In Brazil, as far as the saying goes, behind every successful man there’s a great woman. And, apparently, behind every successful woman, there’s a right-wing media saying she shouldn’t be there. Brazilian women, according to our conservative media, only belong behind men, as invisible, as potiche (meaning decorative vase) as possible. Marcela Temer, Michel Temer’s (our soon-after-the-coup-to-be President) fourth and current wife, seemingly does the trick.
I will get to why this is problematic, but first let’s recap the context. If you’re aware of Brazil’s current political turmoil, please skip the next five paragraphs. If not, please follow me.
Currently President Dilma Rousseff is about to suffer an impeachment that would put Michel Temer at the Presidency. The impeachment is supposedly grounded on Rousseff’s mismanagement of the public funds. The only problem is, in Brazil, 11 state governors have done the same during the same period as Rousseff. Yet, they are not at risk of losing their mandates. Surprise bonus: they are also all men. So the votes from the lower chamber representatives had to focus on a very clear question: has Rousseff committed a crime of responsibility or not? The answer was suppose to be clear cut:Yes or no.
What unfolded in Brazil’s parliament during the impeachment vote was, as many described the scene, a “show of horrors”. Most voted saying they did it for their family or for their close ones, in a powerful display of the patrimonialist and patriarchal society we live in. The votes,more generally, had no link whatsoever to the legal grounds on which impeachment lays. During his vote, one representative even sang the praises of Dilma’s torturer, the one who broke her teeth and damaged her jaw permanently. (By the way, this torturer is known for having tortured women by inserting mice into their vaginas.) Representation is also an issue. In our lower house, only 7% of the representatives have de facto been elected through direct votes. Many are there solely as based on an equation of direct votes and party votes. This, among other factors, has led to a lower house composed – at around 80% – of white, aging cis men, clearly not reflecting what the majority of Brazilian society actually looks like.
In any case, the impeachment was set in motion. However, legitimacy has certainly been lost in the making.
After that, although many continue to preach for Rousseff’s impeachment, many have taken a step back. On the other hand, innumerable leftists had already parted with her government, as it has not dealt with popular demands of dealing with huge issues such as the Brazilian genocide of young black boys and indigenous persons, the development-centered energy politics in the Amazon basins, the prohibition of abortion that has caused many, mainly poor Brazilian women to die, made yet more dramatic by the Zika crisis and many, many other demands that have been left unanswered. Now, leftists are coming back to mobilize against the impeachment and impending coup against Brazil’s first woman President, without any evidence of corruption, and one that displays many sexist undertones. For example, the pro-impeachment hashtag used is very clear as it states #byedarling, underlying a heinous sexist tone. Protesters have answered with the #staydarling hashtag, but maybe due to its very same sexist nature, it has not mobilized people.
Now, the impeachment is very near and very possible. It’s very easy to look ahead and predict Michel Temer will most likely take over the presidency. Following that, his first challenge will be that of legitimacy. Even those who dislike Dilma dislike Temer as well. One Brazilian comedian, Gregorio Duvivier, says that in fact Temer conveys the impossible: he reunites Brazil, but in disapproval. In a nutshell, many think Rousseff shouldn’t be our President anymore; all agree Michel Temer shouldn’t either.
In this landscape, the Brazilian traditional media, always at the service of conservative power, tried again to “better” the appearance of Temer. On Monday, right after the results of the impeachment procedure, a right-wing magazine called Veja wrote a profile of Marcela Temer, our coup-to-be First Lady.
Marcela Temer has been described as “pretty, maidenlike and a housewife”. She was 19 when she started dating Michel Temer, then aged 62 (which was considered very romantic). Her mother took her to their first date together, which reminds me of “The Traffic in Women”, by Gayle Rubin. Marcela, some claimed, as many Brazilians across social classes, has been sadly sold to a man 43 years older than her. The magazine sums up the relationship by emphasizing that Marcela “is a lucky woman”.
Just to be clear: it’s not usual at all that mothers take daughters to their first dates with men decades older. In fact, it’s very strange. But he then became “her first boyfriend”, as the magazine proudly puts it. The fact that he has had three previous wives doesn’t count: she is chast and she is the only one supposed to be ‘it’. He has three daughters older than Marcela – also not an issue at all for the magazine. Further, Marcela also tattooed his name on her neck right after they started dating. He doesn’t have any tattoo of her name.
In fact, the magazine portrays Marcela Temer as so beautifully quiet that she isn’t entitled to her own profile: the only quotes the magazine brings in are from her aunt, her hairdresser and her stylist. Not one word there is hers. Reading the Veja article reminded me of a passage in Sylvia Plath’s The Applicant: “A living doll, everywhere you look / It can sew / it can cook / it can talk, talk, talk.” But Marcela cannot even talk. She is thus the potiche portray of her aunt, her mother, her hairdresser and her stylist. The profile ends by stating Michel Temer is a lucky man.
Women across Brazil were enraged because over and over again, this ideal of quiet servitude has been portrayed as the one woman should aspire to. Outside this stereotype, media is merciless, as its campaign against Dilma is showing. Dilma is accused of “screaming” and not “being in control of her emotions” by a magazine from the same printhouse that brought us the profile of Marcela Temer.
Michel Temer is so lucky because his wife doesn’t work, doesn’t talk and barely exists in the public world, meanwhile being pretty. Following the publication of the profile, creative women started the hashtag “pretty, maidenlike and a housewife” (#belarecatadaedolar), in which they criticize not that a woman may aspire to be like that, but that women are only considered of any value when they abide by this stereotype. They started posting pictures of themselves on social media, either drinking alcohol or in “outrageous”, not-maidenlike-at-all positions, as a way to protest. It was instantaneously hilarious and viral.
Philosopher Marcia Tiburi, commented on how the magazine tried to project qualities in Marcela that could reflect on Temer, in order to make her a species of prosthesis of the after-the-coup President: being 75-years-old, Michel Temer needs the vitality of Marcela Temer’s youth. Finally, by being “a housewife”, an anachronism of sorts in Brazil, where women are at the marketplace and many are heads of households, the magazine intents to state that Michel Temer is a family man. However, it completely backfired.
Pro and against-coup women alike joined the humorous online protest, many specifying that this wasn’t supposed to be against Marcela Temer at all, but rather against a stereotype forced onto Brazilian women that only provided one way to be a woman, and this way is being behind a “great lucky man”. In this sense, a satiric newspaper wrote about “Michelle”, an inflatable doll married to a lower house representative, describing her as “pretty, maidenlike and inflatable: the profile of the perfect politician’s wife (in Portuguese) and a tumblr was started to gather the pictures of women engaging in the #BelaRecatadaedoLar campaign.
Through this spontaneous online hashtag reponse, Brazilian women are pointing out that behind every man, there’s centuries of male privilege. Brazilian women are saying that the problem is not that a woman would want to be a maidenlike housewife, but rather that some think all women should only be maidenlike and their sole purpose should be to be housewives. Any other choice would thus make women less respectable. In any case, revolted as I was at this stereotype, when I saw countless women (including my mother!) fighting back with the funniest pictures, I looked at myself: single, career-driven and a fashion-mess, and was sure of one thing: I am a lucky woman.
About the author: Leticia Zenevich is a Lawyer passionate about gender equality. She currently works for Women on Web, while she’s getting her Master degree in Human Rights at Sciences Po Paris. She is also a consultant for UNHCR. She likes to work in the intersection of gender and refugee-related matters and has a big crush on Amy Poehler. She loves traveling but hates to leave her delightful poodle behind. Leticia is also a member of the Young Feminist Activism program advisory group.