Defusing Brazil’s Woman Militant

Historical Fiction and the “Correction” of Female Masculinity in Olga and O que é isso, companheiro?

Dana A. Meredith

Abstract

This article examines two films that portray the experiences of women in armed revolutionary movements in twentieth-century Brazil: Olga (2004), directed by Jayme Monjardim and set in the 1930s during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, and O que é isso, companheiro? (1997), directed by Bruno Barreto and centered on the 1969 kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick, the American ambassador to Brazil. An examination of the potential of historical fiction and fictionalized history to expand the historical record and contest the “official” accounts of past-marginalized groups reveals a similar discrepancy in both films: While they establish counternarratives for leftist groups, they reproduce and reinforce heteronormative, binary divisions of gender. Drawing upon Jack Halberstam’s notion of female masculinity, this article argues that the two films seek to “correct” the gender expression of their lead female characters, sliding them from positions of masculine power to ones of feminine weakness and self-sacrifice. Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the “double bind” and recent Brazilian politics reveal how the films, inadvertently, capture the dilemma of women seeking to wield authority in Brazil: While a woman’s feminine presentation is not respected as strong by the Brazilian public, her masculine expression is not seen as legitimate.

Resumo

Abstract

This article examines two films that portray the experiences of women in armed revolutionary movements in twentieth-century Brazil: Olga (2004), directed by Jayme Monjardim and set in the 1930s during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, and O que é isso, companheiro? (1997), directed by Bruno Barreto and centered on the 1969 kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick, the American ambassador to Brazil. An examination of the potential of historical fiction and fictionalized history to expand the historical record and contest the “official” accounts of past-marginalized groups reveals a similar discrepancy in both films: While they establish counternarratives for leftist groups, they reproduce and reinforce heteronormative, binary divisions of gender. Drawing upon Jack Halberstam’s notion of female masculinity, this article argues that the two films seek to “correct” the gender expression of their lead female characters, sliding them from positions of masculine power to ones of feminine weakness and self-sacrifice. Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the “double bind” and recent Brazilian politics reveal how the films, inadvertently, capture the dilemma of women seeking to wield authority in Brazil: While a woman’s feminine presentation is not respected as strong by the Brazilian public, her masculine expression is not seen as legitimate.

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