Review of Brazilian Telenovelas and the Myth of Racial Democracy by Samantha Nogueira Joyce

Review of Brazilian Telenovelas and the Myth of Racial Democracy by Samantha Nogueira Joyce

TriQuarterly: a journal of writing, art, and cultural inquiry from Northwestern University
Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois

Reighan Gillam, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Department of Afroamerican and African Studies
University of Michigan

Telenovelas, or soap operas, are the main staple of television entertainment throughout Brazil and in many other Latin American countries. Unlike in the United States, where soap operas can run for decades, in Brazil telenovelas end after presenting their storyline over a six- to eight-month period. They are designed to attract men, women, and children as viewers and have dominated in television’s primetime slots for the last thirty years. Although the plotlines, characters, and settings are fleeting, telenovelas have remained Brazilians’ favorite form of primetime entertainment.

Often Latin American telenovelas have served as vehicles to introduce social issues by depicting a common problem, such as gender inequality or limited access for the disabled, in order to raise awareness and stimulate discussion. In Brazilian Telenovelas and the Myth of Racial Democracy, Samantha Nogueira Joyce takes one particular telenovela, Duas Caras (Two Faces), as her subject of study. Running for eight months in 2007–8, this telenovela deserves particular scrutiny because it was the first to include an Afro-Brazilian actor as the lead character and the first to make race relations and racism a constant theme. Joyce uses this telenovela as an opportunity to examine the role of television in contemporary currents of social change in Brazil. Through her analysis of Duas Caras, Joyce aims to demonstrate how “telenovelas are a powerful tool for introducing topics for debate and pro-social change, such as the instances where the dialogues openly challenge previously ingrained racist ideas in Brazilian society.”

The myth of racial democracy to which Joyce’s title refers is the Brazilian national narrative that defines the country’s citizens and identity as racially mixed. Put simply, it is generally thought that the Brazilian populace and culture emerged from a mixing of European, indigenous, and African people. Many believe that because there are no rigid racial lines that delineate black from white in Brazil, racism and racial discrimination do not exist there. In contrast to the “one-drop rule” of the United States, where “one drop of black blood” renders a person black, in Brazil, Joyce explains, “the racial blending has been validated not into a binary, but a ternary racial classification that differentiates the population into brancos (whites), pardos (multiracial individuals, also popularly known as mulatos), and pretos (blacks).”…

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