So yet another popular Brazilian novela (soap opera) has come to a close as the final chapter of the Record TV (Rede Record) network’s Dona Xepa broadcast its final episode on September 24th. As the theme of this blog is an analysis of Brazilian society from the perspective of race, one might ask, “why analyze a program like Dona Xepa”? Well, let’s start here with the easiest and perhaps most obvious response.
Actors and characters featured on Rede Record’s novela “Dona Xepa”. Courtesy of the Record TV website
There were no black characters or actors on the 18-week run of the series (May 21-September 24)! Now just for clarification for those who watched this program religiously every night and never missed an episode, this writer cannot verify that there was never a black face on any episode because said writer didn’t watch this show religiously. But I can say that I did watch the show enough times to say that I never saw a black/actor character on the show and there are no black actors/characters featured on the program’s website (see photos above and below).
So, please, if you watched every episode and saw every single moment, don’t come to the blog and post a comment with some objection like, “well, I remember a black guy sold Dona Xepa a piece of fruit at the fruit market on one episode.” If you really have to include a scene like this, this would actually prove my point! As has been pointed out regularly on this blog, this is nothing new in Brazil’s media. Black actors/characters have long been invisible, vastly under-represented or stereotyped throughout the history of Brazilian novelas. On June 13th, this blog highlighted the nonexistence of a single black actor out of 56 characters on the Globo television network novela, Amor à Vida. So again, this is business as usual.
The Dona Xepa program may have actually contributed more to a consistent stereotype of Afro-Brazilians without even featuring a character on the show. How? In the program’s intro and theme song every night viewers were presented the image of the smiling, dancing, famous Rio de Janeiro gari (street sweeper) Renato Sorriso as he danced, smiled and swept his way through the 60 second intro surrounded by a variety of enormous, simulated fruits.
Intro to Record TV’s Dona Xepa novela
A little background here…
1. Renato’s real name is actually Renato Luiz Feliciano Lourenço and he works for Comlurb – Companhia Municipal de Limpeza Urbana (Municipal Urban Cleaning Company) of Rio de Janeiro. The term “sorriso” means “smile” in English, a nickname he earned in 1997 during Samba school parades in Rio de Janeiro, when he started to dance the Samba with his broom. He would regularly dance with his broom during intermissions until he came to march with the famous Portela Samba School in 2009. He would go on to be featured in TV commercials and perform in Samba spectaculars.
2. The term “xepa” in the name of the TV program refers to the time vendors in outdoor markets begin to shut down their stands and the remaining fruits, vegetables etc., not sold at the open fruit market are collected by the people, which explains the intro with so many simulated fruits.
3. This is only the most recent remake of the Dona Xepa story which was a theater piece, a 1959 film and also a 1977 TV novela. The 1977 version of the novela featured a small black cast that included long time actress Neuza Borges and actor Clementino Kelé who is married to another long-time actress, Chica Xavier.
Looking at Renato’s appearance in the program’s intro one will immediately understand how he earned the nickname Sorriso. Throughout the 60-second intro, the man smiles so long and strong that it would seem to hurt to smile so much and so wide!
No disrespect to the work of a street sweeper for, as the saying goes, it’s honest work. People who remove the garbage, dirt and grime in any city street deserve the respect of any citizen who enjoys the cleanliness of any public area. The problem here lies in the “place of the negro” that has been widely disseminated by and throughout Brazil and arguably around the world wherever persons of African descent live and work. Renato is a well-known figure in Brazil and was presented on the world stage last year at the end of the 2012 London Olympics when he performed at the closing of the games and introduced the legendary Pelé, introducing Brazil as the next host country of the Olympic Games. This common image of the black Brazilian was also noted by others in the blogosphere.
Wagner Iglecias saw Renato’s Olympic appearance this way:
Well, times have changed, and Brazil has shown itself to the world, in this ceremony in London, the figure of a black man, poor and a worker, who opens his arms and that wide smile, to show that it is different. Countries and societies, of course, create and recreate images of themselves, invent and reinvent the way they see themselves and how they want to be seen by the world. Just like the USA idealizes itself for itself, each other and to the world as the birthplace of freedom, we idealize ourselves as the country of peaceful coexistence among the different; which, at least in our case, this everyday reality is in charge of questioning and often denying.
Renato Sorriso in the closing of the 2012 London Olympics
Dianah B. saw it this way:
The worst thing for me is why do they always show the black man as a gari (street sweeper) or as a Samba school dancer? This is fuckin’ prejudice!! Aren’t there any black professors or scientists here in Brazil? I bet they took Gari Sorriso to London for free, didn’t pay him shit and in the end showed how the Brazilian is equal to a hyena: eats shit and always smiling! And for variation only came the SAMBA, MULATA, RIO DE JANEIRO, etc…shit! What annoys me is that rather than helping to give cultural support to Renato Sorriso such as a dance scholarship and having an artistic career, they only praise him but do nothing. What good is having all that talent if they encourage him to only be a street sweeper?
The image of the wide-smiling, dancing, street sweeping Renato brought other images and thoughts to my mind. Researcher Carlos Augusto de Miranda e Martins found that blacks are still associated with negative stereotypes that came about around the 19th century, when the thesis of scientific racism was introduced in Brazil. Analyzing ads in Veja (equivalent to Newsweek) magazine from 1985 to 2005, Martins found that:
“There was little advance in said respect to publicity pieces that value the negro. ‘Rarely, do they appear in valued or prominent positions such as executives, business owners, professors or journalists”, points out Martins. “At the same time, there are common representations of the negro as the manual laborer, such as the maid, operator (of some sort) or porter, besides the stereotypes already mentioned.’”
In the context of the diasporic representation, Renato’s happy, smiling, dancing, laboring negro also brought to mind American director Spike Lee’s 2000 critique of mainstream American images of African-Americans in the film Bamboozled, known as A Hora do Show in Brazil. Bamboozled/A Hora do Show presented the idea of a prominent black television writer, Pierre de la Croix (portrayed by Damon Wayans), who grew frustrated with his networks refusal to support his creations that portrayed blacks in a more positive image. With the network earning low viewer ratings, de la Croix decided to create a show that purposely featured racist images of blacks based in turn of the century and early 20th century minstrel shows in which white and black entertainers performed in gruesome blackface makeup portraying blacks as ridiculous, dancing, foolish, buffoons whose only attribute was “cooning”, clowning and making white people laugh. In de la Croix’s view, TV networks only wanted to see blacks in this manner and to his surprise, the show became a huge hit.
Dance scene from Bamboozled
To continue the show’s success and defend against possible accusations of racism, de la Croix’s white boss hires a white media consultant to devise mechanisms to avoid such charges. According to the consultant’s advice, “the biggest thing in public relations is to always smile”, and show those “pearly whites”, as de la Croix’s assistant mockingly put it in reference to a very old American saying. The media consultant also surmises that the show can’t be seen as racist because it was created by the black de la Croix, “a non-threatening African-American male.”
Scene from Bamboozled “Whose puppet are you?”
As the ratings continue to go through the roof and the show’s black faced stars are adored by legions of fans, one of the duo’s performers, Manray/Mantan (portrayed by Savion Glover), not familiar with the history of black stereotypes, is happy with his new found success. In one pivotal scene of the film, when de la Croix’s assistant (portrayed by Jada Pinkett-Smith) tries to enlighten him to the fact that he’s been “bamboozled”, she asks the performer whose puppet he was and then unleashes an automatic tap dancing doll that will dance whenever it is wound up.
Scene from Bamboozled: Womack realizes the new show is nothing but old stereotypes
In another pivotal scene, Mantan’s performance partner, Sleep and Eat/Womack (portrayed by Tommy Davidson) realizes that while their show is modern it is still based in old stereotypes. To demonstrate this to Manray/Mantan who still hasn’t come to this realization, Womack transitions into the character of a US slave making use of well known speech patterns and facial expressions associated with black Americans during America’s slave era
In addition to various other stereotypes, the imagery of the popular TV show also makes constant reference to the well-known racist association of blacks with watermelon.
In the Dona Xepa 60-second intro, we see all of the above although not developed into a full character and thus, one could argue, furthering the stereotype. A wide-smiling, dancing negro surrounded by fruit and a black man in society’s “place” for blacks: sweeping the streets. Perhaps not coincidentally, in a 2001 interview, the late Afro-Brazilian civil rights leader/actor/playwright Abdias do Nascimento remembered that before he would create the Teatro Experimental Negro (Black Experimental Theater) in 1944, in “municipal theaters in Rio or São Paulo, blacks only came in to clean up the floor that whites had messed up.”Nascimento would create TEN after noting that black characters in Peruvian theater pieces were portrayed by white actors wearing black face (also a common practice in Brazil’s entertainment history that continues to be popular even today).
The jolly, happy, smiling, dancing negro stereotype is also common in Brazil’s history as can be seen in performances and photos of past actors such as Grande Otelo, Mussum, Chocolate, Tião Macalé and others.This stereotype has been labeled the “Crioulo Doido” or the “Crazy Nigger” as pointed out in the site Negro Mídia Educação. According to one of that site’s articles, the definition of this character goes as follows:
“Crioulo Doido” (The Crazy Nigger): mischievous, childlike, playful. Even as an adult, his characteristics are asexual, harmless (opposite to the “Negão” or big, black man). He has as his female counterpart the “Nega Maluca” (crazy black woman). In our folklore, he is the Saci Pererê. Examples: movies like O saci, O Pica-Pau amarelo and Brasa Adormecida; in song, “Samba do Crioulo Doido”. His characters are easily interpreted by the aforementioned Grande Otelo and Mussum.
Historians have long pointed out that actor Grande Otelo was one of Brazil’s most talented actors of all time, but producers and directors often chose to cast him in roles where he became a stereotype or caricature. With all of this in mind, there are two questions that must be asked. 1) Considering there were no black actors/characters on Dona Xepa, would it have been better not to have a black man in such a role in the intro? And 2) When the media continues to reserve such roles for blacks, is the alternative, complete invisibility, actually a better choice?
Good questions. And what does Renato himself think of his job? Journalist Mauricio Stycer spoke with Renato back in 2009 and reported this:
One of the questions that Renato hears most is why he hasn’t left his profession. He’s had numerous opportunities, recorded commercials with top model Gisele Bündchen and Brazilian singer Zeca Pagodinho, appeared in Globo novelas, starred in shows in Europe and is sometimes invited to give motivational speeches in large companies.
“Why would I get rid of my broomstick, which guarantees me a certain income every month? I haven’t studied to be an actor,” he says. “If I ever get rid of the broom, (everything) will end. My broom is my passport,” he adds.
People constantly stop and say kind things to the famous street sweeper. “I think what I do cool. I think it’s beautiful to be responsible for an area, a street,” he says happily.
So Renato seems to be pretty happy with what he does, which in the end is all that really matters, at least as far as he’s concerned. Who knows, maybe he’s just paying his dues on a path that will lead him to bigger and better things. This writer hopes this is the case. Because with Brazil’s historic representation of African descendants, he and millions of other black Brazilians deserve it.