Brazilian TV on the Divan

     Brazilian TV on the Divan

    Reality shows in Brazil
    are already threatening the audience
    numbers for fiction on TV. They are simpler and cheaper to
    produce, making the switchover tempting for a broadcaster like
    Globo, which spends millions on novelas and mini-series, some
    of them of excellent quality and with low audience numbers.
    by: Maria
    Rita Kehl


    1. At the (our) limit

    I still remember the uneasiness
    that I felt when, in the distant past—in the eternal present of the world
    of entertainment anything in the past is distant—TV Globo premiered
    No Limite, in prime time on Sunday.

    "Regular" people
    were chosen from a multitude of entrants ready to pay any price to appear
    on television. The group chosen was taken "far from civilization"
    (but not far from the film set) and divided into two teams to confront a long
    decathlon of tests sometimes difficult, sometimes cruel, in even crueler conditions.

    I am not referring to
    the difficulties presented by inhospitable nature, nor to the physical effort
    demanded by the tests, but to the cruelty imbedded in the rules of the game.
    At the end of teach test, the losing team was supposed to choose, before the
    cameras one of its members to be ejected from the game.

    In the beginning, the
    losing teams tended to vote to eliminate the weakest, who got in the way of
    collective performance. The criterion of the weakest player, much less objective
    than it might appear, gradually came to focus on the most annoying, who might
    be the one who least fit in with the average—age, race, physical type,
    or social class—for the team.

    It didn’t take long for
    a fascist-type climate, sweetened by tears and accompanied by sentimental
    songs, to dominate the weekly ritual of elimination.

    After some time, another
    logic was imposed on the participants: faced with the possibility of a large
    prize for an individual finalist, the remaining participants began to eliminate
    not the weakest but the strongest, trying to improve their own chances.

    Let the worst man win!
    Each banished player was paid homage with the crocodile tears of his colleagues
    and a sentimental clip of his best moments in the game, the simulacrum of
    a fleeting fame.

    The set-up of No Limite
    has a fundamentally conservative moral: it tries to demonstrate, with
    all the "realistic" resources of a live show, that human nature
    is irremediably vile.

    Subjected to punishing
    conditions of survival—sometimes the losing team would end up with nothing
    to eat—and to the subjective rules of ferocious competition, the players,
    filmed in real time, ended up showing their worst: pettiness, cowardice, the
    most calculated cynicism, lack of solidarity and loyalty.

    No Limite was a
    Nietzschean laboratory where the proof of the victory of the weak over the
    strong was cultivated, where the cynical pact that rules the neo-liberal world
    was reaffirmed.

    At the end, each edition
    of the program seemed to prove, like a theorem, that one should expect greatness
    and generosity from no one, and that only the naïve still believe that
    in better circumstances man can also become better. With this kind of "human
    nature", one should expect nothing better than the savage internship
    of neo liberal capitalism.

    It also reinforced the
    convictions of a good portion of the Brazilian elite, which justifies illicit
    practices alleging that every one has his price—there is no ethics that
    can resist the temptation of a big heap of dough. The participants in No
    Limite, without breaking any of the rules of the game, worked to reinforce
    this prejudice which protects the corrupt.

    Even so, it is still disturbing
    to watch the spontaneous bad behavior of the participants at the most dramatic
    points of No Limite. But this is already fading into the fogs of the
    past. It is true that the program was on the air until December 2001, but
    who is still worried about the fate of the players lost in Globo’s cinematographic

    At that point we were
    all perplexed by the realization that whatever is bad can still get worse,
    when we replaced No Limite with Casa dos Artistas on SBT. We
    experience the vicarious thrill of observing that people can always stoop
    just a little bit lower.

    Without the decathlon
    but within the same spirit of ferocious competition, a dozen forgotten actors
    in search of publicity agreed to spend a few weeks as prisoners within a luxurious
    house—as Eugênio Bucci wryly noted, it had everything you could
    want, except a bookcase full of books—committed to an empty coexistence,
    an idiotic life that seems to represent the ideal of millions of viewers whose
    plans for life were shaped by television and advertising.

    Before a reasonably posh
    backdrop, the group of eugenic young people passed their time with sexual
    insinuations, gossip and cattiness, lots of tedium, rivalries, tricks
    and betrayals.

    The rest was pure physiology,
    in both senses of the word. In the final chapter, the experienced demagoguery
    of Silvio Santos beat anything that the creative directors at Globo were able
    to come up with.

    One fact is beyond discussion:
    anyone who was bothered by the baseness of the Casa dos Artistas had to stay
    far away from SBT in that timeslot. And yet all of Brazil was hypnotized by
    the program, which made No Limite seem like a series for children from
    educational television.

    Once again, the question
    was unavoidable: are human beings really "like that"? Is baseness
    inevitably the mirror of our deepest truth?

    The answer can be yes.
    Or no. The unconscious is, yes, an immense repository of representations of
    the worst kind—cruelties, perversions and repressed criminal fantasies.
    If we repress them, it is not a good thing.

    The success of the worst
    programs on television is due to the fact that they enact, in public, something
    like the realization of our unconfessable desires. Education, decorum, so-called
    "good taste", the thin varnish of civilization that covers our savagery,
    our scatological curiosity, is what prevents us from spying through the keyhole
    of someone else’s room, listening from behind the door to our neighbors fighting
    and having sex.

    It is what leads us to
    politely avert our eyes from the exhibitionist drunk or the body of the one
    who has run over, lying in the street. In the name of decorum and good taste—and
    in trying to identify with the supposed behavior of the elites—we try
    to keep ourselves distant from the intimate details of others and we criticize
    the morbid curiosity of others.

    But pornography, scatology
    and morbidity, remains of the great infantile interests, are the debased version
    of the great themes of philosophy: the mysteries of desire and of the origin
    of life, the materiality of the body, finitude, death.

    The politeness, which
    separates us from the most brutal versions of these great themes, is the fruit
    of some political and esthetic ideals, which only make sense in societies
    in which these ideals possess some collective support.

    There are moments, in
    the history of a country, in which society does not want to identify itself
    with abjection. They are moments in which a large part of the population
    is mobilized by other political projects, trying to affirm other ethical parameters
    for life in common.

    There are moments, in
    the history of a culture, in which the great majority bets sincerely on the
    possibility of making a better life, and a hopeful minority begins to commit
    itself, in fact, to emancipatory projects—in art, politics, education,
    and in other forms of occupying public space.

    When these projects fail
    or are betrayed, the road is open for disbelief. If the public dimension of
    existence, which justifies the renunciation of gratification, becomes debased,
    we are condemned to interest ourselves in our own fantasies. Prisoners of
    our mirrors.

    Life which revolves around
    the television screen, whether one side of the screen or the other, is life
    that has lost this public dimension. The spaces where men meet and ideas circulate,
    spaces of political creativity and of the invention of new discourses and
    new meanings for existence, were almost totally privatized in the society
    of the spectacle, which is the post-modern version of the mass society.

    Privatized life is poor
    and insignificant. Its transformation into spectacle on the set of the Casa
    dos Artistas is as debased as the silent presences in the rooms where
    the television viewers gather.

    Sentimentaloid brutality
    and exhibitionistic stupidity (or vice-versa) are not so foreign to us as
    we would like them to be; transformed into leitmotifs for spectacle, they
    can function as consolation for these times in which our imagination is impoverished.

    2. Spying on what?

    The third edition of Big
    Brother Brasil (BBB) does not add anything new to its two predecessors,
    unless for the fact that it coincides with the news that, in the United States,
    reality shows are leaving traditional forms of teledrama behind—the end
    of fiction on TV.

    Here the audience ranking
    for BBB surpassed that of the "novela das oito, "
    the eight o’clock soap opera, (the programming for Globo is such a deeply
    rooted tradition in the daily life of viewers, that we continue to call it
    the novela das oito even though it has aired at nine pm for years).

    They say this is because
    Esperança (Hope) is boring. I don’t agree. It is slow, true.
    It has a rhythm, a style of photography and a solemnity which fit with the
    period in which it is set—São Paulo in the thirties.

    But liking Esperança
    can be a concession to the teledrama typical of those who love the great realistic
    novels of the nineteenth century, like Balzac and Dickens, to mention only
    the most popular.

    Reality shows are already
    threatening the audience numbers for fiction on TV. They are simpler and cheaper
    to produce, making the switchover tempting for a broadcaster like Globo, which
    spends millions on novelas and mini-series, some of them of excellent
    quality and with low audience numbers—like Os Maias, faithfully
    adapted from Eça de Queiroz by Maria Adelaide Amaral in 2001.

    But as critic Eugênio
    Bucci has already noted, no one can live without fiction. It is almost impossible
    to transform a slice of life, even if that life is spectacular, into a happening
    with mass appeal, if it is not at least give a minimal fictional trim.

    The third edition of BBB
    is less boring than the first because the broadcaster is directing the plot,
    editing the interminable pointless conversations of the participants, organizing
    plans and counter-plans, producing what it can in the way of creating dramatic
    tension for each "chapter" of the pathetic little life that is being
    staged—yes, staged—in the global mansion/studio/jail.

    The filet mignon of the
    plot is supposed to be soft porn. Young people, well fed, nice bodies, plenty
    of leisure: shouldn’t that be the ideal situation for offering the viewers
    the opportunity to spy on scenes of sex: But sexual interest among the participants
    of BBB is scarce.

    Pedro Bial, during the
    first week, spared no efforts in trying to entice the participants to become
    sexually interested in each other, thus offering the public a little voyeuristic
    excitement. Just that sex that has become an obligation loses a good deal
    of its interest.

    No more efficient way
    of repressing eroticism than to change it into a duty. It is true, that in
    response to the appeals of the host—or in search of points in the race
    for popularity—Domini, who came out the winner in the third edition,
    was going steady in front of the cameras with the charismatic Sabrina, who
    was eliminated. But except for this episode, it seems that the scene in the
    house is ever less exciting.

    No lovemaking under the
    covers, whispered racy revelations, stolen kisses. What excites people is
    the moment of truth when it is decided who will go. Conspiracies, betrayals,
    traps, shameless strategies to get ahead of their comrades and guarantee that
    one stays: that is the theme of BBB.

    We are not spying on a
    sample of the erotic imagination of these handsome young people confined in
    a modern day version of the Marquis de Sade’s castle. There is "sadism",
    yes, but not of a sexual nature. What is on display in BBB is the neo-liberal
    celebration of how to be calculating, the untiring game of competition with
    or without ethical limits. Money is better than sex; the competitors don’t
    want to waste their time screwing: they want to conspire.

    It seems that the public
    that prefers Big Brother doesn’t want the illusions of the sugary life on
    the novelas. Not so. What the public is looking for is better illusions.
    Reality shows are the most effective form of illusion that the mass culture
    has yet produced.

    They sell the viewers
    the faithful mirror of their debased life under the severe aegis of the "laws
    of the market". They sell the image of the jungle into which competition
    has transformed human relationships. But elevated to the level of spectacle.

    3. The Other Perverse

    The pleasure of spying
    on life as presented in reality shows on TV seems voyeuristic—but it
    isn’t. The pleasure of the voyeur consists in apprehending the body of the
    other in its obscene dimension—something that should be off stage—in
    order to realize in the imagination another scene, an unconscious montage
    which provides an enjoyment said to be perverse.

    Perhaps the viewer of
    Big Brother Brasil may feel some pleasure in being perverse, in flirting
    with a faked perversion, which is the way that ordinary neurotics often seek
    to dispel the monotony of their sexual fantasies.

    But even this voyeurism
    is fake, one more among the infinite possibilities of fakery that television
    offers. After all, the players know that they are being filmed. They know
    that every movement, every dialogue, every movement of their bodies, is going
    to gain or lose points in the great popularity contest that is what is really
    of interest; the rest is just conversation.

    If there is something
    perverse in BBB, it is in the exhibitionism of the participants and
    not in the supposed voyeurism of the public, which, after all, knows by this
    point that with a "reality show" it is like to be more deceived
    than ever. And as always, it loves it.

    The perversion of the
    participants, for their part, becomes less and less sexual—which does
    not seem to disappoint the viewer, since ratings continue to rise. The frenzy
    animating public and participants in this third edition was not sexual.

    What heated up the program
    was the depiction—and this was for real—of the competition—yes,
    perverse—characteristic of the savage capitalism to which we are all,
    actors and viewers, subjected.

    The modality of predatory
    competition in capitalist societies dominated by the communication and image
    industry is more oppressive than that which exploited the physical labor,
    effort, dedication or the competence of the workers.

    It is more oppressive
    and also more efficient, because it rests precisely on yearnings for individual
    liberty and on the production of a superabundance which promises to overcome
    both the necessities of life and the imperatives of work. The industry of
    the image does not free subjects from competition, but extends its reach to
    all corners of private life.

    This is what is depicted
    in Big Brother Brasil. The "escapist" character of the program—young
    and handsome people living days of leisure in a fabulous house, etc.—is
    much less important to its popularity than the type of unnamed afflictions,
    some of which we still scarcely perceive, which the reality show draws upon.

    The competitors are involved
    in a sort of "do anything for money", the rules of which are absolutely
    subjective. There is no proof that specific abilities are required in BBB,
    as in the case of the late No Limite.

    The weapons that count
    in this post-modern field of battle are 100 percent "psychological"—the
    affective dimension, which was able to upset the efficiency of the repressive
    industrial society until the first half of the twentieth century, was transformed
    into a more easily dominated work force in a society ruled by the image industry.

    The competitors for the
    final prize on BBB conspire, manipulate, betray each other—this
    is the truly "obscene" dimension of the show, until the most devious,
    who presents himself as the most loveable to the public, wins the promised

    The destruction of the
    public dimension of human life, the privatization of the meaning of life and
    the consecration of the subjective man in place of the political man, as the
    new paradigm for the best that our society has produced, are the secret components
    of the success of this type of program.

    The fact that the prize
    is awarded based on affective criteria, which are purely imaginary, reveals
    the magnitude of the oppression to which we are all subjected: if public space
    is invaded by representations of private life, one who does not want to be
    ejected from the game has to compromise not a portion of his time (like the
    worker in the pages of Das Kapital), but rather his whole "being"
    in this alienation, in which the tyranny of collective sentimentalism is what
    sets the norms for the "selection of human resources".

    Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, writer and poet, the author of three
    books of poetry and the books of essays A mínima diferença—o
    masculino e o feminino na cultura. She was born in Campinas, São
    Paulo state, in 1951 and is a doctor of clinical psychology. You can reach
    her emailing

    from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language
    and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish,
    French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the
    librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey.
    Comments welcome at

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