You’ve seen the images of Brazilian Carnaval. A sea of people in the streets, oiled-up women samba-dancing at lightning speed and packs of trumpets, trombones and drums blasting out singalong songs. But this year, the annual tradition of full-throttle lascivious indulgence is showing signs of change as well.
The changes are perhaps most evident in this year’s controversy over the glitter-coated woman who dances across Brazilian TV screens this time of year.
For decades, the telltale sign that Carnaval season had begun was the appearance of the “Globeleza” dancer during commercial breaks on Brazil’s major TV network, Globo. (“Globeleza” is a portmanteau of Globo and the Portuguese word for beauty). Clothed only in sparkly glitter and body paint, this performer — always a mixed-race woman — samba-dances for about 30 seconds with a broad smile while her body parts jiggle and the camera zooms.
The idea is to get Brazilians excited for Carnaval, but an increasing number of Brazilians see the Globeleza as a symbol of the objectification of women — women of color in particular.
“This is an old colonial symbol that doesn’t represent the multiplicity of Brazilian culture — or Brazilian blackness — at all,” said Juliana Luna, a writer for the Brazilian magazine AzMina. She sees the Globeleza as an example of using black women as a form of entertainment, “a body displayed in a window.”
This year things are different. For the first time since 1991, the Globeleza danced across TV screens in actual clothing — a crop top. Luna was admittedly shocked but thrilled by the change. “You don’t need a black woman with her [butt] out covered in glitter to sell Carnaval.”
The covering up of the Globeleza is not the only cultural shift afoot. Many of the most beloved Carnaval songs were written in the 1930s and ’40s and use language that might now be considered controversial at best — and racist at worst.
One of the songs at issue sings of a “mulata,” a now-derogatory word for a Brazilian woman of mixed race. It includes the verse: “Since the color won’t rub off, mulata / Mulata, I want your love.” Several songs treat homosexuality in a similar manner: One suggests attacking an effeminate male hairdresser; another jokes about a man who dresses like a woman.
This year, a cluster of Carnaval parade groups chose to exclude the mulata song and other anthems from their repertoires. Headlines in Brazil blared that the songs were now “banned” from Carnaval in general (they were not), which set off an outraged response on social media.
“If a black woman feels uncomfortable playing the song, I don’t see a reason to play it,” said Débora Thomé, founder of the feminist Carnaval group Mulheres Rodadas. “There are so many songs we can play, why play that one?”
The pushback is a sign of the growing influence of Brazil’s progressive social movements, which have gained traction and visibility over the past year. But at the same time, political power in Brazil has shifted to social conservatives.
That shift can be attributed in large part to the increasing power, both cultural and political, of the evangelical church in Brazil. Today, nearly a quarter of Brazilians identify as evangelical, up from 5 percent in 1970.
When it comes to the sinful extremity of Carnaval, some evangelical leaders encourage their followers to simply sit out the party. One of Brazil’s most famous evangelical pastors, Silas Malafaia, warned on his website that “this festival of the flesh brings degrading physical, moral and spiritual consequences,” adding, “It is therefore not appropriate for Christians to participate.”
But some evangelicals know Carnaval can be impossible to avoid. So, like the social progressives, they are attempting to transform the festival into one they can endorse. In the city of Salvador, for example, a group called Salt of the Earth will parade to Brazilian funk tunes — one of Brazil’s most salacious music genres — adapted to include lyrics referencing the Bible. Another group, called Christafari, will parade to gospel reggae music.
“The beat is the same, the lyrics are different,” a performer name Tonzão told a local paper. He justified Christians’ participation in this adapted Carnaval by saying, “Dance is a way of evangelizing.”
Still, for the majority of Carnaval revelers and organizers, these changes are missing the point. Jõao Roberto Kelly, the author of many of the traditional anthems, told Globo News he thought the criticism of the songs was “a little exaggerated” and too “politically correct.” Pedro Ernesto Marinho, the president of the oldest street parade in Rio de Janeiro, says his group is “radically against” eliminating traditional Carnaval songs. He says that while the makeup of each Carnaval group’s playlist is a decision for the group to make on its own, he believes the old-school songs “don’t cause a problem for anyone.”
“These songs create happiness,” he said, “and Carnaval is the biggest expression of happiness that the Brazilian people have.”