Brazil’s Black and Tan Fantasy of Whiteness Performing “The Girl from Ipanema” at the Games shows Brazil’s racial divide.

What is Brazil’s national story?[1] This was the question on the minds of many people around the world before the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In preparation for Rio’s Opening Ceremony, Adam Freelander of Quartz offered a recent history of Olympic opening ceremonies, arguing that Olympic opening ceremonies are often about a nation telling a story of itself.[2] Opening ceremonies are thus a rare opportunity for a country to redefine its image on an international stage. For the opening of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Freelander argues that the stakes were particularly high, because the ceremony can change the way the world views a particular country. With near constant news stories over the past year regarding Brazil’s troubled economy, pervasive political corruption, the explosion of the Zika virus, rampant crime, water pollution, and issues in the construction of the Olympic venues, Rio’s story before the opening ceremony seemed bleak, at best.

Despite these major issues, Rio’s opening ceremony was widely regarded as a great success, particularly in its ability to balance an upbeat, colorful, and vibrant energy with the reality of Brazil’s—and the world’s—problems, particularly with regard to a legacy of slavery and the looming threat of global warming. Two of the creative directors for Rio’s opening ceremony, Fernando Meirelles and Daniela Thomas, described their vision in interviews held before the ceremony. Thomas explained to NBC that their approach was, “let’s look for what’s similar and let’s embrace and celebrate what’s different.” In an interview on the Rio 2016 Olympics website, Meirelles explained that his hope for the ceremony was that it could be “a drug for depression in Brazil. Brazilians can look at it and say we are a cool people, we are different ethnic groups, we live together, we never went to war, we are peaceful, we know how to enjoy life, and we tend to be happy.” Both were clear: Rio has divisions that need to be addressed, but its diversity should also be celebrated. Rio’s opening ceremony may have honored Rio in particular and Brazil as a whole, but it also marked the connections between Brazil and other nations.

One of the most anticipated elements of the opening ceremony was the music, which the Rio 2016 Olympics website previewed six months beforehand. The lineup included internationally acclaimed and well-established musicians Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben, Elza Soares, Zeca Pagodinho, and Marcelo D2, and newer popular musicians Anitta, MC Soffia, and Ludimilla. Musical genres included bossa nova, Tropicalia, funk, hip hop, and samba, with frequent collaborations between musicians of different genres—a display of Brazil’s musical diversity that underscored the creative directors’ desire to celebrate the cultural differences that make Brazil unique.

Brazilian record producer Nelson Motta recalled that bossa nova, and the song in particular, was the “perfect soundtrack for one of the best moments in Brazil’s history.”

For all of the musical acts that the opening ceremony featured, perhaps none captured as much attention as “Garota de Ipanema,” or “The Girl from Ipanema,” a piece initially recorded in 1963 by Brazilian singer João Gilberto and American jazz tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Performed by Daniel Jobim, the grandson of the song’s Brazilian composer, Antônio Carlos Jobim (also known as Tom Jobim), the bossa nova standard turned cool jazz hit offered a marked contrast to much of the other more upbeat music performed live in the Maracanã Stadium. Later, Spotify announced that “The Girl from Ipanema” had been streamed more than 40,000 times the day following the opening ceremony; this was a 1,200 percent increase over the pre-ceremony daily average, which was about 3,000 times per day. Videos of the performance of “The Girl from Ipanema” floated around social media sites, and articles reviewing the ceremony were sure to include a discussion of the performance.

I wish to explore how Rio’s creative directors, Meirelles and Thomas, deployed “The Girl from Ipanema” to meet their goal for the opening ceremony: namely, to honor Brazil’s international ties, showing the beauty of difference. First, I focus on how the historical and present day context of “The Girl from Ipanema” demonstrates how such celebrations of diversity mask the underlying issues of race and class-based difference in Brazil. Then, I investigate the way in which Meirelles and Thomas paid homage to “The Girl from Ipanema” by literally turning Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen into the iconic Carioca girl, problematically reinforcing a stereotypical emphasis on the light-skinned Brazilian female body as one of Brazil’s contributions to world culture. Ultimately, Brazil’s story, as told through “The Girl from Ipanema,” relies on racial, class-based, and gendered stereotypes to promote a contradicting image of strength through diversity.



Background to “The Girl From Ipanema”


“The Girl from Ipanema” was first released in 1964 on the album Getz/Gilberto. As composer, Jobim collaborated with Getz and Gilberto on the piece, which also featured singer Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto’s wife. Getz/Gilberto, released at the end of the bossa nova craze in the United States, was incredibly popular, and won the Grammy Award for the Best Album of the Year. “The Girl from Ipanema,” the album’s first track, ranked high on the Billboard Hot 100 alongside songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. “The Girl from Ipanema” has by all accounts withstood the test of time—it has been recorded by musicians ranging from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse and was one of 50 records chosen by the United States Library of Congress to be placed on the National Recording List.

The popularity of “The Girl from Ipanema” to American audiences in particular, and to other audiences outside of Brazil more generally, supports Meirelles and Thomas’s goal in creating a “ceremony for the world”—a ceremony that shows what Brazil has contributed to the world, and what it has taken as inspiration from other parts of the world.



Constructing a Genre: Bossa Nova in Brazil


“The Girl from Ipanema” also represents the immense influence the musical genre bossa nova had on various forms of American popular music, especially jazz, as well as on American conceptions of Brazilian music. According to Brazilian historian Marcos Napolitano, the exportation of the bossa nova genre from Brazil to America by figures like Jobim and Gilberto redefined Brazil’s role in the global musical economy from an “exporter of exotic sounds” to an exporter of a “refined cultural product.”[3] Ethnomusicologist Suzel Ana Reily describes bossa nova as a kind of “de-exoticised Brazilian music,” which “negated the stereotype of Brazilians as an over-emotive, exuberant race, the natural products of a tropical climate, to portray them as contemplative, intimate and sophisticated.”[4] In the words of Jobim, the goal of many bossa nova creators was not to highlight “[Brazil’s] exotic side, of coffee and carnival. We are not going to wheel out the typical themes of underdevelopment. We are going to pass from the agricultural to the industrial era. We are going to use our popular music with the conviction that it does not only have its own character, but also a high technical level.”[5] Fittingly, the name given this music matched the aspirations of its principal creators: bossa nova literally means “new trend.” Speaking in an NBC special exploring “The Girl from Ipanema,” Brazilian record producer Nelson Motta recalled that bossa nova, and the song in particular, was the “perfect soundtrack for one of the best moments in Brazil’s history.”

Composers Jobim and Gilberto created and popularized the bossa nova in order to put forth a different (i.e., light-skinned, upper class) sonic representation of Brazil, that would counteract the samba’s sonic representation of Brazilians as supposedly being primarily black and belonging to the lower classes.

Ultimately, Jobim, Gilberto, and the bossa nova re-tuned the ears of world audiences from dramatic and extroverted Brazilian musical genres (such as the samba, bolero, and samba-cançáo) to a more intimate genre that whispered and sighed. However, as Reily and music scholar Irna Priore argue, the bossa nova (like other musical genres) was a set of musical sounds consciously constructed by musicians such as Jobim and Gilberto and lyricists like Vinicio de Moraes, who were cultural agents belonging to Rio de Janeiro’s privileged class.

In their creation of the bossa nova, Jobim, Gilberto, de Moraes, and others were responding to popular global representations of Brazil at the mid-2oth century. One of the most well-known international performers from Brazil was singer, dancer, and actress Carmen Miranda, who was most popular in the 1940s. An incredibly popular actress in the United States and Brazil, Miranda has been credited with introducing the sounds of Brazilian music to the world. However, upper class Brazilians found Miranda’s association with the samba, a musical genre associated with the lower classes and Brazil’s African population, to be “blackening” the global view of Brazil. One Brazilian newspaper described Miranda’s career in this manner, “So that’s how Brazil shines in the United States: [Carmen Miranda] singing bad-tasting black sambas.”[6] Indeed, as Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol write regarding the musicals in which Miranda was featured, “Taken as a whole, the Latin American musicals painted a mythical land where gringos could play with their Latin neighbors. This romantic world of dancing señoritas and debonair caballeros reached its symbolic and popular peak with the eight “exotic locale” fantasies featuring Carmen Miranda produced by Twentieth Century Fox in state-of-the-art Technicolor.”[7]

Against this backdrop, composers such as Jobim and Gilberto created and popularized the bossa nova in order to put forth a different (i.e., light-skinned, upper class) sonic representation of Brazil, that would counteract the samba’s sonic representation of Brazilians as supposedly being primarily black and belonging to the lower classes. Ultimately, the purposeful exclusivity of the bossa nova genre—its creation as a genre aimed to mute the samba and other “blacker” genres—is a historical context that rubs uncomfortably against Meirelles and Thomas’s goals to create an inclusive ceremony.



Embodying “The Girl from Ipanema”


Given the popularity of bossa nova and its influence on various forms of world music, it is not terribly surprising that “The Girl from Ipanema” was included in the ceremony. But although the song’s inclusion was highlighted in many of the post-ceremony reviews, it was Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen’s performance in the piece that made headlines, rather than the music, or its performance by Jobim’s grandson. As Daniel Jobim sang and played the piano underneath photos of his grandfather illuminated on giant screens, Bündchen turned the roughly 125 meters of the Maracanã Stadium into a runway, and in the excitement of her final catwalk before returning to retirement, both Jobims were left virtually unacknowledged in the ceremony (and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes was left completely unrecognized). The camera’s focus remained nearly exclusively on Bündchen, blond hair flowing and clad in a sinuous, silver-sequined dress.

I have discussed some of the historical context for “The Girl from Ipanema,” but in order to understand Bündchen’s role as the embodiment of the girl from Ipanema, I now turn to de Moraes’s lyrics, which were sung in their original Portuguese in the opening ceremonies, and which provide important context for Bündchen’s performance. De Moraes and Jobim initially conceived of the piece as part of a musical in which an alien visits Earth. “The Girl from Ipanema” was composed to convince the alien that Earth was worthwhile—because of its beautiful women (that is, its sexual or erotic capital). Jobim and de Moraes were also inspired by a specific young Carioca (Rio native) woman named Heloísa Pinheiro, also known as Helô. Helô, a former model, served as a torchbearer on the final day of the 2016 Summer Games torch relay, is now 71 and has remained connected to the song through the name of her business, Garota de Ipanema. The Portuguese and English version of the song can be heard here. [8]

The opening ceremony created a completely literal depiction of this song, as Jobim gazes down at Bündchen from the massive screen that she walks toward, and as millions of viewers gaze at her from around the world.[9] As Bündchen walked, the set was completely bare, with the exception of swirling lights meant to evoke the sea; there was nothing on which to focus but Bündchen. In the opening ceremony’s re-enactment, the performance lasted just over one minute, during which the audience was obliged by the camera’s near exclusive focus on Bündchen to act out the role of the man gazing longingly at a woman’s body without her seeming awareness of it. In this moment, Bündchen is the embodiment of the girl from Ipanema, who is herself Brazil’s image of perfect womanhood because of the beauty of her body.


Bündchen turned the roughly 125 meters of the Maracanã Stadium into a runway, and in the excitement of her final catwalk before returning to retirement, both Jobims were left virtually unacknowledged in the ceremony (and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes was left completely unrecognized).

Helô demonstrated ambivalence regarding Bündchen’s role as “The Girl from Ipanema,” emphasizing that Helô herself is a Carioca, perhaps highlighting the fact that Bündchen is not. As Helô told the Wall Street Journal, “To say that Gisele represented me … she’s stunning, she has her worth. I just think she could have entered with another song.” In essence, Helô’s comments to the media demonstrate a tension between Cariocas, which any girl from Ipanema would be, and the rest of Brazil.[10]

A useful question might be why Helô believes that Bündchen cannot represent a Carioca girl, and further, why a Carioca girl in particular is the embodiment of an “ideal” Brazilian woman. This tension has its roots in the intellectual history of Brazil. Anthropologist Natasha Pravaz charts the Brazilian legacy of what historian Nancy Leys Stepan calls constructive miscegenation in Brazil. Pravaz notes that the work of Brazilian intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century, such as Gilberto Freyre, turned the mulata “into a celebrated symbol of hybrid Brazil.”[11] According to Pravaz, Carioca women were widely understood to embody the traits of mulatas. Race mixing between white men and black women was considered a positive for Brazil, one in which Brazil’s diversity could be at once celebrated and “improved” by “whitening” future generations of black Brazilians. Ultimately, Pravaz argues that Brazil’s intellectual history tends to celebrate diversity through miscegenation, a process that highlights the supposed “aesthetic superiority” of light-skinned black women (mulatas) and perpetuates racist stereotypes of the “ugliness of blacks before they have been ‘improved’ with white blood.”[12] This privileging of light-skinned women over dark-skinned women can be seen both in the successful career of Carmen Miranda (discussed above), a light-skinned immigrant from Portugal, as well as in the Brazilian backlash against her stereotypical portrayal of Brazilian women as acting “too black.”

Reading Helô’s words within this historical context, it is seems that Helô is suggesting that Bündchen, who is not from Rio, who is a descendent of German immigrants, and who has no African, indigenous, or Portuguese heritage, is not a racially or culturally authentic embodiment of the girl from Ipanema. Rather, Bündchen is a white-skinned woman appropriating the traits of a Carioca mulata.

Both past and present iterations of “The Girl from Ipanema” reinforce exoticized notions of Brazilian women in which women’s bodies exist to be gazed upon by men, as erotic capital, of which the woman is seemingly unaware. “She doesn’t see,” the lyrics say, even as she is seen by her male admirer. But in truth all models are self-aware; they know they are being watched and evaluated as erotic capital. This was made all too clear when NBC commentator Matt Lauer literally commodified Bündchen’s body, calling her Brazil’s “greatest export.” However, Bündchen’s particular role as the girl from Ipanema also demonstrates a racist hierarchy that privileges light-skinned women—a hierarchy Brazil has recently been battling on the runways of its fashion shows.[13]

Ultimately, the Rio 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony achieved just what its artistic directors desired: it humbly demonstrated Rio’s position within the world, highlighting what its long-lasting commitment to diversity has contributed. However, its key moment, “The Girl from Ipanema,” also demonstrated the extent to which Brazil has constructed a national story and identity that at once celebrates diversity while simultaneously relying on symbols rooted in class, gender, and race-based stereotypes.

It is not my intent to criticize the national story Meirelles and Thomas crafted for Brazil. Claims of harmonious diversity are predictable in national celebrations; indeed, many opening ceremonies for the Olympics praise the supposed diversity of the host country. However, as Sara Ahmed argues with regard to institutions of higher education, invocations of diversity are often used as evidence that those institutions do not have issues with diversity.[14] As international audiences, we should attempt to be aware of the positive motivations behind such national narratives of diversity, while still being critical of the stereotypes upon which they rely and the problems they mask.

[1] Many thanks to Elizabeth Dister for her thoughts on this piece.

[2] For instance, Beijing’s 2008 opening ceremony told a story about China that emphasized technological progress, strength in solidarity, and the beauty of their culture, while the 2014 opening ceremony in Sochi highlighted Russia’s constant modernization and ability to be a world leader.

[3] Marcos Napolitano, Cultura Brasileira: Utopia e Massificação (1950-1980), 2nd ed. São Paulo, SP, 2004. Qtd. in Irna Priore, “Authenticity and Performance Practice: Bossa nova and João Gilberto,” Lied und populäre Kultur 53 (2008): 109-130.

[4] Suzel Ana Reily, “Tom Jobim and the Bossa Nova Era,” Popular Music 15, no. 1 (1996): 6.

[5] Jobim in O Globo (1962), a major newspaper in Rio (qtd. in Reily, p. 6).

[6] Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 200.

[7] Ruiz and Korrol, 204.

[8] The standard English translation of “The Girl from Ipanema,” was done by lyricist Norman Gimbel in 1963. Though this is not a literal translation of the original Portuguese lyrics, it is the version performed by Astrud Gilberto under Jobim’s supervision.

[9] Bündchen, though, did smile throughout most of her walk, unlike the girl from Ipanema.

[10] True to their image of a unified Brazil and a unified world, Meirelles responded to Helô’s complaints by insisting that the “Girl from Ipanema” segment was meant to honor the inspirational spirit of all Ipanema girls, rather than one particular Ipanema girl, meaning Helô.

[11] Natasha Pravaz, “The Tan from Ipanema: Freyre, Morenidade, and the Cult of the Body in Rio de Janeiro,” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 34, no. 67 (2009): 83.

[12] Alma Guillermoprieto, Samba (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 180.

[13] “10% of Models in Brazilian Fashion Week ‘Must be Black’,” The Telegraph 22 May 2009:

Alexei Barrionuevo, “Off Runway, Brazilian Beauty Goes Beyond Blond,” New York Times 8 June 2010:

[14] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).