- Creating Carmen Miranda: Race, Camp and Transnational Stardom by Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez
Writing a book about Carmen Miranda, one of the most famous and contradictory Brazilian figures of the twentieth century, is not a simple task. Miranda's life story and the popular reception of her work and persona are contentious, and the archive is vast. Miranda's image has circulated in an extensive array of media since her success in 1930s Brazil and her international fame as singer, dancer, and Hollywood icon in the 1940s. Indeed, it took Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez a decade of archival research in the United States and Brazil, a vast bibliographic review of works produced in both countries, and "innumerable impromptu and informal conversations" to write this book (xi).
Using films, press material, posters, cartoons, TV shows, biographies, and book-length studies on Carmen Miranda, as well as theorizations of stardom, performance, and camp, Bishop-Sanchez in Creating Carmen Miranda addresses the creation and circulation of Miranda's star persona on- and offscreen. Rather than telling a "true history," Bishop-Sanchez provides a critical analysis of Miranda's image by focusing on the visual aspects of her performance during her national and international career and the reach of her "star text" beyond the media representation of her image and her short life. To this day, Miranda is remembered for her spectacular costumes, unique singing voice, and imaginative headdress. She blended elements from Brazil and the United States and created a "performative genre, defined across and beyond national lines," in a particularly charged historical moment (5). Neither entirely here nor there, her career was entwined in Brazilian nationalism and racial politics, as well as in Hollywood's consumer culture and the commodification of Latin stars in the midst of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy and World War II. This book addresses how Miranda's "celebrity sign" intersected with values such as "ethnicity, exoticism, comedy, racial difference, and excessive femininity" while circulating within and between countries (3).
The first chapters are dedicated to Miranda's early career in Brazil. The author avoids interpreting Miranda's national success as mere preparation for her Hollywood ascension—a common association that downplays her popularity in [End Page 149] Brazil before her emergence on the international stage. Indeed, before embodying a stereotypical version of South Americanness, Miranda was a famous Brazilian popular music singer, casino performer, film star, and public personality who captivated audiences of multiple social classes. She was also an entertainer formed in the nationalist mold of the Vargas regime in Brazil, and she incorporated Afro-Brazilianness in her stage performances in keeping with the racial, social, and class complexities of her time.
Carmen Miranda is often remembered for her appropriation of the costume of the baianas, the Afro-Brazilian women from the northeastern state of Bahia known in urban centers as fruit and food vendors. In chapter 1 Bishop-Sanchez visits stage performances and the carnival culture of early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro and contextualizes Miranda's chosen attire in an era when stylized baianas had already become an important Carioca cultural symbol. After setting Miranda's baiana in this context, chapter 2 deals with the more contentious subject of Miranda's performance of race and connects her success and her baiana stage performance with the racial and cultural politics of 1930s Brazil. Bishop-Sanchez analyzes how Miranda embraced and appropriated Afro-Brazilianness in her mode of speaking, the lyrics she sang, her choice to sing samba, and her costumes and also analyzes Miranda's use of blackface in her "tar doll" (boneca de pixe) routines and the browning of her skin in her baiana presentations.
The 1930s were a period of considerable intellectual debate around the concept of race in Brazil, and a positive view of racial miscegenation became part of Brazilian national discourse in line with the myth of racial democracy, famously associated with the writings of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, which celebrated the country as a melting pot of harmonious racial intermingling. In its application in the performing arts, this...