The tan from Ipanema: Freyre, Morenidade, and the cult of the body in Rio De Janeiro.
She says she has brown skin, and a feverish body And inside the chest, love of Brazil "I am Brazilian, my body reveals That my flag is green and yellow" --Carmen Miranda
In a felicitous turn of phrase, Barbara Babcock once asserted that "what is socially marginal is often symbolically central" (1978, 38). There is no better way to describe the figure of the mulata (a light-skinned black woman) in Rio de Janeiro. As evidenced in popular culture, artistic productions, tourist brochures and TV programs, the mulata is an idealized icon in the contemporary Brazilian imagination. A polysemic category, "mulata" in the Brazilian context can refer to "a woman of mixed racial descent," but it also connotes the voluptuosity and sensuality characteristic of women who dance the samba onstage. I use the local term mulata in order to make reference to these multiple meanings. The fascination with this local figure is inscribed within the discourse of mesticagem, a dominant narrative emphasizing the process of cultural and biological fusion of the "races," white and black in particular, as symbol of Brazilianness. I take racial and colour categories such as "white," "black," "mulatto," and "mestico" to be ideological products with material effects vis-a-vis the structuring of power relations across society. These categories acquire different symbolic value within the context of Brazilian "pigmentocracy," where instead of a colour line, shadism permeates race relations: The lighter the skin, the greater the social value. To a point, that is.
In this article I argue that the most valued bodies in Rio de Janeiro are those of white Brazilians that are able to embody the qualities of mulattoes. In particular, I focus on the characteristics associated with mulatto women in the context of carnival, and look at how in recent years white women have progressively come to occupy the spotlight in this setting. The article explores the Brazilian fascination with the mulata in terms of stereotypes that organize images of social difference and convey specific longings and desire. It situates the emergence of this fascination within the context of colonial gender and race relations and later, the development of a national ideology focused on the value of whitening through "mixing." I examine the discourse on mesticagem in the work of anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, the most influential thinker in the history of Brazil (Schwartzman 2000). Exploring Freyre's glorification of the mulata, I look at how women's bodies have become surfaces upon which masculinist and nationalist desires are deployed. I then move on to argue that morenidade (brownness), while commonly thought of as interchangeable with mulatice (mulatto-ness) as a central value and self-concept in Brazilian society, is in fact the preferred social type. I explore how morenidade is one aspect of the idealized "perfect body" in Rio's society, and look at how local people invest their physiques with numerous techniques in order to obtain such an ideal for themselves. Woven through the article is an exploration of how these issues are expressed in the narratives of my research participants. (1) In resonance with Malysse (2002), I conclude that Rio's culture has become obsessed with the image bodies project as expressions of personhood, and bring to bear my reflections on morenidade upon the Carioca (from Rio) perfect body.
National Identity and the "Whitening" Strategy
Why has the mulata become the central object of desire in the Brazilian imagination? How did she become a symbol of national identity, given the generalized denigration of mulattoes in colonial times, and the debased sexual role that women of colour were subjected to? Brazilian intellectual debates over race have become central to understandings of nationhood at least since the beginning of the 20th century. Contemporary gender stereotypes are deeply imbricated with larger narratives on the role of biracial peoples in the formation of Brazil as a modern nation.
The debate over national identity and the future of the nation in Brazil was not a product of independence from Portugal. It actually began to take place at the onset of the abolition of slavery and the institution of the republic in 1889. (2) Racism took a very particular shape in Brazilian intellectual production. It was recast under the native category of branqueamento (whitening). Late-19th and early-20th-century sociological writings in Brazil reflect the ideological supremacy of the white world. Brazilian intellectuals, however, were faced with the following theoretical problem: How to treat national identity vis-a-vis racial inequalities. The solution was to emphasize the mestico element (Ortiz 1985, 20). For the 19th-century intelligentsia the mestico was--more than a concrete reality--a category through which a sociological need was expressed: the elaboration of a national identity. According to these writers, moral and ethnic miscegenation allowed for the environmental adaptation of the European civilization to the tropics. Moreover, the result of this experience permitted the characterization of Brazilian culture as different from the European. In the local appropriation of theories of hybridization, Brazilian intellectuals posited that miscegenation would ultimately derive in a process of branqueamento, through which the gradual predominance of white traits over black ones could be ensured, in both the body and the spirit of mulattoes (see Araujo 1994, 29; Skidmore 1993). As Ortiz states, the social sciences of the time reproduced, at the level of discourse, the contradictions of Brazilian society. Whilst the notion of "racial inferiority" was used to explain Brazilian "backwardness," the notion of mesticagem also pointed toward a possible national unity. The identity thus produced was ambiguous, integrating both the negative and the positive elements of the races in question (Ortiz 1985, 34). The emphasis placed on the ideology of whitening of the Brazilian population was articulated with the particular interests of the coffee bourgeoisie of Sao Paulo state, which achieved its political hegemony with the rise of the First Republic. State immigration policies in the last quarter of the 19th century initiated programs that attracted millions of Europeans (see Skidmore and Smith 1992). These policies tackled the scarcity of labour power (defined strictly as unavailability of slaves) and established a clear association between mesticagem, whitening, and social progress. Massive immigration programs were seen not only as a solution to the lack of labourers, "but also as part of a long-term modernizing project, in which the whitening of the national population was seen as one of the most desired consequences" (Hasenbalg 1979, 128-129).
With the emphasis on whitening as a Brazilian solution for the "problem" of the races, Brazilian intellectuals such as Joao Batista de Lacerda and Oliveira Vianna shifted away from negative views of hybridity. From thinking of miscegenation as the production of a mongrel group making up a "raceless chaos," a degraded corruption of the originals, Brazilian intellectuals reconceptualized ideas of amalgamation using elements already present in racist theories, such as the claim that all humans can interbreed prolifically and in an unlimited way, sometimes accompanied by the melting-pot notion that the mixing of people produces a new mixed race, with merged but distinct new physical and moral characteristics (see Da Matta 1981; Skidmore 1993; Stepan 1991; Young 1995). The ideal of whitening was consistently appropriated by Brazilian intellectuals from 1880 to 1920 and became consolidated, albeit transformed, with Gilberto Freyre's culturalism in the 1930s. Nancy Leys Stepan calls this a shift to "constructive miscegenation" that overtly challenged the notion of mulatto degeneracy and reminded the country that "we are all mestizos" (Stepan 1991, 161). This particular ideology began to play a more "positive" part in Brazilian understandings of the nation. (3)
Emphasizing the role of African and indigenous traditions in the formation of the nation, and confronting all forms of scientific racism, Gilberto Freyre's work emerged as the most systematic challenge to previous theories of mesticagem, confronting ideas such as the degeneracy of mulattoes and white superiority. (4) His writings were still informed by the whitening ideal, however, and this becomes clear in his praise for the mulata. In Freyre's work, the figure of the mulata is turned into a celebrated symbol of hybrid Brazil, becoming synonymous with mesticagem. Her central status in the ideological formation of nationhood did little to improve the social status of women of colour in the country, perpetuating instead long-established stereotypes. Women of colour in Brazil today frequently encounter racism in the workplace and end up mostly in positions of subordinate status, particularly domestic work (see, for example, Bairros 1991 and Caldwell 2001). Such work continues to make them vulnerable to the sexual advances of white men in positions of authority (Caldwell 2000).
Gilberto Freyre's Mulatas: Mesticagem as Brazilianness
Contemporary iconographic, literary, and popular representations that shape current discourses of Brazilianness at both the national and international levels stereotypically present an image of the mulata's body as the height of female attractiveness, as the perfect embodiment of the heat and sensuality of the tropics, and as a representation of Brazil itself. In the everyday circulation of such images, an invocation of actual mulatto women recurs:
The mulata is the kind of woman most sought after by men, it's a question of the market. It's the beauty, and the performance [in bed]. Because the black woman has more stamina. One of the characteristics of the black race is the vitality, the beauty. White women have more "headaches" than black women. The mulata likes to live. When you see a mulata dancing the samba, she is very intense. Have you ever seen a mulata cooking? When the Bahiana cooks, she exudes intensity. When we say the Bahian woman, we mean the black woman. (research participant Pedro Paulo, 45 years, journalist)
The metonymic and mostly misrecognized slippage from the mulata as a cultural construct to the concrete bodies of particular female mulattoes is a conceptual movement involving the use of stereotypes to think about real-world entities. While gender/race ideologies legitimize specific sexual roles for white men and women of colour, the set of root metaphors and associations glorifying the sex appeal of the mulata is embedded in Brazilian understandings of the nation as hybrid, as established in the work of Gilberto Freyre. These associations can be seen as part of an ideological strategy that uses gendered and racialized representations (i.e., mulatas' bodies) to produce a metaphorical conception of the social order (Sanday 1990; Parker, Russo, Sommer, and Yaeger 1992; Kaplan, Alarcon, and Moallem 1999), in this case, a view of the nation as a mestico paradise.
During the first decades of the 20th century Brazil underwent profound transformations. With a state already consolidated, the processes of urbanization and industrialization were accelerated, a middle class was developed, and the urban proletariat appeared. In 1930 the military coup of Getulio Vargas represented the displacement of the political hegemony of Sao Paulo's coffee landlords, giving way to the striving industrial bourgeoisie (Fausto 1972). Curiously enough, the intellectual who emerges at this point as the father of contemporary conceptions of Brazilian culture is not a product of the industrial world. Gilberto Freyre, a son of the agrarian and patriarchal society of northern Brazil, was a member of the traditional landowner elite of Pernambuco. His theories represent a nostalgic attempt at reconstructing a vision of the world for the aristocracy that was losing its power. In his theories, the north-eastern regional reality acquires universal status, appearing as the basic matrix of Brazilian social organization, underpinned by the mesticagem that occurred during colonial times.
Having pursued postgraduate studies at Columbia and been a visiting professor at Stanford, Freyre was deeply informed by Boasian culturalist anthropology. His theories of mesticagem differed from previous ones in two basic points. First is in the positive valorization of black, indigenous, and mestico elements, in terms of equality with white ones. Because of this, his work has been widely acclaimed as anti-racist, socially progressive, and, ultimately, the source of the conceptualization of Brazil as a racial democracy. Second, the concept of culture acquires a central role, substituting the category of race as an explanatory force. Freyre's theories may therefore be conceived as a reinterpretation of Brazilian racial relations from the point of view of cultural integration.
Freyre's characterization of Brazil as racially democratic does not reflect the extreme social inequalities endured by Afro-Brazilians, and has been severely criticized by a multitude of scholars since the 1960s. (5) However, Freyre's work continues to be extremely influential, as testified by the series of events and publications sponsored as part of the celebration of his centennial. His oeuvre is to this day used to justify the representation of Brazil as a tropical mestico paradise. Although Freyre portrayed the patriarchal slavery system as sadistic and perverse, his writings always depicted picturesque scenarios, evoking excitement and eroticism in the same breath. Freyre asserts that no other colonizing peoples presented the impetus toward mixing as did the Portuguese:
It was by lusciously mixing with women of colour right at first contact, and multiplying themselves in cross-breed children that only a couple of thousand bold machos were able to affirm themselves in the possession of a huge extension of land and compete with other peoples in terms of expansion of colonial domination and efficacy of colonizing action. Intermixture, more than mobility, was the process through which the Portuguese compensated for their small number. (1933, 7)
Freyre firmly believed that Portuguese males were not only exceptionally lascivious but also had a special passion for dark-skinned women, which he ascribed to their familiarity with Moorish women in Iberia. For the author, Portugal's history of Moorish and Jewish occupations accounted for the hybrid nature of the Portuguese population and culture itself, which ultimately explained the Portuguese ease in establishing social and sexual intercourse with other peoples. In the Brazilian context, mesticagem purportedly occurs within an environment of "cultural reciprocity," and results in the maximum appropriation of the values and experiences of the conquered peoples by the conquerors. Nowhere as in Brazil, asserts Freyre, can we find such a peaceful fusion of diverse cultures and traditions (1933, 55-59).
Freyre offers an explanation of the supposedly "democratic" character of contemporary Brazilian racial relations by characterizing colonial relations between blacks and whites as "reciprocal" and "harmonious":
That which was achieved by the plantation system and slavery, i.e., the aristocratization and deepening of Brazilian social divisions between masters and slaves ... was in a big way counteracted by the social effects of miscegenation. The Indian and black women in the beginnings, the mulata, the quadroon, octoroon later, by becoming housekeepers, concubines and even legitimate wives of white masters, acted powerfully toward the social democratization of Brazil. (1933, xiii)
Freyre puts forward a picturesque representation of the relationships between white males and black or mulatto females since colonial times, which takes the shape of a love tale. He states that "every Brazilian has the shadow of the Negro in his body" and celebrates the black slave "that suckled us and fed us ... the mulata that initiated us in physical love and transmitted us ... the first feelings of being complete men" (1933, 197).
It is important to note that the mulata appears in Freyre's discourse as a sexualized figure as opposed to the role of the black female slave as wet-nurse. Gilberto Freyre's understanding of Brazil as an inherently hybrid society went hand-in-hand with a eulogy for mulatice or mulatagem (mulatto-ness), particularly in its female or feminized form (1968, 647). If mesticagem is the process par excellence of formation of national identity, the mulatto stands as the most Brazilian of all national characters, with his extroversion, his talent for intimacy, and his plasticity (1968, 646). In fact, Freyre has been praised for conceptualizing mulatice as local ethos (Coutinho 1994). In Sobrados e Mucambos, Freyre asserts that "in terms of his attunement to the Brazilian environment and his easier and deeper adaptation to its interests and needs, the mestico, the mulatto, the brown man ... shows higher intelligence and leadership than the white or almost-white man" (1968, 661). Mulattoes exemplify for the author the tendency toward a common pattern and the fundamental unity of the nation, which are opposed to foreign, multi-culturalist models emphasizing ethnic diversity (see Freyre 1963). Freyre's exaltation of the mulatto figure, however, is even more explicit when referring to women. In Modos de Homem & Modas de Mulher the author tells us that filmmaker Roberto Rossellini expressed to him an interest in making a film based on Freyre's masterpiece Casa Grande & Senzala, whose main goal would be to exhibit miscegenated Brazilian women's shapes and colours. Freyre states that it is a real shame that such a film did not find enough support in Brazil, for
it is the kind of support neeeded to commend the radiation of those Brazilian female styles ... associated with the aesthetic phenomenon ... of positive and creative aspects--as well as eugenic and hygienic, aesthetic [aspects]--of a miscegenation that nobody can ignore as the process of affirmation of Brazilian peoples, as an expression of new and healthy types of men and, above all, in its aesthetic aspect, of women. (1986, 54)
The text overflows with references to Afro-Brazilian women's body shapes (hips in particular), to female morenidade as aesthetic ideal in Brazil, and to the obvious temptation these women represent for Brazilian men, who "cannot ignore such provocations" (1986, 178). In making such a clear connection between these bodies and Brazilianness, Freyre's work can be conceived of as a privileged source of archetypes articulating local myths of origins and current understandings of the mulata. Not only do Freyre's texts "explain" Brazil anthropologically, with its tendencies, preferences. and desires, but they constitute those very tendencies, founding a certain discursivity that has become hegemonic in local understandings of both mulatas and the nation. Clearly, Freyre did not invent the sexual preference for the mulata. However, it is possible to see that his discourse articulated ideas about race and gender into a metaphorical conception of the social order, constituting Brazil as a hybrid, racially democratic country. These ideas express continuity between colonial and contemporary stereotypical understandings of Afro-Brazilian women, and continue to feed the incitement toward whitening, by constituting mulatice as the epitome of beauty.
The Girl From Ipanema: Carnival, Tanning, and the Media
Since the 1930s mesticagem has become the dominant way of thinking about race relations in Brazil. The term refers to the intermixing of the three populations found at the origins of the nation: Native, African, and Portuguese, which are commonly thought of in racialized terms. "Inter-racial" sexual reproduction between these groups allegedly created a new form or meta-race, in the language of Gilberto Freyre (1974). Through the narratives of intellectuals such as Freyre, Brazilians became accustomed to thinking of themselves as a mestizo country. In a context where people of colour constitute the majority, the white elite incorporated Afro-Brazilians into narratives of nation-making that denied them concreteness as human beings. The mestizo body became an image of Brazil, and the staging of such bodies in the media a specific way of using new technologies to foster imagined identities.
According to Robert Stam (1997), from the 1930s on, the ethnic practices of black Brazilians such as samba, carnival, and capoeira were turned into national symbols in local films. In his analysis of Brazilian cinema, the author points out that the vast majority of Brazilian movies, while featuring the cultural traditions of Afro-Brazilians, fail to hire Afro-Brazilians themselves to perform in them. When they do, blacks and mulattos are almost always cast in stereotypical roles, with the exception of Cinema Novo films, Pereira dos Santos's in particular, as well as a few of the movies made by AfroBrazilian directors in the 1970s. Stam argues that truly polyphonic cinema that incorporates the voices of Brazilian people of colour will emerge only with the advent of political equality in Brazil. The same bias can be found in other visual media, such as newspapers, soap operas, and magazines. Within this visual landscape, the favoured images are those of the "mammy," the "black rebel," the "negao" (big black), the "sexy mulata," and the "malandro" (street-smart hustler), among others (Stam 1997, 333-336). In Rio, while brownness may be played up throughout the year as an image of the nation in everyday speech, intellectual discourse, and the media, this exaltation becomes more evident in February, within the context of carnival. At this time, the figure of the sexy mulata, in particular, is celebrated as the one who knows how to dance the samba (Pravaz 2000, 2003), the main type of music played during carnival. Metonymically linked, mulatas, samba, and carnival become here interchangeable images that stand for national and, more specifically, Carioca identity.
The qualities defined by Freyre as typical of mulattoes in general and mulatas in particular are widely taken for granted by Cariocas as accurate descriptions of their local ethos and physique. These qualities are described not only in terms of mulatice but also, and perhaps more often, as morenidade. For Freyre (1974, 84), morenidade encompasses everyone from the fair-skinned brunet to brown-skinned mestizos of every hue from light to dark, and even blacks. Freyre argues that to Brazilians, this means a denial of race and an affirmation of meta-race, "one of the most vigorous elements working for peace among men in an age rent by racial hatred" (1974, 85).
It may appear that in this discourse mulatice and morenidade are synonymous referents of a "Brazilian national character" where specific values and traits are stereotypically attributed to subjects of a particular skin colour. In reality, more than a description of how locals are, morenidade is an ideal Cariocas aspire to. In this regard, it is important to point out distinctions between mulatice and morenidade that may be glossed over by a superficial look at Carioca society, one that does not take into account the underpinning racism pervasive in the land of "racial democracy."
In his work on Mapplethorpe's photography, Kobena Mercer (1993) invites his readers to consider the ambivalent ways in which white people "look" at black people, modes of looking merging desire and fear, lust and dread. While the concept of morenidade holds true social value in Rio when it refers to the tanned skin of those locally perceived as "white," this is less so when applied to persons of darker skin. In fact, Brazilians use the term "moreno" to refer to blacks in many contexts, precisely as a means to avoid the "impolite" connotations of assuming that one has African descent (e.g., Sheriff 2003). Contrary to what Stam argues (1997, 331), mulatas who are seen as attempting to "pass" as morenas are harshly punished by local mores (see Pravaz 2008). That the celebrated icon of the mulata needs to be "put in her place" clearly expresses a much disclaimed white ambivalence toward blackness. At the same time, whites tend to refer to getting a tan as "ficar preto" (becoming black), a "must" during the long Carioca summer months. In this way, white Brazilians in general, and women in particular, appropriate mulatice in their embodiment of morenidade.
Morenidade should thus be distinguished from mulatice, in that the former applies mostly to whites who tan into golden shades, and the latter to lighter-skinned blacks, or to persons who are "read" as being of Afro-Brazilian descent. It is important to observe, of course, that these distinctions do not have an "objective" reality: rather, their boundaries are constantly negotiated and pushed by Cariocas who attempt to embody the social ideal in Rio de Janeiro. Such distinctions speak of a hierarchical relationship between the different ethno-racial groups in Rio, which are rarely identified as such, but spoken of mostly in terms of "colour."
The socially constructed distinction between mulattos and morenos is not merely a question of skin colour, however. Whole modes-of-being-in-the-world are at stake in this distinction, particularly gender and class-based differences largely articulated in comportment, dress, and social networks. In this regard, colour, gender, and class are embodied identities expressed through a range of rituals that are central to the understandings people have of themselves and others (see Wade 2003, 166). In Rio, the fetishization of tanned skin is part of a cult of the body that encompasses a wide variety of social practices, particularly on the part of the female population, whose surfaces are highly scrutinized as part of local ways of judging others and assigning them moral value. Beauty stands for virtue within a new morality which, under the guise of liberation, preaches conformity to a specific aesthetic benchmark called the "good shape" (Goldenberg and Ramos 2002, 25). As I discuss below, not conforming to local standards of beauty exacts a high social price.
Thus understood, morenidade is a highly esteemed value in Rio, where it has been linked to the desirable, "perfect body" (Farias 2002, 264). In her article on the body and colour classification on Rio's beaches, Patricia Farias (2002) explains that the tanned body is more socially valued than either the white or black body. The author analyzes the links between recreation (in the form of beach-going), Cariocaness, and morenidade, explaining that a tanned skin colour is valued because it denotes the symbolic power of having free time to spend on the beach, as well as for its associations with national identity within the discourse of mesticagem. Whiteness is associated with gringos and blackness with farofeiros (a derogatory term analogous to "hillbillies"), both outsiders to the beach culture. In this way, being an insider, that is, belonging to the "true" Carioca lifestyle, demands not only the golden skin colour of the "Girl from Ipanema" but also a specific habitus where bodily comportment is highly predictable. In fact, following Mauss (1973) and Bourdieu (1977), Farias shows that being "in" demands the interiorization of elaborate, pre-reflexive modes of acting, such as specific ways of sitting, walking, applying lotions, diving, and so on, learned through mimesis.
In the race for the perfect body, different aesthetic codes of "colour" are at work. While white women go brown, mulatas tend to go whiter. Of course, these tendencies do not carry the same meaning, as whiteness is more valued by society at large. Indeed, many of my research participants stated that the ideal body is that of the white, tanned woman:
Denise: The stereotypical Brazilian woman is brown, natural [no make-up], with a good body, tanned.
Gisele: Even if you don't go to the beach, you need to have your bikini sun marks. Otherwise you are too white, and that's not cool.
Exhibiting a tanned and toned young body is one of the most important sanctioned forms of obtaining social recognition in Rio. During carnival, white Brazilian actresses and models such as Luma de Oliveira, Luiza Brunet, Adriane Galisteu and Monique Evans (see Caras 27 de fevereiro de 1998; O Globo 22 de fevereiro de 1998) use the space of samba schools to showcase their beauty and expand their sphere of visibility. In doing so, they occupy spaces traditionally reserved for Afro-Brazilian women, causing many to argue that carnival has unfortunately "whitened" (Homero 1998). They run to the beach to obtain the perfect tan, and wear clothing that emphasizes their buttocks and thighs, features allegedly favoured by Brazilian tastes due to the African influence in phenotypes.
It is "common sense" in Rio to speak of small breasts and large buttocks as the main traits of the ideal female body shape, and to link this shape and its widespread desirability to the fact that a large portion of the local population is of African descent. Artists such as Carla Perez and Sheila Carvalho heavily capitalized on this local preference. Carla and Sheila were dancers in a band named E o Tchan, where they shook their behinds to explicit lyrics that did little to hide sexual connotations. These dances are widely imitated by children and youth of all ages, and since the mid 1990s the expression "tchan" has become synonymous with buttocks in local slang. Carla and Sheila appeared in a variety of magazines (Manequim 1998, Amiga 1998, Fatos e Fotos 1998) sporting skimpy sequined bikinis in poses that emphasized their buttocks.
The world of carnival is unforgiving, and demands that women maintain their youthful, shapely looks for as long as they can, in order to remain in the spotlight. For this reason, in the late 1990s white women readily resorted to breast reduction surgery as a way to match the social ideal. On the other hand, women of colour in general, and mulatas in particular, are under pressure to conform to whitening standards, such as the need for long, straight or wavy, flowing hair. As morenas increasingly take on the spots traditionally occupied by mulatas, the hair industry is currently thriving. Women of colour who dance the samba on stage and atop parade floats attempt to obtain straight hair through the use of apliques (attachments), implants, and harsh chemicals, which are costly and may have serious health consequences, from burns and hair loss to death due to the improper use of formaldehyde (Vianna 2009). The unequal distribution of social esteem as it pertains to ethno-racial traits is heightened by class differences that exacerbate these risks. Economic restraints, on the other hand, prevent women from manipulating their bodies in other valued ways such as plastic surgery or workouts with a personal trainer.
The Sculpted Body
In Rio, embodied cultural knowledge takes on a particular form, conforming to general norms that apply not only to beach etiquette but also to the local body culture at large. Stephane Malysse (2002) coined the expression corpolatria (body-worship) to describe the dominant Carioca attitude toward the physique. He theorizes the embodiment of corpolatra (body-worshipper) subjectivities as a process whereby social distinction is achieved in Rio's everyday life.
While Brazil is the country with the greatest number of plastic surgeries per capita in the world (Edmonds 2002), less drastic forms of physical intervention also take place on an ongoing basis. Through bodily practices such as fashion and the "work-out," Cariocas invest their bodies, transforming them into objects of visual consumption that fit widespread images circulated in the media. Through these "rituals of auto-transformation" (Malysse 2002, 94), corpolatras turn their bodies into works of art, while conveying the highly esteemed value of self-control. Following Baudrillard's ideas on the "moralizing of the feminine body," Malysse (2002, 97) shows how the shift from an aesthetics to an ethics of feminine embodiment has made women responsible for managing their own bodies vis-a-vis the biological facts of old age, putting on weight and so on. Being able to attain the "perfect" body," however, is always restricted by class membership, which determines access to gyms, personal trainers, cosmetics, clothing, and so on. Malysse argues that in Rio's culture the body is a theatre of self-representations. The object of narcissistic worship, the body becomes a central element of social ritual, a fetish, and a symbol that stands for the concept of "personhood." Ultimately, the body is merely an image of ourselves that we project: "The corporeal reality of the body's image allows us to think of visibility as the privileged mode of relating toward oneself and others" (Malysse 2002, 133).
The specific kinds of subjectivities enabled by the media celebration of female skin and beauty reflect just such an obsession with one's body. This preoccupation is particularly poignant within the context of samba and carnival parades, where bodies are on display for the voyeuristic pleasure of the masses. Even the international press has turned this obsession into news, as shown in The Guardian (Bellos 2000). With the heading "Plastic surgeons sculpt Rio's carnival look," Bellos's article explores how hundreds of young women believe that getting breast implants and having liposuction done before carnival is the only way to guarantee a place on the floats, indicating a potential shift in local breast beauty standards toward a "whitened" ideal. (6) In the globalized context of transnational flows of products, people, images, and values, the highly televised carnival is a showcase for the world. Conforming to the elusive perfect body, these young women attempt to jumpstart their careers as models or actresses by obtaining plastic surgery or liposculpture around their buttocks.
All of these values associated with the perfect female body in Rio fall within what we could call, following Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, and Kauer (2004), hegemonic femininity. A socially constructed standard for women's appearance, demeanour, and values, hegemonic femininity puts a heavy emphasis on appearance, with the ideal feminine body being thin and toned, and has strong associations with heterosexuality, romance, and whiteness. Indeed, the mulata is stereotypically desired as a seductive "other" within the context of normative whiteness and the ideal of heterosexual romance projected into colonial gender/race relations as a love fable. I argue here that in Rio, hegemonic femininity mimics mulatice as embodied in practices of morenidade. Through tanning, the work-out, fashion, and plastic surgery, morenas appropriate the socially marginal yet symbolically central qualities of mulatas and turn these into socially appropriate and acceptable forms through which to attain distinction in the Carioca social jungle, erasing any stigma carried over by mulatas' association with blackness.
Given that so much value is put on maintaining local standards of beauty, surgery is not considered a radical option in order to achieve the desired look, but a necessity. I had the following conversation with Ivonne, the director of mulata dancers of a local samba school, and her daughter Loretta, while they showed me photographs of skimpy carnival costumes during my fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro:
Ivonne: This is ugly. How could you put on clothes like this [skimpy, sequined bikinis] on a fat person, do you think it would look good?
N: I guess not ...
I: You don't need to be beautiful, but you can't be all flaccid and fat.
L: I had plastic surgery on my breasts.
I: Me too.
N: I could never understand why women here always want to make their breasts smaller.
I: Natasha, let me explain something. My breasts were large, but they were flaccid. Look, when I get on the court [rehearsal space], you don't know me well, if you see me at Flamingo's [samba school], when I'm feeling better, moving my arms, you are not going to believe it. Because I undergo a transformation. I think that I'm really a bit of a transformista [drag queen], because I grow taller, wear my hair long and wavy, and put make-up on. I wear daring clothing, cleavage, lingerie, so, in order to do that I need to have a presentable body, don't you think? So, do you think I'll be showing cleavage with flaccid breasts? Natasha, to undergo this surgery [abdominal liposuction] was horrible, but I am the president of passistas [solo dancers], many times I go onstage with them, when they perform, they make a circle, they swing their hips beautifully [um rebolado bonito], and I go first, then I go to the side, I just show my face, then I leave, that's what you do.
Ivonne is a self-described light-skinned mulata who can readily "pass" as a morena in Carioca contexts. Plastic surgery at the age of 43 is a specific way in which a middle-class, middle-aged woman attempts to preserve, or achieve, the desired youthful body of Rio's postcards. She achieves morenidade while embracing the values of mulatice (e.g., dancing the samba, presenting an exuberant persona, acquiring a toned, sculpted body with small breasts and waist while conserving ample hips, etc.).
We may readily say that Ivonne and Loretta's practices conform to the standard of Carioca hegemonic femininity. On the one hand, "to feel autonomous and free while harnessing body and soul to an obsessive body-practice is to serve, not transform, a social order that limits female possibilities" (Bordo 1993, 179). For Janet Wolff (1990), only the "grotesque body" can be considered transgressive of hegemonic femininities. In the analysis of poststructuralist author Judith Butler (1990), the practice of drag is a form of parody that has the potential to destabilize compulsory gender identities and heteronormativity. In the wake of performative theory, feminist theorizing on the body abounds with denunciations of women's conformity to dominant ways of "doing" their gender. On the other hand, while outrageous and non-conformist practices are central to the project of subverting stereotypical roles for women, it is important to think about less straightforward ways in which hegemonic femininity is "played with."
Consider Ivonne's use of the concept of transformismo to characterize practices of mulatice: it connotes a heightened awareness on her part of the constructed, performative, and therefore pliable and non-deterministic qualities of gender and, we can also argue, ethnoracial identities. While not losing sight of the structural constraints that regulate women's subject-positions in Carioca society, we need to consider not only the pain but also the pleasure hidden in the obsessive practices of corpolatras, particularly when exercising practices such as sun-tanning and dance. Ivonne continues:
I like my dancers to smile, the face needs to be like this, nose up, never like this [facing down]. A passista, when she is going to perform in public, she can't hold her head down, she can't be inhibited at all, she needs to have a smile on at all times. So she comes to this end [of the stage], where the public is, she makes her presentation, displays herself [se exibe, se mostra], she shakes her buttocks, this and that, comes to her spot, then another one comes, goes to the other end, and so on.
The passista cannot be shy, she shows herself off. In this exhibitionist practice, dancers relate to themselves mostly through the gaze of the other: they need to be happy (i.e., smile) because others are looking. The same goes for their extroversion. The mulatas and morenas who dance the samba during carnival mould their bodies in rituals of self-transformation that conform to external images of how their bodies should look. But in doing so, these women not only conform to hegemonic femininity but also find a place in the spotlight. One of the most famous mulatas in Brazil is Valeria Valenssa, who used to dance the samba wearing only body paint on the carnival parades and who appeared for several years on TV as "Globeleza" (Global Beauty), in a vignette that announced the televised show of samba schools. I had the opportunity to interview her during my fieldwork, and hear her reflections on fame and the other's gaze upon her body:
N: You told me you were moved by people's gaze ... What do you feel when you enter the avenida [samba stadium]?
V: I think it's a look of admiration, tenderness. There are many different looks, right, there's this look of admiration, there are many who come from other cities to watch, right, and then, there are those people who want ... [laughter], they look, but they don't smile even for one second, because they can't take it, I don't know ...
N: They don't smile?
V: No, they don't, they watch, and remain completely serious, like this, eating me up [makes an angry face].
N: This is a serious look?
V: Yes, I don't understand very well, like this, a woman looks at me and like, I don't know, maybe she doesn't like me, she doesn't approve of my work. She goes like this [look of contempt]. Man, you know, during such a fun time as carnival, I usually parade close to the percussion wing, there are people that are really happy, happy to see me, and there are others who aren't, they are unhappy [laughter].
N: You think it is usually women the ones who don't smile?
N: Why do you think this is?
V: I think it is recalque [envy].
N: What does recalque mean?
V: It means that they would like to be in your place.
V: Yes, envy, there are women that cover their husbands' faces [laughter].
N: [laughter] And what do you feel, knowing you are provoking all of this?
V: Look, deep down I think these women are insecure, right? Imagine, I am there, I am just doing my job, I am enjoying that moment of my life, like, it's going to be just a few minutes that I am going to go by. You know, so really these people are insecure, unhappy, because the fact that I am a woman is not going to stop me from admiring another woman, on the contrary ... Many times, when I do shows, the woman elbows the man she is with [laughter].
Valeria's comments provide an insight into the variety of looks the mulata gets when she dances the samba: from admiration and lust to envy, contempt, and fear. Having a beautiful body and showing it off in a display of skill may be read as "serving the social order that limits female possibilities," but it may also be read as a practice that provides pleasure and empowerment, within the confines established by hegemonic femininity. Claudete, a 24-year-old mulata dancer, says:
I never understood the prejudice of the black and the feminist movements against mulatas such as Valeria Valenssa ... As a poor girl, I used to dream of becoming a model, I became an international dancer in the category "mulata," and my life turned around. I feel like a black version of Cinderella. How could this be bad? ... My salary went from R$300 to R$3,000 ... When I see the Globeleza on TV, I am proud of being black. (Courie 1997)
It is easy to see these kinds of statements as a form of false consciousness, because the very notion of the mulata, as a colonial invention, is highly problematic. As Guillermoprieto states,
the mulata serves to perpetuate one of the myths that Brazilians hold most dear, that there is no racism in Brazil, that miscegenation has been natural and pleasant for both parties, that white people really, sincerely, do like black people. In fact, the aesthetic superiority accorded to light-skinned black women--mulatas--underlines the perceived ugliness of blacks before they have been "improved" with white blood. (Guillermoprieto 1990, 180)
While the social imaginary that makes the subject-position of the mulata possible is certainly a restrictive, racist symbolic structure, it is also one that has become part of the lived experience of thousands of Brazilians. Brazilians of colour negotiate the tenuous space between oppression and freedom in subtle ways that do not always conform to readily recognizable oppositional practices.
As we have seen, the myth of mesticagem presupposes a "romance of origins" between a "naturally" seductive black woman and a "naturally" lascivious white man, and mulattoes in Brazil are conceptualized as the perfect mixture, a hybrid between white "self" and black "other." The female product of this union, a mulata, became the embodiment of the supposed love between her parents and paramount object of desire in the Brazilian imagination. To this day, however, this celebrated icon is intermittently "put in her place." Mulattoes in general and mulatas in particular are not recognized as "self" in hegemonic constructions of whiteness, that is, light-skinned blacks are indeed subject to racism in Brazil (see, for example, Hasenbalg and Silva 1999). This generates a series of identifications that complicate Brazilian systems of racial classification, including a tendency toward choosing the category "moreno" to describe oneself.
In this article I have examined the white, masculine, neo-colonial ambivalence toward blacks, which is ideologically expressed through a myth that produces mulatas as metaphors for Brazilianness, yet leaves unchallenged both face-to-face racism and the structural inequalities that govern Brazilian social relations. In the face of such inequalities and prejudices, Afro-Brazilians use the term "moreno" as an ambiguous way to remain undefined racially. As Hasenbalg and Silva (1999, 169) observe, to declare oneself dark (moreno) is perfectly ambiguous: it could mean to have dark hair, or it could mean to have dark skin. The authors observe that less than half of the people considered black by IBGE (the Brazilian institute for statistics) interviewers during a recent census identified themselves as such. This discrepancy has as much to do with the fluidity and ambiguity of the local system of classification, as with the stigma associated with blackness.
Similarly, women of colour orient to dominant aesthetic values with regard to hair, body shape, and demeanour in an attempt to approximate the whitening ideal prevalent in Rio society. In doing so, they not only express conformity to hegemonic understandings of race, they also participate in the reproduction of local standards of femininity. Nonetheless, some of my research participants seem to derive pleasure and a sense of agency in these pursuits, making it difficult to impute a sense of "false consciousness" or subordination to their practices. Moreover, many women such as Ivonne are highly aware of the performative nature of their embodied practices, complicating fixed notions of race, gender, or class.
The other side of the coin in the pursuit of the perfect body in Rio is the celebration of morenidade as aesthetic ideal. This modality refers to the ways in which white Cariocas with a modicum of economic resources attempt to achieve a tanned, toned, sculpted body that bespeaks their class position as well as their "social value." Interestingly, this perfect body is not pale or languid but approximates mulatice in its orientation, intensity, and shape. Through rituals of self-transformation, corpolatras mimic mulatice, appropriating the socially marginal yet symbolically central qualities of mulatas in an embodiment of Carioca's uber-value: morenidade.
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Wilfrid Laurier University
(1) This article is based on ethnographic material from doctoral fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro (October 1997 to August 1998) as part of a research project on the racialized and gendered politics of national identity as pertaining to the world of samba. I attended the rehearsals of several escolas de samba, diverse samba contests and shows de mulata, as well as carnaval parades. I spent a significant amount of time with women who perform as mulatas in different social contexts, and pursued in-depth interviews with them as well as with directors of samba dancers of different escolas de samba, samba composers, intellectuals, artists, and promoters of samba contests, for a total of 36 interviews with over 49 people.
(2) The unity of the nation between 1822 and 1889 was occasioned by the existence of the Brazilian Empire, an English-style constitutional monarchy founded by viceroy-turned-emperor Dom Pedro I, when he unilaterally declared Brazilian independence from Portugal, then ruled by his father.
(3) Many authors have traced similitudes between the Brazilian case of "positive miscegenation" and the scientific, artistic, and political ideologies produced in the early 1900s in other Latin American regions such as Mexico and the Caribbean. See, for example, Benitez-Rojo (1996), Martinez-Etchazabal (1999), Rivera (1996), and Stepan (1991).
(4) A few historical details make evident the relevance of Freyre's work: His masterpiece Casa Grande & Senzala (1933) has been re-edited 21 times and translated into several languages. He was a national deputy, created Doctor Honoris Causa several times by international universities, and a member of the National Council of Culture during the 1970s.
(5) See, for example, Caipora Women's Group (1993), Degler (1971), Hellwig (1992), Scheper-Hughes (1992), Bastide and Fernandes (1959), Cardoso (1962), Cardoso and Ianni (1960), Costa Pinto (1953), and Fernandes (1965).
(6) According to the president of the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgeons, Jose Tariki (Agencia Estado 2009), beauty patterns have changed in Brazil, explaining why in 2008 for the first time in history breast surgery has surpassed liposuction.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2009|
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