Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s post has been a long-time coming. Originally I wanted to contribute this post to BW of Brazil back in June when I came across an opinion piece about a very popular Sunday afternoon variety show on Globo TV. The program is called Esquenta (1) and is hosted by the popular actress/host Regina Casé. As this blog frequently discusses issues of race and media representation (or lack thereof), I thought the post would be excellent material to bring exposure to a specific ongoing debate about this program. If you’ve read BW of Brazil for any amount of time, you know that black Brazilians are, for the most part invisible, vastly under-represented and are often relegated to subaltern, at times buffoonish, appearances on the television networks.
The decision to finally re-visit the topic of Esquenta was a discussion I recently had with a middle-class Paulista, as people from São Paulo are called in Brazil. I shall call this friend “Bruno”. I identify myself as negro (black) and Bruno identifies himself as branco, or white, his grandparents being Spanish immigrants from the 1940s or so. Bruno works in advertising in a firm on Avenida Paulista, the most important financial street in all of São Paulo and arguably Brazil. Before moving into the main topic of this post, I must explain a little about my dialogues with “Bruno” over the past six months in terms of race.
While “Bruno” works in advertising and is constantly inundated with all sorts of magazines (from clients and prospective clients), he has insisted that Brazilian magazines and television present the Brazilian people racially in a manner that is equal to racial percentages of Brazil. This is clearly not the case as this blog has repeatedly shown. But so be it; “Bruno’s” view is very common among Brazilians who don’t actually have a background in the social sciences and often accept the idea of the Brazilian “racial democracy” while admitting the strong existence of class discrimination. In this case there was no problem, as my relationship with “Bruno” is not based upon his views on race and racial equality although our frequent discussions touch on a range of topics.
A few days ago, when “Bruno” and I met at his job as we often do, after exchanging greetings and discussing the previous week, “Bruno” asked me if he could ask me a question. He said he had thought of me two weeks prior to the discussion and had been meaning to ask me this question ever since. He asked me if had ever watched the TV program Esquenta. I said that while I don’t watch it every Sunday, I have seen quite a few episodes. He continued, “This is only my opinion, but I would like to know what you think. I don’t always watch this show, but I watch it enough to come to a conclusion: this is the most racist program on TV!” I started to laugh as he continued. He said, “Let me finish…You have to agree that Esquenta has the most negros of all TV shows in Brazil; I think the show is about 90% black…”
Just to chime in, in my view, I wouldn’t say the show was 90% black. I would estimate that the audience seen on the show may be 50-60%, depending on the particular episode, with a large percentage of black singers, dancers, rappers, etc. Now, back to “Bruno”…
“Every time I see this program, I only see negros dancing and singing as if they’re always happy. They are on this show as if all they know is to dance and sing. They often have intellectuals on the show discussing social issues but they are always white. Do you notice this?”
To be honest, I was totally amazed that “Bruno” noted this. As I wrote in introducing “Bruno”, he didn’t agree with my assessment that black Brazilians are largely invisible in the Brazilian media. Thus, for someone like “Bruno” to come to such a conclusion is noteworthy. “Bruno” also asked me if I noticed that black women are also featured in contests and shows that have a Carnaval theme. “They’re always all black!” he said. I asked, “You mean like the Globeleza contest?” He said: “Yes, exactly!”
Which brings me directly to Esquenta.
Without question, Esquenta is the one program that presents some sort of balance in terms of racial representation on Brazilian airwaves. All areas of the show (in front of the camera at least), for example, the audience and the guests/performers, have a pretty diverse representation of black and white Brazilians, including those who are not easily identified as one or the other. This is usually not the case in most of Brazil’s non-sports television programs (news, novelas, and even variety shows).
But, to be clear, actual numbers of bodies of persons of visible African ancestry is one thing. The image they represent is another topic altogether. Although I admit I don’t watch Esquenta religiously and neither do I always watch the program from beginning to end, the episodes I have watched do allow me to come to a conclusion about the program. But before I get into my opinion, let me share two opposing views about the show that were posted online and led to a huge debate.
Is Regina Casé’s Esquenta the most racist program on TV?
Is Regina Casé’s “Esquenta” the most racist program on TV?
It sends a retrograde message with its stereotypes of blacks.
by Marcos Sacramento
Esquenta is the most conservative program of Brazilian television. It is a loud and colorful version of old customs. At first glance, it seems like a big party in the periferia (periphery or ghetto/favela), where the slang, dances and fashions from regions with low HDI (Human Development Index) and high crime are irradiated to the whole country through the TV.
We see boys twisting joints in passinho performances, girls with miniskirt and micro-vocabulary, black guys with blond hair and mirrored sunglasses, in flashy colors running around the big studio happy and euphoric. The party mixes samba, funk, unashamed and carefree lifestyle, beauty contest, humor, novela artists, finally, to use a quite periférico (peripheral) term, “mixed it all together.”
These characteristics by themselves don’t bother me. I’m not square; I respect and even admire some forms of culture come from the ghetto and abuse of the right to turn off the TV. What annoys me, and a lot, and that makes me call the program conservative and slavish (reminiscent of the slavery era) is the predominant skin color in this crazy party.
Certainly Esquenta is the program with the highest percentage of blacks on network television. While novelas (soap operas), sitcoms and newscasts are predominantly Caucasians, the ones that command here are pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns).
And that’s the point. The program reinforces the stereotype of black Brazilians as individuals suburbanites, underemployed, but even so, happy, always with a smile on their face, forgetting the everyday ills through dancing, swaying, poor funk rhymes, hairstyles of bad taste and extravagant haircuts.
I’m black and I don’t know how to sambar (dance the samba), I don’t paint my hair blonde, I don’t wear necklaces, I don’t walk with ginga (rhythm or swag) and I don’t speak in dialect. I’m no exception, thankfully. I know there are many guys and girls like me. Many are multilingual, others like classical music, many like books more than people, others complain about the heat of Brazil, there are certainly those who are introspective and of few words, and there are those who do not miss feijão (beans) when traveling abroad.
Although Esquenta didn’t have the proposal of being a program about black culture, it helps to build a stereotype. Why don’t novelas have any black men as heartthrobs or black women as muses? Make a list of heartthrobs and muses on television and then see how many are black. The number will be negligible.
Esquenta helps to maintain this order. Instead of elegant guys it shows dancers with bizarre hair. The girls, always in tiny shorts and using vulgar prosodies, would never make it as models for the cover of Marie Claire and Claudia.
Regina Casé and her program seem to say to the youth of the ghettos, “Hey, that’s right, learn how to do the passinho, learn to shake your hips to the ground, continue with their own language, because all that is beautiful, it’s cool, it’s Brazil, it’s all mixed together, continue with your modest jobs, because life is now, it is to be lived, it’s short, with joy, indisposition, always with a smile on your face.”
And so, that girl sitting on the couch will continue thinking it’s great to parade around scantily clad and her legs painted blond by the community. She will never think about learning to speak German or trying to understand graffiti by Banksy, in the same way that boys will never dream of working in the Foreign Ministry and will practice bullying more polished boys that don’t speak in dialect, invent and study violin since a program of one of the biggest television stations in the country legitimizes their badly educated lifestyle and poor prospects.
As a oligarch and cynical colonel, the program gives a message to the preto and pardo kids from the periphery: “That’s it, dance, sing, have fun. But don’t leave your place.”
The Esquenta controversy and the culture of the periphery
A reader responds to the Diário post that blew up on the internet.
Article by Marcos Sacramento on the program of Regina Case, published in Diário, sparked a rich and comprehensive debate. Some days ago it was commented on extensively on the internet. Mariana Dias left her impressions about the so-called “culture of the periphery” in the comments box. We reproduce it below.
by Mariana Dias
I am far from being a Globo TV spectator and even farther from being a defender of the station. As a friend would say, “I hate/loathe it.”
However, I think the author of the text forgot to mention that in all of “her” programs (because, yes, I get disconnected from the internet to watch “her” program) there are interviews, testimonies, reflections on various topics. Always from the perspective of social/racial inequality that pervades our society. Successful people (white and black) always have a voice in the attraction, but without the “neutrality” that most of the media tries to offer. The argument that justice is intrinsic to the merit system is very weak. Who is it that believes that a successful person in Brazil has not had a more difficult path by belonging to one of the historically disadvantaged groups (black, poor, women, the disabled, homosexuals)?
The idea of an alleged equity is a beautiful shot in the foot. Not pointing out the differences and the different trajectories that are constrained by social injustices and cultural Brazil only helps to reinforce them (after all, in order to create mechanisms to improve what is already good?). Racial democracy can even be a good analytical framework to understand why in our country there are institutionalized violent conflicts between minority groups. But it certainly masks the real social relations that develop behind the scenes. Because “I do not have prejudice, but my neighbor …” (2)
And speaking of prejudice, the program is right in raising the banner of “shoo, prejudice” and this text only makes me have more certainty of this. How can anyone criticize a program as being racist and conservative while speaking with contempt of Brazilian popular culture? The boys dye their hair yellow and do the passinho, but it could be painted black and breaking everything to the sound of rock’n’roll. Certainly the boys who live in condominiums fall into the second group. And you can be sure this does not happen because one cultural pattern is better than the other. Because, for us here, we know that this does not exist. What exists is the glamorization of one over the other. And it’s really amazing how, after being exposed to popular culture that is filtered and legitimized by the media, the bourgeois youth get into funk.
About the girls in short shorts and (blond) hair on their legs…geez. It would be such a great conversation, huh? Starting with the machismo that oozes from all this criticism, once again going over the definition of what is chic (and the importance of being chic) and then reaching its apex: the covers of Marie Claire and Claudia. People, how absurd!
A program that doesn’t present girls worthy of being stamped on two publications that promote an unrealistic standard of beauty, abuse of Photoshop and material ostentation and better: giving valuable tips on how to win your man, keep your man, give orgasms to your man, cooking for your man, being beautiful for your man … Damn, but not even put a well-dressed black woman rockin’ her ‘fro loud and proud, worthy of a cover of these magazines? But wait a minute. How many poor black women appear on the covers of these magazines? How many black and poor women are presented as models of successful women and conquesting their men?
Could it be that the problem is that it is “her” program, that doesn’t present people adapted to the legitimized cultural pattern or is it the media’s fault that it only accepts one standard (the bourgeoisie) as worthy?
Speaking of a culture of the periphery is already violence in that it homogenizes a universe of behaviors and belief systems that are rich and diverse. But ok, although there is a culture of the periphery, what is the problem with giving visibility to it? I’d really like to know. I believe that a society is healthier the more its citizens are exposed to different realities and understand that these realities should not be restricted. People should have the freedom to go where they please, but for that to happen two things are essential: 1) the visibility and legitimacy of all forms of expression and existence, 2) recognition of the socially constructed barriers that hamper the complete realization of being.
At the end of the day, I think that what “she” wants is to make a Sunday feijoada (bean stew) in front of the cameras. Without many pretensions beyond fun and of a little money in her pocket.
Note from BW of Brazil: As English speakers are most likely not familiar with the program, allow me to mention that the program doesn’t feature only aspects and performances of the genre known as funk. MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) artists and Samba singers are also regularly featured on the show. Popular singer/musicians such as Péricles, Arlindo Cruz and Xande de Pilares of the group Revelação also have a regular presence on the show, not only performing but also offering their comments on a particular topic of the episode.
Before touching upon the excellent points made by both writers, many of which I agree with, let me share a few more details on my experiences in approaching this debate. For many years, in terms of media, race and representation, I have asked myself which is the better choice: 1) There should be no black representation on TV or 2) Black representation be very limited and said representation will be very stereotyped.
Throughout my travels back and forth from the US to Brazil over the years, I have been able to also watch the US-based BET, Black Entertainment Television, a cable channel that has existed on the national level for nearly 30 years. There was much excitement in the American black community about a TV channel that represented African-Americans after decades of invisibility and stereotypical representation of this population in mainstream media outlets (similar to the situation in Brazil today). But for critics, this hope and excitement eventually descended into disappointment by the mid to late 90s after the network descended into a very formulaic form of programming. Seemingly round the clock Hip Hop/R&B music videos featuring the well-endowed, gyrating backsides of black and Latina women, gold-toothed, Hip Hop name brand-wearing rappers presented increasingly “in the ‘hood” and/or strip club environments with a noted scaling down of news-oriented content. BET’s CEO Robert Johnson would soon respond to community criticism by saying that “the ‘E’ in BET does not stand for enlightenment or education but entertainment.”
Perhaps this is also the ideology of not only Globo TV, but Record, SBT and Bandeirantes (the other top Brazilian TV networks) as well. Who could argue that this is not the case? But looking at Esquenta, there is another facet of this program that is very problematic for me.
Besides seeing blacks mainly singing, dancing and rapping, another regular feature on the program is that of actor Douglas Silva (of Cidade de Deus/City of God fame) and popular singer Mumuzinho constantly being featured as comic relief in skits in which they appear in drag.
African-American comedian Dave Chappelle once famously questioned on media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s program why it seemed that most popular African-American male actors have appeared in drag on screen at one time or another in their careers (see video here). Popular actor/comedians like Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and actors Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames are but a small list of this group.
The “effeminization of black males” has been a much debated topic in African-American circles for a number of years as people debate the meanings of these images. Could it be a means of supplementing (replacing?) the hyper-sexualized image associated with black males, a stereotype that also exists in Brazil, coincidentally (or, perhaps not)?
Is it a means of continuously making blacks look ridiculous in the media? In the skits on Esquenta, Mumuzinho and Silva come with the full presentation: wigs, makeup, dresses, arm-waving, effeminate voices, etc.
Of course, one could argue that this is “only entertainment.” But as anyone who studied communications and the media, ALL content of mass media outlets are divulged to send a message. Whether that message is to influence consumers to buy a particular product, support a particular political ideology/candidate or divulge subliminal messages about certain groups of the population, these images go much further than simply entertainment. As has been shown repeatedly on this blog, these images serve to re-enforce ideologies about this population that have existed in Brazilian society for centuries with this parcel of the population being the constant target of racist jokes and attacks that undermine the self-esteem of children as well as adults of this community. With this in mind, it is not possible to be able to fully support a program like Esquenta as the message on this show (and many others, for that matter) seems to be that the media will put black faces on TV, but the exchange is that they will continue to perpetuate such gross caricaturizations of this continuously degraded population.
With all of this in mind, my question is this: Even with the positive aspect of seeing a more diverse cast on this program, does Esquenta as a whole promote a change in the way Afro-Brazilians are perceived in the public imagination or does it continue the formula of afrodescendentes as simply an ethnic group that serves for the entertainment, laughs and topics of a less serious nature than those that affect the society, particularly those of said group?
Also consider this…
This portrayal of Afro-Brazilians can be noted throughout all areas of the Brazilian media. For example, doing research on one of Brazil’s most important magazines, Veja (similar to the US Newsweek) Derval Golzio found that of the 1,826 covers of the magazine in a 35 year period, blacks were featured on 58 covers, or 3.17%, while whites were featured on 1,337 covers, or 73.2%. Even more telling, when blacks were featured on the covers, 32 of the 58 featured them in roles of sports or culture, representing 55.2% of those from the original figure.
My argument is not against the portrayal of culture from poorer, marginalized, primarily communities of color. Not in the least. Samba, the Blues and believe or not, Hip Hop, all started out as cultural products from poor, primarily black and poor communities. Hip Hop, which was originally denigrated as “too urban”, “too black” or “not real music”, would rise from the margins and ghettos to become a multi-billion dollar entertainment genre consumed by the global, multi-racial masses, being used to sell everything from refreshments to chicken and cars to fashion and making multi-millionaires out of stars such as Jay-Z, P. Diddy and 50 Cent along the way. My question is, is that all that persons of African descent are supposed to aspire to be?
Of course it is true that these entertainers and business moguls are very well compensated for their images and the brands that they pedal. But with stereotypes continuing to plague the black population even when they succeed beyond the normalized caricatures associated with their social group, what does this say about the role ascribed to black people and does this success change the associated image, both in the general public imagination, but also and perhaps more importantly, the millions of youth who idolize, look like them and who are subjected to a very subliminal programming about “the place” that society reserves for them?
Mc Pocahontas e namorado Mc Rouba Cena on Esquenta
Mr. Catra e Mc. Federados on Esquenta
MC Nego Blue on Esquenta
MC Nego do Borel on Esquenta
Os Havaianos on Esquenta
Emicida x Xande de Pilares, Arlindo Cruz & Péricles on Esquenta
Arlindo Cruz and Orquestra Sinfónica de Heliopolis on Esquenta
Maria Bethânia and Grupo Revelação on Esquenta
Thiaguinho e Péricles on Esquenta
Source: Diário do Central do Mundo (1), Diário do Central do Mundo (2), Black Women of Brazil, Golzio, Derval. “Exclusão informativa: representação e representatividade dos negros e afrodescendentes nas capas da revista Veja” (Information exclusion: representation and representativeness of blacks and African descendants on the covers of Veja magazine). Biblioteca On-line de Ciências da Comunicação. Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2005. Pulley, Brett. The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television, Wiley 2004
1. Esquenta debuted on the Globo television network in January of 2011 and has concluded three seasons. The program is currently on seasonal hiatus and returns for its fourth season in April
2. Comment refers to a famous 1995 study in which 89% of Brazilians said that there is prejudice against blacks, while only 10% admitted to harboring these sentiments. In the same survey, 87% of those same people revealed some prejudice by agreeing with racist comments or sayings. In other words, everyone agrees that racism exists and they know racist people but no one admits to being racist. A 1988 study conducted in São Paulo found that 97% of those interviewed said they didn’t harbor any prejudiced feelings while 98% of the same people said they knew prejudiced people. Commenting on this contradiction, anthropologist Lilia Mortz Schwarcz said that “every Brazilian seems to feel like they are an island of racial democracy surrounded by racists on every side.” Source