Note from BW of Brazil: What is the role of television in society? Should it simply present facts and society as it really is or should it be used to influence in ways that alter our way of seeing the world in which we live? Arguably it does both, sometimes in a positive manner but often times in a manipulative, deceptive and destructive manner. Brazil’s highly influential Globo TV network has long dominated the nation’s airwaves and as a recent The Economist article pointed out, its power is perhaps greater than many imagine. The article pointed out that the network regularly reaches nearly half of the Brazilian population on a weekly basis with its nearest competitor, Record TV, only reaching 13%. In the United States, in comparison, one of the major networks only dominates the ratings in a similar manner once per year, during the broadcast of the Super Bowl. For the rest of the year, the top network, CBS, only attracts 12% of the audience during prime-time.
With this in mind, what does this say about the power of images and messages that are transmitted to millions of Brazilian homes on a daily basis? Activists have long repudiated the manipulative images broadcast over the years by the Globo network for a number of reasons. For activists of the Movimento Negro, the media’s depictions of Afro-Brazilians have long been one-dimensional, stereotypical, vastly under-representing and humiliating to a population that continues to suffer from a lack of self-esteem, lack of racial identity and widespread racist acts on a daily basis. Denigrating images consistently presented on the nation’s most powerful network can most certainly re-enforce the already deeply embedded negative characteristics attributed to a segment of the population in the social consciousness of the nation. And with no consistent counterpoint in the mass media to balance out such images, how can depictions connected to said population, in this case, black Brazilians, be combated if it is indeed true that they contribute to negative ideologies? As we’ve argued repeatedly, the presence of black actors and actresses on television is not enough to address racial imbalances; we must also analyze what messages such roles are spreading.
Last month, on the 13th, black Brazilians reflected on the changes (or better, maintenance) of the situation of black Brazilians in the 126 years since slavery was abolished in the largest slave holding society in the Americas in 1888. One consistent battle over the years has been the attempt to overturn the deeply ingrained idea that Princess Isabel, who signed the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) on that date in 1888 (and thus officially abolished nearly four centuries of slavery), was the savior of the black race because of this act. This belief totally ignores the contributions of thousands of revolting slaves, slaves who escaped to live in quilombos (maroon societies) as well as black abolitionists. To this day, for those who haven’t taken the time to learn the incidents that led to Isabel signing that document, she remains a hero. It is from this past and current context, along with the maintenance of the stereotypical images of blacks currently on television, that one must consider the following piece.
Princess Isabel complex in the novela Em Família
By Jéssica Romero
I’m not an avid novela watcher, but when I have time, I follow what interests me. This is how it’s been with the Globo TV novela Em Família (In the Family), with many female protagonists that carry the burden of developing the plot of the story. Therefore, in the times that I watched the novela, the development of the histories of the black characters bothered me a lot, especially the Dulce, Alice and Neidinha characters.
Dulce (played by Lica Oliveira) is a successful woman, a university professor and adoptive mother of André (Bruno Gissoni), a young white man. From the first scene of the two and all that I saw, the youngster rejects his mother and has racist attitudes, a veiled racism. She often does not seem to know how to handle the situation and simply doesn’t respond in any way when she feels offended or upset. Despite showing herself to be more assertive in recent scenes, the one that usually advises André or advises Dulce about the problem is Luiza (Bruna Marquezine), at the time, his girlfriend.
Luiza is, along with Helena (Julia Lemmertz), the main character of the novela. But, in relation to the black female characters she seems to be a Princess Isabel, the savior of the fatherland. Luiza is white, rich, beautiful and the center of attention wherever she goes. She’s charming, seductive and, despite being young, is a strong, secure and determined woman. This contrasts with the three aforementioned black characters that are shown often victimized and empowered by the attitudes of others. Luiza is the best friend of Alice (Érika Januza), they were raised together due to the friendship of their mothers, who are sisters-in-law.
During a situation of racism on the beach (1), Alice is offended by a white guy who questions the fact that she (a black girl) is frequenting the place. It is Luiza who defends Alice. While the victim remains silent and cries, her friend faces the situation and changes her voice to that of the aggressor, saying that racism is a crime. After the fight resolved, Luiza takes Alice to a lawyer and explains her rights as a victim of racism. Only some time later do Dulce and Alice meet and talk about it.
Now before people come to complain, there’s nothing wrong with a white person helping a black person who was a victim of racism, the issue is that Alice could be a character full of initiative like Luiza, but in the representation of black women on television it’s more common to see victimized characters when they need the help of a white person to have a voice.
Alice is the daughter of Neidinha (Eliana de Souza) and the result of a rape. In the first stage of the novela, Neidinha (played at that time by Jéssica Barbosa) is raped by a group of men in a van, an extremely distressing scene, which made reference to the case of the American tourist who was raped in 2013. After the rape, Neidinha goes home and is comforted by Helena and the family. And that was it. Jumping forward 20 years in story, where she already appears as Alice’s mother. At no point talking about the police report, abortion or anything relating to the violence she suffered. After those 20 years Neidinha has never had a sexual relation with anyone, dedicated her life to her work as a nurse in a nursing home and buried the subject. Not discussing it nor saying anything about what happened afterward is completely nullify the voice of the victim, who is already the victim in the novela and in real life, because most women raped in Brazil are black. Choosing to omit this entire post-rape universe means reinforcing the stereotype of black women as being marked as a conformed social victim.
20 years go by and a new conflict arises in which Alice wants to know who her father is, whom her mother refers to only as someone who has gone away. The subject is taboo in the family, while talking with her brother Virgílio (Humberto Martins) about her daughter’s curiosity, Neidinha says that: despite all the suffering she experiences, did not abort because she thought that it wasn’t the child’s fault and therefore didn’t deserve to die, but rather should be born. Not having an abortion after a rape is a woman’s right and it is legitimate; it’s a choice that is left up to the victim. But, by putting the option of not aborting through justification that the child deserved to be born, because it was not guilty, Manoel Carlos and Globo TV reinforce an extremely ignorant discourse of a religious nature, providing misinformation and corroborating prejudice against women who have abortions. The justification of the character could have even been based on her emotional state or her personal beliefs, however never re-enforcing a discourse that de-legitimizes the idea that a raped woman should be treated as a priority, the owner of her body and her decisions in relation to it.
Besides these three characters, the novela also includes other black characters. One of them is Rosa (Tânia Toko), the maid of Helena’s family, always ready to serve her bosses at any time. But more shocking is that in the Helena’s room there is a statue of a black woman carrying a jug on her head. The lack of sensitivity of the production to put this sculpture in Helena’s room and the fact that no one realizes how racist it is only demonstrate how this issue is still far from being taken seriously in Brazil.
Dulce, Alice and Neidinha could be positive representations of black women on television. None of them are maids, the classic role of black actresses. The three seem to be part of the middle class and represent different black women in different stages of life. However, most of these positive characteristics are lost in passivity and in stereotypes that surround the characters.
Instead of using the reach of television and soap operas to inform women and deconstruct an oppressive discourse on violence, the novela has served to reinforce the social role of the black woman. She serves the white woman, suffers violence and doesn’t raise her voice, only taking consciousness of their social position and their rights when some other figure, white, comes to play the role of hero with our eternal Brazilian complex of Princesa Isabel. I will continue to follow the trajectory of the characters and I hope they appear to be real black women that increasingly find themselves empowered by black feminism and by taking consciousness of oppression.
1. A consistent problem on beaches in Rio de Janeiro, as covered previously here.