Note from BW of Brazil: I must admit, I stopped watching TV regularly several years ago. The media vehicle simply stopped being important to me. The TV programs are generally trash, always depending on depictions of sex and violence, crass comedy and star worship. For me, there is simply an incredible lack of imagination in the mainstream media nowadays. Either that, or the people that control the media want to just see how low they take society by continuously featuring absurdity and debauchery on perhaps the most powerful tool of brainwashing ever known to the human race. Sometime halfway of the first decade of the 21st century I began to feel the same way about the music industry. Once you begin to look behind the scenes of who makes the decisions of what we’ll ultimately watch and hear it begins to become easy to see why music, TV and film production is so decrepit.
I didn’t always think in this manner.
When I was a child and adolescent, the music world was full of creativity. Comparing the era of music I grew up listening to as well as the music that my parents grew up on with the music of today is simply no contest. Equally at the time, there were a number of TV series, dramas and comedies that I enjoyed watching that would lead me to tuning in again and again to see the latest episodes. Looking back now and watching some of those TV programs on DVD or YouTube and I can see that these programs weren’t at all perfect and were often problematic as well, but they were nothing compared to what is called ‘entertainment’ nowadays. Maybe it’s not even fair for me to say as I watch little of it…
Thinking back to those days as a youth watching American television couldn’t have prepared me for Brazilian television in the 21st century in terms of racial representation. Let me first state the obvious: growing up watching television in the United States, if one was black and grew tired of seeing TV programs that endlessly featured casts of actors that looked nothing like the people in their neighborhood, well, your best bet was probably to just turn the TV off; because overwhelmingly white actors and characters were (and still are) the norm on American television programs. But nothing could have prepared me for the lack of black actors/characters in the Brazilian television market. And this becomes even worse if we were to exclude characters that didn’t represent tried and true stereotypes of black Brazilians.
Even before I really understood what the terms race and racism meant, I always felt a certain identification with characters that looked like me or people I knew growing up in ‘tha D’. Thus, while I enjoyed watching Gilligan, Lucy, Dallas and Three’s Company, programs that rarely if ever featured black actors, I felt a certain affinity when I saw Willis and Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes, Tootie on the Facts of Life and all of the brothas on CBS basketball drama, The White Shadow. My watching these shows is by no means a proclamation that they didn’t have their problems. All of the three above mentioned shows featured black people being set in situations in which they were presented as being ‘saved’ by the ‘white hero’ or a ‘white setting’ passing on the idea that blacks can only figure out life or survive by having some ‘white savior’ figure in their lives.
Even so, there was a time when the words of the characters on programs such as The Jeffersons, Good Times and Sanford and Son made statements that represented the feelings of the black community as a whole. And years later, when I watched these shows in syndication and understood the historical context, I couldn’t help but feel that my own father, who grew up in the segregated south, cheered on George Jefferson every time he stood up to white supremacy and said things that perhaps he never could in a region of the US where black people could be lynched for such attitude.
As such, as black Brazilians continue to scream, representation matters. And in today’s Brazilian media, that representation continues to be severely lacking.
Black Brazilians and the media: Invisibilities
By Ana Claudia Mielke
About a year ago, the image of little Matias Melquíades, photographed by his happy parents next to a doll of the Star Wars character Finn, became popular on the social networks. The photo not only viralizou (went viral) in the Brazilian networks, it reached John Boyega, an American actor who played the hero in the film Star Wars: O despertar da Força (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
This story consolidates what black people have been saying for a long time: representativeness matters, yes! Not only on television and in the movies, but also in advertising, literature and the production of toys. After all, Matias, just 4 years old, wanted to buy the doll because “se parecia com ele” (it looked like him).
The question of the representativeness of blacks in the Brazilian media is something that is growing and receiving the spotlight in research and debates. Not surprisingly, the media culture industry is still barely permeable to the idea of having blacks in leading roles and continues reproducing stereotypes, placing blacks in roles that almost always constitute subordination.
The old roles repeat themselves. On the negative side, the slave, the lascivious “mulata”, the maid, the silly or ignorant black who makes us laugh and the bad guy. On the positive side, the jogador de futebol (soccer player), the sambista (samba musician) or the person who plays the exception: the humble family boy who fought hard and “succeeded in life”; figures that are not exclusive to fiction products, since they are thus also presented in programas de auditório (variety shows) and in journalism segments.
Until three years ago, TV Globo broadcast on Saturday nights, in its humorous program Zorra Total, the personage Adelaide, a black, poor and toothless person, portrayed as someone with no hygiene, that shared her house with a rat and asked for money in the trains of the subway, although carrying with her cellular gadgets of the last generation – a definition of her character. And why not mention the controversial cartoon published on the cover of issue 111 of this Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil magazine? A controversy that, in fact, gave rise to debates and provoked the production of this special about blacks and media, that will occupy the pages of the newspaper throughout 2017.
The election of certain attributes of blacks as metonymy to define and consolidate a certain negative view of blackness has long been one of the most forceful strategies to fix meanings and render racial difference unfeasible. The Indian Homi Bhabha (2007) identified this strategy when studying the discourse of colonialism. According to him, difference is recognized as part of culture, but at the same time it is repudiated in the name of the construction of a unifying and idealized identity. In this way, control over certain races and cultures is maintained through the discarding of identities themselves.
In Brazil, the “spectacle of races” (see note one) oriented the construction of the myth of racial democracy, which in turn elaborated the idea of miscegenation and peaceful racial coexistence to forge the mestiço (mixed race) social subject denominated “Brazilian”. Meanwhile, it violently produced a systemic and systematic erasure of black culture and identity, which occurred in the wake of a policy of exclusion of blacks (from work and urban downtowns) in post-abolition Brazil.
The problem is that these deletions and exclusions continued to be reproduced – before as politics and violence, now as discourse. And in a mediatized society, mass media are primarily responsible for this. It is as if something were always in the same place and, at the same time, had to be exhaustively repeated in an ambivalent relationship between maintenance and repetition. And stereotypes are, according to Bhabha, just that, a complex mode of representation, ambivalent and contradictory.
The characteristic of ambivalence is that it gives to the stereotype the guarantee of “repeatability in mutant historical and discursive conjunctures” (Bhabha, 2007, p.106) and makes many stereotypes continue to be reproduced in cinema and TV, and that these are, in turn, provocative themes of heated debate.
Mapping the evolution of black presence in Brazilian teledramaturgy and cinema, Joel Zito Araújo (2008) concluded that the telenovela (television soap opera) did not give visibility to the true racial composition of the country and reproduced the ideology of branquitude (whiteness) as the ideal standard of beauty. According to him, condoning “conservatively with the use of mestiçagem (racial amalgamation) as a shield to avoid recognizing the importance of the black population in Brazilian history and cultural life” (p. 982).
The analysis is accurate, just remembering that the first black protagonist in a telenovela of Globo TV was played by the actress Taís Araújo in Da cor do pecado, in the very recent year 2004 – the same actress had played Xica da Silva in a soap opera of the time on the defunct Manchete TV, in the year 1996, and returned to a leading role to portray Helena in the novel Viver a vida, in 2009. And the first black protagonist of (21-year running Globo TV teen novela) Malhação came in 2016.
The absence of blacks is, alongside the reproduction of stereotypes, also a way to make the difference unfeasible, to erase it. There is the “trabalho do silêncio” (work of silence) (Orlandi, 1997), which is produced by the non-presence of blacks in audiovisual productions. Absence which is, to some extent, deliberate, since we continue to live under the regime of normatividade branca (white normativity), of branquitude (see note two) as the standard. So, the black is absent, since his color marks a presence that produces strangeness within this white normativity.
The audiovisual is where the silence is most felt, as it deals with image. To avoid remaining in only examples of telenovelas, it is worth shedding light on what happens in the field of TV series. In the United States, the presence of black sitcoms and serials has been a reality since the 1970s (see note three). In Brazil, on the other hand, attempts to produce series with black protagonists are very recent, dating back to the last decade: on TV Globo, Antônia (2006), Suburbia (2012), Sexo e as Negas (2014) and Mister Brau (2015).
The examples show that there are advances, driven mostly by the historical actions of the movimento negro (black social movement) and the empowerment of the black youth of the periphery in the last fifteen years (thanks to Hip Hop or movements more linked to urban art and aesthetics). The adoption of quotas in the universities, the organizations of college prep courses for the black popular classes in the peripheries and the production of inclusion policies at the federal level corroborate in this scenario.
But these advances are still small from the point of view of quality – it’s necessary to guarantee greater positive representation of blacks in the media – and also from the point of view of quantity, since this representation is still very far from the numerical proportion of the presence of blacks in Brazilian society.
Leaving the sphere of fiction, it is possible to perceive that the silencing also operates in journalistic products. There are rare cases of black specialists interviewed in matters of economics and politics. The commentators’ logic continues to be that of meritocracy: it writes about a topic or responds to certain questions, only those that reached a high level of “technical” or “intellectual” quality – nothing more convenient for a society that has always discarded its blacks from access to this supposed qualification.
In everyday matters, which include family, education, transportation, health, housing, etc., black people are rarely characters of ordinary situations. Contradictory, they are always plastered in police notebooks and the harmful images of the police programs that promote authoritarianism on TV, associating violence and poverty with blackness.
Thus, everything remains exactly as it is: in that “demonic repetition” of the stereotypes described by Bhabha. And so the repetition of the stereotype denies the articulation of the idea of race as a cultural, historical, and identity element, allowing it to appear only in its fixity as racism, as the philosopher points out.
The frisson caused by the presence of journalist Maria Júlia Coutinho in the regular segment of (Globo TV’s) Jornal Nacional (National Journal) is a good example of the denial of difference and the production of racism. Part of society doesn’t assume seeing her difference, her blackness. But it was enough that she occupied a place in which her blackness was not historically “destined” to being seen.
Advertising is no different. According to a study by Carlos A.M. Martins (2010), in 1995 only 7% of ads featured the presence of blacks, which rose to 10% in 2000 and 13% in 2005. In addition, although the progressive increase of black writers is visible, there are still unexplained limitations and barriers to their entry into the traditional publishing market or, as Fernanda Felisberto once put it, “black literature is labeled as the back of the catalog.”
Avoiding the repeatability of stereotypes and the deleting of difference produced in the media is something that requires public policy. In this sense, the regulation of mass media, especially electronic mass media (radio and TV), which are publicly granted in the country, is essential to guaranteeing racial diversity and the effective participation of blacks. It is not just a debate about consumption, but the understanding that non-representativeness has devastating consequences for the construction of the identity of a people.
In the absence of positive identifications with blacks on TV, in magazines, in books, in toys, “the black child distances himself from himself, from his race, in his total identification with the positivity of whiteness that is at the same time color and absence of color” (Bhabha, 2007, p.118). And many generations have gone through this in Brazil (I myself had difficulty the other day in remembering the black characters that marked my childhood and adolescence).
The regulation of article 221 of the Federal Constitution would be a first step in promoting diversity, since it addresses, among other things, the need to guarantee the regionalization of production. This, in turn, would allow regional identities and cultures (among them black, quilombola) to be better represented. In addition, it seems necessary to retake the debate on affirmative action policies in the commercial media, as was initially envisaged with the elaboration of the Estatuto da Igualdade Racial (Racial Equality Statute) (Law 12.288/2010) or as intended by PL n. 4.370/1998.5
Finally, if the changes are few in the face of the magnitude of the problem, we can say that they remain persistent, in the absence of those who do not accept difference and don’t want to promote inclusion. Happiness would be seeing, from now on, other children being able to identify with black characters in cinema and on TV, like Matias.
- Reference to the book by Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, which tells the history of how white Brazilian (and foreigner) intelligentsia elaborated the ideological (scientific) processes of embranquecimento (whitening) of society in the early twentieth century.
- Branquitude, or whiteness, “is a structural place from which the white subject sees others and himself; a position of unnamed power, experienced in a social geography of race as a comfortable place and from which one can attribute to the other that which is not attributed to himself.” (Frankenberg, 1995, p. 43).
- Among the so-called black sitcoms in the US are That’s My Mama, Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening?, in the 70’s; The Cosby Show, A Different World and Frank’s Place in the 1980s; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the 1990s; and recently, Everybody Hates Chris. (See note six)
- More on this subject can be found in the research of Fernanda Felisberto or in the mapping of the Fundação Palmares (Palmares Foundation), which resulted in the publication Africanidades e relações raciais: insumos para políticas públicas na área do livro, leitura, literatura e bibliotecas no Brasil (Africanities and racial relations: inputs for public policies in the area of books, reading, literature and libraries in Brazil) (2014).
- According to Paulo Paim (PT of Rio Grande do Sul), the project provided for the establishment of minimum quotas for the participation of blacks, 25% of which were actors and extras in television programs – including casts in plays and 40% in TV commercials and cinema. The project was filed in 2006.
- It is interesting to note that in Brazil’s media it is easier to see television series featuring majority black casts in series imported and translated from the United States rather than Brazilian-produced series. See here.
ARAÚJO, Joel Zito. “O negro na dramaturgia, um caso exemplar da decadência do mito da democracia racial brasileira.” Revista Estudos Feministas, Florianópolis, v.16, n.3, p. 970-985, set./dez. 2008.
BHABHA, Homi K. “A outra questão: o estereótipo, a discriminação e o discurso do colonialismo.” In: ______. O local da cultura. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2007.
FRANKENBERG, Ruth. The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters [A construção social da branquitude: mulheres brancas, raça importa]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
MARTINS, Carlos A. M. Racismo anunciado: o negro e a publicidade no Brasil, 2010.
ORLANDI, Eni. As formas dos silêncios: no movimento dos sentidos. Campinas: Unicamp, 1997.
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil