Was The Rio Opening Ceremony A Social Justice Win For Brazil?

Rio de Janeiro — Cerimônia de abertura dos Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016 no Estádio do Maracanã. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

As a Brazilian woman, I was particularly keen to watch Friday night’s Rio Olympics opening ceremony. How would this kick-off event for the first-ever South American Olympic Games represent my home country? Would it showcase Brazil’s diverse culture and help to defy dangerous stereotypes? Moreover, what role would it serve in shedding light on the country’s social justice issues?

Of course, Olympic opening ceremonies are inevitably fraught — as showcases for a host country’s culture, they can powerfully challenge stigmas and elevate nations to new global renown. But they can also be used to sanitize issues a country doesn’t want the world to see, including harmful policies set in motion by the Olympics themselves.

As I sat down to watch Rio’s splashy ceremony — based on the theme of “gambiarra,” which in Brazilian Portuguese means to make something functional out of little material or resources — I quickly came to realize that the answers to my questions would be complicated.

The ceremony was, in many ways, what I wanted it to be: a representation of my home country’s diverse and wonderful culture. But it also left me questioning the nature of this representation . . . and grappling with how much more work needs to be done for Brazil to truly progress on social equality.

Representation Of Black And Indigenous Brazilians

Commendably, the ceremony made a concerted effort to represent Brazil’s Native Indigenous and Black communities. But while this was powerful, it didn’t come without problems.

Early in the ceremony, after a countdown, a group of Native Indigenous dancers took to the stage, creating Indigenous patterns with elastic ribbons hanging from the ceiling. The creative performance was, hearteningly, not whitewashed; the dancers were actually Indigenous, from the Amazonian folklore festival of Parintins.

Still, the subject of colonization was predictably sanitized: When the Portuguese entered the stage in their ships, Europeans and Natives just looked at each other hatefully before the Natives made a stage exit. While I didn’t expect the ceremony producers to show the violent genocide of Native people perpetrated by the Portuguese colonizers — as opening ceremonies are generally about emphasizing positivity — it was a cursory representation of abuse against Native people that continues to endure in modern Brazil.

To this day, Native Indigenous peoples in Brazil are killed for land, the Brazilian government hardly ever protects them because of economical interests; a haven for Indigenous culture located next to the very stadium where the opening ceremony took place was almost bulldozed to the ground to make way for a parking lot for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Formation of Indigenous peoples at the ceremony.

A subsequent segment addressing slavery was similarly troubled. This performance was prefaced by a BBC commentator saying, “And then, the Africans arrived . . . ” That he was obviously uncomfortable even uttering the word “slavery” is not surprising. But Black culture in Brazil is a significant part of our national identity precisely because of the nation’s ugly history of chattel slavery, which brought roughly five million Africans to the Portuguese colony.

Historically, Black culture in Brazil has been simultaneously appropriated by white Brazilians for the creation of a national identity, and repressed when actually performed by Afro Brazilians. Brazil’s trademark sound of samba, for example, has African origins and has become a huge part of Brazil’s cultural identity, re-packaged as a product since the 1930s. Yet Black Brazilians have been excluded from elite samba clubs and from broadcasting their own samba music. Even this year, a samba queen was deemed “too Black” to represent the national TV channel. Afro Brazilian religions such as Umbanda and Candomblé are also still widely seen as evil and sometimes even satanic.

This part of the ceremony was a recognition of how and why Africans were brought to Brazil in the first place — a necessary acknowledgement that was neither romanticized nor whitewashed. Yet it nonetheless skipped over much of the country’s problematic history and present with Afro Brazilians.

Representation of this community continued as the performance skipped ahead to the construction of modern-day Brazil, followed by a celebration of contemporary Black culture in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Favelas are informal settlements or neighborhoods that have been developed due to a lack of housing, and which are built by the residents themselves. Pedestrian-oriented, favela communities are 95% brick and mortar, and are admired by architects across the world for their flexibility, culture, and vibrant civil society.

Unfortunately, some favelas are plagued by the violence of drug gangs and a police force that is supposed to “pacify” them, which often results in the murder of innocent Afro Brazilians at the hands of the police. This portion of the ceremony featured the song “Rap da Felicidade” by Cidinho and Doca, performed by Brazilian funk artist Ludmilla, a song that has been used by Afro Brazilian activists to protest police brutality in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The song’s lyrics have become a rallying cry for favela residents who “just want to be happy / Walk around safely in the favela [they] were born in.”

Still, the only part of the song performed was the chorus, ignoring a well-articulated description of how the state treats favela communities:

“Dear authorities, I don’t know what else to do / With so much violence I am afraid of living / Because I live in the favela and I am very disrespected / Sadness and happiness here walk hand in hand / I say a prayer to a protector saint / But I am interrupted by shots from a machine gun.”

The performance also — unsurprisingly — failed to recognize the role the Olympics themselves have played in favela violence. “Being happy” and “walking around safely” have been impossible for residents of the Complexo do Alemão complex of favelas, in Rio’s North Zone, since the task to clean up the favelas of gangs so the city is safe for white people to visit has resulted in a spike in violence and murders by police — including the assassination of a 10-year-old boy by a policeman last year.

Exchange of fire between police and drug gangs has been an almost daily event in Alemão since the beginning of 2016. In an attempt to “bring peace” to favelas, police are now occupying certain communities and limiting the freedom of movement of residents, terrorizing them with constant armed conflicts and racial profiling. The 2016 Olympics has also been used to legitimize the forced eviction of thousands of low-income, mostly Black residents of Rio to “sanitize” the city to make way for real estate speculation. Amnesty International reports that last year, 3,000 people died at the hands of on-duty policemen, with young Black men from favelas and marginalized communities determined to be the main population at risk.

A celebration of Black culture and favelas — communities that have been widely stigmatized in Rio — on such a global stage matters: It’s a recognition that Brazilian culture was largely created by Afro Brazilians, and that our culture has strong connections to systemic racial oppression. However, it’s difficult for this homage not to fall flat when Black folks are dying at the hands of the most brutal police force in the world every day to keep the Olympic public safe, and when Black women who lost their children and grandchildren are at the forefront of anti-police brutality movements.

Representation Of Women

Representation of women at the ceremony was similarly complex — at turns commendable and problematic.

Over the last few years, due to the international attention Brazil has received as a result of hosting mega-events, the representation of Brazilian women has been widely discussed. The stereotyping of Brazilian women as easy and hypersexual is something I’ve felt in my own skin, and it’s a subject Brazilian women haven’t shied away from challenging. In the last few years, Brazilian women have protested sexist Adidas shirts and spoken out about street harassment perpetrated by male World Cup fans.

The 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony was a chance for redemption: Previous representations of Brazilian women have been widely blamed for the proliferation of child prostitution in Brazil and human trafficking of local women to other countries, both issues recognized by authorities as serious and urgent.

In some ways, this attempt at redemption was a success. The director of the ceremony, Fernando Meirelles, best known for his movie City of God, stayed away from typical sexualizations of Brazilian women. In fact, if anything, the ceremony showed progress on the gender issue.

In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Brazilian women’s bodies were commodified by official government materials to sell Brazil as a destination to Western tourists. This officially changed in the 2000s, when tourism materials started focusing on the natural beauty of Brazil as a unique selling point. So it was unsurprising, but also heartening, to see the Olympics ceremony open with beautiful aerial scenes of Rio de Janeiro, in appreciation of all its diverse landscapes and architecture, rather than scantily clad Brazilian women beckoning a global audience.

I was also happy to see Black women artists performing on their terms: Legendary samba singer Elza Soares sang “Canto de Ossanha” sitting down, and Karol Conka and MC Soffia performed a song called “Toquem os Tambores” that mixed capoeira and breakdance beats.

These performances powerfully defied the hypersexualization and commodified image of the mulata — a Brazilian woman defined by her brown skin and sometimes by her skill in samba dancing, which was used as a selling point to sell plane tickets to Brazil. Mulata shows still exist in Brazil and abroad, so this nonsexualized representation of Afro Brazilian women, which empowered them through culture, was compelling. (On a related and irritating note, this part has been cut out of the highlights of the ceremony I have seen online.)

That said, not everything was positive when it came to the ceremony’s representation of women. In the final moments, supermodel Gisele Bündchen walked down the length of the stadium to the sound of the famous bossa nova song “Garota de Ipanema,” about a Brazilian woman and the beauty of her body, and how this is intrinsically connected to Brazil’s natural wonders. The lyrics go:

“Look what a beautiful thing / Full of grace / It’s her, the girl / Who comes and passes by / In a swing / On her way to the sea / Girl of the golden body / Of Ipanema’s sun / Your swing is more than a poem / It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen pass by.”
Gisele Bündchen at the opening ceremony.

The song seemed like a homage to Brazilian women who are Eurocentrically beautiful, but who also have the stereotypical global south woman’s temperament of tropical docility. It wasn’t as outrageous as the hypersexualization of Brazilian women used to be — but the exotic allure of the Brazilian woman was still present.


Ultimately, the opening ceremony was as complicated as one might expect. On the one hand, it was an often thoughtful celebration of Brazil’s diversity and culture, and the representation of people who are usually ignored by Brazilian media was significant.

Yet these representations were still, at times, problematic. And the reality is that the Brazilian government needs to find ways to truly honor and protect women, Black Brazilians, and Indigenous peoples in concrete ways. Representation is essential — but so is a government that upholds social justice above all things . . . including at the Olympics.


Lead image: tribute to Brazilian favelas. All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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