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Brazil’s Wheel of Miss Fortune

Opinion, by Felicity Clarke

RIO DE JANEIRO – At the start of the World Cup a television appeared in the house. As well as facilitating a thorough viewing of the Cup’s proceedings (which have been emotional), it has become a near-constant distraction and a window into the wonderful world of Brazilian television.

Silvio Santos and his iconic microphone present the popular daytime quiz show "Roda a Roda Jequiti", image recreation.

With no knowledge of the story lines, I left the famous soap operas alone and instead have found myself glued to a blurry mix of game shows, news and at a low ebb, trashy American films dubbed in Portuguese.

The big, bright studio lit bonanza of “ordinary” people winning prizes is a prime time standard the world over. Inane, cringe worthy and of seemingly little cultural value, Brazilian game shows are like game shows everywhere. But in their unique peculiarities, they really aren’t.

Following the World Cup final on Sunday, I tuned in to SBT’s Roda a Roda Jequiti, Brazil’s answer to the Wheel of Fortune where vendors and customers of Jequiti products get the chance to compete for prizes of up to R$100,000. Hosted by eighty year old television legend and station owner Silvio Santos and assistant Patricia Salvador, Roda a Roda Jequiti works the guess a letter, guess the word format at 7PM every Sunday evening.

Santos is a lovable old smoothy with a deep mahogany tan, enhanced face and bumbling charm, while Salvador is the quintessential lovely assistant that sparkles prettily on screen. So far, so standard. Things get unusual when certain technical issues (such as Santos leaning over the podiums to see the contestant’s score) lead us to the shocking conclusion that the well-preserved octogenarian is presenting prime time TV without an ear piece or autocue. There is also the curious, clunky great silver microphone attached to his tie, although this could be explained by a disease on his vocal chords he suffered in the late 1980s.

Going against the dolly bird game show grain, Santos and Salvador alternate roles between asking the questions and revealing the letters. Just as I was welling up with excitement that the Brazilian Wheel of Fortune was giving it a “you go girl!” in the game of gender roles, a camera shot of the whooping audience knocked the wind out of my right-on sails. They were all, without exception, female. Cut back to the contestants and the same goes. The realization dawned that Santos is the only televised man in the room.

But why? In the early 1980s, the young SBT station didn’t allow men in the audience for fear the boyfriends and husbands of contestants would get uncontrollably jealous of the hot male celebrity guests on the shows. It’s a weak reason that has somehow allowed a norm of feminine only audiences to continue on the station to this day.

While Santos and Salvador swap places, Santos is never less than the anchor of the show, and as the audience performs Mexican waves on his command and the contestants blush and giggle nervously at his mild flirtation, it all starts to look like a thinly veiled harem set up with Santos as lord and master to an adoring lady clan.

Roda a Roda Jequiti is by no means the only show on Brazilian television with this kind of dynamic; its most obvious manifestation is the bounty of mute bouncing dolls that accessorize much of the light entertainment programming. This is nothing new and it is certainly not unique to Brazil, but in a country with a very real possibility of a woman president, it’s disappointing to see the hugely influential TV networks continuing to pander to a distinctly male ego.

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