Why are Brazilians obsessed with what foreigners think about them?
On a surprisingly warm afternoon last May in London, the Brazil Institute of King’s College hosted a masterclass to discuss the World Cup that was about to happen in the “land of football.” In the middle of one of the lectures, the speaker decided to know the audience a little better, and asked for a show of hands of how many of the people watching him were Brazilians. About half of the public of more than one hundred people raised their hands, to some surprise of the other half. The masterclass had been designed to present Brazil, a country that was about to be on the global spotlight, to those who really didn’t know much about it apart from the basic stereotypes of Carnival, beaches and football, of course. What it ended up doing, however, was exposing one of the most unexplored, and yet fascinating, facets of the “brasilidade”, the Brazilian national identity.
Brazilians are curious, they want to know what the rest of the world thinks of them, and they want to read the opinion of anyone from abroad. Brazilians also love to react to the way the country is described and its image is projected abroad. Seeing Brazil in the foreign media serves as means to confirm how important the country is for the world, or it may justify indignation, as the whole country gets together to protest against international prejudice – it is true, just ask The Simpsons.
What other nationality would be so interested in their own nation as to fill a theatre for a whole day discussing the realities of the land in which they were born and raised? It is hard to think anyone from the UK would be interested in watching a class in any Brazilian university about the reality of their country prior to the 2012 Olympic Games, for example. It is hard to think that anyone from any other country would be interested in hearing a lecture about their homeland anywhere else in the world. We care a lot.
Just look at the national press. Whenever any important news outlet in the “developed world” publishes stories related to Brazil, it becomes news inside Brazil. “Deu no New York Times” or “diz a revista Economist”, have become common titles in the largest newspapers and news portals in Brazil, referring to mentions in the foreign media. And the reason for that is the fact the public loves those stories about the international stories. It is not rare to see articles about what the international media say about Brazil become viral in the country.
We even have a saying about this. “Para inglês ver,” meaning that something is “just to show it to the English,” which has been used for more than a century whenever something is done just as a way to show it to the world, even if its not something real in the country. That’s something that comes from our colonial past, and that already shows how big is the obsession with the image of Brazil, and how far it has come.
I should know about this obsession. I write a blog about what is said about Brazil in the rest of the world, I have been studying this international image of the country and the national obsession with it for years, and I have published a book and written a Master’s dissertation on the subject. So, yes, I may be in part responsible to feeding this frenzy with posts about the image of the country, but my interest in it comes more as a way to understand Brazilians themselves. What really attracts me to it, though, is to try to understand why it happens. Why are Brazilians so interested in what people in other countries think or say about theirs? Why do we care so much?
There is not one simple explanation, but looking at history it is interesting to see that it has always been a part of the national identity, and that it may actually be related to how insecure Brazilians feel about themselves. It also comes from what is known in the country as a “complexo de vira-latas”. One of the reasons commonly associated with the national obsession with the international image is what writer Nelson Rodrigues called the “complexo de vira-latas”, which could be translated as the mongrel complex, “the inferiority with which the Brazilian puts himself, voluntarily, in face of the rest of the world.” Brazil, he argued, moves between pessimism and hope because the country is ashamed of believing in itself.
According to Brazilian writer and professor at UCLA José Luiz Passos, the Brazilian interest in the international image of the country is related to the need to affirmation through the discourse of the other. It could really be related to a inferiority complex. “When a Brazilian sees himself represented, it validates his position. When a Brazilian wants to consume what ‘The New York Times’ says about him, he puts himself in the position of the other,” Passos says. The search for a better international image may be connected to the fact that Brazil has not been an advanced industrial society, and has some considerable capability weaknesses, argues professor Wayne A. Selcher of Elizabethtown College. Because of that, the country started to search for international success through the projection of “a benign image as a self-confident but unassuming, a rising but not threatening, intermediate power pursuing a responsible policy of prudence and restraint with an air of quiet competence,” he argues.
Worrying about the image of Brazil has been part of the local culture even before the country started to exist as such in early 1800s, and has pervaded all of its history. We have worried about our international image since before independence, through the monarchy, the establishment of the republic, the twentieth century, and now, when we try to become a more important global player.
Today this fascination with the reflection of what Brazil is through the eyes of the “gringos” is still strong. It is seen in economics, in diplomacy, in culture and in every news outlet in the country. And this follows the interesting trajectory of a pendulum, just as the rest of the world gets too optimistic or too pessimistic about the country.
While the global financial crisis helped Brazil establish itself as one of the most attractive developing nations, generating international euphoria with its achievements, the recent slowdown of the economic growth has brought a meltdown in the optimism, creating an international disappointment with Brazil.
The international image of Brazil has always fluctuated between extremes like that – from too much optimism, to exaggerated pessimism. The reality, though, is that Brazil is never as good as foreigners think it is when they are euphoric nor as bad as it may be shown abroad in moments like now. Actually, Brazil is a nation like all the others, with a lot of good and bad, striving to improve its reality despite making a lot of mistakes in the process.
What may be different is that it has recently been “discovered” as part of the global community, and its people have started to notice that. In 2013 I have published a book called “Brazil, um país do presente” in which I try to present to the Brazilian readers what this image of Brazil abroad is. My point was that Brazil had achieved its goal of becoming recognized in the rest of the world, present in the minds of foreigners. The title is a joke with the idea that “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be,” and it tries to explain that the important thing is not to know whether Brazil is of the present or of the future, but that it has established its international presence. For good and for bad, it is present in the world stage.
Daniel Buarque is a writer, journalist and MA in Brazil in Global Perspective from King’s College London. He is the author of four books, including “Brazil, um país do presente” (Brazil, a country of the present), about the international image of the country. He also writes the blog Brasilianismo, at the Brazilian news portal UOL, covering news related to how Brazil is portrayed in the rest of the world. He is active on Twitter.