Every year, the entire country erupts into an arousing street festival of Brazilianness, a tropical mardi gras: Carnival. Sequined thongs, cross-dressing drumlines, and sky-high headdresses, Brazil’s Carnival is a sensual celebration of vitality. And every year the nation’s top TV station, Globo, names one reigning queen of the party. A sex symbol to drive the coverage of the festivities, an image of acceptable blackness in a nation with extreme racial inequality. Presenting, the “mulata Globeleza.”
Yes, a national television channel actually uses the word “mulata,” which comes from the word for “mule.” And this “mulata queen” character has been a staple of Carnival coverage since 1990. To fill in the gaps between program intervals, Globo features a light-skinned Afro-Brazilian woman dancing the samba in nothing but glittery body paint.
Although the festival is still a month away, Globo released a first look at its Carnival programming Sunday night. Have a look for yourself:
For years, the “mulata Globeleza” was the only person of color featured on Globo’s entire programming schedule. Indeed, while Brazilian television networks are making a point to put more Afro-Brazilian actors on screen, Globo’s world-renowned telenovelas historically featured all-white casts.
And as for the beloved “mulata Globeleza,” not once do we actually hear her voice. Nope, she doesn’t talk, sing, or portray any real, personal attributes besides her naked, dancing body.
Acceptable blackness and the myth of a racial democracy
Brazil has historically marketed itself as a post-racial utopia, narrating a past of racial democracy through miscegenation. However, such miscegenation in itself came about through annals of racial and sexual hierarchy. White European slave traders and plantation owners commercialized, objectified, and violated African women.
Indeed, the “mulata Globeleza” character plays into Brazil’s deeply-rooted sexualization of the black female body for white pleasure. And furthermore, to be Carnival queen, Globo selects a very particular kind of Afro-Brazilian woman. In 2014, Nayara Justino, with her night-dark skin and tight curls, became the year’s Globoleza by popular vote. But racist attacks were so frequent and violent that Globo claimed she just didn’t “fit the character description.” Globo immediately replaced Justino with the lighter-skinned Erika Moura, featured again in this year’s Carnival programming.
The Guardian produced a video about Justino, who has since taken on the role of a slave in a period telenovela, and her reactions to the 2014 Globeleza affair.
Brazil’s fear of black strength
Globo emphasized its efforts to address popular issues with the “mulata Globeleza” character this year, putting clothes for the first time on her normally naked body. But as Afro-Brazilian feminist Djamila Ribeiro argues, the problem with the “mulata Globeleza” isn’t just her nudity. Rather, the issue lies in relegating black bodies to white exploitation and sexual tourism. Indeed, Ribeiro argues, “it is necessary to understand just how much the reification of these subordinate and exoticized roles for black women denies us opportunities to occupy other roles in other spaces.”
Of course, mass media, which rests in the hands of Brazil’s most powerful white families, has little incentive to provide roles that reflect strong Afro-Brazilian leaders. Because there’s nothing more innocent and mindless than a naked woman dancing to a heady African beat, right? But while Globo keeps white privilege distracted, black women continue to take leadership of their communities, to innovate, to graduate from university, and to mother a strong black future. Soon enough, mass media will no longer define what is or isn’t acceptable about blackness.