Whiteness and elitization: when black culture and female sexuality are repackaged for mainstream consumption

Singer Anitta: "before" and "after" her fame
Singer Anitta: “before” and “after” her fame

Note from BW of Brazil: The discussion continues. This blog has already featured singer Anitta and even her dancers on three previous posts. So what’s so interesting about Anitta? Well, her image and success embody many issues that involve race, success and cultural appropriation and how these topics figure into the making of a pop superstar. First, the singer formerly known as Larissa de Macedo Machado is a classic example of the contradiction that is race in Brazil. While past posts have argued that her whiteness and adaptation of a black Brazilian cultural product have led to her mainstream acceptability, it must be acknowledged that Anitta is not exactly white. If one looks at the singer’s features she is, in reality, a light-skinned mestiça (person of mixed race) who either “passes” or is accepted as white, or at least, “white enough.”

This is what’s fascinating about Brazil. For people who see any features denoting non-European heritage, Anitta would be at minimum a mestiça. But like other Brazilian singers of “mixed race” (Caetano Veloso,Luis Caldas, or Netinho, for example), Anitta’s racial appearance walks a tight rope in which she can be defined either way. For those who might argue that Anitta is an example of how a parda (brown) is different from a preta (black) and thus argue that pardas should not be considered negros, I would argue that the girls of the funk group Bonde das Maravilhas are also of varying degrees of mixed race, but they are simply “too black” to get a “pass” in a country where whiteness reigns supreme.

Funk group Bonde das Maravilhas
Funk group Bonde das Maravilhas

In the article below, Jarid Arraes discusses how Anitta’s constructed physical and sexual image was whitened to make mainstream success possible. In the image driven world of pop music, plastic surgery and Photo Shop are essential in promoting a certain physical appearance that leads to millions of dollars through CD sales and endorsement deals. Whereas the girls of Bonde das Maravilhas are considered “too black” and their music too close to the “periphery” (suburbs/poor neighborhoods/the ‘hood), Anitta’s “funk light” appropriation, much lighter skin and noticeably thinner nose (plastic surgery?) are taking her style and music to a more lucrative, middle-upper class neighborhoods (points not lost on Vicent Bevins or Globo news reporter Silvio Essinger). 

Anitta, embranquecimento e elitização (Anitta, whitening and elitization)

by Jarid Arraes for Blogueiras Negras (Black Women Bloggers)

Brazilian sensation, singer Anitta
Brazilian sensation, singer Anitta

Be it by class prejudice or by intolerance in regards to lyrics with sexually explicit content, women of the funk are great victims of misogyny and racism. This great outrage against female funk artists is closely related to disgust for black women, not only because most funkeiras are black, but because funk has historical roots and is closely linked to the black Brazilian culture.

However, there is at least one current example of a woman who came from funk and is widely accepted and celebrated in the media: Anitta. While other artists have their roots in traditional funk with explicit lyrics, Anitta is presented as a funkeira focused on pop culture, with a sanitized and production and ready for consumption. Artists like Anitta are repositioned in a new social class, that embranquece (whitens) their artistic expressions and makes them much more “appropriate” for the Brazilian television.

anitta2

There are divergences about the reasons that lead to Anitta being more successful than other similar artists. Some activists believe it to be due to a supposed branquitude (whiteness). However, seeing Anitta as a white person demonstrates the naturalization of the processo de embranquecimento racial (process of racial whitening). In a society which has as white any light-skinned mixed (race) person, the case of Anitta deserves at least a reflection.

One must understand that the identity that Anitta or other artists have about their color is something subjective, built over the years under the influence of society. It’s no use to relativize racial recognition and reduce it to a matter of affirmation, because to understand one’s self as black is not a decisive factor for someone to be treated as black; for this to happen, it’s necessary that society also manages to see the blackness in that person.

Anitta is an example of a racially mixed woman who was embraquecida (whitened) and “enriched” so that her artistic work was valued. The appearance of Anitta is becoming increasingly different since her fame (1), with lightening treatments on an image increasingly elitist. Knowing this, it’s worth reflection: is Anitta accepted for being recognized as a mulher branca (white woman) or has she been whitened in search of acceptance? If other funkeiras passed through a process of elitization and class embraquecimento (whitening), would they be embraced by television programs in more diverse times?

This process not only relates to the embranquecimento of physical characteristics such as straight hair, light skin and thin nose, but is also related to the repression of female sexuality. Funk when it is socially acceptable is one that constructs a tolerable feminine sensuality, that doesn’t intimidate masculinity. And female sexuality that is accepted is one that doesn’t shock. Valesca Popozuda is a good example: although in her current appearance she is seen as a “morena clara” woman (light brown), or in some cases even white, the way she deals with sex without euphemisms makes her artistic expression socially repudiated.

Female artists suffer the imposition of limits on sensuality that can only be expressed in a restrained and elitist manner: a woman who shakes her hips on MTV is much more accepted artistically than that one that shakes her hips in a baile funk (funk dance) on the morro (hill/city periphery/poor neighborhood) (2). It is extremely important to note, however, that no woman is fully accepted to express her sexuality. At the end of the day, all of these women have one thing in common: they are all transformed into objects of consumption.

Scenes from Rio's Bailes Funk
Scenes from Rio’s Bailes Funk

Being consumed, in this case, means providing a sense of control to the male audience. The female object of consumption must express sensuality, but not to the point of making the man feel threatened or on the verge of being “betrayed.” If the woman expresses her sexuality in an objective and straightforward manner, she is deemed a “vadia (slut)” and unworthy of serious value. The black woman, specifically, carries on her shoulders the stereotypical “consumable” and disposable woman, to be “used” and thrown away, unlike the more durable and higher valued product: the white woman. That is the reality of misogyny: women are treated as commodities, some more valued than others.

Although the issue of the whiteness of Anitta is debatable before our eyes, the problem is much deeper and is ingrained in various nuances of society. The question is not to attribute an identity to Anitta and other Brazilian artists, but to raise questions about the possibility of success and social acceptance depending on a whiteness, whether real or imposed. A light skin and straight hair combined with a moderate and restricted sexuality are necessary for the success of women.

Whether calling black women morenas (3) or accepting “white” as standard, racism articulates the violence imposed on the lower classes and finds its apogee when acting in a sexist manner. It’s necessary to bring all these nuances to the debate and work to destroy these forms of violence. The way the oppressions act is not always so obvious, nor so simplistic. Dialectic and a comprehensive, non-polarized vision are necessary so that we can transform our culture and gain the dignity that is usurped from many women.

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Jarid Arraes
Jarid Arraes

Jarid Arraes is a sex educator, feminist and writes at Mulher Dialética and at Guia Erógeno.

About Jarid Arraes: Sex educator, feminist, activist for Human Rights and a student of psychology; she works as a volunteer with the group FEMICA – Feminist do Cariri and with FQC – Feminismo Que Cola.

Source: Blogueiras Negras, From Brazil, O Globo

Notes

1. As Essinger put it, three years ago, before her fame, Anitta’s “hair was still curly, the nose a little less thin, and the body a little less exuberant, then without the silicone.”

2. As Bevins notes, Anitta “started out singing funk carioca, sometimes known abroad as baile funk,  the homegrown hip hop dance sound from Rio favelas, but her style has evolved into a more international pop-meets-R&B sound. If it wasn’t in Portuguese, (her monster hit) ‘Show das Poderosas’ could be by any modern American R&B starlet, from Kei$ha to Rihanna.” Changing her style has given her access to a more upscale following. Bevins cites a TV Folha article in which “a young woman outside of an upmarket nightclub observed that ‘funk light’ was more palatable for an upper class crowd.” The irony here is that Anitta started singing a style associated with poor Afro-Brazilians in Rio’s favelas. Her appeal and new sound, which borrows from a black American musical style, and video which prominently features her black backing dancers (giving her an air of “authenticity”) catapults her to mainstream success as she distances herself from her origins, physically and socially.

3. The term morena is an important piece to understanding the way race and color is experienced in Brazil. Several articles on the blog deal with this term.

About Marques Travae 3492 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. It is always the same in this world. No matter if we are talking about famous Black women in White countries, Black countries, or Mixed-race countries, Black female stars are treated worse the more Black they are in apperance, and in the case of mixed/light-skinned Black women, their is pressure put on them to Whiten up their apperance. The worst part of it is that since the Black media is so anti-Black female, THAT is not even a safe place for her to enjoy fame and hope for a long, succesful career, making how she is treated by White/Mixed-race media so much worse. Also the trend now in Black media is to completely replace ALL Black women performers with White and other non-Black women performers. It is so disgusting and yet another example of the bias and racism that Black women/girls and ONLY Black women/girls have to deal with.

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