A new class of soap

Tony Ramos, the actor. A star of ‘Avenida Brasil’, the record-breaking telenovela set in low-rent Rio

In one of the defining moments of the telenovela Avenida Brasil, a key character called Monalisa – who runs a hairdressing business – does what any successful person in Rio de Janeiro would do. She moves to Ipanema. Flush with cash from her thriving shops in Divino, a fictitious neighbourhood in Rio’s dusty western suburbs, the small businesswoman from a poor background begins looking around for an apartment in the city’s most elite beach address. But Monalisa feels out of place in snobbish Ipanema after the friendliness of lower-income Divino.

“Did you bring mocotó?” she asks her son when he comes for lunch at the new apartment, referring to a cow’s foot stew favoured by immigrants to the city from the country’s poor northeast. He replies that he did not – he bought food in a deli in Ipanema that offers Greek salads and other fancy foreign fare. “Who is this ‘Deli’ who makes food with weird names?” his mother’s friend, also from Divino, asks innocently in her working-class twang.

Avenida Brasil, produced by Brazil’s media giant Globo TV, is the first soap opera to be based almost entirely on characters from the country’s emerging middle class. It broke viewing records during its final episode in October, with about 80 million people watching, an 84 per cent share of the audience – far outstripping that of, for instance, the Super Bowl in the US. It was so popular that President Dilma Rousseff had to reschedule a political rally that clashed with the finale. The country’s electricity grid operator issued a warning of possible blackouts due to the increased power use.

While the telenovela’s plot was familiar stuff – a young woman raised on a rubbish dump returns to take revenge on her nouveau-riche stepmother, with a murder mystery and a love triangle thrown in – what gave Avenida Brasil its edge was its unprecedented focus on a new class of characters. The leading man was not the usual rich businessman, the staple of most telenovelas, but a millionaire footballer, Tufão, who chooses to continue living in the lower-income neighbourhood of his childhood because he prefers life there. The show was a hit with the middle class, who enjoyed having a mirror held up to them, while more affluent viewers revelled in this imagined glimpse of life lower down the pyramid.

“The subversive element of this novela is that it places a figure from the emerging middle class in the role formerly occupied by someone from the elite,” says João Emanuel Carneiro, Avenida Brasil’s author.

In real life, Avenida Brasil, or Brazil Avenue, is the highway that connects lower-income Rio to wealthy Rio. Divino, meanwhile, is based on the western suburb of Bangu, a patchwork of poor neighbourhoods and favelas or slums, at the end of Avenida Brasil. This is the part of Rio that God literally turned his back on – the outstretched arms of Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer embrace only the city’s wealthy “South Zone” that includes Ipanema and neighbouring Copacabana.

João Emanuel Carneiro, the author of 'Avenida Brasil'

Yet Brazil’s Divinos are now places that no one can afford to ignore any longer. Latin America’s largest country, for centuries one of the most unequal places on earth, is hosting one of the world’s greatest upward social transformations. A decade of change has turned many of the country’s poor into what Brazilians, using the language of the marketing demographers, call the “C class”. Even as the wealth gap is increasing in countries such as the US and China, in Brazil the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, has been falling steadily for a decade; it’s 8 per cent lower now than it was at the beginning of the 1990s.

“The US is returning to extremes of rich and poor while Brazil is going in the other direction,” says Carneiro. “Brazil is becoming more Americanised while America is becoming more Brazilianised.”

The flag-bearer of the C class is former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His impoverished early upbringing in Brazil’s northeast (Avenida Brasil, incidentally, forms part of the BR101, the great coastal road that connects the industrialised south with the sources of its migrant labour force in the northeast) and his subsequent migration to São Paulo form a narrative common to millions of Brazilians. But until he took office in 2003 it was unheard of in a president.

Through a mixture of social welfare programmes, minimum-wage increases and improved access to credit, President Lula helped bring millions of once disenfranchised Brazilians into the mainstream. In 10 years, those earning between R$291 and R$1,091 rose from 38 per cent of the population to 52 per cent. Most of these new entrants had African ancestry. Lula’s successor from his centre-left Workers’ party, President Rousseff, has continued these policies, making her one of the world’s most popular leaders.

While this economic model appears to be nearing its limits, with Brazil’s outdated infrastructure overwhelmed by the mass of new users crowding its highways and airports, it has helped make Brazil the world’s seventh-biggest economy, the fourth-largest market for cars, and the third biggest for beauty products. And as reflected by the popularity of the new telenovelas, such as Avenida Brasil or its successor Salve Jorge, based in Complexo do Alemão, an enormous favela also near Avenida Brasil, this transformation is changing not only Brazil’s economy but the country’s sense of national identity.

To visit Globo’s Projac studios in Rio’s west is to enter a giant fantasy factory. An enormous warehouse stores the indoor sets, ready to be retrieved at a moment’s notice. Outdoors, whole streetscapes are constructed for each telenovela. There is even a purpose-built church to cater for the many weddings in Brazilian soaps. The department store, resembling Harrods, that was created for one show looks so real, with its clever placements for Avon, that a visitor might unwittingly try to shop there.

Flávio Rocha, artistic director at Globo TV

Globo’s prime 9pm soap is watched by an average of 40 million people, in a nation of 59 million households. Globo has 200 writers, 150 directors and 560 actors on contract. Each telenovela lasts about 180 episodes, or six to eight months. This all amounts to serious business. Avenida Brasil reportedly earned R$2bn (about $1bn) for Globo as companies from Procter & Gamble to Kia rushed to advertise.

Globo soaps are, unsurprisingly, influential. After Avenida Brasil, “Charme”, a form of music played in Divino, became popular nationwide. But it is debatable whether the telenovela has more influence on real life, or vice versa.

Flávio Rocha, an artistic director at Globo, says entertaining as many people as possible is the priority; social themes are optional. “Some writers are more inclined to introduce social themes, others not,” Rocha says in his office deep in the Projac complex. Later, while waiting for an interview with Tony Ramos, one of Brazil’s biggest soap stars, we go on set to watch a scene featuring a mother and son. The plush living room set will shortly be packed up to make way for a different telenovela, then reassembled again tomorrow morning. With this industrial schedule to keep, actors barely have time to learn lines, let alone contemplate societal change.

When the mustachioed Ramos eventually bounds in from shooting a scene in his latest soap, called War of the Sexes, he argues that story remains paramount. “What’s changed over the past few years is the spending power of this new class who can now buy more stuff and borrow more, but their attitude to watching television remains the same – is it a good story or not?”

Yet perhaps because of their need to reach such a wide audience, Globo’s soaps remain among the most accurate mirrors of current Brazilian society. Glória Perez, the writer of Salve Jorge, says that, while the primary purpose of a telenovela is to entertain, over the years she has explored various social issues in her work, from Aids to drug use. Salve Jorge is about a woman from the favela who falls victim to human traffickers. Speaking in her lavishly decorated apartment – which could itself be from a telenovela, with its generous views of Copacabana beach – she says the rise of the C class is proving a provocative theme, especially since many of the emerging middle class have African or mixed ancestry. Many Brazilians deny racism exists in their country, yet income tends to vary according to colour.

“Brazil is very biased – perhaps it is a form of prejudice worse than in the US, because it is difficult to fight against something that is hidden,” says Perez. “People think it is great that the C class can buy products that the [upper] middle class buys, that they can travel in aeroplanes. But when this class jumps the barriers and enters your own social circle, comes into your home and marries your son? Then your prejudices come out in the open.”

Off camera, real life in lower-income Brazil remains difficult, but recent improvements are palpable. Lindacy Menezes lives in Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest slums, which climbs the mountains behind Ipanema. A diminutive woman, she skips up the favela’s impossibly steep staircases to her modest home. Puffing away behind her, I reflect that the climb resembles her own hard-fought ascent through the demographer’s alphabet from the crushing poverty of the E class to the humble comforts of lower C-class life.

She was born in Recife, in the northeast. She never knew her biological parents. But after watching a telenovela, Senhora do Destino or Destiny’s Lady, in the mid-2000s, about the stealing of newborn babies from Brazil’s hospitals, she now believes she may have been taken at birth by her late stepmother, who was a prostitute and alcoholic. After years of tough times – she raised five children in the favela with a heavy-drinking husband – things have changed. She has enlarged her house, her adult children have mostly got jobs, helped by Brazil’s record low unemployment rate, and she has returned to school, even taking up writing.

Rocinha has evolved too – it now has banks, electronics stores and government services, after police drove armed drug traffickers from the slum in 2011. “Rocinha is now a rich favela,” says Menezes, in what would once have been a contradiction in terms.

Lindacy Menezes at home with her nephew Wilson Fernandes Chaves Jr and Ivonete Fidelis da Silva

From a sideboard, she reverently pulls out a new laptop. Like most members of the C class, she is paying for it in instalments. “I squeeze costs a bit here, a bit there and buy stuff,” she says.

Jacqueline Luzia da Silva, the middle-class woman, at her home in Bonsucesso, a suburb near the real Avenida Brasil

She is not alone in her use of credit. Brazilian households now spend more than a fifth of their income on servicing loans, up from low levels in the past. While people worry whether this is sustainable, the democratisation of credit – once off-limits to the poor – is a key driver of Brazil’s current prosperity.

It was a loan from the government’s Caixa Econômica bank that helped Jacqueline Luzia da Silva and her husband to buy their new home in a simple apartment block in Bonsucesso, a working-class neighbourhood close to Avenida Brasil. Credit, that is, and years of hard work and study. Jacqueline, who unusually for someone in the C class has a PhD (in sociology), says they moved here two years ago to escape drug wars in their favela, Maré.

“It’s a false idea that the C class is suddenly more wealthy,” she says, serving a supper of cheese and baguettes. What has changed is credit. “The media is always telling people: buy, buy, buy – you can do it. People therefore are taking out overdrafts and hitting the limits of their credit cards.”

Indeed, many of Rio’s least well-off continue to live on a knife edge. If there is a danger to Avenida Brasil, it is that it might serve as a salve to upper-middle-class consciences, suggesting that poverty has been vanquished. It has not. At Vila Olímpica, a sports and community centre in Complexo do Alemão, a sign above the pool welcomes US swimmer Michael Phelps, who held a charity event here a few months earlier. Children at the centre tell a similar story of how they were hanging around the slum’s rubbish-strewn streets, vulnerable to crime and drug abuse, before they started coming to the centre. Complexo do Alemão was only liberated from narcotics gangs in 2010.

“I don’t think change happens overnight,” says Mario Marcio Leite da Silva, a teacher at the centre. “The state has been absent from here for 40 or 50 years – it won’t improve in just two years.”

Beyond the economic challenge of maintaining the upward mobility of its C class, the other great hurdle for Brazil will be to manage the political and cultural implications of the great transformation under way. The new middle class wants better public services with less corruption. It has its own politicians, its own culture and its own celebrities.

Instructors and children at the Vila Olímpica sports and community centre (Mario Marcio Leite da Silva, left)

The old elite are gradually being forced to cede control, says Carneiro. In an irony not lost on him, we speak at the poolside of the historic Copacabana Palace luxury hotel, a last bastion of Rio’s traditional upper classes. “Look at how all the figures of importance in Brazil today are from popular culture, the funk artists, the footballers, the soap stars,” he says. “I sometimes wonder who will be the elite of the future”.

The answer lies west, on the other side of the mountains behind Copacabana, where Divino is supposed to lie. In Avenida Brasil, after her experiment with Ipanema, Monalisa eventually returns to Divino, where she settles down with Tufão. “The people of the South Zone are freaks,” she says. “They think just because they are near the beach, they are living in paradise.”

It is the girl from Divino versus the girl from Ipanema. And in a measure of how much Brazil is changing, the girl from Divino is finally having her day in the sun.

Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief. With additional reporting by Thalita Carrico

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