Carnavals, Global Mega Events and Visitors in The Marvelous City

Rio de Janeiro behind the Mask 

by | Mar 11, 2014

Getting a little help from a friend in Carnaval preparations. Photo by Elizabeth Kath


In the heart of my home city, Melbourne, a television on the wall of a popular café plays footage from Rio de Janeiro’s famous Carnaval. Across the screen swan spectacular drum queens and passistas, their muscular bodies gleaming with sweat, adorned with jewels and plumage. Across their bodies flash words advertising package tours to the Marvelous City.

In the imagination of global audiences, images of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro have come to represent the quintessential Brazil. 

Yet Carnaval may be the one week of the Brazilian year that least represents life in Brazil. With its roots in European pre-Lent celebrations, and 400 tumultuous years of creolization, Carnaval is undeniably a unique Brazilian affair, but it may also be interpreted in the Bakhtinian sense of carnival as an upheaval, reversal and mockery of everyday life. 

A social release and a momentary abandonment of all the usual conventions, hierarchies and pressures, it is often described as the time when everybody has permission to be anybody or anything, with the help of wild disguises and costumes (fantasias). 



Since Carnaval is also the one period of the year when Brazil is guaranteed a news slot on televisions across the globe, the ironic effect is that images of the annual tradition where “normal” life is abandoned have come to be interpreted as a reflection of what life must be like in Brazil and what all Brazilians must be like: flamboyant, free-spirited, unwaveringly joyful and scantily clad. As Brazilian anthropologist Roberto da Matta once observed, “It was not Brazil that invented Carnaval; on the contrary, it was Carnaval that invented Brazil” (1984:245 in Sheriff 1999:1).

It is only when other stories of Brazil filter through the global news media that incongruities emerge. I recall, as a poignant example of a clash between global and local perceptions of Brazil, the worldwide coverage of a 20-year-old student’s expulsion from a São Paulo university in 2009 for wearing a short skirt. The student’s miniskirt incited the violent ridicule of her classmates, and the Universidade Bandeirante (Uniban) that expelled her cited “flagrant disrespect of ethical principles, academic dignity and morality.”

The case was not all that surprising within the conservative Catholic context of São Paulo, but that subtlety was lost on foreign news desks, with reports contrasting the university’s action against Brazil’s fame for its tiny bikinis and carefree attitude. 

The story also highlighted another emerging reality for Brazil—the growing influence of external scrutiny in a globalized world of information. Amid the international media flurry, the university took less than 24 hours to reverse its decision and reinstate the student, showing how global perceptions (even if naive or culturally uninformed) can provoke very real transformations at the local level, and sometimes very quickly.



Images of Carnaval have long told a seductive story of Brazil as a “racial democracy” where jovial, unconstrained people interact spontaneously; an alluring destination that faraway dreamers might easily imagine visiting to escape the confines of their own everyday existence. 

In this sense, “Brazil” as performed on a global stage is wearing a carnival mask. Moreover, Carnaval has also become a performance of itself. It is paradoxical that Brazil’s annual ritual of democratic social and cultural upheaval—or to borrow Bakhtin’s famous description, “the world standing on its head”—has become the dominant global representation of life in Brazil. It is even stranger that this representation of Brazil has come to be officially captured, curated and promoted by corporate and state elites. 

A turbulent history of street Carnaval as a space of social tension and contestation—as the site for genuine race and class struggles, of blurred lines between spectator and reveler—took a fateful turn in 1984 with the construction of Oscar Niemeyer’s monumental Sambódromo da Marquês de Sapucaí. Purpose-built and white-washed, it sought as much to contain chaos from the street as to capture, promote and capitalize on the spectacle to national and international audiences; many consider this the moment when Carnaval was “stolen.” 

In “The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro” (Cultural Anthropology 14:1), Robin E. Sheriff describes a common narrative she heard in Rio’s morros (hillside shantytowns) of Carnaval having been robbed from its rightful owners. While Carnaval’s commercialization predates the Sambódromo, the construction of the stadium marked a significant and powerfully emblematic moment in this shift from Carnaval as an exhilarating, potent site for participation and social transformation to a corporate production of a national spectacle on a global stage.



During a recent Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, I found myself seated amongst the spectators at the far end of the Sambadrome stadium, at its final stretch where performers spill out onto the street. What would usually be considered the worst spot in the stadium turned out to offer the best view of a place where two realities collide. Under floodlights and Rede Globo television cameras, and sectioned off from grandstands that hold 90,000 spectators, a rehearsed and polished Carnaval paraded for the world along the half-mile long passarela. In the dark street behind the luminous Sambadrome stage, workmen in orange suits soared into the air with cranes to rescue feathered dancers from the tops of the extravagant floats, as though deposing carnival queens from their thrones.

On the street below, exhausted paraders milled around stripping off their regalia and throwing them onto growing mountains of discarded costumes. Raggedly dressed foragers rummaged through the piles to retrieve resaleable feathers and fabrics, while city garbage collectors loaded piles of costume debris into trucks. A few steps in any direction from this gleaming Sambadrome sprawled dark and sometimes dangerous streets, where half-costumed crowds tread cautiously through pools of dirt and urine and debris.

With the blasting music of the official Carnaval in one ear, and the distant roar of another Carnaval on the street outside, I could not help marveling at the richness and metaphoric significance of this boundary between this gleaming televised performance and the backstage scene that audiences of the globally televised Carnaval might never see.

Watching the televised spectacle from a faraway lounge room, who could guess that the dazzling passista girl dancing across the screen goes home at night to a tiny dilapidated room with a dirt floor in a favela (shantytown) where a drug war rages outside her door? Like a modern-day Cinderella, when the night is over she disappears again into anonymity; into the invisibility, marginality and insignificance of her quotidian life.

Who could guess that some of the Brazilian community members dancing on elaborate floats are actually fee-paying foreigners, living out personal fantasies. These subtleties disappear and become irrelevant as images spin around the globe. 

When the night is over, many of the Sambadrome show’s stars crowd into buses that carry them home to favelas, while visiting tourists hail taxis that whisk them in the opposite direction to the air-conditioned safety of their hotels at Ipanema or Copacabana beach. And those two worlds rarely meet again, thus reinforcing the global stereotypes even in the minds of many who travel to Rio.

Adding to this, it is not unusual for some local Brazilians, those with whom tourists might typically mix in these wealthier zones, to have never set foot in a favela in their lifetimes, despite favelas visibly extending across the nearby hillsides. 



As the economic superstar of the moment and the next host of both the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic Games, more eyes than ever are turning to Brazil. Through the official fanfare of preparations for these global mega-events filter other stories: brutalities associated with hardline interventions to “pacify” the trouble in favelas in advance of the events, evictions of communities whose homes lie too close to new sporting facilities, and ongoing social inequity culminating in mass protests. 

A Brazilian friend who attended the protests described them as emotionally exhilarating events filled with music, dance and nervous excitement. Are these the newly emerging sites of the carnivalesque in Brazil?

Amid what some have described as its coming of age, Brazil is now more accessible to global tourism than ever before. A visit to the official Carnaval website now contains explanations in English and accepts Visa and Mastercard for the purchase of a ready-made costume for those wishing to parade along the Sambadrome. From here in Melbourne, or anywhere in the world, potential tourists are but a credit card payment away from the instant purchase of the “experience of a lifetime.” And during the Fifa World Cup alone, over half a million foreign visitors are expected.

Visitors always affect the places they travel, whether consciously or not. No matter how brief the visit, or how whimsical the ticket purchase, they are never the passive spectators they sometimes assume themselves to be. Their choices—including the way in which they behave and engage, what and where they consume, the conversations they have— always have some impact, not only on those they meet but also on those who come after them.  

Mindfully or not, those who attend Carnaval or book their tickets for the World Cup or Olympics, or even those who take an interest from afar, become participants in Brazil’s future. For Brazil, an intensified dialogue with the global audience over the coming years is inevitable; how this translates into the lives of ordinary Brazilians is a story yet to unfold, and one that will be written by each person who takes part in this dialogue. 

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Elizabeth Kath is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow and Lecturer with the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She has a long-standing love of Latin America and has lived and researched in Cuba, Mexico and Brazil. Email:  

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