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Brazzil - Media - May 2004

Brazilian TV on the Divan

Reality shows in Brazil are already threatening the audience
numbers for fiction on TV. They are simpler and cheaper to
produce, making the switchover tempting for a broadcaster like
Globo, which spends millions on novelas and mini-series, some
of them of excellent quality and with low audience numbers.

Maria Rita Kehl


Picture 1. At the (our) limit

I still remember the uneasiness that I felt when, in the distant past—in the eternal present of the world of entertainment anything in the past is distant—TV Globo premiered No Limite, in prime time on Sunday.

"Regular" people were chosen from a multitude of entrants ready to pay any price to appear on television. The group chosen was taken "far from civilization" (but not far from the film set) and divided into two teams to confront a long decathlon of tests sometimes difficult, sometimes cruel, in even crueler conditions.

I am not referring to the difficulties presented by inhospitable nature, nor to the physical effort demanded by the tests, but to the cruelty imbedded in the rules of the game. At the end of teach test, the losing team was supposed to choose, before the cameras one of its members to be ejected from the game.

In the beginning, the losing teams tended to vote to eliminate the weakest, who got in the way of collective performance. The criterion of the weakest player, much less objective than it might appear, gradually came to focus on the most annoying, who might be the one who least fit in with the average—age, race, physical type, or social class—for the team.

It didn't take long for a fascist-type climate, sweetened by tears and accompanied by sentimental songs, to dominate the weekly ritual of elimination.

After some time, another logic was imposed on the participants: faced with the possibility of a large prize for an individual finalist, the remaining participants began to eliminate not the weakest but the strongest, trying to improve their own chances.

Let the worst man win! Each banished player was paid homage with the crocodile tears of his colleagues and a sentimental clip of his best moments in the game, the simulacrum of a fleeting fame.

The set-up of No Limite has a fundamentally conservative moral: it tries to demonstrate, with all the "realistic" resources of a live show, that human nature is irremediably vile.

Subjected to punishing conditions of survival—sometimes the losing team would end up with nothing to eat—and to the subjective rules of ferocious competition, the players, filmed in real time, ended up showing their worst: pettiness, cowardice, the most calculated cynicism, lack of solidarity and loyalty.

No Limite was a Nietzschean laboratory where the proof of the victory of the weak over the strong was cultivated, where the cynical pact that rules the neo-liberal world was reaffirmed.

At the end, each edition of the program seemed to prove, like a theorem, that one should expect greatness and generosity from no one, and that only the naïve still believe that in better circumstances man can also become better. With this kind of "human nature", one should expect nothing better than the savage internship of neo liberal capitalism.

It also reinforced the convictions of a good portion of the Brazilian elite, which justifies illicit practices alleging that every one has his price—there is no ethics that can resist the temptation of a big heap of dough. The participants in No Limite, without breaking any of the rules of the game, worked to reinforce this prejudice which protects the corrupt.

Even so, it is still disturbing to watch the spontaneous bad behavior of the participants at the most dramatic points of No Limite. But this is already fading into the fogs of the past. It is true that the program was on the air until December 2001, but who is still worried about the fate of the players lost in Globo's cinematographic jungles?

At that point we were all perplexed by the realization that whatever is bad can still get worse, when we replaced No Limite with Casa dos Artistas on SBT. We experience the vicarious thrill of observing that people can always stoop just a little bit lower.

Without the decathlon but within the same spirit of ferocious competition, a dozen forgotten actors in search of publicity agreed to spend a few weeks as prisoners within a luxurious house—as Eugênio Bucci wryly noted, it had everything you could want, except a bookcase full of books—committed to an empty coexistence, an idiotic life that seems to represent the ideal of millions of viewers whose plans for life were shaped by television and advertising.

Before a reasonably posh backdrop, the group of eugenic young people passed their time with sexual insinuations, gossip and cattiness, lots of tedium, rivalries, tricks and betrayals.

The rest was pure physiology, in both senses of the word. In the final chapter, the experienced demagoguery of Silvio Santos beat anything that the creative directors at Globo were able to come up with.

One fact is beyond discussion: anyone who was bothered by the baseness of the Casa dos Artistas had to stay far away from SBT in that timeslot. And yet all of Brazil was hypnotized by the program, which made No Limite seem like a series for children from educational television.

Once again, the question was unavoidable: are human beings really "like that"? Is baseness inevitably the mirror of our deepest truth?

The answer can be yes. Or no. The unconscious is, yes, an immense repository of representations of the worst kind—cruelties, perversions and repressed criminal fantasies. If we repress them, it is not a good thing.

The success of the worst programs on television is due to the fact that they enact, in public, something like the realization of our unconfessable desires. Education, decorum, so-called "good taste", the thin varnish of civilization that covers our savagery, our scatological curiosity, is what prevents us from spying through the keyhole of someone else's room, listening from behind the door to our neighbors fighting and having sex.

It is what leads us to politely avert our eyes from the exhibitionist drunk or the body of the one who has run over, lying in the street. In the name of decorum and good taste—and in trying to identify with the supposed behavior of the elites—we try to keep ourselves distant from the intimate details of others and we criticize the morbid curiosity of others.

But pornography, scatology and morbidity, remains of the great infantile interests, are the debased version of the great themes of philosophy: the mysteries of desire and of the origin of life, the materiality of the body, finitude, death.

The politeness, which separates us from the most brutal versions of these great themes, is the fruit of some political and esthetic ideals, which only make sense in societies in which these ideals possess some collective support.

There are moments, in the history of a country, in which society does not want to identify itself with abjection. They are moments in which a large part of the population is mobilized by other political projects, trying to affirm other ethical parameters for life in common.

There are moments, in the history of a culture, in which the great majority bets sincerely on the possibility of making a better life, and a hopeful minority begins to commit itself, in fact, to emancipatory projects—in art, politics, education, and in other forms of occupying public space.

When these projects fail or are betrayed, the road is open for disbelief. If the public dimension of existence, which justifies the renunciation of gratification, becomes debased, we are condemned to interest ourselves in our own fantasies. Prisoners of our mirrors.

Life which revolves around the television screen, whether one side of the screen or the other, is life that has lost this public dimension. The spaces where men meet and ideas circulate, spaces of political creativity and of the invention of new discourses and new meanings for existence, were almost totally privatized in the society of the spectacle, which is the post-modern version of the mass society.

Privatized life is poor and insignificant. Its transformation into spectacle on the set of the Casa dos Artistas is as debased as the silent presences in the rooms where the television viewers gather.

Sentimentaloid brutality and exhibitionistic stupidity (or vice-versa) are not so foreign to us as we would like them to be; transformed into leitmotifs for spectacle, they can function as consolation for these times in which our imagination is impoverished.

2. Spying on what?

The third edition of Big Brother Brasil (BBB) does not add anything new to its two predecessors, unless for the fact that it coincides with the news that, in the United States, reality shows are leaving traditional forms of teledrama behind—the end of fiction on TV.

Here the audience ranking for BBB surpassed that of the "novela das oito, " the eight o'clock soap opera, (the programming for Globo is such a deeply rooted tradition in the daily life of viewers, that we continue to call it the novela das oito even though it has aired at nine pm for years).

They say this is because Esperança (Hope) is boring. I don't agree. It is slow, true. It has a rhythm, a style of photography and a solemnity which fit with the period in which it is set—São Paulo in the thirties.

But liking Esperança can be a concession to the teledrama typical of those who love the great realistic novels of the nineteenth century, like Balzac and Dickens, to mention only the most popular.

Reality shows are already threatening the audience numbers for fiction on TV. They are simpler and cheaper to produce, making the switchover tempting for a broadcaster like Globo, which spends millions on novelas and mini-series, some of them of excellent quality and with low audience numbers—like Os Maias, faithfully adapted from Eça de Queiroz by Maria Adelaide Amaral in 2001.

But as critic Eugênio Bucci has already noted, no one can live without fiction. It is almost impossible to transform a slice of life, even if that life is spectacular, into a happening with mass appeal, if it is not at least give a minimal fictional trim.

The third edition of BBB is less boring than the first because the broadcaster is directing the plot, editing the interminable pointless conversations of the participants, organizing plans and counter-plans, producing what it can in the way of creating dramatic tension for each "chapter" of the pathetic little life that is being staged—yes, staged—in the global mansion/studio/jail.

The filet mignon of the plot is supposed to be soft porn. Young people, well fed, nice bodies, plenty of leisure: shouldn't that be the ideal situation for offering the viewers the opportunity to spy on scenes of sex: But sexual interest among the participants of BBB is scarce.

Pedro Bial, during the first week, spared no efforts in trying to entice the participants to become sexually interested in each other, thus offering the public a little voyeuristic excitement. Just that sex that has become an obligation loses a good deal of its interest.

No more efficient way of repressing eroticism than to change it into a duty. It is true, that in response to the appeals of the host—or in search of points in the race for popularity—Domini, who came out the winner in the third edition, was going steady in front of the cameras with the charismatic Sabrina, who was eliminated. But except for this episode, it seems that the scene in the house is ever less exciting.

No lovemaking under the covers, whispered racy revelations, stolen kisses. What excites people is the moment of truth when it is decided who will go. Conspiracies, betrayals, traps, shameless strategies to get ahead of their comrades and guarantee that one stays: that is the theme of BBB.

We are not spying on a sample of the erotic imagination of these handsome young people confined in a modern day version of the Marquis de Sade's castle. There is "sadism", yes, but not of a sexual nature. What is on display in BBB is the neo-liberal celebration of how to be calculating, the untiring game of competition with or without ethical limits. Money is better than sex; the competitors don't want to waste their time screwing: they want to conspire.

It seems that the public that prefers Big Brother doesn't want the illusions of the sugary life on the novelas. Not so. What the public is looking for is better illusions. Reality shows are the most effective form of illusion that the mass culture has yet produced.

They sell the viewers the faithful mirror of their debased life under the severe aegis of the "laws of the market". They sell the image of the jungle into which competition has transformed human relationships. But elevated to the level of spectacle.

3. The Other Perverse Scene

The pleasure of spying on life as presented in reality shows on TV seems voyeuristic—but it isn't. The pleasure of the voyeur consists in apprehending the body of the other in its obscene dimension—something that should be off stage—in order to realize in the imagination another scene, an unconscious montage which provides an enjoyment said to be perverse.

Perhaps the viewer of Big Brother Brasil may feel some pleasure in being perverse, in flirting with a faked perversion, which is the way that ordinary neurotics often seek to dispel the monotony of their sexual fantasies.

But even this voyeurism is fake, one more among the infinite possibilities of fakery that television offers. After all, the players know that they are being filmed. They know that every movement, every dialogue, every movement of their bodies, is going to gain or lose points in the great popularity contest that is what is really of interest; the rest is just conversation.

If there is something perverse in BBB, it is in the exhibitionism of the participants and not in the supposed voyeurism of the public, which, after all, knows by this point that with a "reality show" it is like to be more deceived than ever. And as always, it loves it.

The perversion of the participants, for their part, becomes less and less sexual—which does not seem to disappoint the viewer, since ratings continue to rise. The frenzy animating public and participants in this third edition was not sexual.

What heated up the program was the depiction—and this was for real—of the competition—yes, perverse—characteristic of the savage capitalism to which we are all, actors and viewers, subjected.

The modality of predatory competition in capitalist societies dominated by the communication and image industry is more oppressive than that which exploited the physical labor, effort, dedication or the competence of the workers.

It is more oppressive and also more efficient, because it rests precisely on yearnings for individual liberty and on the production of a superabundance which promises to overcome both the necessities of life and the imperatives of work. The industry of the image does not free subjects from competition, but extends its reach to all corners of private life.

This is what is depicted in Big Brother Brasil. The "escapist" character of the program—young and handsome people living days of leisure in a fabulous house, etc.—is much less important to its popularity than the type of unnamed afflictions, some of which we still scarcely perceive, which the reality show draws upon.

The competitors are involved in a sort of "do anything for money", the rules of which are absolutely subjective. There is no proof that specific abilities are required in BBB, as in the case of the late No Limite.

The weapons that count in this post-modern field of battle are 100 percent "psychological"—the affective dimension, which was able to upset the efficiency of the repressive industrial society until the first half of the twentieth century, was transformed into a more easily dominated work force in a society ruled by the image industry.

The competitors for the final prize on BBB conspire, manipulate, betray each other—this is the truly "obscene" dimension of the show, until the most devious, who presents himself as the most loveable to the public, wins the promised sum.

The destruction of the public dimension of human life, the privatization of the meaning of life and the consecration of the subjective man in place of the political man, as the new paradigm for the best that our society has produced, are the secret components of the success of this type of program.

The fact that the prize is awarded based on affective criteria, which are purely imaginary, reveals the magnitude of the oppression to which we are all subjected: if public space is invaded by representations of private life, one who does not want to be ejected from the game has to compromise not a portion of his time (like the worker in the pages of Das Kapital), but rather his whole "being" in this alienation, in which the tyranny of collective sentimentalism is what sets the norms for the "selection of human resources".

Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, writer and poet, the author of three books of poetry and the books of essays A mínima diferença—o masculino e o feminino na cultura. She was born in Campinas, São Paulo state, in 1951 and is a doctor of clinical psychology. You can reach her emailing brazzil@brazzil.com.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.

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