Sexuality, racial imagery and the fetishization of the black male body in Brazil, Part 1
In the 21st century, relationships and sexuality that intersect with the topic of race continue to conjure up a plethora of thoughts, beliefs, opinions and reactions in the consciousness of the average person. Asking any person what comes to mind when they think of a certain group of people is likely to stimulate a wide range of responses, particularly if you throw sex into the mix. For instance, what is it that the average white man thinks when sees the image of black women like Halle Berry or Gabrielle Union or Latinas like Jennifer Lopez or Eva Mendes? What do black men think of when they think of white women like Angelina Jolie or Jessica Biel? What do white women first think when they think of Asian men like actors Jackie Chan or Jet Li?
On both sides of the racial “fence”, people harbor certain beliefs about people from the other side whether true or only imagined. They may speak of these thoughts only in company of close confidants. They may not speak on these images and ideas at all if they could be construed as being politically incorrect, rude or even racist. Whether one wants to admit it or not, these thoughts are there and aren’t likely to just fade away, especially if said person has never had any intimate or close contact with a person from the group of which they are thinking. Do thoughts of a particular group cause intrigue? Are the women of one particular group repulsive? Although we know we shouldn’t believe in stereotypes about groups of people, but surely the “is it true?” question or the “I wonder” thoughts will continue take up a small bit of the mind’s consciousness or maybe subconscious. After all, isn’t it true that within the stereotype there is always a little of truth, even if it’s just a little bit?
Now let’s consider all of these thoughts, visuals, images and stereotypes and throw a nationality into the mix. What is that people think when someone says “Brazilian woman”? Is this woman considered “hot”? The woman that comes to mind, is she white? Is she black? Is she racially undefinable? Well, think of this for a minute. For all of the images that come to mind when one thinks of the Brazilian woman, have you ever considered what Brazilians themselves think when they think of the people of their own country? Every country has its own myths, hegemonic ideals and national imagination. So how do racialized sexual interactions and stereotypes play out in a country like Brazil where the mixing of blacks, whites and Indians has been going on for five centuries? Surely it can’t be anything similar to what exists in the United States or Europe. Well, at least that’s what many Brazilian social scientists and critics would have us believe. But there are plenty of people that have studied this question and they have uncovered a number of Brazilian realities in terms of race and sex. Over the next few posts, I will quote liberally from a few of those researchers and let them speak for themselves.
Historian Daniel dos Santos sought to analyze the myths and stereotypes about the black Brazilian man, particularly those of a sexual nature that became part of relationships and daily life during the slavery era in Brazil and continue to be perpetuated in today’s times.
In his findings, Santos reports that:
Black men were always labeled as exotic, irrational, fetishistic, barbaric and uncivilized, among many other adjectives, in value judgments of great ethnocentric content and, above all, racist. The submission and enslavement of African peoples generated an imagery on black men, who were widely viewed as mere animals, devoid of reason, intelligence, humanity and culture.
The anthropological profiles of enslaved Africans and the stereotypes created by European colonizers portrayed black men as highly sexual, hyper-erotic, lewd, depraved and “good in bed”. The commoditization of the black man through human trafficking, transfigured him into an object or commodity, reframed notions of black beauty and aesthetics, which were subjected to the dynamics of buying and selling slaves. Reflecting on the beauty, aesthetics, physical properties and anatomical exercise is of great importance for understanding the collective imagery projected on the black man’s sexuality and its manifestations throughout the ages. These features are elements that cause and suggest the relationship of eroticism to the body, causing lust and producing attractions, fetishes and sexual desires. The proportions and size of black men’s members, were deemed different from those of white men or other ethnic groups and offer other aspects that make up the sexual stereotypes of black men.
The performance and ease of sexual behavior, most often, are directly associated with the size of his penis. It is believed that blacks are “enormous”, “well hung”, “packing”, “bigger/better” (loose translations of the words: “desmarcados”, roludos”, “pirocudos” and “avantajados”) and other adjectives attached to them, in a homogeneous and generalized way, bringing the stigma of being producers of intense, voluptuous, sexual pleasure. This stigma has been configured through the ages, and manifests itself in such a silenced manner that most black men don’t notice or pretend not to notice, sometimes preferring to incorporate such values to their masculine identities and enjoy the potential benefits that they can offer. Stereotyping black masculinity in such a way is also a mode of practice of racism.
In his 1977 work, Sobrados e Mucambos, the famed Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre cited studies and surveys of nineteenth-century anthropologists and physicians who attributed to the black man, more generally, superiority in the size of sexual organs: “(…) A doctor in Brazil’s imperial era…came to the conclusion that ‘the African penis (is)[…] usually voluminous, heavy, when placid; gaining very little in dimensions when in orgasm.”
As we will see in modern day reports and studies, these beliefs and ideas about black male genitalia and sexuality have carried over to the 21st century and continues to hold sway in the imagination of the Brazilian population. These images apply to both the heterosexual as well as the homosexual communities. Consider the findings of Júlio Assis Simões, Isadora Lins França, and Marcio Macedo in their study of body images, color, race and sexuality amongst youth of the club scene in downtown area of the city of São Paulo.
In the following, I cite the work of Simões, França and Macedo:
The markers of color or race are combined with other markers, and strongly affect relationships and opportunities for partnership, albeit more subtle and less explicit. Thus, the combination of a certain style of dress (cap, sweatshirt, shorts or jeans), body type (tall and muscular), performance of gender (male) and dark skin color produce the figure of the “negão (big, black man).” The guys that fit the description of this figure tend to be the subject of great erotic interest and can be taken to be “garotos de programa” (male prostitutes). Also manifested in this image in relation to black guys, are conventional expectations related to penis size, and above average sexual performance and potency.
This ideal increases even more the convention that blacks are sexier because of their greater ability for body language, especially in dance. In this case, however, blackness can lead to a performance of gender and an expectation of sexual role that is exactly opposite to the negão, which can be referenced by means of pejorative terms defining male homosexuals. Pedro, a young, black gay male elaborated on the contrasts between white and black bodies according to polarizations of body versus rationality, which is used as justification of his own identity:
“When you think of blacks, you think of people that are more relaxed, less pragmatic, more emotional, passionate, more intense. Blacks are much more body than rationality … While the whites, at least this is what we learn, whites are much more pragmatic, systematic, they think more before they do. Blacks are intense in everything, that’s why they like music, dance …That’s why I say I consider myself black because I have all the features that I have learned that blacks have! I am not very pragmatic, I am very emotional, very physical, dancing for me is the best thing, music, that’s right…. So I consider myself black because of that, not because of my looks.”
It’s difficult not to invoke here, from Pedro’s comments, his vision of “being black” not as a phenotype or a physical color but as a “disposition” of a psychic and cultural order, a striking vision in Brazilian literature and essays on race relations and race after the 1930s.
These refer to different experiences driven by different preferences for guys and girls in a club atmosphere in the interaction between the affective and the erotic. Black guys, in general, showed a preference for lighter-skinned women, but the aesthetic appeal is linked mainly to the type of hair, followed by skin color. One guy, for example, said he didn’t care if the woman was “black” like him, if she had “good hair (cabelo bom)”, i.e., straight, soft, well maintained and appropriately “feminine.” The black and mixed race women are thus erotically devalued, especially if they have “kinky/curly (crespo)” and “bad (ruim)” hair. If the black or mixed race woman has straightened hair, her erotic value increases in the eyes of men and may even surpass that of white women, citing the potentialities of the “mixture” of phenotypic traits. Not coincidentally, most of the girls seen in the club had straightened hair, and some women even highlighted their hair. After all, as one guy said, “black is now in style.”
The girls of the club said that they would prefer black guys, tall, and dressed in Hip Hop fashion. When they expressed themselves more spontaneously, they refer to this kind of guy as “negão”. Lighter skinned men, in turn, are referred to in the diminutive “branquinho (white boy/little white boy)” and are often described as being “more delicate” than black men. The great interest in black men is also associated with an assessment of potential relationships with a perception of the class and status of the partner. The white man is seen as “richer”, materialistic and possibly even racist. In this sense, he would not be a good choice for someone interested in a lasting relationship. Asked if she preferred partners of the same race or color or a different race or color, a girl who identified herself as black gave the following response:
“Look, I personally am not a person who would like to date a rich guy who has a car, a business owner. Because this guy, he is poor in his sentiments, (but) he is happy professionally. But his money can’t buy happiness and I guarantee that these types of people today, they’re alone. I don’t like dating white guys, because their concept is this, when he’s white, he’s a Playboy, or just because he’s white, black girls are only for fucking and white girls are for marriage. And I think that it’s not quite like this. Today there are black and white women, women of any color, that don’t give themselves the least bit of value and they serve no purpose. I prefer dating men who, in the first place, have character, then, men that are of my color, preferably, to not have a racial divergence. So, in my concept, I like to date people of my social level, with my mind first and that have character; that know very well who they are dealing with.”
In the woman’s comments on the intersections of sex and race, she actually referred to a well known Brazilian saying in relation to sex, relationships and race: “White woman for marriage, mulata women for fucking and black women for work” (1). In the comments of Pedro, it seems that being black has become somewhat fashionable in the pursuit of prospective partners , but do these images and stereotypes give black men an overall advantage in the dating game or do these images actually make him less human because of the objectification factor?
We will explore this further in part 2….
Source: This article incorporates the articles “Jeitos de corpo: cor/raça, gênero, sexualidade e sociabilidade juvenil no centro de São Paulo” by Júlio Assis Simões, Isadora Lins França and Marcio Macedo and “Exercício nº 3 sobre os corpos (in)visíveis. – ou sinais de masculinidades, estéticas, mitos e estereótipos sexuais do homem negro escravizado no Brasil Colonial e Imperial” by Daniel dos Santos.
- For further discussion on the terms negra (black) and mulata women see the article: The Brazilian mulata: black woman or something entirely different?For a discussion of color/racial terminology see Racial classification and terminology in Brazil