Brazil has long been known around the world for its soap operas. “When the election of Gorbachev’s successor fell on a holiday in 1996, the Russian government aired the finale of “Mulheres de Areia” (Sand Women) to encourage voters to stay in town and head to the polls. “Escrava Isaura” (Slave Isaura), about a white woman raised as a slave during the colonial era, became a huge hit in communist China and Cuba in the 1980s.
It was through telenovelas that Brazilians became acquainted with modern-day controversies, such as surrogacy, modern slavery, the landless workers’ movement, human clones, bioethics and so on. Whether they are good drama or just poorly written romances, it's indisputable that telenovelas have been an important tool to introduce social debates in the country — even if most of the times in a pretty clichéd and conservative way.
The latest controversy, however, is related to the Mexican soap opera “Sortilégio” (Sortilege), currently being aired in Brazil by SBT channel. Since it began in October, it has stirred an outcry among viewers disappointed with the drastic adaptation of the plot made by the Brazilian TV network.
“Sortilégio” features a heterosexual couple as protagonists, but also follows two male best friends, both bisexual, who fall in love with each other. When it was aired in Mexico in 2009 and 2010, some sex scenes inflamed reactions there, forcing the show's producer Carla Estrada to respond to critics. But that was it.
In Brazil, SBT has “adapted” the story in order for it to be aired during the day. But the TV station didn't just cut out the sex scenes — it also transformed the romantic relationship between Ulisses (Julián Gil) and Roberto (Marcelo Córdoba) into a run-of-the-mill friendship between two straight men.
Scenes where the characters look at each other lovingly were cut out; dialogue that includes one of them speaking about his interest in the other were dubbed with the name of an invented female character who never shows up; every trace of intimacy between the two men was completely deleted from the show.
According to Brazilian news portal UOL, in September – before the soup opera even went to air — the Public Prosecutor's Office had already received a couple of complaints denouncing its “improper” content and “extreme scenes of sex and violence” by people already familiar with the Mexican version.
When asked by newspapers, such as O Globo, about the changed plot and dialogues, SBT only said “no sex scenes go on air at this time of the day”, referring to the 4 p.m. hour when the novela is aired.
The curious thing is that SBT is also the channel that aired the first gay kiss on Brazilian TV. That was in 2011, in a telenovela called “Amor e Revolução” (Love and Revolution) set during Brazil's military dictatorship. Two women who were guerrilla fighters exchanged a smooth, quick kiss.
Also, earlier this year a massive social media campaign pressured TV Globo, Brazil's main TV network, into showing in the last chapter of one of its telenovelas a kiss between two gay male characters.
What TV tells us you about gay love
As Bruno Bimbi, an Argentinian journalist and LGBT activist, wrote in his blog Tod@s:
La mayoría de las novelas mexicanas con personajes gays […] los presentan totalmente estereotipados y ridículos —amanerados, que se dedican a cortar cabello en peluquerías, estrafalarios en el vestir, asexuados, sin pareja ni perspectivas de tener sexo o amor, jamás dando un beso, jamás en la cama.
Gay characters in Mexican telenovelas are mostly presented as “stereotyped and ridiculous – full of mannerisms, dedicated to working in beauty parlors, with extravagant ways of dressing, asexual, with no love interests or perspectives of having neither sex nor love, never kissing, never in bed.
That is also true of most Brazilian TV, as well. With only a few exceptions, gay characters are added to the storyline as a comic relief.
With “Sortilégio”, the problem goes even further, as the original story pushes conservative moralism. After living a homosexual relationship with his best friend, party-goer Roberto, who was previously married, regrets his life of “excesses” and goes back to his wife and kids. The gay romance was, bottom line, just an element of the character's “redemption” story arc.
Bimbi also questions the “influence” gay characters may have on the audiences:
Parece que no se dieran cuenta que nosotros, gays y lesbianas, también vimos todo eso por televisión, en el cine, en la calle, en el barrio, en la escuela. Parejas de chico y chica por todos lados. Besos de chico y chica por todo lados. Historias de chico y chica por todos lados. Personajes de príncipe y princesa en cada cuento infantil. Romance y sexo entre chico y chica en cada serie, cada película, cada cuento, cada novela. Erotismo y sexo heterosexual por todas partes. Y no por eso nos transformamos mágicamente en heterosexuales, porque la sexualidad humana no funciona así, por imitación. No se contagia. No se elige. No se cambia.
It seems they haven’t noticed that we, gays and lesbians, have also seen all of this [heterosexual relationships] on television, in the movies, in the streets, at school. Boy-girl couples everywhere. Boy-girl kissing everywhere. Boy-meets-girl stories everywhere. Prince and princess characters in every single child story. Romance and sex between boy and girl in every TV show, every movie, every story, every telenovela. Erotism and heterosexual sex everywhere. And this did not transform us magically into heterosexuals, because human sexuality doesn’t work like that, by imitation. It isn’t contagious. You cannot choose it. You cannot change it.
The Brazilian government takes a stand
The controversy also motivated the Ministry of Justice’s official page on Facebook to publish a post on the issue. Using a photo from the movie “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), with the characters Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), the office stated:
O beijo é Livre (ainda bem, né?). Para a Classificação Indicativa do MJ, é indiferente se o beijo é entre pessoas do mesmo sexo ou não. A nudez não erótica também pode ser considerada Livre.
Conteúdos mais erotizados – nudez velada, insinuação sexual e carícias sexuais, como preliminares ao ato sexual – podem ser “não recomendado para menores de 12 anos”. Nesse caso, também não faz diferença para a #ClassificaçãoIndicativa se as cenas são protagonizadas por pessoas do mesmo sexo.
Kissing is “censor free” (thank goodness, right?). To the Indicative Classification of the Ministry of Justice, it is indifferent whether the kiss is between people of the same sex or not. Non-erotic nudity can also be considered “censor free”.
More erotic contents – veiled nudity, sexual insinuation and sexual caresses, like foreplay to the sexual act – may be considered “not recommended to people under 12 years old”. In this case, it also does not matter to the #IndicativeClassification if the scenes are acted out by people of the same sex.
The post attracted some homophobic reactions and criticism of Brazilian President Dilma Roussef’s government (a classic of Facebook's comments sections), but others celebrated the stand taken by the ministry. In spite of being a secular, Brazil has already missed many opportunities to advance debate on progressive laws – such as the decriminalization of abortion, marijuana or marriage equality – because of the pressure from conservative sectors of society and the members of congress elected by them.
Brazil is home to the largest Gay Pride Parade in the world, but also tops the list of reported number of murders of trans people. Brazilian TV might be taking a step back into the closet, but the Ministry of Justice's response could be a sign that some of us want it out again.