Note from BW of Brazil: In reality, the origins of today’s post started back in the year 2000 when I saw the sister singing duo Pepê and Neném (twins Potiara de Oliveira and Potiguara de Oliveira) performing on a TV variety show back in September of that year. I don’t remember the name of the program, but I also remember seeing the host of the program, a white man, wearing a dreadlock wig and blackface imitating the duo as they performed. I also remember thinking how the sisters reminded me of the up and coming sister tennis duo in the United States, Venus and Serena Williams. Both sister acts gained national fame at the end of the 1990s (1998 and 1999, respectively), both are dark-skinned black women and both are from their country’s second largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles. From their original fame, their fortunes went in opposite directions: the Williams sisters would go on to dominate women’s professional tennis for many years while the Oliveira sisters, after their initial success, descended to near financial ruin. Although the fate of the pair of sisters entered my mind many times of the years, I had never thought of writing a piece about the four women, that is until two recent incidents separated by only a few weeks presented the perfect opportunity to address two different issues.
Even since the slavery era that existed throughout the Americas, women of African descent have been stereotyped in a number of manners, the hyper-sexual jezebel (United States) and mulata (Brazil) being one and the asexual mammy (United States) and mãe preta (“black mother” in Brazil) caregiver/cook/domestic being the opposite. These figures have extensive histories in the cinema and television industries of both countries. But before exploring the topic and introducing the second topic, let’s first take a look at the incidents that triggered today’s post before delving into the second issue.
Reality show participant compares sisters Pepê and Neném to pizza delivery boys
Journalist made several prejudicial comments during the voting round
Courtesy of O Dia
During voting on the Rede Record TV reality show A Fazenda on September 29th, Felipeh Campos provoked controversy when the journalist started to complain about the way the twin sisters dressed. Campos said that the outfits the sisters Pepê and Nené wore made them look like motoboys (delivery boys)
“And this motoboy outfit bothers me, they could present themselves in a prettier way, they are increasingly declining, because with this look they look like pizza delivery boys, they need to reinvigorate themselves!” he said. After the vote, Felipe received criticism from others on the show.
Pepe and Neném cried after Campos’s statements and were consoled by other companions. Oscar Maroni said that they cannot accept what Felipeh said “passively”. Babi Rossi emphasized the “strength that they have always had.”
Russian tennis chief refers to Venus and Serena as the “Williams brothers”
With info from The Root and BBC
A few weeks later, a Russian tennis chief was embroiled in controversy after making derogatory remarks about the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Shamil Tarpischev referred to the sisters as the “Williams brothers” on an October 13th appearance on a late night Russian talk show Evening Urgant after discussing the difficulty of defeating the sisters. Tarpischev later apologized saying his comment was an attempt at humor acknowledging that the sisters “are without doubts outstanding athletes.”
After the remarks, the Women’s Tennis Association announced a fine and suspension for the remarks that “have absolutely no place in our sport”. Serena Williams later commented that she thought the comments were “very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time.”
Note from BW of Brazil: As history tells us, the experience of black women in the Americas was always opposite that of white women. As women of African descent were always forced to work in their social environments, their images became systematically masculinized, particularly the darker their skin. In Brazil, we saw this again in the recent example of last year’s Globeleza girl Nayara Justino, whose skin is several shades darker than her three predecessors and was widely criticized for a number of reasons, one of which was undoubtedly her skin color. This masculinization continues today in jokes and pejorative comments as well as in growing media depictions of effeminized black men. The not so subliminal message is two fold: black women are so masculine that black men could effectively portray them, while on the other side, the figure of the big, strong, dangerous “black buck” or “negão” (as so-called in Brazil in recent years) is being neutralized and feminized, perhaps in a subliminal reference to the lack of power that black men wield in both the US and Brazil.
Noteworthy is the fact that in the case of the sisters, their physical appearances don’t seem to matter in the public’s eye. Both Venus and Serena Williams as well as Pepê and Nené Oliveira have gone through a number of looks over the years. From braids and weaves to makeup, dresses and casual wear, the physical presence of the sisters has provoked negative commentaries about their femininity. The Williams sisters, both being tall and strong, have been berated for nearly all of their careers. In the case of Oliveira sisters, these types of comments have increased substantially since they both admitted to being lesbians, spending more time in the gym and experimenting with various short hair styles.
On the other side, for a number of years in the United States, there have been accusations of the American media’s attempt to feminize the traditional image of the black male. For decades, African-American actors have appeared on television, film and comedy routines dressed in wigs, makeup and clothing traditionally associated with women. The list of African-American men appearing in women’s wear is too long to list here, but a few names include Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes. Several years ago, well-known comic actor Dave Chappelle walked away from a television contract rumored to be worth about $50 million because he noticed what seemed to be an agenda to make blacks look ridiculous on television while pointing out the fact that a large number of successful black actors had wore a dress in front of the camera at some time in their careers. Chappelle didn’t say anything that hadn’t been said in the African-American community for a number of years. Going all the way to back to the early 1970s when comedian Flip Wilson appeared made up as Geraldine Jones, no one could have imagined such a long list of black males appearing in drag.
But what’s going on in Brazil? In the same manner in which racism was allowed to exist without challenge and even being denied by Afro-Brazilians themselves, little has been said about the growing trend of Afro-Brazilian males in drag. The trend is not new. Without even doing any sort of deep research, one can point to actors such as the late, greats Grande Otelo and Mussum and one of the most successful black actors in Brazil’s history, Milton Gonçalves.
But that was just the beginning. As in the situation with African-American men, in the past decade Afro-Brazilian men in drag playing gay, transsexual or transvestite characters have gained noticeable prominence in Brazilian film as well as television. A short list of these actors includes Hélio de la Peña, Flavio Bauraqui, Lázaro Ramos, Lyu Arrison, Mauricio Xavier, Luis Miranda, Douglas Silva, Mumuzinho and Ailton Graça. Again, these are only the ones that come to mind without any thorough research. Interestingly, these last four are all currently featured on television programs of Brazil’s most powerful TV network Rede Globo. Actor Douglas Silva and singer Mumuzinho are featured nearly every week in drag as comic relief on the variety show Esquenta, while Luis Miranda plays a transsexual on one novela, Geração Brasil and Ailton Graça plays a transvestite in another, Império. Interestingly, all of these actors, with the exception of Lyu Arrison are brown or dark-skinned black men.
Of course, a few of these roles, such as 2002 film Madame Satã and 2009’s O Rebeliado are based on real personalities and, as such, would need to be portrayed in this way to present accurate portrayals and remain consistent with the stories. But even so, one must ask, could there possibly be an0ther agenda at work here?
Consider this. In both societies, black men and the black populations of both countries have very little power and as such are easy targets for exploitation. In Western societies, women are considered “the weaker sex” and thus portraying black men in this manner symbolically feminizes them. Considering the connection between race and power in these two countries, black people would be considered the weaker group, having the power to affect very little real change in their social positions.
Further still, the intersections of race, sex and class are so intimately connected in societies in which blacks and whites co-exist, any citizen can clearly connect certain images to middle-upper class white men in comparison to lower class black women, for example. As such, black men, at least socially, have been symbolically stripped of their masculinity in economic and racial terms. In both cases, they are imagined to be inferior. Frantz Fanon once argued that this position is one of the influencing factors behind many black men desiring relationships with white women. In Brazil in particular, the social connection with a white woman is seen by many black men as a means of improving their social standing (Moreira and Sobrinho 1994) (1) in a society that has always devalued blackness.
But what else could be at play here? Perhaps it would be fitting to consider the ideas of 19th century French aristocrat Joseph Arthur de Gobineau whose racist opinions influenced the thoughts of Adolph Hitler and the rise of scientific racism. Gobineau didn’t hide his view that whites were the world’s superior race with Africans being on the bottom. Gobineau also spent time in Brazil and later shared his thoughts on the race mixing he saw in the country. According to Adriana Gomes:
“When he referred to the assessments of the physical and moral qualities of Brazilians, Gobineau didn’t spare any derogatory remarks. The miscegenation that resulted in Brazil the scrubbiest complexions, that not always being repugnant, are always unpleasant to the eye. (Gobineau, 1853, 90); as miscegenation had reached all social levels, degeneracy of the saddest aspect (Gobineau, 1853, 90)….In the case of Brazil, Gobineau argued for the route of immigration as the only way to stop the degeneration of the country.”
European immigration as a means to whiten the country was an idea that Brazilian elites would adapt as official policy as more than three and half centuries of slavery was winding down and they were left with a Brazilian population that was nearly two-thirds non-white. But it seems that the words of Gobineau could also serve to explain the trend of presenting black men in more effeminate incarnations. In his 1850s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, Gobineau wrote: “What you wish to conquer or subjugate you first make feminine.”
To be sure, Afro-Brazilians are not the only men appearing on screen in drag or as gay characters (2), but as black representation is so much smaller than that of Brazilians who are considered white, percentage wise they are more likely to be seen in these roles when they are featured at all. These images also counteract the virile sexuality associated to the image of the black male body. So what message is one to take from a steady stream of these depictions of black men? Remember that nothing appears in the media by accident. If something’s there it was meant to be there for a reason. However one chooses to look at at the issue, we won’t attain a full picture of the issue without considering a number of other topics.
1. It is happening as the debate over homosexuality, gay marriage and gay rights continue to escalate, not just in Brazil or the United States, but around the world. 2. As there is no clear and concise evidence as to whether one is born gay, it is a matter of choice or it is dependent upon the culture, what will the effect on the society at large be? 3. An upsurge in gay, transsexual and transvestite media characters in Brazil, the US and other countries takes place as US President Barack Obama continues to pressure African nations into creating more tolerant laws in terms of sexual orientation in lands where leaders reject the behavior/lifestyle as not being part of traditional African culture.
It doesn’t seem that the question or the controversy will end any time soon but it clearly appears that the media has already made a decision of which side of the fence it stands on this topic even if the the debate isn’t over. And apparently there are plenty of black men out there willing, ready and able to play the part.
1. Moreira, Diva and Adalberto Batista Sobrinho (1994). “Casamentos Inter-raciais: O homen negro e a rejeição da mulher negra”. In Alternativas escassas: saúde, sexualidade e reprodução na América Latina. Fundação Carlos Chagas/Ed. 34.
2. 2013 saw a number of hit features focused on gay characters or men in drag such Paulo Gustavo, in the film Minha Mãe É Uma Peça, Marcelo Serrado in the film Crô and Mateus Solano in the Globo TV novela Amor à Vida.