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A woman out of place: Dilma Rousseff in Veja magazine

A woman out of place: Dilma Rousseff in Veja magazine
Fernanda Argolo | March 2018

In 2016, Dilma Rousseff, the first female President in Brazil, was impeached. Although gender was not the main cause of her ousting—only the second presidential impeachment in Brazil since the return of democracy in 1985—an analysis of Brazilian media during the impeachment proceedings reveals linguistic narratives that promoted dominant male leadership and traditional gender roles.

Revista Veja, the leading weekly news magazine in Brazil, portrayed Rousseff as nothing more than a figurehead president who led a solitary life. While this may not seem explicitly sexist, a thorough review of the magazine between 2015 and 2016 reveals a clear prejudice focused extensively on questions about her femininity over and above her challenging professional and political career.

First elected in 2010, Dilma Rousseff achieved an approval rating of 80% in her first year of government. An economic recession and corruption scandals involving members of her administration, however, later undermined her popularity and compromised her ability to govern. 

In 2014, Rousseff faced a tough reelection campaign, marked by accusations of corruption and personal insults. The overwhelmingly anti-Rousseff mainstream media opposed the continuity of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) in power and focused on the corruption scandals involving Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company, the Board of which Dilma was Chair. In addition, her possible reelection would have meant 16 years in power for the PT. Despite strong opposition to the PT, Rousseff won the 2014 elections with 51.64% of the votes. The Brazilian media considered her victory to be hard-won, and the thin margin between the candidates was seen as evidence of the country’s social polarization.

The headline for Veja's first cover story following Rousseff’s reelection was “The loneliness of victory”.[1] The main question the magazine posed was “why did Dilma Rousseff want to be reelected?” Veja suggested that it was wrong for Rousseff to seek reelection and portrayed her as capricious, clumsy, lonely, without allies, and incapable of rationally dealing with Congress. The magazine also suggested that Rousseff could be a disaster for Brazil, as former President Cristina Fernández had been for Argentina. In the magazine’s view, the best choice for the country in the 2014 elections would have been Rousseff’s opponent, Senator Aécio Neves.[2]

A lonely woman

In addition to emphasizing her political ineptitude, loneliness was another narrative through which the media described Rousseff. This argument was repeated ad nauseam. Between the beginning of Rousseff`s second term in January 2015 and its end in August 2016, Veja featured Rousseff on 29 covers, all with negative portrayals. In 27 articles, Veja stressed Rousseff’s solitary life in power.

The pictures illustrated the failure of a woman who lived in isolation, often pictured with her head down. “Incapable of making alliances, bossy, irritable, rejected by her party, also by her ‘creator Lula’”, Veja defined Rousseff as an abandoned, lonely woman who did not belong in politics. Several times, the magazine declared that she was not a true politician.

Veja is a conservative magazine, but Rousseff was more than a political opponent. She transgressed many Brazilian socio-cultural norms, especially pertaining to gender roles. Veja painted Rousseff as an independent woman without a man by her side, dedicated to politics instead of traditional feminine ideals. She did not match the media’s standards of beauty and youth and represented a major challenge to gender expectations.

Despite much progress, Brazil remains a sexist and patriarchal country. A single woman, especially of an older age, is seen negatively in Brazil and criticized for not being feminine enough. The media narrative of Dilma’s loneliness was not limited to the political sphere. An article about Rousseff’s last days as president mixed her public and private life. To Veja, she was the personification of solitude, with no political allies, friends, or a traditional family.

“All the presidents of the Republic suffer from loneliness but it is certain that Dilma is lonelier than her predecessors. At Alvorada [Brazil’s presidential residency], she lives only with her mother. Dilma Jane, 92, who is assisted daily by three nurses, moves in a wheelchair, and because of her memory lapses, is no longer able to keep her daughter company”.[3] The article stressed the absence of an emotional dimension to Dilma’s life, emphasizing instead her tough and intolerant personality, which is incompatible with dominant notions of femininity. Male politicians are not criticized for lacking a personal or emotionally rich life. That kind of scrutiny is reserved for women in power.

In this narrative, Rousseff evokes an evil queen locked in a tower and punished with isolation. Leaving no room for ambiguity in its choice of visual metaphors, Veja reproduced a picture of Rousseff behind flames, inciting a similarity to witches during the Inquisition. It is not difficult to surmise the significance that the picture aimed to convey. 

At the same time, the woman that Veja offered readers as the ideal model of a woman was Rousseff’s antithesis: Marcela Temer, wife of current President Michel Temer. A day after the first vote on Rousseff`s impeachment in the lower house, Veja published an article about Marcela Temer, titled “Beautiful, Maiden-like and a Housewife” (Bela, Recatada e do Lar), praising her as the perfect wife. She was described as a beautiful, reserved woman, who almost never appeared in public. A young housewife, who takes care of her husband and their son. “Michel Temer is a lucky man”, suggested Veja’s article, outlining the expected and preferred standard for women’s behaviour. The publication provoked strong reactions across global social networks against the magazine’s machismo, or male chauvinism.

It was not the first time that the Brazilian media had contrasted Marcela Temer with Dilma Rousseff. The newspaper headlines about Rousseff’s first inauguration ceremony had praised Marcela’s beauty. One article in O Globo newspaper pointed out that despite President Dilma’s efforts, it was Marcela’s beauty that had caught the eye of Brazilian men. This was a prime example of machismo and misogyny in the Brazilian media during Rousseff`s term.

A figurehead president

In addition to the narrative of loneliness that came to define Dilma, Veja portrayed her as a figurehead president who had been put in power by former President Lula and the male leaders of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB). The magazine emphasized a paternalistic relationship between Rousseff and Lula, often referred to as “Dilma’s creator”. The narratives stressed the idea that Rousseff was powerless and weak and that the strongest men of PMDB––Vice-president Michel Temer, Senator Renan Calheiros and Deputy Eduardo Cunha­­––were the true rulers of the country.

Rousseff was compared to the Queen of England, as a powerless leader, little more than a figurehead. In its March 16th, 2016 issue, Veja quoted Lula as stating that “Dilma is great to be led, but a tragedy as a leader”. In several subsequent editions, Veja reinforced Lula’s paternalistic relationship with her, along with his disappointment in her leadership, blaming Dilma for ruining his plans to govern Brazil again. 

Dilma Rousseff’s political trajectory started when, as a student, she was heavily involved in the resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, imprisoning and torturing thousands of citizens, including Dilma herself. During the democratization process, she helped establish the Democratic Labor Party (PDT). She joined President Lula's cabinet as Minister of Energy (2003-2005) and then became his chief of staff. 

Lula’s paternalistic relationship with her has in many ways defined her career. The media and other politicians consider Lula to be her mentor and instrumental in building her political career. Since her first electoral campaign in 2010, Rousseff has been described as Lula’s puppet, and as a result, she was never considered a real leader. On this matter, it should be noted that Rousseff’s 2010 election campaign in many ways reinforced this dynamic, since President Lula was a principal figure in both of her campaigns. 

Shortly before her impeachment, a remarkable excerpt from Veja described Rousseff’s post-impeachment fate. “Dilma never had any electoral pretensions. If she is impeached, she will return to living in Porto Alegre and dedicate herself to her daughter and her two grandchildren, reading, and possibly watching theatre plays. She has already acknowledged that, if she is defeated, she will be a card out of the deck.” [4]  In this sense, Veja painted Rousseff as a woman returning to her rightful place at home, further evidence that the media continues to perpetuate oppressive and outdated gender roles. 

The ousting of Dilma Rousseff represented a step backwards for women's empowerment and leadership in Brazil. Upon his nomination, President Temer excluded women from his cabinet and converted the ministry devoted to women’s policies, racial equality and human rights into a department within the Ministry of Justice. Nonetheless, these negative outcomes have triggered positive spontaneous social movements across Brazil in reaction to the misogyny and sexism in politics. Women have used social media to inform each other about their rights and to mobilize around women’s issues.

It is too early to draw conclusions about the impact that these movements will have on legislation and social policies. But if Brazil’s impeachment of its first woman president is any indication, the country still has a long way to go before it overcomes its historical and persistent cycle of gender discrimination and inequality. 

[1] Veja, “A solidão da Vitória”, November 11th, 2014, p. 57-59. 

[2] Senator Aécio Neves was denounced for passive corruption and obstruction of justice for trying to prevent the progress of investigations into the Car Wash Operation. Furthermore, is the Brazilian politician regarding whom there has been the most requests for judicial investigation.    

[3] “Todos os presidentes da República padecem de solidão, mas é certo que Dilma é uma  presidente mais sozinha do que foram seus antecessores. No Alvorada, mora só com a mãe. Dilma Jane, de 92 anos, é assistida diariamente por três enfermeiras, locomove-se em cadeira de rodas e , por causa dos lapsos de memória , já não é capaz de fazer companhia a filha”, Veja, May 11th 2016, p.50.  Author’s emphasis.

[4] Veja, May 18th 2016, p.79

Past Visiting Fellow Fernanda Argolo has a BA in Social Communication, a Master's degree in Culture and Society and a Post-Graduate degree in Public Relations. She's currently working on her PhD dissertation about the gender issues in Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil. Her research focuses on women in politics, media and gender stereotypes, and women's social recognition. She also works with social communication in public service, in the energy sector, and as a social communication analyst in the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency. Fernanda is a junior researcher in the Center of Multidisciplinary Studies in Culture and Society - CULT (UFBA).