Note from BW of Brazil: Brazilian television and the representation of blacks. It’s a topic that can never be discussed because, well, the situation has changed very little. Now of course, occasionally, a program such as Mister Brau will come along and people will give Brazil’s media kudos for apparently making improvements in not only quality of black representation but also quantity. But let us remember, there are still problems with that program and moreover, it is but one of hundreds of productions over the years. And this one program doesn’t cancel out other disastrous, stereotype-laden representations of black people on countless other programs (1). The point here is that Afro-Brazilians occupy a diverse array of positions in Brazilian society, so when is it that the media will consistently present them in such roles? As more and more people begin to see through the manipulation, the time will come for the mainstream media to address these issues.
White media, black population: Denial of reality
From novelas to newspapers: the black population still occupies subordinate positions in the hegemonic media
By Vinicius Martins
In 1969, the TV Globo novela (soap opera) A Cabana do Pai Tomás debuted. The story based on the book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) by Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed the conflict between slaves and landowners in the southern United States during the Civil War. This was the last novela of the station made from foreign texts. In the plot, Pai Tomás (Sérgio Cardoso) and Cloé (Ruth de Souza) led the black struggle for freedom in the American slave system.
Even far from success and the expected audience, the novela (soap opera) brought two important issues: the actress Ruth de Souza as the first black woman in a prominent role in Brazilian TV and a white artist performing as black in the role of main character. The protagonist, Pai Tomás, played by actor Sérgio Cardoso, was originally the African-American slave plot. To pass for black, actor painted his face and body in a practice known as blackface.
At right, Ruth de Souza in the role of Cloé and at left Sérgio Cardoso and the blackface of Pai Tomás
The episode was characterized as the first public controversy on race in Brazilian television. The impact of a white artist playing a black character in Brazil – where half the population is African descent – raised the first questions about representation in the country’s media. Protests led by actor and writer Plínio Marcos led to Pai Tomás being the last blackface in the history of Brazilian television (2).
Far from being the definitive racial discussion on television, A Cabana do Pai Tomás made clear the resistance to blacks in prominent highlighted roles. The actress Ruth de Souza, interpreter of Cloé, saw her name lose prominence in the credits for white actresses of the cast during the showing of the novela.
Historically, the public has become accustomed to seeing a low number of pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) acting in soap operas. Typically, the roles represent predefined social stereotypes and supporting positions in the plot. According to the book Memória da Telenovela Brasileira (Memory of the Brazilian Soap Opera), by Ismael Fernandes, from 1963 (the year of the first novela shown in Brazil) to 1998, about 520 novels were aired. Only 200 of them (or 38.4%) featured black actresses and actors.
In view of the issue, actresses and social activists Renata da Hora and Bel Antunes decided to create the page Contra o Racismo nas Telenovelas (Against Racism in TV Soap Operas), on Facebook. “The idea of creating the page arose from the lack of representativeness itself, I am seeing simple things missing in the everyday of a black person, so I had the idea of creating some kind of mobilization on the Internet so that it could come to other people who identify somehow,” says Renata Time.
The desire of the creators is to see black people on TV, besides stereotypes imposed on black skin, almost always related to hyper-sexualization, aggressiveness, exoticism and criminality. The apparent Brazilian racial democracy hides the internalization of ideas generated about Afro-Brazilians from soap operas – one of the media products of greatest penetration in the nation’s day to day.
“Racism in novelas starts first to put the black in subordinate roles, because they only serve for the role of babá (nanny), housekeeper or residents of the periphery and thieves. Not every black has this reality and not every black likes to see himself in this way, however, these roles affect us dramatically and hinder our future,” says Renata.
Esther Hamburger in the text “Diluindo fronteiras: a televisão e as novelas no cotidiano” (diluting borders: television and soap operas in everyday life) punctuates the capacity of television in reproducing representations that perpetuate matrixes of inequality. There is an overrepresentation of whites in relation to afrodescendentes (African descendants), in a way that contributes to the maintenance of discrimination and racial prejudice.
The impacts can be seen also in the construction of the view of blacks and their identity in Brazil. According to Renata da Hora, the preta and parda population is affected by this discourse “because anyone who sees it will think that we are maids or even thieves, just because of our skin color, we live in the shadow of slavery time.”
On resistance to changes in television, Ricardo Alexino Ferreira, Prof. Dr. of the School of Communication and Arts at USP (University of São Paulo), says that these productions are not totally free. “Novelas are hostages of the opinion of conservative groups. Recently, the Babilônia novela, broadcast on Rede Globo (TV), made many concessions. It changed the logo color and lightened the background to meet the interests of religious groups; it committed itself to no longer putting on scenes homosexual affection and has made several other changes to meet ultra-conservative groups,” he explains.
The black in the press: from abolition to the present
If stereotypes are chronic in the Brazilian tele-drama, the same can be seen in journalistic discourse. In the book Retrato em branco e negro (portrait in black and white), anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz foes a profile of journalistic and advertising discourse about Afro-Brazilians in the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
From an analysis of the newspaper A Província de São Paulo (currently Estadão), Correio Paulistano and A Redempção, the author shows the social stigmas reproduced by major São Paulo newspapers about the blacks in the abolitionist period. Among them, that of the violent or physically strong black, the scientifically inferior, the uncivilized, animalistic and disorderly black, the addicted and sexualized black or supposed cultural inferiority of Afro-Brazilians.
Despite advances in relation to the image of the black population in communications, some old representations have still persisted in the media discourse, explains Ricardo Alexino Ferreira, USP researcher in the area of Communications and scholar of race relations, “the black is still seen as object, dehumanized. So it is so easier to compare him to animals, mainly primates. Advances happened, no doubt, but stereotypes are persistent and from them the black is often abducted to a symbolic condition of slave.”
In his master’s research, A representação do negro nos jornais no centenário da abolição da escravatura (The representation of the black in newspapers in the centenary of the abolition of slavery) Alexino noticed changes in the image of black as information. Before 1988, the black population was restricted to the editorials of culture by way of samba, to editorials of sports, above all in the image of futebol, and in the police pages. Only after approval of legislation that typifies racism as non-bailable and imprescriptible crime, is it that black men and women have migrated to other editorials.
Very technical, little preparation
In late August 2014, during the match between Grêmio and Santos valid for the quarter finals of the Copa do Brasil (Brazil Cup), Aranha, until then the Santos goalkeeper, was the target of racism coming from Porto Alegre stands. At the time, the cable channel ESPN’s cameras caught one fan racially insulting the Santos goalkeeper.
The episode earned Grêmio elimination from the Copa do Brasil. Irritated, part of the gaúchos (native of the state of Rio Grande do Sul) fans pressured Aranha on his return to Porto Alegre less than a month later. This time, in a match of the 22nd round of the Campeonato Brasileiro (Brazilian Championship), the goalkeeper was heavily booed by Grêmio fans.
Asked by reporters when leaving the game why the boos would have been different at the time, Aranha returns the questioning of the reporter, who didn’t seem to understand the situation experienced by the goalkeeper:
The case of former Santos goalkeeper reflects journalism unprepared to deal with blacks and racism in an objective and contextualized way. For Ricardo Alexino, media professionals are only technicians and fail to reflect on social issues in a more profound manner.
“Many journalists have also become technicians of information. They are not intellectual or interpreters of phenomena, but only ill-prepared technicians. Many cannot go beyond the inverted pyramid (which?; who?; where?; how? And why?). They are robots who can just fill out these questions,” he explains.
The same can be identified to counterbalance the coverage of a racist case in Brazil and a racist case in the United States or any other country. The recent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore due to killings of blacks committed by police in the United States were widely reported by the mainstream media. On the other hand, despite data showing the everyday death of young black men at the hands of the Military Police in Brazil, the major media outlets seem to ignore the issue. According to data of the Group of Studies on Violence and Administration of Conflicts from the Federal University of São Carlos, in São Paulo, about 61% of the victims of the Military Police are black.
For Professor Ricardo Alexino, professional training of journalists doesn’t take into account the ethnic complexity and diversity of the country. “If you have such limited professionals don’t expect much that they do with information to be something dialectical or polysemic. On the contrary, they act on common sense and monosemous. To address very complex issues such as diversity and ethnic issues, they will not know how to do it,” he explains.
Finally, Alexino also addresses the need for traditional media to work within ethical limits to fulfill its social function: “the Brazilian press needs to better understand its role, that that is professional ethics of journalism. I.e. the Brazilian press needs to become ethical. It should understand what their ethical limits are. It must understand that interfering in national life to stimulate coups and favor economic groups or conservative parties that will give journalistic companies privilege is immoral. It’s a matter of principle that seems to be missing in the national press, particularly to the hegemonic media groups.”
To know more:
A Negação do Brasil (Denying Brazil)
Directed by Joel Zito Araújo
Duration: 91 min
The documentary deals with the impact of Brazilian soap operas in the construction of ethnic identity of the black population of Brazil.
A Negação do Brasil – O Negro nas Telenovelas Brasileiras from Ronaldo Pereira Coutinho on Vimeo.
Source: Alma Preta
- There are simply too many examples to support this view. For examples, see here, here, here or here.
- Perhaps the author here is only speaking of the usage of blackface in novelas, because, as we have seen, blackface remains shockingly common on Brazilian TV, in comedy skits, etc. As we have seen this year, the phenomenon has even become quite popular with everyday Brazilians.