Sometimes holiday traditions can go too far. Take, for example, the Netherlands’ Zwarte Piet festival where crowds parade around the city in blackface. Well, Carnival in Brazil takes offensive traditions to the next level. Not only are some Brazilian carnival sing-alongs – marchinhas – blatantly racist, others are outright sexist and homophobic.
For starters, here are the names of some marchinhas that Carnival parades have banned in Brazil. “The Indian wants a whistle” (Indio quer apito), a not so subtle reference to oral sex. “Maria the Dyke” (Maria Sapatão) and “Zezé’s Big Hair” (Cabeleira do Zezé) are offensive to the LGBT community. And “Oh, how I miss Amélia” (Ai que saudade da Amélia), which is an ode to the obedient stay-at-home wife and mother that only wants to spend her husband’s money.
Then you’ve got “O teu cabelo não nega”, or “Your hair I can’t deny”, which skillfully combines both racist and sexist overtones. The march song-along is a declaration of love and lust to a mixed-race woman. The song goes, “Since your color won’t rub off on me, mulata / mulata I want your love” (Mas como a cor não pega, mulata / mulata eu quero teu amor).
Before we get too worked up, these marchinhas are just the fun and games of Carnival, right? Well, for the feminist party-goers, not so much.
Feminists vs Traditionalists
One alternative Carnival parade, called Mulheres Rodadas (well-traveled women), is fighting to make the party female-friendly. “If something is offensive, we shouldn’t be singing a chorus about it,” said Renata Rodrigues, one of the organizers, in a radio interview.
Of course, these traditional Carnival songs do have their supporters. Pedro Ernesto Marinho, the president of the traditional Cordão da Bola Preta parade, doesn’t agree with banning the songs. His reasoning? Their composers didn’t have the intention of offending anybody, necessarily. And anyways, Carnival is just one big joke, so laugh or leave.
“We don’t consider these marching songs offensive. Carnival is a big fun game. This controversy isn’t going to go anywhere and just ruins Carnival,” said Marinho. “This controversy is more inside our heads than in the actual songs.”
Carnival traditionalists also argue that the songs reflect a certain time period, not prejudice. That’s the opinion of Rita Fernandes, who runs about a dozen Carnival parades throughout Rio de Janeiro.
“None of my parades are taking these songs out of our repertoire. We think the songs are old, traditional, and carry a context, without any prejudice. They were composed in a certain era,” said Fernandes, who also emphasizes the importance of keeping the “fun” in the festivities. “Life ends up tasteless if everything has to be correct, losing its lightness and the laughter, which are the essence of Carnival.”
But how funny is the joke when not everybody is laughing? Such songs may reflect another time period, but they don’t reflect the equality we hope to see in society – and in Carnival – today.