, urban, middle/upper class and consumer). With this in mind, one must wonder what effect constant images of whiteness must have on a population of 200 million people of which more than half defines itself as non-white. The Brazilian media’s consistent emphasis on whiteness has been a topic of a number of studies over the past decade or so and this latest prime time novela is perhaps the most blatant example of the concept of whiteness “as the universal model of humanity.” The combination of the domination of the white aesthetic and the influence of the novela and media in general also no doubt play into the country’s historical objective of “whitening” the country.

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By why? What is the point of the invisibility of Brazil’s famed melting pot? What does message does Globo disseminate with an all-white cast and and where does this whiteness situate itself in the subconscious of the society. Referencing Ruth Frankenberg’s classic study, whiteness is seen as “a structural place from where the white subject looks at others and him/herself; an unnamed and unmarked position of power experienced in a social geography of race as a comfortable place and from which one can attribute to the other that that it doesn’t attribute to itself.” This “representation of the white as the universal standard of humanity, its invisibility and racial neutrality, guarantees whiteness a comfortable place in society.” Activists and scholars like Maria Bento and Edith Piza (1) have long applied this concept of whiteness to the Brazilian situation in assessing the “social psychology of racism.” Considering the dominance of the white aesthetic in the Brazilian media, is it really any wonder that the development of a black identity has been such a struggle for many non-white Brazilians?

Actor João Acaiabe, participating in a seminar called “What is the black face of the media?” in 2010, spoke of the importance of the application of Law 10.639 obligating the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian History and Culture in Brazilian schools. Acaiabe gives history lessons to children aged 2 to 6 re-enforcing the necessity of cultivating in the infantile imagination black personalities and situations that make them reflect on this early on in life. In Acaiabe’s view, “Whoever doesn’t see one’s self, doesn’t recognize one’s self; whoever doesn’t recognize one’ self, doesn’t identify one’s self.”

Actor João Acaiabe
Actor João Acaiabe

It follows to rationalize that the child that doesn’t recognize him/herself grows into the adult that also lacks this recognition. Through various mechanisms, Brazilian society  has long contributed to the difficult development of an identity outside of the Eurocentric perspective and its media is a powerful means of re-enforcing this difficulty. Marcio André dos Santos wrote about the Brazilian novela’s “symbolic violence” against blacks back in 2001. Given the invisibility of Afro-Brazilians in this, the Globo network’s latest prime-time novela, it’s fitting to re-visit dos Santos’s article.

Television and racism

By Marcio André dos Santos

Brazilian soap operas perpetrate a direct and indirect form of symbolic violence against blacks in a steady and cruel manner

It is curious how certain perceptions gradually transform themselves in our minds. As a kid, I remember quite well, watching television, like numerous Brazilians of different social, racial and regional origins. In a lamentable way, with a puzzled look we have seen a continuation of an atrocious deprecating and brutalizing process of all those that clash with a certain standard aesthetic common in the Brazilian social imaginary: the ideal of whiteness. To choose just one of various ways of dissemination of moral-physical types and that has great range, we opted for the most popular entertainment vehicle (or brutalization, depending on how and where one sees it) which is the television, and of the most particular form, its telenovelas.

Brazilian soap operas, especially from the 1970s already having a status of a large audience and success in the national and Latin American scene, perpetrate a direct and indirect form of symbolic violence against blacks in a steady and cruel manner. A potential diffuser of the myth of racial democracy and the ideal of branqueamento (whitening), telenovelas inaugurated a highly sophisticated and pernicious anti-black racism. Trying to perpetuate white European racial heritage and erasing the presence and traces of black people as much as possible, telenovelas, even in the present day, radiate the supposed eternal desire to be white, in body, soul, spirit, and even the sense of Brazilian nationality. Portrayed as a pariah and disqualified in his humanity is the psychological and social place reserved to the negro that marks him profoundly and terribly affects the construction and strengthening of his self-esteem and the ability to feel complete with the condition itself (and idealistically desired) of being a whole person.

In a society that overvalues and spectacularizes the image, or as Professor Muniz Sodré tells us, “the visual devices”, the black subject appears permanently invisible. His image is disfigured until exhaustion and condemned to not show up in the mirror that the society guided by the ideals of white beauty it chooses as morally worthy of recognition; the non-reflecting vampire in search, not of blood, but of re-cognition (to be known in a dignified manner by the other, white and national society).

In this manner, the visual anti-black racism crystallized and inaugurated by Brazilian telenovelas condemns us to a dreadful stigma – to us, black men and women – to being the other of the other. Neither subjects, nor citizens, only marginal in Brazilian contemporary social marginality.

Scene from 2001 Globo novela "A Padroeira"
Scene from 2001 Globo novela “A Padroeira”

To cite one of countless scenes of the depreciation of blacks, common in Brazilian soap operas, I refer to a chapter of the novela A Padroeira, of TV Globo’s afternoon lineup. There I could see once again that the fictionalized drama wants to not only to re-present reality as well as fix it in certain imagery, only in an unequal form between black and white characters. The novela is set in colonial Brazil and the scene refers to the settlement of accounts between a sinhá (slave master’s wife) and her slave (or one under her dominion). In this scene the enslaved woman is brutally drowned in a small tub of water, while her sinhá torments her with words of fear and threat. We would say at the outset: a novela scene like any other. However, in a social situation and virtually distant from the world of fiction, the situation of domination and subordination between whites and blacks is portrayed as a natural process. The scene transpires the idea that this is the current and necessary condition of coexistence between the two racial groups. The socio-aesthetic hegemony of whiteness expressed in visual media, testifies in favor of subordination of all black aesthetic and identity.

The anti-black racism, dramatized on Brazilian television (novelas, television news, sitcoms), naturalized in such a way the inferior and non-human condition of blacks, that even black actors and actresses end up thinking that their representations serve only to appeals of “art”. Even being resistant to roles that symbolically and socially marginalize them, there have been few black actors and actresses who rebel against roles that inferiorize their person and culture. After all, it is also their jobs and even more so when there is work. The process of existent subjugation in the media generally serves a two-way street. The absence of protest authorizes the continuation of oppression.

In spite of the uniformity of the Euro-Americanized standard in telenovelas, a black counter-hegemony has quietly been architected in various spaces for the construction of subjectivity. Black initiatives in television, film and video-documentary are showing that it is still possible to resist and demolish the thorny bases of televised racism. An example is the São Paulo organization Dombali, which broadcasts TV Afirmação, weekly programs focusing on black activities and performance spaces.

The Movimento Negro (black rights movement) has for much time been protesting and proposing qualitative changes in terms of increased promotion of racial diversity on television and promoting access to professionals of this medium. Proposals abound to visualize the representation of black men and women on television. But fighting against historically engendered forms of power is a task for the whole society. Negatively portraying Afro-Brazilians and other racial identities is doing a double injustice for the country. The non-promotion of racial diversity in the media is proof of the ignorance that still permeates our so “sacred” democracy, that of the racial not even having the intention.

To allow this situation to continue is to enable the incorporated disguise for anti-black racism and the triumph of the technical elites (editors, writers, editors, columnists, TV anchors, advertising creators, artists, journalists) in the articulation of barbarism and naturalization of terror. Recreating telenovelas (and all forms of fiction on TV) against the backdrop of ethical diversity of the population is subverting the dominant cultural logic itself. Brazil is not and never will be a Sweden.

Source: Folha de S.Paulo, Revista Afro, Globo, Washington PostInter-American Development Bank, Nexus, Faculdade de Comunicação Universidade de Brasília, Barbosa, Luciene C. (2004). As situações de racismo e branquitude representadas na telenovela “Da Cor do Pecado” [CD-ROM]. In Anais do Congresso Brasileiro de Ciências da Comunicação, 27. São Paulo: Intercom.

Notes

1. See Bento, Maria Aparecida S. (2003). Branqueamento e branquitude no Brasil. Em Carone, Iray, & Bento, Maria Aparecida S. (Orgs.), Psicologia social do racismo: estudos sobre branquitude e branqueamento no Brasil (pp. 25-57). Petrópolis: Vozes.

About Marques Travae 3222 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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