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Brazzil - Media - March 2004
 

TV and Morality in Brazil

The Brazilian way of dealing with emotions, especially those that
concern relationships is partially shaped by the most popular
genre in Brazilian television: the novela. Social inequality is not
addressed as such in the small screen, however. And political
problems in Brazil are always reduced to moral ones.

Renato Janine Ribeiro


I will argue that Brazilian society conceives of politics—or should I say of human relationships in general, including ethics—in a way that is heavily indebted to the main contribution of our country to mass media, I mean, soap opera. In our version of Portuguese, soap opera is called telenovela or simply novela, our word for "novella" in the sense of a long short story.

For a long time we had them in the radio, then novelas spread to television and broke with their half-Cuba, half-Mexican heritage of tears and incest. It became a truly modern genre, able to discuss present day issues of morality and politics, and it helped, for the better and for the worse, to shape our conceptions of society both large and small.

Either if we want to discuss society as a whole, according to the main tradition of sociology, or if we intend to analyze society as a network of small groups, in the Foucaultian tradition of the microphysics of power, we must take soap opera into account.

My discussion will be centered in some points that arose during the 90s, namely the Fernando Collor presidency, its demise, and the post-mortem constitution of the Formula One champion Ayrton Senna as a paradigm of public man. But my main presupposition will be that our way of dealing with emotions, especially those emotions that concern relationships with other people, is at least partially shaped by the most popular genre in Brazilian television.

Since most Brazilians read few newspapers and even less books, but 98 per cent of us are connected in our homes to television, this brand of mass media acquires in our country an importance that should not be held as negligible.

Incidentally this will imply that in our account of Brazilian society we will break with what we could call a Habermasian view of politics as mainly, or potentially, rational: we will emphasize its emotional and even non-rational, as distinct as irrational, side. But let us begin1.

First of all, there is something we could call soap opera morals. It has little or nothing to do with the old morality that was present in the first soap operas, as the Cuban hit of Felix Caignet El Derecho de Nacer, that had an enormous success all around Latin America, including Brazil, for some decades.

Moral Revolution

Old morality dealt hysterically and essentially with sex. There were plenty of single mothers, but in order that they could get sympathy it was essential that they would have been innocent victims of social prejudice. Innocence was a main point of those novelas.

Ironically sex was very present but at the same time it was deemed to be dangerous: so, if those many single mothers were non-virgins from the point of view of their bodies, they were truly virginal from the viewpoint of their conscience, innocence, morals, and even stupidity.

But in the last twenty or thirty years all this has changed in Brazil. Our main TV network, Globo, has unleashed an informal but coherent campaign, already in the 1970s, in order to change old style morality. This meant challenging machismo and the roles of men and women, that in the United States you call gender issues.

For instance, since in our culture boys were always taught that they should never cry, in a soap opera of the late 70s the character of an important Brazilian actor, Fernando Torres, was shown weeping for some long minutes. Women began to work, to discuss sex, to earn their own money, to have ideas and values of their own that would often challenge their male partners'.

Equality between men and women was and is presented as essential and I dare say that this has been and still is the main contribution of TV to Brazilian morals. Something close to a true revolution has happened in the small screen.

Discrimination against Negroes was also criticized (I will not employ the Americanized expression "Afro-Brazilians" since it would convey a rather artificial description of Brazilian Negroes; the word Negro, in Portuguese, carries no pejorative sense; furthermore the problem with the American expression "Afro-Brazilian" is that it ascribes foreign roots to people who feel rather Brazilian; we could not say Italo-Brazilian or German-Brazilian in the way Americans of our days say Irish-American, Italian-American etc.).

One soap opera of the 1980s showed literally that the "same blood runs in the veins of both blacks and whites." A rich white farmer owed his life to the blood donated by his son's girlfriend, a black professional woman who had been humiliated by the landowner some hours before the accident that failed killing him.

Middle-class families of African descent also came to be shown on TV since the mid-1980s, sometimes even having white domestic servants, something that may happen in "real" life but is very far from being the rule. But this departure from everyday experience should not be criticized as giving a false image of the country.

Even if one of the reasons for the success of soap operas in Brazil since Janete Clair in the 1970s was the fact that it broke with a tradition of excessively romantic stories that had no link at all with real Brazilian life, and that it endeavored to show dramatis personae that could be recognized in everybody's daily experience, one of the purposes of novelas has always been to give people some ideals; and it is interesting that one of these ideas be that of promoting equality among men and women, and among people irrespectively of their ethnic origins.

One last comment about the role of Negroes in television: Brazil boasts itself of being a "racial democracy", and it is true that open-handed prejudice against blacks is rarely to be heard. In Brazil there never was something comparable to South African apartheid or North American segregation. The main problem is social: the division of classes recovers and reinforces the ethnic one.

Blacks are poor and sometimes very poor. The abolition of slavery, in 1888, was not followed by any policy that would give the former slaves social conditions to improve their sort. We come then to a paradox. No one with a minimum of sense will speak against racial equality, even if many still speak against gender equality. It would then seem that we have a stronger consensus about equality between blacks and whites than about equality between men and women.

But things are not so simple. To preach a true ethnic equality on television would imply to address social issues and to challenge the iniquitous economic inequality that pervades Brazilian society. Television has been an important weapon of national control under military rule (1964-1985) and in the following years it has been instrumental in ensuring that left-wing parties be kept away from power.

TV Taboos

Policies that would effectively reduce social inequality are not discussed in the small screen. You can quite well propose changes in private life, but neither the genre nor TV owners will allow you to suggest crucial changes in public and political life. Matters of gender equality may require much from individuals, but they do not put a heavy burden on traditional politics, so they can be tolerated in the air.

Of course I am not hinting that this division would be consciously and deliberately practiced; what I am discussing is the logic of television in Brazil, not the intentions of the people who have power over it.

What is really difficult in television is to recognize the rights of homosexuals. Couples of gay men are more or less accepted in novelas, but couples of lesbians usually die very soon. Since the 80s some novela writers have been trying to gain acceptance for lesbians, but the continual surveys of popular reactions that monitor every telenovela have always forced them to kill homosexual women in accidents.

These misfortunes happen in the first two or three months of stories that would normally comprehend some seven months at the rate of six episodes a week. It is expected however that some day lesbians will be allowed to live as much as other people, I mean, more than a semester (in the screen, of course).

Incidentally the fact that these surveys happen and have a dernier mot on the life and success of dramatis personae shows that novela authors and even network managers are not as powerful as some critics of media would have us believe. There is a dialectics between the authors and their public of some tens of millions.

Authors are often eager to introduce some new subjects or approaches—especially in the most important novela of the day, the one called "novela das 8" (8 p.m. soap opera), which usually begins between 8.30 and 9 p.m.—but it is crucial that the public accept it. The idea that people are passively manipulated seems a very crude picture of a relationship that is much more complex.

In addition, the network—and when I refer to "the network" I speak mainly of Globo, the most important and the best among the private-owned TV networks of Brazil—gives its authors a large amount of autonomy as far, at least, as they succeed in maintaining a meaningful leadership among spectators.

Padrão Globo de Qualidade (Globo pattern of quality), as it is known, implies that bad writers or, in what here concerns us, those with ethnic, gender or any other visible prejudices will not be hired to write novelas.

Politically Incorrect

To return to homosexuals, we should add that, contrarily to blacks but someway in the same sense as women, they are often mocked in TV humor programs. It is unfortunate that TV humor is full of old prejudices. Two facts are witnesses to this.

In the late 80s, old style TV humor was losing its momentum and a group of new and young humor writers and actors created new programs at TV Globo, among them TV Pirata. They ironized and criticized the old school comedians like Chico Anysio.

However, after a certain time they returned to the usual stereotypes of women and gay people. Since their public and style are more sophisticated than those of their colleagues, however, their diction often appears as a sort of irony, a second degree way of talking about things.

One of their main targets is political correctness, which in Brazil sounds as something rather exaggerated and even comic. Since TV Pirata mocks everything and has this sort of second-degree way of saying things, it can even mock blacks without, it seems, offending them too much.

This also means that stereotypes of women and gay men as frivolous (curiously lesbians are less present in TV humor programs) should not always be read at their face value. They have a double sense. They can be translated by some at their first level of meaning, as an old-style criticism of women and gays, but they can also be understood as a satire that conveys no prejudice, as an intelligent mockery of both prejudice and political correctness.

The other fact is a curious one. Jô Soares, arguably the most popular comic in Brazilian television, created in the early 80s several characters that mocked the agonizing military dictatorship. However, most of his jokes still dealt with women and gays following the usual stereotypes. We had then a blend of some political jokes that were really intelligent and many jokes about mores that of course were not as intelligent.

In the late 80s, Jô Soares left Globo for SBT (Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão) network, which provided him with the opportunity he had long dreamt of: he would have a nightly talk-show. It rapidly became the most important talk-show in Brazil, and after some time Jô suppressed his humor program. Of course the prejudices aired in the mores section of his humor show had no place in his talk-show, and I suppose he felt uncomfortable mocking women and gays.

Novelas vs. Humor

To sum it up we should conclude that women are considered the equals of men in novelas, but not in comic programs. Blacks are shown as equal to whites in novelas, but with less emphasis than women are afforded. From another perspective, color prejudice is held as something too delicate to allow jokes, so they constitute a subject rather absent from TV humor.

Homosexual men, if they are the target of those TV humor programs of doubtful quality, can at least be somewhat tolerated, which is not the case of lesbians—but these latter, conversely, can enjoy a sort of non-visibility, which means that if they are not talked of they are not the target of any real hostility.

Lastly, in our short survey of TV morality, we should remark that novelas, especially those of Globo, witness of a tolerance and seriousness in dealing with ethical questions that would be impossible to find in TV humor programs. Comedy and farce seem to gather the most conservative programs of Brazilian TV, while novelas, if they are no more the heirs to tragedy (as was the case with the first novelas, inspired by their Cuban and Mexican originals), as heirs to 19th century drama can deal in a more respectful way with some human dramas of private life.

Politics and the Tube

We should notice that personal honesty is often emphasized, in contrast with the mores attributed to politicians, usually deemed—in soap operas but also in everyday street conversation—to be corrupt. It can be even funny and has already been remarked that some minutes after the rather conservative 8 p.m. TV news has shown as great men some old right-wing politicians, the novela will unmask as crooks some characters that are their faithful translation into the realm of fiction.

One of the novelas of lasting impact in Brazil, Dias Gomes's Roque Santeiro (1985), had as its anti-hero Sinhozinho Malta, an autocratic landowner who exhibited several features of ministers and politicians from Northeast that had served the military and at that time held important posts in the first civilian government in 20 years. Honesty is estimated as an attribute of the person: politicians are widely considered not to have it.

We can now come to soap opera politics. Its apex was during the presidency of Fernando Collor, who after being elected in December 1989 in the first presidential polls in almost 30 years, held office from March 1990 to September 1992, when he was the first Brazilian President to be impeached by Congress.

His election was due to many factors, but one of them was a last moment soap opera expedient. Collor had a former girlfriend of his left-wing opponent, Lula, tell on TV that he had asked her to abort their child. The child, then already a teen-ager girl, went to television to abide by her father, but the coup was felt and Lula was defeated.

Another novela feature was a coincidence. Since in 1989 the world celebrated the bicentennial of French Revolution and Brazil remembered the 200 years of a revolutionary movement known as Inconfidência Mineira, Globo produced a soap opera about an imaginary ancien régime monarchy (the kingdom of Avilan) where aristocrats were deeply corrupt and a young prince came to challenge and of course finally defeat them.

Gradually, as an outsider politician from the small and little known Northeast State of Alagoas, Fernando Collor de Mello, gathered popular support to his moral criticism of President José Sarney. The image of the young prince was both consciously and unconsciously associated with his own persona. The novela, Que rei sou eu? (What sort of king am I?) ended a few months before election and, since its message could be lost, Globo decided to rerun it in the afternoon shortly after its prime-time run.

Reruns, usually, happen years after the original presentation of a novela. Of course it would be a mistake to ascribe Collor's election to that soap opera, but it is important to notice that his constitution as a popular hero challenging corruption had novelas as an important paradigm.

If novelas may have played a role in his election, his government was also hero-like, full of images of energy. It was widely reported in early1990, when he made the usual world tour by every Brazilian president-elect, that George Bush was so impressed by Collor that the called him "Indiana Collor".

Indiana Jones was a blend of an energetic hero and of a scholar, while neither Collor nor Bush held scholarship in high esteem—the Brazilian President came short of destroying important cultural agencies of the Federal Government—but it is interesting to point that energy as heroism would be the main feature in Collor's public image.

His measures against inflation, which had reached an all-time record in Brazilian history of 85 per cent in the month preceding his inauguration, were heralded as a bullet shot in the eye of a tiger (i.e., inflation) and as a fatal coup in a Japanese martial art that—by more than mere chance—was practiced by the President.

Some years later, it would be known that he had had an exercise academy built for himself in the basement of the Presidential Palace. During the first year of his presidency, Fernando Collor would practice a different sport every Sunday, most of them radical ones, and his spokesman and himself would often present his foes as old or weak men. They were derided as people unable to make decisions and to put them into practice.

Epic Collor

It would be more exact to say that his government was not only a soap opera one: it was an epic government. Heroism and even irrationalism or anti-intellectualism were part of it. Novelas entered it in order to arouse popular emotions that could be favorable to official policies. But what can be interesting is the crisis that brought Collor's government to its demise. It was a soap opera crisis.

In the first months of 1992, the epic or heroic style was exhausting itself. The last remaining ministers of his first cabinet, most of them outsiders to the establishment, were finally replaced either by old style politicians or by some new and respected technocrats. The President had himself shot—by cameramen, I mean—holding a copy of Norberto Bobbio's Dictionary of Politics.

This implied a big departure from his previous aversion to intellectuals. He also invited the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, PSDB (Brazilian Social-Democrat Party), to join his government. Not being able to convince them to accept a post in the cabinet he composed a new ministry of serious, competent, moderate men. Prose began to take its place in power.

Soap opera took its revenge, if I can say that, with a vengeance. The President's brother, Pedro Collor, told Brazilian most important weekly magazine, Veja, several secrets about corruption in the highest levels of government. A family crisis—Pedro had been kept apart, against his will, of the network of corruption—quickly became a national one.

Their mother, who two years before had asked all Brazilians to write to her son the President enjoining him to quit the dangerous sports he then practiced, did all she could in order to solve the crisis keeping it inside the family. Not being able to do that, she entered into a coma and died at the time her son Fernando lost his office after being convicted by the Senate in the impeachment case. Some compared the crisis to a second hand version of the Greek story of the Atrids.

Prose also had its place in the impeachment proceedings. Some newspapermen did their best in order to expose the entrails of a corrupt government. At the same time, this Habermas-style vendetta of prose and reason was supported by the emotion of millions of young men and women marching through the country to demand Collor's impeachment.

So it would be wrong to describe this social process as a triumph of prose over epics. It was a blend of reason and emotions; rather, it was a full-scale catharsis, where emotion fought emotion.

Collor came to power while TV was showing Que rei sou eu? Now, a shorter TV series, with an episode aired every night during a few weeks, Os anos rebeldes (The rebel years, 1992), provided the young with an emotional language able to convey their revolt and indignation. Os anos rebeldes dealt with Brazilian 1968. That year, student movements were repressed by the military. They would become an armed struggle, which would last some two or three years.

While the guerrilla-like movement had no popular support at the time, in later years it was able to gather if not a succès de public, at least a strong succès de critique et d'estime which is quite important in any case in the middle classes. After Collor was convicted by the Senate, in the Federal elections of 1994 at least one deputy would be elected as representative of the caras-pintadas2, the young women and men who went to the streets to demonstrate against Collor and corruption.

Bad Politics

Novelas can be quite efficient taking morality questions to the fore, and have been instrumental if not in bringing some behavioral changes in Brazil at least in reinforcing new trends—but their politics cannot receive the same appraisal. Social inequality is not addressed as such in the small screen. And political problems are always reduced to moral ones.

Some people can be quite surprised when they hear the degree of criticism against politicians in Brazilian television—which is indeed surprising since most local televisions that retransmit Globo programs belong to House representatives or senators—but everything is understood if we remember that the moralization of politics avoids a true political discussion.

Seldom will you witness a discussion of Right and Left. The problem with morals is that you have right and wrong, not Right and Left: so it becomes quite impossible to discuss different strategies for the country. This of course means that many if not most people become disaffected with politics.

Probably the most common statement by Brazilians from every social class concerning politics is that all politicians are thieves. People vote, however, since voting is a legal obligation in Brazil, and this implies that every two years they get to the polls in order to elect men and women they morally scorn.

Hero Race Driver

At the end of 1992, the image of a new-brand politician, Fernando Collor as the "hunter of maharajahs3", was dead. In less than two years, however, it would be replaced in some measure by that of another national hero: Ayrton Senna, the Formula One world champion, who died tragically on May 1, 1994, in Imola, Italy.

Some days after his death, a reader wrote to the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo to convey his feelings that it was unacceptable that Senna's wake should happen in the premises of the São Paulo State Assembly: how could so worthy a man as the late champion be deemed the equal of corrupts, i.e., politicians?

Another idea of public man was getting its place under the sun: the hero who deals with machines, not with men. We can understand the replacement of the bad politician by the dead hero as meaning that Brazilians find it very difficult if we return to the two Greek verbs that Aristotle employs to distinguish between two ideas of action. There is to prattein (whence the noun praxis), which refers to the action on men that can re-act themselves, and that is why we prefer the action referred to by the noun techné, i.e., the action practiced on things and/or irrational beings.

But of course Brazilians can prattein. What they find truly difficult is another thing: to deal with human beings in a political and not moral level. Moral action is very popular in Brazil and if NGOs develop in our country it is partly because they can profit of a favorable moral bias, which also implies, incidentally, that participation and voluntary action will often mean charitable work.

Morality Vs. Politics

We should now come to another telenovela, Fera ferida (Wounded beast), which aired in 1993-94. A small town—novelas often have or acquire an allegoric meaning: the town came to mean the country—has politicians who are so corrupt that the story ends with a terrible storm which destroys it completely: literally, what in English would be called an act of God.

A short epilogue tells us however that two years later everything is rebuilt and the town knows a new, prosper life, due to the endeavors of independent people—small entrepreneurs, the equivalent of non-government organizations etc. But the old politicians keep the power, at least traditional power: they still hold the offices of mayor and local councilors.

I think the moral of this story is quite simple but strong: the Brazilian society is able to regenerate itself but politics is still wicked. Society can renew itself insofar as social relations are moral, but it is unable to cope with the level where they have to be political. As far as you can convert social intercourse into a moral one, you can deal with it quite well. But if you translate society in political terms—or maybe if you recognize the political character of social relations—things cease to work.

Most Brazilians are indifferent to politics and criticize politicians because they do not feel represented by them. So, since the public sphere is abandoned to politicians—who govern the country in a way despised by most people who however do not feel able or maybe willing to change this reality—we are often forced to do on our own the same things that should be the responsibility of the State.

We pay taxes for a State school system, for a State health system and a public system of transportation, and we pay again for the private schools, hospitals and cars we use. There seems to be a Brazil that more or less coincides with the State, and then another Brazil, a sort of a clone of the first one, but a good, a renewed or repaired clone, an ideal Brazil. Of course this means that it is very costly to live in Brazil, since everything must be done twice: we live in two countries, sometimes three.

We come then to the risks of politics without politicians: a moral prospect is unable to deal with the great problems, with society as a whole. It can fix local problems, not solve national or global ones. This is why I have been proposing to you a rather pessimistic view of contemporary Brazil.

But I prefer to end with two, let us say, optimistic remarks. First, coping with each other people can develop abilities to deal—in the long run, of course—with great things. If we want a grassroots democracy instead of an only formal one this can be the best way to build it.

My second and final remark will be more important. It seems that till now I have held politics as morals, or politics without politicians, as more or less responsible not exactly for my country's social problems but at least for our incapacity to solve them, but it must have remained a little mysterious why this could also be called a Brazilian dream.

I will then say that maybe this is not only a Brazilian dream. It could quite easily be a global dream, a dream dreamt of by people from all countries. Maybe politicians' politics is coming to an end in the world as a whole, and we should devise something new.

The model that prevails in North Atlantic countries has been fruitful since the 18th century, but its main, Mandevillean idea is that from private vices stem public benefits—i.e., that we can have good institutions ensuring a fair society even if private individuals are mainly egotistic4.

But this way of dealing with the relationship between individual and society has meant that an important dimension of life, i.e., affective and affectionate life, has been excluded from social life and is confined to private life. So that, either we have affection in politics, and it is conservative and even authoritarian, or we have the rule of law, democracy and Habermas, but it is emotionally very cold, almost empty.

Maybe what a Third World country can bring in the scope of redefining politics is the possibility of a politics with affection, where emotions will no more be held hostage by authoritarian leaders. This is an important, a global hope.

This was a paper presented to the 500th anniversary Congress of Brazil at Dartmouth College.

1 This paper is an abridgement of the chapters "Uma política sem políticos: Collor e Senna" and "O Brasil pela novela" of my book A sociedade contra o social: o alto custo da vida pública no Brasil (Society against social: the high cost of public life in Brazil), São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2000.

2 Literally, painted faces. This name comes from Argentina, where right-wing military who staged a series of revolts against President Alfonsin in the 1980s used to paint their faces as if they were going to fight in the jungle. The word underwent an extraordinary change as it was appropriated by Brazilian youth. In a weekday of August 1992, President Collor urged his followers to lend him their support in the impeachment crisis going to the streets in the next week-end with the national colors, yellow and green.

The first reaction of the opposition was to counter-demonstrate with black, to tell Brazil was mourning the fact it had a corrupt government. Anyway pro-Collor demonstrators showed themselves in negligible numbers, while millions protested him throughout the country. This allowed the opposition to recover the national colors and to demonstrate with them; the young then painted their faces in yellow and green, and this gave the protests the profile of an enormous and spontaneous party.

3 As Governor of Alagoas, Fernando Collor challenged some civil servants of his State who earned enormous salaries. It is not sure who began to employ the word maharajah to designate them: it may have been introduced by the Governor's supporters, but it may also have been adopted by one of his foes, who styled himself maharajah, in contempt of the initiative. Anyway it was this endeavor of Collor's that made him popular across the country.

4 See Mandeville, "Fable of the bees," also known as "Private vices, public benefits".


Renato Janine Ribeiro teaches Ethics and Political Philosophy at USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and is a visiting professor at the Center of Brazilian Studies from University of Columbia in New York. Ribeiro is also the author of several books, including A sociedade contra o social: o alto custo da vida pública no Brasil" (2000, Jabuti Award from 2001) and A universidade e a vida atual - Fellini não via filmes (2003).He has his own website - www.renatojanine.pro.br - and can be reached at rjanine@usp.br.



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