By Daniela Portella Sampaio
Being a middle-class child in Brazil’s Nineties meant experiencing huge economic, political and cultural transformation. Inflation ingrained in families the habit to spend their salaries as quickly as possible – tag-machines would adjust the price of products in a matter of hours. This meant long queues in supermarkets with my mother, and big kitchen cupboards as we needed as much space as possible to store our massive month’s worth of groceries. Although shopping was a long and boring memory, currency changes on the other hand were exciting. Money would gain different colours, figures (and zeros) would blow my mind. Seeing the curious staring of people when we were using new currency made my sisters and I feel so cool during our school’s break.
The Nineties also meant watching many politicians on TV. I remember quite clearly when a colleague’s mother shouted from her window car, cheering for Collor’s impeachment. There was an exciting anger in her voice, which helped me to learn quickly that politicians were not very highly appreciated among the grown-ups. I used to hear how selfish and corrupt they all were, causing general struggle in order to keep their own luxurious habits. I was seven at the time. Although we could agree on these stories of corruption, talking about how bad Brazilian politicians have had a perverse effect on us, as children. We learned very early on that there was an abyss between politicians and us – an abyss which saw them keep doing whatever they want, whilst no one could do anything about it.
This lack of social self-esteem was also reinforced by other means. As a child, I could not understand why exciting toys only came from my mother’s trips to New York – she used to say that we could not buy modern technologies at home, because our industry was closed. But abroad… that was the place of the good stuff. My first Barbies – all blondies and imported – needed to date our G.I Joes during playing time, as Kens were not available yet in the market. But everything changed when Scarlet came. She was our first woman G.I Joe. Red hair, green eyes, and so strong. Even though a Barbie doll was twice the size of a G.I Joe, she did not give me a real impression of strength. But Scarlet did. From that moment, a light obsession of playing (and winning) with strong women toys began in my life. Barbies (even the brunette ones) no longer had the same appeal. But at that moment we were in a very different scenario.
Cardoso’s privatisation programme in 1996 opened Brazil’s national market to the world, vanishing the bank where my mother worked, and shrinking the classrooms in my school, as unemployed parents could no longer afford keeping their children in private education. Money was short, but markets were opened, and suddenly we were introduced to the world of video games. Taking the track with Street Fighter II, I was introduced to Chun-Li. She was the only girl among a bunch of boys, and I could not understand why she was my only and single option. For me, the others – the male fighters – looked all the same. Changing the colour of her outfit by the joystick, I succeeded to get differently dressed-Chun-Li to the end of the game. Her amazing kicks and sweeps were enough proof to me and my sister (and father, forced to play against us) that a girl was not the weak choice. For me, she represented what I wanted to be.
This awakening to strong women figures reached another chapter in the same year. My school was refurbishing their laboratories, which would be named after famous scientists in physics, chemistry and biology. To be sincere, I really do not remember the name of the last two laboratories. For me, they were just names. But I will never forget the first one. For my excitement and annoyance, the physics laboratory was named ‘Pierre and Marie Curie’. At first, I thought they were a single person (maybe siblings?). But then, I learned that they were a couple. For my excitement, it was the first time I saw the name of a girl written on some structure because she was clever. Intelligence was also powerful. And maybe I could become to be like her when I grew up, because I was a good student. But the fact that Pierre’s name needed to be with hers annoyed me. She could not shine on her own. In my child’s mind she was kind of a real-life Chun-Li, and neither Chun-Li, or Scarlet, needed a man by their side.
And no, there was no feminist movement being discussed at that time. Being children from a divorced couple used to raise eyebrows and funny reactions that I could not make sense of at that time. But I remember crystal clear how my mother was addressed by neighbours – both men and women. And for obvious reasons, these women were very different from the ones to whom I was looking: they thought that the absence of men was a problem. And I always used to enjoy so much to see my great grandmother, grandmother, and mother chatting in the same room. They were powerful, powerful on their own. My need to find strong women figures to play with or be inspired by was not based on the lack of women in my life. But to join these women in my family, I felt I needed more, we needed more.
Twenty years later I was awarded a Marie Curie fellowship, somewhat ironic that this woman had already changed my life many years before. I was initially delighted with the idea that when I applied I did so just thinking that she was the first girl to have her own laboratory in my school. I did not at the time realise how transformative this award would be on my life. Marie Curie again changed my perception of the world and of myself. Despite the many suggestions I received that I should not apply, Marie Curie encouraged me to live my research in its full extent. She allowed me to travel the world, to get to know people, and to learn so much from them. And for the first time, I saw myself as strong as Scarlet and Chun-Li.
In regards to Brazil, many things have changed over the last twenty years. We have experienced relative financial stability since 1994 with Plano Real and inflation control, despite the economic roller-coaster which affected our lives these past two decades. We have witnessed another impeachment, and although I was not as naïve as my seven-year-old self, I have kept my same impressions of the abyss. But now we have strong, feminist voices, surprising men who have never realised how oppressive they were. Unfortunately, we still have such a long way to go – Barbies are still the massive inspiration for many of our young women. This oppression, I have just realised it myself only in the last six years. I learned to reinterpret my story and so many accompanying episodes, because I was immersed in this gridlock of oppression and power-seeking that I have touched upon here.
Nevertheless, I believe we have cracked the ceiling for the first time. What we see in our current polarised politics is a reaction to a deep mindset change. Reactions will always be extreme from both sides. But sometimes we need to embrace contradictions in order to reach a better understanding of ourselves.
Dr. Daniela Portella Sampaio Has a PhD in International Relations (DSc) from the Universidade de São Paulo and is currently working as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds. She was previously a visiting PhD student at the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London, researching international relations in Antarctica.