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How a Woke ‘Big Brother Brasil’ Became a Battleground For Identity Politics

Big Brother Brasil
Endemol Shine

This February, “Big Brother Brasil” viewers witnessed the first gay kiss to take place on the reality TV show in its more than two decades on air in South America.

But a few hours after coming out as bisexual by kissing another Black man on live television, contestant Lucas Penteado departed the show. “I tried to be myself in every way,” said the 24-year-old actor, who faced intense backlash from some of his housemates for the kiss, as he quit.

Other participants, some of whom are also people of color who identify as LGBTQ, accused Penteado of using the LGBTQ flag to advance in the game.

“You’re appropriating a collective issue in favor of an issue that is yours, individual…you’re appropriating a historic struggle, collective, in favor of a selfish demand,” Lumena Aleluia, a lesbian psychologist, told the actor. Two other bisexual housemates also criticized Penteado, saying “there are many ways to come out.”

After the kiss, singer Karol Koncá, who criticized Penteado’s bisexuality as fake and who had repeatedly been accused of psychological abuse against him, was “evicted” from the program with 99.17% of the votes, the highest percentage ever for a contestant on the show. A week later, Aleluia was also eliminated.

The controversial episode came at a moment in which “Big Brother Brasil,” currently in its 21st season, has garnered national praise for being recalibrated to include conversations around race and gender. After it transpired in 2020 that participants debating feminism and racism translates into high ratings, the latest season was strategically planned to include a racially and sexually diverse group of contestants. Nine of the 20 participants identify as Afro-Brazilian, and many housemates are members of the LGBTQ community.

The showrunners’ effort to turn Brazil’s most famous bread and circus into a stage for delicate yet important discussion has worked.

In addition to becoming a social media sensation, “Big Brother Brasil” has also led TV Globo, Brazil’s largest free-to-air network, to its best audience ratings in a decade. The day Konká was “evicted,” Globo obtained 63% of the audience share. Overall, 40 million people — almost a fifth of Brazil’s 211-million population — watch the reality show each day, which is 5.5 million daily viewers more than last year, Globo told Variety.

Laurens Drillich, president of Endemol Shine Latino, which produces and licenses the “Big Brother” franchise in Brazil, says “Globo has done a marvellous job in keeping the brand fresh and finding new ways to engage with the audience.” COVID-19 has added a new layer to a successful business model, he points out, drawing record viewers to what has become “event TV.”

But while the show is shedding light on important issues, “Big Brother Brasil” has also become a mirror that showcases Brazil’s “identity war,” says Wilson Gomes, a communications theory professor at the Federal University of Bahia.

Gomes likens the show’s recent politics to a game of “identity poker,” where certain intersections of race and sexuality — for example, a Black man who is also bisexual — can get some contestants ahead.

Inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” which depicted a surveillance state ruled by the Big Brother, the franchise has expanded to over 50 countries since its first edition was launched in 1999 in the Netherlands. But the Brazilian version has grown to become one of the world’s most successful adaptations.

This isn’t the first time the show has been connected to political debates. The winner of the 2005 season, journalist Jean Wyllys, went from being the first openly gay participant in the program to becoming the first pro-LGBTQ rights representative in Congress.

But against the backdrop of the rise of the far right in Brazil, Gomes says “Big Brother Brasil” increasingly reflects the “fragmented communities” emerging in the country.

In a reality show in which no moves fly under the radar, initial appearances can be deceptive. A few days after “Big Brother Brasil” kicked off, it came to light that a white male participant had taken courses on feminism before joining the show. The same housemate was later accused by some of his housemates of ‘mansplaining.’

Another participant, one of the favorites to win the $270,000 prize, suffered online backlash after telling her housemates that she “liked” Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. On the same occasion, she said she “would not talk about it on national TV” to avoid being voted out of the show. “I won’t talk about politics,” she added.

A week later, she had lost over a million followers on Instagram.

Cristiane Moreira, a psychology professor at the Catholic University of Petrópolis, says that due to the show’s format of nearly constant surveillance, some participants eventually “don’t remember the cameras are there.”

“You can control your behaviour, but there is a moment in which you will lower your guard and normalize the situation,” Moreira says. “They have been there for two months, and they even have cameras in the bathrooms. [Participants] perform, but you can’t do that at all times.”

Although the show has helped create important conversations on race, gender and sexuality, among other issues, experts say these debates are unlikely to vanish after the program ends in April.

“Is it important that they happen in the show? I think so,” says psychologist Bruno Branquinho, who specializes on LGBTQ health. “But they didn’t start on ‘Big Brother Brasil.’ They’re gaining a lot of attention because of the show, but they have been part of the national conversation for years.”

Nonetheless, showrunners are confident that, by mirroring wider cultural conversations about identity politics, the program is further strengthening itself — as well as these debates.

“Inevitably, situations and discussions that are part of day-to-day life happen inside the [‘Big Brother’] house,” says Rodrigo Dourado, general director of ‘Big Brother Brasil.’ “These are real people talking about real topics, with different cultures, tastes and experiences. All of that helps create a [reality show’s] originality.”