Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Sensual Not Beautiful

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Sensual Not Beautiful

Article excerpt

WHILE WHITE ACTRESSES AND MODELS STILL dominate beauty and fashion magazines in Brazil, on my last few visits to Brazil, I've noticed that actresses of African descent such as Camila Pitanga and Tais Araújo have also graced the covers. Since 2009, both actresses have also starred in telenovelas. Miss Brazil 2016 is the first black winner since Deise Nunes's crowning in 1986. The 2016 competition had the largest number of black candidates in its history. The dominant conceptualizations of beauty in Brazil are shifting. Erika Moura, the Mulata Globeleza of 2017, did not appear as a bodypainted nude Rio de Janeiro samba dancer, but instead performed in various costumes and dance styles representing a breadth of Brazilian regional cultures.

It's certainly not been this way for very long. In 2001, on my first trip to Brazil, I yearned to find a refuge, a place where my background as a mixed-race black woman from the United States was neither exotic nor fetishized. Relying on Brazil's reputed celebration of racial mixing, I believed that it would become my racial paradise in which brown was beautiful and I would find a resistance to the exclusivity of white U.S. beauty norms.

Instead, I became familiar with a Brazilian saying, "Branca para casar, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalhar (white women for marriage, mulata women for sex, black women for work)."

The elegant beach neighborhood of Copacabana displayed advertisements of "authentic" Brazilian mulatas (a woman of mixed African and European descent) featured in a samba show, hinting at brown mulata carnality to sex tourists. The newspaper stands, like their U.S. counterparts, were full of magazines with "beautiful" white women on the cover. Likewise, the dominant Brazilian culture and media emphasized white feminine beauty versus sensuality derived from African origins.

Beauty is not only a matter of visual aesthetics, but intimately tied to notions of race, sexuality, gender and class. The legacies of African slavery and European colonization that prescribed these norms are still evident as white women represent ideals of beauty and chastity, the mulata woman represents sensuality and sexual desire, and black women represent manual labor.


Thus, the mulata is often thought of as an embodiment of the eroticism of black and white mixing. Laura Moutinho notes in Razao, Cor e Desejo that female slaves were imagined as seductresses who initiated sex with white men, rather than their victims (2004). As Donna Goldstein argues in Laughter Out of Place, the historical mythmaking of the Brazilian colonial project has interpreted miscegenation through cordiality rather than coercion (2013). This vision of interracial sex during slavery and the fantasy of master-slave relations romanticizes sexual violence and exploitation of women and informs contemporary commodification of mulata sexuality.

After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the majority of the population was of African descent. The Brazilian white elite struggled to reconcile the desire for white modernity with its newly emancipated black and mixed-race population that haunted the national racial future and threatened the preservation of racial hierarchies. Brazilian elite and intellectuals yearned to appear on par with Europe and strove to modernize and whiten the population through European immigration and the eventual elimination of nonwhite bodies. The exclusive valuing of white bodies as beautiful-and hence civilized and superior-reflects a history based on the enslavement of people of African descent and the confiscation of land from indigenous groups.

Nevertheless, a transition was taking place. By the 1930s, the Brazilian state, along with many intellectuals, began to present racial diversity and mixing as a positive characteristic of the Brazilian nation, though still from a dominant white viewpoint. The Brazilian mulata became a key symbol of the national identity grounded in mestiçagem (racial mixing). …

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