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Brazilian television giant TV Globo’s latest primetime soap opera, A Força do Querer (in English, The Power of Desire), came to a close this weekend, with its final episode attracting almost 34 million viewers. The soap gained considerable notoriety as, for the first time in Brazilian TV history, one of the main characters was a transgender man, something previously unthinkable in a usually conservative industry.
The character in question is Ivana, played superbly by Carol Duarte. We meet her as a troubled girl, confused about her sexuality and suffering from gender dysphoria. Conflicted, she breaks up with her boyfriend Cláudio (Gabriel Stauffer) and runs away from home. After being introduced to Tereza, played by trans actor Tarso Brant, Ivana realizes that she too is transgender.
Relieved, Ivana begins the process of transitioning and begins to identify as Ivan, a trans man. His new gender identity is not readily accepted by his friends and family, a situation further complicated when Ivan discovers he is pregnant with the child of his ex-boyfriend Cláudio, who will no longer speak to him.
Last Friday’s finale gave viewers a happy “love conquers all” ending however, as after undergoing chest reconstruction surgery to remove his breasts, Ivan is seen shirtless, enjoying a day at the beach, finally comfortable with his body. He meets Cláudio who, overcoming his own prejudice, kisses Ivan as the credits roll.
It is hard to fully describe the importance of tackling trans issues in a TV Globo soap opera – even though it is merely a television show, Globo’s novelas are immensely popular cultural and social vehicles, watched by tens of millions of Brazilians. Portraying Ivana/Ivan’s story – from dysphoria, through transitioning and ultimately to his feeling of being comfortable in his own skin – means transgender issues will subsequently have been discussed and debated in Brazilian households.
Some scenes were particularly headline-grabbing, such as Ivana coming out to her family as trans. In an intensely emotional sequence, Ivana explains to her parents that they “did not have a daughter” and that she is, in fact, a man. In one particularly heart-wrenching segment, Ivana laments that she spent her entire life “trying to find [herself] in the mirror, but not being able to.”
The scenes surrounding Ivana’s coming out, while at times trite and full of exposition, still served as effective explanations for a Brazilian audience which largely does not understand what it means to be a transgender person.
That this is the first time any of TV Globo’s soaps have featured a trans character is disappointing, given that it’s 2017, but Brazilian television’s conservative attitude towards LGBTQ issues is long-standing.
The first gay kiss scene on Brazilian soap operas came in 2003, in the final episode of “Mulheres Apaixonadas” (Women in Love), when two female characters shared a tame kiss at the end of a theater performance of Romeo and Juliet. The first “real” gay kiss scene on TV Globo (by real, read, not a quick kiss on the lips) only came in 2014, during the finale of “Amor à Vida” (Love of Life). A gay kiss scene was filmed between two male actors at the end of 2005’s “América”, but after a public outcry it was cut at the last minute.
The inclusion of the Ivana/Ivan storyline is welcome and timely, as it comes amid a particularly conservative and reactionary moment for the country. In the latest opinion polls for the 2018 presidential election, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro – known for his homophobic, racist and sexist views – appears in second place with an average of 18% of the vote share.
However, while this representation of the trans community on such an important cultural vehicle is a step in the right direction, it is still little more than a baby step. Brazil is the country with the worst record of LGBT murders in the world, and it is largely perceived that these already huge figures are lower than the true numbers, due to many killings going unreported. The trans population in Brazil is still woefully discriminated against and under-represented in the media, in particular trans women, who suffer further prejudice and are routinely and unfairly connected to crime, drug abuse and prostitution.