Raising the Curtain on Xuxa

In a book I’ve mentioned previously on my blog, The Brazil Reader, edited by Professor Robert M. Levine, there is a chapter on Xuxa by author Amelia Simpson which makes some valid points. Below, I will post most of the essay.

Popular culture in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s is indelibly marked by the media stardom of Maria da Graça Meneghel. Better known as Xuxa (pronounced SHOO-sha in Portuguese), the tall, blond, blue-eyed Brazilian has become an unparalleled cultural icon. Born in 1963 to a middle-class family, Xuxa began modeling in her teen years. Her well-publicized romance with soccer champion Pelé provided exposure that led to invitations to act in films and on television. Xuxa hosted her first children’s television program in 1983, and in 1986, hit the jackpot with the Xou (pronounced “Show”) da Xuxa, a five-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week show broadcast on Brazil’s TV Globo, the world’s fourth largest commercial network. Mass audiences of all ages watched the program and surrendered to a euphoric experience of group indulgence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of her stardom, Xuxa was Brazil’s national fantasy. She gave her audiences a make-believe Brazil ruled by a blond “Rainha dos Baixinhos” (Queen of Kids), the idol of teenagers, the stuff of men’s dreams and of women’s envy and aspirations.

The Xou da Xuxa and the star’s subsequent programs (such as Xuxa Hits, which began airing in January 1995) attract because they dissolve unseemly differences of race, gender, and class in a televisual pandemonium of generic happiness and idol worship. Xuxa’s image assembles in one tidy package a set of unwieldy, mutually contradictory ideas. She celebrates an ideal of femininity that is both erotic and domestic. She relentlessly markets a consumer-driven model of modernity in a country
where the basic needs of many citizens are not met. And she presents a white ideal of beauty in a nation with the second-largest population of African descent on earth. Xuxa’s image thus reconciles, without resolving, the deep fissures of race, gender, and capital that divide Brazil. The manipulation of these key ingredients of the charismatic star’s image has rendered Xuxa what her Internet homepage in 1997 calls an “authentic national institution.” Like samba and soccer, Xuxa is a form of celebration of Brazilianess. She helps to create a complex and divided identity.

Xuxa’s ability to build consensus began to slip in late 1991 when two young men allegedly tried to kidnap her and one of the Paquitas, the all-blond group of teenage girls who serve as aides to the star on her shows, in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, the star’s image has become less stable in a Brazil where citizens are less able to sustain the old myths of a fundamentally genteel society. Still, although attention has shifted to other figures and episodes, Xuxa remains inscribed in Brazilian culture as an icon of unusual authority. A 1996 poll published in Veja magazine, for example, ranked her tenth on a list of the country’s twenty most powerful people.

The most striking development in the star’s narrative in the late 1990s is the appropriation on her newer television programs, Xuxa Park and Xuxa Hits, of stylistic markers that allude to the Brazilian funk phenomenon. Since its emergence in the 1970s, Brazilian funk culture has passed through several stages, including the mid-1970s period when funk dances served as forums to assert black identity and pride. In the 1990s, the huge dances presided over by disc jockeys with giant sound systems address a variety of interests. Funk is associated with youth, poverty, and nonwhite Brazil, as well as rap and hip-hop culture from the United States. In the mid-1990s, funk also attracted middle-class, whiter kids, and is increasingly viewed as a profitable sector of the Brazilian entertainment industry.

As a result of the appropriation of elements of Brazilian funk culture, Xuxa’s programs have taken on a more racially integrated look and style in the late 1990s. The incorporation of the nonwhite hip-hop group You Can Dance and of a mulatta called Bom Bom in the regular cast of Xuxa Hits means television audiences in Brazil have a better chance to see people on the screen who look like most of them. Moreover, the Paquitas Nova Geração [New Generation Paquitas], while still all white, are no longer blond replicas of the star, as the original group was. Other features as well suggest a significant impulse on the part of Xuxa’s image managers to accommodate diversity. One example was the choice of a twelve-year old black youth to star as an angel opposite Xuxa in her 1993 Christmas television special. Another sign of willingness to use Xuxa’s huge following to construct a more racially inclusive project of national consensus was the July 1996 celebration of Xuxa’s anniversary of ten years with the Globo network. The highlight of the television special was a video of the star performing in the symbolic center of Brazil’s African heritage, Salvador, Bahia, with members of the Afrocentric percussion ensemble Olodum. These and other televisual experiences clearly denote openings for people of color alongside Xuxa in spaces that had been closed or relatively inaccessible.

At the same time, the raced view of difference that Xou da Xuxa affirmed in the 1980s and early 1990s was still very evident in the second half of the 1990s. Although the funk identity of XuxaXuxa’s consensus-building narrative of national identity clearly constitutes a genuine opening of televisual space for programmatically underrepresented subordinate groups. Yet the new funk look and sound of Xuxa’s shows enhance her ratings without altering the structure or questioning the ideological premises of her projected version of Brazilian identity. As for the Paquitas, Michele Pires Martins became the first black finalist in March 1995. In the end, however, she was not selected to join the elite group, which remained all white.

The racial configuration presented by the image of Xuxa with You Can Dance, or with her black Christmas angel, echoes the many portraits, mostly from 1980 to 1986, of Xuxa and Pelé. Their six-year, very public romance was crucial to her symbolic embodiment of Brazil’s myth of racial democracy. By visually marrying white and black in the persons of two media superstars, Xuxa’s image vanquishes difference while remarking it. She is able to affirm Brazil’s myth of racial harmony while removing the threat that black and white as equals implies by placing the image in special circumstances–the celebrity soccer champion and his beauty, or in later versions, the Christmas angel and his “Queen,” or You Can Dance with their funkeira.

There are three more long paragraphs but I will leave it to those who purchase the book as it’s a very well-compiled set of real stories spanning the entire history of Brazil. In my Amazon.com store to the right, you can find it used for about $8.

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