Birds of Different Feathers – The Feminist Wire

Birds of Different Feathers

By Patricia Friedrich

I have to confess that it was with some trepidation that I took my family to see the new animated movie Rio. The only carioca among us, I felt a sense of responsibility toward the city of my birth, a pressing wish that it be presented to a generation of kids with a modicum of accuracy and respect. Truth be told, I wasn’t hoping for an ode to the city or for a complete lack of allusion, even in a children’s movie, to the social problems that still affect a large portion of the population. But I was hoping for some lyricism, some understanding of the magical nature of that place; in my arrogance, or in the way we sometimes think of ourselves as the center of the universe, I might have even looked for some validation of who I am through a representation of the city that bore and raised me.

Rio is a story of two birds, the last of their kind, who have to overcome many challenges before they can become a family and save their species from extinction. Blu, raised in Minnesota after being smuggled out of his native Rio, travels back to Brazil with his human “companion” Linda to meet Jewel, a female macaw now kept under protection by bird expert Túlio. Predictably snatched by a group of villains, the pair must smooth out their differences and collaborate to escape. These dynamics are mirrored by the birds’ human equivalents who also grow and learn as they try to save the birds.

In much less than two hours, my fears had been dispelled. Rio-the-movie did indeed pay homage to Rio-the-city and accomplished this to a greater degree than I expected. The city looked beautiful in its animated depiction, with beaches, urban sprawl, favelas and historical sites blending seamlessly in ways that we only dream real life could replicate. The dance of colors provided by scores of birds was enthralling, the movement of the animals as they performed the samba was gracious and familiar to anyone who has ever seen a passista sway, the music was a pleasant blend of the authentic Brazilian and accessible American, and the portrayal of a Carnaval parade was utterly breathtaking. For the first time to my knowledge, a motion picture for kids also presented non-crucial dialogue in somewhat extensive Portuguese, and a few Brazilian actors played lead roles in intelligible, Brazilian-flavored varieties of English.

Let’s ignore for a minute that George Lopez plays a Brazilian native bird in that often-employed strategy of pretending all speakers of Romance languages sound alike. Let’s also gloss over the fact that Jamie Foxx and play featured birds. They are entertaining, and at some point we have to concede that American studios make movies for American audiences first. The sociolinguist in me still smiled with contentment more often than not at the variety of Englishes represented and the stolen morsels of Brazilian Portuguese. Even the bird villain contributes to the linguistic cornucopia through Jemaine Clement’s New Zealand tuneful English. The message seemed to be “we are Brazilian, but we are the world too.”

Despite its global aspirations, Rio is a movie that could only be made by a Brazilian export: Carlos Saldanha. Better yet, Rio is a movie that could only be made by someone with dual membership in Brazilian and American cultures. Cultural references come from an insider’s point of view on both ends so that even the occasional not-so-becoming portrayals ring true rather than stereotypical. For example, while a group of Brazilian crooks smuggle rare exotics birds from Rio, an implicit assumption that someone is buying them on the other side of the world (i.e., the United States) hints at shared responsibility. And whereas living in Rio is more dangerous for the birds in question, a critique of Blu’s domestication in Brazil’s Northern counterpart is not too hard to spot.

This seems all healthy and timely; after all, a growing perception that power relations in the world are shifting can only signify changing representations by/within the media as well. Yet, perhaps this is also the reason why the leading female role being played by a well-known American actress, Anne Hathaway seems to have removed some of the hard-earned authenticity that the movie otherwise worked to own up to. Such choice also evidences what being a leading lady in Hollywood is (still) about, despite changing world forces and cultural values.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate and enjoy the work of Anne Hathaway. Many would claim she has a combination of youth, beauty and smarts that makes her an obvious choice when it comes to attracting large numbers of viewers. Yet, the pursuit of the largest audience possible throws an otherwise well-devised strategy off balance. Of the main four characters (human and avian), two are Brazilian and two are American/US-raised. The Brazilian female bird hasn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, ever left Brazil. We already have to suspend disbelief and accept that for intelligibility purposes she will speak English. While the Brazilian ornithologist is expertly played by Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro and the male bird and its owner are suitably played by American Jesse Eisenberg and Leslie Mann respectively, the language variety employed by the Brazilian female bird is just out of place.

Maybe it is my own feminist bias that I was less willing to ignore the casting of the female lead than that of avian sidekicks. Yet, if I tried hard in the case of the latter, I could see at least a connection to the local. Brought in to guarantee laughs and to provide music, Foxx,, and Lopez reminded me of some loud and entertaining characters from my own childhood, who played samba in hole-in-the-wall places as we walked to and from the beach, or whom we met by chance in street markets, on buses or at birthday parties. In a way, they could all be Brazilian. However, in the case of the female lead, that connection, that recognition was just not there. The bird Hathaway plays in the movie is as American as apple pie – in speech, in demeanor and in all other respects. She is not a blue macaw; she is a Northern cardinal.

My American-born children, comfortable with the dual cultural membership they always thought of as default, enjoyed the movie, felt proud of their ability to understand the non-translated parts, and then moved on to their other multi-dialectal and multi-linguistic pursuits – the new Harry Potter DVD, Spanish classes, participation in peer groups where many are multicultural and multilingual like them. No anxiety or need for excruciating reflection there. My dual membership, however, was learned, and thus I am more prone to fixating on it; I cannot avoid it.

So my overanalytical self keeps returning to Rio this week, both the movie and the city. In a way, I am wondering how much of the not-so-Brazilian bird my own current personage displays. My initial guess is that it might be more than a little. Yet another part of me wants to insist that the girls in Rio see themselves in this bird, in this movie, and in other depictions of Brazil that are sure to come now that economic and political factors ensure the country’s greater visibility. In still another selfish way, I want to be able to see a Rio of the future and at the same time return to the Rio of my youth through its people (or birds) and see the city in all of its colors and idiosyncrasies. I am even greedier than that: I want to be able to see the people we once were alongside the people Brazilians are becoming, whether it is behind a giant bucket of popcorn in a movie theater in Arizona or in our ever-so-real and complex globalized life.


Patricia Friedrich is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and Linguistics at Arizona State University. She is the author of Language Negotiation and Peace: the use of English in conflict resolution and the editor of Teaching Academic Writing (both by Continuum Books). She has also published many articles in such journals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. She teaches courses in composition, sociolinguistics and critical applied linguistics. Her fiction work has appeared in The Linnet’s Wings, The Blue Guitar, and Eclectic Flash among others.