Brazilian TV on the Divan

 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.
by: Maria
Rita Kehl


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

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

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

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

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

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