“B-Side,” my ass. (pun intended)

Less radicalism and a bit more good humor — that’s what Zuenir Ventura had to recommend in the wake of feminist criticisms of his column of February 4th. [Some context for those who are lost: an actress appeared in revealing underwear on the soap opera that’s currently running. That’s pretty much all you need to know.]
Whence the radicalism and lack of humor? Objecting to this drooling bullshit:

The B-Side is a Hit

It was an incredible viral hit on social media, wound up in Ancelmo’s column [in O Globo] and inspired a paean from Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos the day before yesterday. I’m referring, of course, to the butt of Paolla Oliveira, the actress from the soap Felizes para sempre? [Happy Ever After?] How can we explain the nation’s fixation, given that, it being a national taste, there is such an, shall we say, excess of product? I’m not criticizing, on the contrary, but why hers? The beaches have never been fuller of nearly-bare bodies laid belly-down, revealing themselves in any number of forms: watermelon, pumpkin, melon, apple, pear. To say nothing of the muses of Carnaval who are already showing themselves off in the samba school rehearsals. A butt a time like these, in the middle of a crisis? Maybe that’s precisely why, escapism, getting away from all the bad news coming out of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Or yet another scandal from Petrobrás. Or yet another stray bullet. What should we really be admiring, Paolla’s tush or the faces of the new presidents of the Congress?

In search of explanations, I went to talk with someone who knows what he’s talking about: Ziraldo, who once headed up a magazine entitled Bundas [Butts], and recently organized an exhibition of 16 large-scale canvases by famous and anonymous artists alike, with a number of examples displaying the part of the female body he considers himself a specialist in. “I’ve always loved pretty women and their butts,” he says. An American documentary filmmaker even came to Brazil just to interview him on that object of desire, Brazil’s “chief export and national glory.” As he says in tones of gleeful pride, “I’m a pioneer. I always knew that butts would win out.”

But, in the end, what’s the mystique behind Paolla’s tush? Maybe because it’s a butt with an identity and a brand. If it were anonymous, it would never have gotten so much attention. Joaquim describes it in transcendent terms, believing that it has taken on an emblematic dimension in the heat of the political situation […] Ziraldo, meanwhile, believes that the secret of Paolla as a phenomenon lies in the whole: “The beauty of her face, her smile, her empathy, all that adds to the appeal of her butt.”

Maybe. In the soap Amor à vida [Loving Life], I was struck when I saw Paolla’s face for the first time. Unlike the Angelina Jolie-model mouth, with its sensual and sizable lips, she had one of the most delicate and well-shaped mouths on the scene today, with a barely-evident smile that recalled – to an extent – the Mona Lisa’s. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t talking about it. Now I know. Inside, she must have been saying: “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait ’til you see my B-side.”

So where, you ask, having wiped tears of hilarity from your eyes, was the lack of good humor? In pointing out, as Branca Vianna did in a letter to the columnist, that a) domestic violence and violence against women in Brazil is a massive problem; and that:

All of us, specialists or otherwise, can do one thing: treat women like people. Paolla Oliveira, Zuenir, is not a butt who came to the world to let you, Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos, or Ziraldo blow off steam. She is a person. Nor is she a “delicate and well-shaped mouth.” Paolla Oliveira is more than the sum of her enticing parts. I can’t imagine that giving men pleasure at a time of national crisis is her aim in life, or that of any woman, for that matter. I expect that she wants something more for her career. I hope that she wants something more for her career.

While it seems normal to speak of women like you did in your column – and, moreover, while that can still be considered a compliment – there will remain the idea that women are things without rights, to be used, handled, and enjoyed. And that only serves to fuel the fire of violence against women.

I don’t have much to add to such a common-sense, admirably calm takedown. In his answer, Zuenir — you guessed it — drooled some more and suggested that Branca see the funny side in all this.

I struggle with these rude shocks that come from time to time, as a feminist who studies, occasionally lives in, and loves Brazil. After the anger and disbelief, there comes fatigue. Is it really worth it to write back, when the answers reveal even deeper degrees of ignorance? The festive tones of Carnaval — which, in all honesty, and despite all my reservations, I’m missing terribly — will likely drown out any protests. Those who raise objections are either carried along by the crowd or run straight over.

Despite the temptation to shrug and sigh, it is unfailingly important not to let the recommendation — less radicalism and a bit more good humor — pass us by. I would turn it around, as a matter of fact. The fact that the author of Cidade partida would find it “radical” to criticize the sort of unabashed objectification that even a late-stage Don Draper might blush at is radical — radically backwards — in and of itself. And the columnists giggling and ogling in equal parts need to update their sense of humor. Bundas has gone out of print for a reason.

As I was translating Zuenir’s column (stopping periodically to gag), something else occurred to me. The convergence of the person and the body part in the feminine pronoun “ela” makes the objectification even more insidious in Portuguese. “She” and “it” (her ass) are literally indistinguishable. Paolla becomes even less human, linguistically drawn and quartered as she is by the ela that simultaneously subsumes her personhood. Nor is a possessive pronoun necessarily used in Portuguese — it’s not her mouth, it’s the mouth. A pair of lips, an ass framed against an open window, sans owner or context: she is gone. The fact that that elision is even syntactically possible is deeply disturbing.

Meanwhile, O Globo, feeling emboldened and festive, has just profiled three incoming female federal representatives as if they were the new picks for the cheerleading squad. It would be funny if it weren’t frightening. But hey, Zuenir, there’s a pun in my title. Feminists can have fun, too.

2 thoughts on ““B-Side,” my ass. (pun intended)

  1. Flora, you’re marvelous. Linguistic erasure is the scariest and I’m grateful to you for pointing it out–denying that women are humans really does run so deeply that the structures of our languages reinforce it, and not enough people study linguistics to be aware of the fact. Cheers.

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