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‘Tomorrow It Could Be You': Gender, Racism and the Limits of Humor in Brazil

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages.]

A TV comedian's offensive jokes about a breast milk donor has revived the debate about the limits of humor in Brazil. 

Danilo Gentili spent several minutes on his TV show making jokes about one of the main breast milk donors in Brazil, Michele Rafaela Maximino. She is from Pernambuco, and at that point she had donated more than 300 liters of milk to hospitals of Pernambuco.

As Giovanna Balogh from Blog Maternar commented:

No programa do último dia 3, o comediante fez piadas em rede nacional utilizando uma foto dela sem autorização. Gentili chegou a comparar Michele com o ator pornô Kid Bengala. “Em termos de doação de leite, ela está quase alcançando o Kid Bengala.”

During the episode that aired on 3 [October], the entertainer made jokes on national television using her photo without permission. Gentili even compared Michele with porn actor Kid Bengala. “In terms of milk donation, she is almost reaching Kid Bengala.”

His comment had effects beyond a few laughs on TV. After some residents began to call Maximino “Gentili’s cow”, she said that she plans to stop donating milk because she feels humiliated.

The psychological effects of the humiliation were devastating to Maximino, who used to drive 80 kilometers to donate milk in Caruaru:

Ele falou essas barbaridades e eu estava fazendo um incentivo às mães a doarem leite”, disse Michele. ”Eu passava na rua e o povo falava : ‘Olha a vaca de Danilo Gentili’!’. Fiquei várias noites sem dormir. Um peito secou”

“He said all these terrible things and I was making an incentive for mothers to donate milk”, Michele said. “I was walking down the street and people said: ‘Look at Danilo Gentili's cow! ‘. I spent several nights without sleeping. One of my breasts dried”

The milk donor sued Gentili and the TV network that hosts his show, Rede Bandeirantes, and won a court order for the video to be taken offline.

The limits of humor

Danilo Gentili in the documentary “O Riso dos Outros” (“The Laugh of Others”). Screenshot shared on blog Limpinho & Cheiroso (Little Clean & Sweet).

“My intention with comedy is never to denounce… it's really to destroy”. Danilo Gentili in the documentary “O Riso dos Outros” (“The Laugh of Others”). Screenshot shared on blog Limpinho & Cheiroso (Little Clean & Sweet).

Some people who supported the entertainer, warning of the dangers that the decision to remove the video from the Internet could bring. Political analyst Flavio Morgenstern wrote on Implicante blog:

Danilo Gentili se tornou alvo da patrulha graças a uma piada. Não se junte à patrulha: hoje foi o Gentili. Amanhã poderá ser você.

Danilo Gentili has become a target of the “patrol” thanks to a joke. Don’t join the “patrol”: today it was Gentili. Tomorrow it could be you.

But journalist Kiko Nogueira pointed out on Diário do Centro do Mundo (Daily from the Center of the World) the difference between the politically incorrect humor used by several comedians in United States as a tool to challenge prejudices and social structures of domination, while comedians like Gentili choose people who are target for social discrimination. He emphasized that discrimination with humor is “stupidity”:

Gente como Andrew Dice Clay, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, entre outros, são expoentes dessa escola. Eddie Murphy também. [...] Murphy tirava sarro de negros, como Chris Rock. Uma diferença é que eles são negros. A outra é que eles são engraçados e inteligentes. [...]O que a turma de Gentili faz é outra coisa. Um dos nomes é covardia.

People like Andrew Dice Clay, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, among others, belong to this camp. As well as Eddie Murphy. […] Murphy made fun of black people, as Chris Rock did. The difference is that they are black. Another difference is that they are funny and smart. […] What people like Gentili do is different. One of the names for it is cowardice.

This debate is taking place frequently in Brazil, since sitcoms have become more and more lax including offensive content, whose main targets are minority groups, such as black people, women and LGBT people.

In the blog Papo de Homem (Men Chat Blog), Alex Castro wrote an Open Letter to Comedians of Brazil, which has been widely spread, that talks about the limits of humor and a comedian's responsibility to society. In one of the excerpts of the provocative letter, Alex challenges:

É muito mais difícil fazer humor sem usar esses estereótipos que confirmam e fortalecem as culturas assassinas do nosso país: a homofobia, o machismo, o racismo.

Será que vocês conseguem? Será que conseguem, ao mesmo tempo, ser engraçados e não ser cúmplice dos assassinatos de mulheres, negros homossexuais.

Sei que não é fácil. Se fosse fácil, eu não estaria pedindo. Se fosse fácil, eu não estaria propondo o desafio.

Mas é tão necessário. É tristemente necessário.

Porque os humoristas alemães que faziam piadas de judeu em 1935 não são inocentes de Auschwitz não.

It is much harder to be funny without stereotypes that confirm and strengthen killer cultures of our country: homophobia, sexism, racism.

Could you do it? Would you be funny and at the same time not be an accomplice to the murder of women, blacks, homosexuals?

I know it is not easy. If it were easy, I would not be asking. If it were easy, I would not be proposing the challenge.

But it is so very necessary. It is sadly necessary.

Because German comedians who made Jewish jokes in 1935 are not innocent of Auschwitz.

One of the characters on another Brazilian television show, ”Adelaide” from Zorra Total (Total Snafu), stereotypes black people and has been criticized for it. In fact, the show has battled lawsuits filed against the use of the character, but it remains on the air. The program uses a tactic that was very common in the United States during the period of racial segregation: a white actor is painted black (actually a black woman) to characterize features of African descent.

Writing for Geledes, The Institute of Black Women, Sergio Martins argues that the character is not funny, and that this could be “something created by racist minds that use a set of stereotypes historically built by Brazilian society to represent black men and women.”

Gentili and racism

Black people have also been targeted by comedian Danilo Gentili, in this case with a comment on Twitter, in which he offered “bananas” to a black netizen. Soon after, he deleted the racist tweet.   

Actress Marianna Aremellini in the documentary “The Laugh of Others”. Screenshot shared on the Blog Lançamento de Filme (Launching of Movie Blog).

“Calling a black man a monkey is not, and has never been, funny.” Quote from the actress Marianna Aremellini in the documentary “The Laugh of Others”. Screenshot shared on the Blog Lançamento de Filme (Launching of Movie Blog).

On the post “A certeza da impunidade” (The Certainty of Impunity), author Juliana Gonçalves reported:

O redator Thiago Ribeiro, 29 anos, estava cansado dos ataques à comunidade negra realizados pelo comediante Danilo Gentili, quando editou e postou no Youtube um vídeo que enfatiza o conteúdo racista veiculado nas “piadas” do humorista da TV Bandeirantes.

Writer Thiago Ribeiro, 29 years old, was tired of attacks on the black community made ​​by comedian Danilo Gentili, when he edited and posted on YouTube a video that emphasizes the racist content of the “jokes” of the comedian from TV Bandeirantes.

The video was removed from YouTube at the request of Gentilli alleging misuse of image.

The conflict wasn't over at this point, and followers of Gentili on Twitter began to attack Thiago Ribeiro (@Lasombraribeiro) with racist comments such as: “I’m going to take some bananas to @Lasombraribeiro for him to be quiet” from profile of @BiahNunes; “lashes on him please” written by @jaqporra; and “he is not that black, he knows how to make a Twitter and knows how to do screenshots” from @RaquelRangel0.

The direct effects of this kind of humor are so evident, that the affirmation of Flavio Morgenstern quoted above, “Tomorrow could be you”, could well be referred to victims of offensive humor.

As stated by Lays Moreira in an article written with Henrique Marques-Samyn, a professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro – UERJ (University of the State of Rio de Janeiro):

Não se pode mensurar os prejuízos que o “humorista” causou, ainda que Michele ganhe a ação indenizatória que ela move contra Gentili. Isso porque suas ações, sua irresponsabilidade no uso do que ele chama de humor, afetaram vidas, reforçaram estereótipos de opressão, desestimularam a empatia e a solidariedade humana. Mal demais causado pelo que pretende ser apenas “uma piada”.

You cannot measure the damage that the “comedian” caused, even if [milk donor] Michele wins the lawsuit that she filed against Gentili. This is because his actions, his irresponsibility in the use of what he calls humor, has affected lives, has reinforced oppressive stereotypes, has discouraged empathy and human solidarity. It is harm caused by what he means to be “just a joke”.

This difficulty to see and recognize differences and the debate about the limits of humor are discussed in the documentary “O Riso dos Outros” (“The Laughter of Others”), which includes interviews with comedians Danilo Gentili and Rafinha Bastos, cartoonist Laerte and Congressman Jean Wyllys, among others. The movie, directed by Pedro Arantes and uploaded in 2012 December, has almost 300,000 views on YouTube.

Raphael Tsavkko collaborated in this post.
  • Nico Ruesch

    Cruelty is closely linked to stupidity. Case in hand: Danilo Gentili.

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