Carnaval’s moral questions

“Rain or shine, war or peace, economic boom or bust, the pre-Lenten Carnaval once again convulsed this beachfront city with four days of merrymaking, sensuality and spectacle.”

—James Brooke, The New York Times

To outsiders, Brazil means three things: beach, soccer, and Carnaval. Stereotypically, most see Carnaval as a time when the country has a giant party and enjoys the beauty of life. Take Rio’s Carnaval, for example. The Sambódromo, an arena for the samba-school parades, is filled with decorated vehicles that take months to create, vehicles full of people dancing samba. The entire event is a competition televised around the country via the largest Brazilian channel, Globo.

Although this cultural phenomenon certainly is incredible to witness, instead of celebrating Carnaval mindlessly, there are moral questions that should be asked. While watching the celebrations on TV, one may be distracted by the saturated colors of the costumes, the extravagantly decorated floats, and the numerous semi-naked women that smile for the cameras. Most Brazilian viewers don’t think about how those women are being objectified or about the cost of those costumes and floats.

If this is a part of Brazilian culture, should it be merely accepted? Anyone watching Carnaval sees that women’s bodies are a focus. On Globo, for example, there is the promotional clip “Globeleza,” in which a young woman said to embody the spirit of Carnaval typically wears nothing but stickers and paint to cover her genitals. These women are chosen through a Globo-funded competition in which the Brazilian public votes for who will be the “woman of Carnaval.”

Marcos Sacramento, a journalist for Carta Maior, critiques the secondary role that black people play on Brazilian television. He points out that there is little representation by black or biracial people in the national media, arguing that they only have supporting roles of house workers in novelas and as figures in Carnaval festivities, such as with the “Globelezas.” If there is racial marginalization in Brazilian culture, “Globelezas” may seem to defy this stereotype, considering that all three women who have ever been elected to this position are biracial. But still, is this an honor? Should young women be encouraged to be so intensely objectified?

Another oft-criticized aspect of Carnaval is its cost, including what it illustrates about our unequal society. The parades in São Paulo and Rio take place for only two days each, but millions of reais are invested in the exuberance of the annual party. Surely this money could be used in a more effective way to benefit society. Instead, people from the working classes enjoy a night of fantasy and glamour and then return to the unfair conditions of class segregation. What is most mystifying to me about Carnaval is that a nation struggling with pressing health, education, inequality, and infrastructure issues is somehow able to mobilize people to party.

Behind the joy and glitter of Carnaval, there are moral issues involving sexism, racism, and classism. Instead of simply disregarding these questions and embracing Carnaval, we should look more deeply into what the event reveals about distorted Brazilian moral values.