Subversive, Mother, Killjoy: Sexism against Dilma Rousseff and the Social Imaginary of Brazil’s Rightward Turn

Authored by: Joseph Jay Sosa

Categories: Statebuilding
Sub-Categories: Democratization and Political Participation
Country: Brazil
Region: Latin America and the Caribbean
Year: 2019
Citation: Joseph Jay Sosa, "Subversive, Mother, Killjoy: Sexism against Dilma Rousseff and the Social Imaginary of Brazil’s Rightward Turn," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 3 (Spring 2019): 717-741.

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From resistance fighter against Brazil’s military dictatorship to its first female president, Dilma Rousseff’s biography follows the historic arc of democratization in Brazil. Her 2016 impeachment was also the culminating event of numerous crises that polarized Brazilian society. To supporters, Rousseff’s removal without evidence constitutes an abrogation of democracy. To critics, Rousseff had to answer for an economic recession and widespread corruption (though she was not implicated in any investigation). This article examines the social imaginaries of the rightward turn that made Rousseff’s removal possible. Moving across diverse sets of public culture—street protests, journalistic accounts, political observations, and Rousseff’s speeches—the article uses sexism against Rousseff as an analytic to deconstruct the cultural narratives of Brazil’s rightward turn. A first section considers conservative efforts to paint Rousseff as a political subversive. These accusations drew on long-standing, right-wing Brazilian tropes around people who don’t “act right” in the moral, sexual, and ideological fields. A second section reads the maternal metaphors of Rousseff’s governance strategies against conflicting political renderings of the family—pitting left-wing versions of family rooted in economic development against Evangelical Christian accounts of the family as a gender-normative unit. A third section argues that Rousseff’s response to the charges against her turned her (and those who argued her case) into what Sara Ahmed calls “feminist killjoys.” Ultimately, the question of sexism in Rousseff’s impeachment shows how deep-seated cultural conservatisms can be activated in a new era of democratic uncertainty.