Sexism and “Hysteria” in Brazilian Politics

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 10.54.41 AMIn a recent article published in a major Brazilian magazine, IstoÉ (This is), President Dilma Rousseff was depicted as having lost the emotional and cognitive capacity to run the country, with a front page close-up portrait of her contorted face and allegations that she had had “successive nervous explosions,” and was “showing a complete disconnection with the reality of the country.”

Rousseff is the first-ever female president of Brazil, and today, although women make up more than half of the Brazilian population, they hold only 63 out of 594 congressional seats. Rousseff is currently on the precipice of impeachment, with a vote set to take place in the lower house of congress this weekend. Opposition leaders, supported by a heavily biased media, have adopted a wide range of tactics to destroy Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, and with it that party’s progressive social reforms. One of these tactics is the portrayal of Rousseff as a hysterical, destabilized woman.

The IstoÉ article, written by Sergio Pardellas and Debora Bergamasco, describes Rousseff as having “fallen apart emotionally.” The writers claim that she damaged furniture in an office after swearing profusely, and that she is being medicated using a mixture of two drugs: rivotril and olanzapine, the latter of which is used to treat schizophrenia. They go on to state, “the medicine isn’t always effective, as can be seen.”

Towards the end of the piece, Rousseff is also compared to “Maria the mad,” the first woman to sit on the Portuguese throne and also, for geopolitical reasons, Queen of Brazil at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Maria is thought to have gone insane towards the end of her life, seeing apparitions of dead people and running and screaming through the palace halls. The comparison with Queen Maria reads as a not-so-subtle warning that women in positions of power have a tendency to become dangerously unstable.

Journalists, feminist organizations and women across Brazil have responded to the article using the hashtag #IstoÉMachismo (this is sexism)—a play on the name of the magazine—calling out the publication for its discriminatory depiction of Rousseff.

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Critics point out that the article is not only sexist, but it also has glaring credibility problems: little proof or sources are offered for any of the allegations made. In fact, one of the women alleged to have been a victim of Rousseff’s aggressive outbursts, Secretary of State for Human Rights Maria do Rosário Nunes, has come forward to deny all the claims made in the article, saying, “I have never been disrespected by Dilma… She has always supported me in my work as minister.”

What’s more, the descriptions of Rousseff invoke longstanding sexist stereotypes of women as impulsive, emotional and uncontrolled. One comment on the Facebook page of the magazine points out the sexist hypocrisy of the article: “If the President was a man in the same situation as Dilma, would there be a piece like this about him?… How many presidents, governors and executives have shouted and sworn and no-one calls them crazy.” Men’s mental states are almost never challenged to delegitimize their positions of power. Instead, their emotional outbursts tend to be presented as examples of the virtues of political fervor and assertiveness.

This form of sexist destabilization is known as “gaslighting”—when information is manipulated and selectively presented in order to make those around an individual (usually a woman) believe that they are unstable or insane.

Think Olga, a pioneering Brazilian feminist organization, created the following montage showing similar cases of the phenomenon:


An article by the organization states, “Many other presidents and highly influential politicians have undergone moments of crisis just as serious as the one Dilma is currently facing, but their mental faculties were never questioned in the same way.”

Rousseff is constantly presented as harsh and aggressive in the media. The IstoÉ article paints her as “irritable, beside herself and more aggressive than ever.” In recent months, Hillary Clinton has had the same terminology used to undermine her electability. New York Magazine, for example, posted a video with the tagline “Hillary Clinton got aggressive when asked about a possible indictment.” Aggressiveness in women suggests a grotesque excess, and speaks to a departure from the virtues of femininity.

It’s not just progressive women who face this kind of sexist psychological scrutiny either. Just days after IstoÉ published its article about Rousseff, a video went viral showing one of Rousseff’s fiercest female opponents and author of the legal call for impeachment, Janaína Paschoal, giving an impassioned speech against the current government. She makes allusions throughout to the dangerous power of a snake and frenetically swings a Brazilian flag above her head in a performance that bears a remarkable resemblance to the emotional rhetoric of neo-Pentecostal preachers.

Immediately, comments and video responses emerged, describing her as “deranged,” “hysterical” and out of control.

Daniela Lima, a columnist at Huffington Post Brazil, pointed out the pervasive gender bias at play in portrayals of both Paschoal and Rousseff. “In the case of fascist discourse, like that of the lawyer Janaína Paschoal, calling her mad absolves her of responsibility,” she wrote. “It contributes to backwards thought which stigmatizes insanity and normalizes gender stereotypes which are unfavorable to women.” She goes on to say that Paschoal’s speech bears a strong likeness to those given by male politicians, such as Marco Feliciano and Jair Bolsonaro, but “no one calls them crazy.”

Rousseff’s political career is in jeopardy thanks in part to the sexist ways she’s being portrayed. The media has been working alongside opposition leaders to destroy her image in the run up to the final impeachment hearing, and there’s no greater evidence of their lack of journalistic credibility than the armory of misogynistic language they’ve been using to take her down.


Anna Sophie Gross is a journalist and writer living in Rio de Janeiro. Find her on Twitter @AnnaSophieGross