Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dilma’s Hipster Glasses

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What do the Brooklyn hipster and the Brazilian president have in common? They both think they look good in a pair of oversized, black-framed glasses.

Sometimes called “hipster glasses” in the United States and óculos setentas (70s glasses) in Brazil, these trendy frames have proven to complement both skinny jeans and struggling presidents in need of appearing more accessible to the youth vote. During the final months of the Brazilian presidential race, incumbent Dilma Rousseff’s campaign began circulating a stylized poster depicting Rousseff as a young revolutionary in the 1970s wearing a plaid shirt and sporting the thick-framed glasses.

It’s an outfit you might spot in any number of artsy New York or São Paulo neighborhoods today. The retro glasses have been re-popularized in recent years by sports stars (Lebron James, David Beckham), artists (Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z), and politicians (former U.S. presidential candidate Rick Perry, for one), but Rousseff wore them before they were cool, which makes her that much cooler.

“It was an attempt to bring Dilma closer to youngsters and people who did not relate to her more ‘formal’ image as president,” said João Marcelo Ehlert Maia, a professor of sociology at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro. “The idea is to present the ‘guerrilla look’ in a new fashion. ‘Hipster Dilma’ is, in fact, ‘Revolutionary Dilma.’”

On October 26, Rousseff won the closest election in the history of Brazil, taking 51.6 percent of the vote to her opponent Aécio Neves’ 48.4 percent—a margin of just 3.5 million votes. Although a breakdown of voter turnout by age has yet to be released, Rousseff could not have won without the support of the youth base, and a subtle part of that outreach was spreading the now-iconic portrait of Dilma in a pair of hipster glasses with a stony face and moppy ‘fro, repurposed from an actual police mugshot. Set against a blood red background, the photoshopped image is pieced together like a mosaic out of faded photos from the 60s and 70s, including from Dilma’s military court trial. The caption reads “coração valente,” or brave heart.

“I really do not know if it worked, though Dilma did gain more votes among the young people in the second round,” added Maia, citing how the 11 million new voters who turned out for Rousseff in the second round almost certainly included the youth.

The same voter group threatened to cost Rousseff the election a year ago, when disenchanted youth and university students in São Paulo sparked nationwide anti-government protests demanding better public services and a crackdown on corruption. According to sociologist Silvana Martinho of Nove de Julho University in São Paulo, this is exactly why Rousseff’s campaign chose to characterize the president as a young revolutionary, to show that she was also a rebel who fought for democracy and basic rights, just like the protesters.

“Since the beginning of the campaign, the target audience was the youth,” Martinho said.

Rousseff gave her victory speech Sunday night in front of a giant reproduction of the hipstamatic image, showing how much the candidate’s actual physical appearance has changed since she was a young revolutionary—and how far her ideals have evolved. Rousseff gave up the óculos setentas for contact lenses in 2008, when advisors began grooming her for the presidency and decided she also needed teeth whitening, a face-lift, and a shorter hairstyle inspired by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera. It’s hard to imagine that a young Rousseff, who was tortured by the military government and imprisoned for three years, would consider the cosmetic changes as anything but bourgeois trappings.

Likewise, Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party—PT) embraced a full makeover in 2002. Lula had made several unsuccessful presidential bids as a jeans-wearing radical unionist railing against the wealthy elite. But in 2002, he appeared in a suit for the first time, publicizing himself as a more moderate, business-friendly candidate at the recommendation of his advertising strategist Duda Mendonça.

“As soon as he put a suit on, he looked educated, he had money, he was intelligent,” said Ana Matesco, a Brazilian publicist. “Of course, it’s a marketing thing [with Rousseff, too]. They want young people to relate to her.”

“They’re trying to make some kind of ‘cool’ connection: I’m from the 60s, I was a rebel, so vote for me,” agreed Diego Rafael Borba, a 27-year-old architect who wears similar black spectacles.

Borba recalled how in the 2010 election, Rousseff’s campaign sought to associate her with Barack Obama by designing their very own “Hope”-style poster. At that time, President Barack Obama enjoyed strong support worldwide, including in Brazil (Brazilian legislative candidates were even adopting the name “Obama” to attract more votes), but the U.S. president’s popularity has fallen sharply following last year’s allegations that the White House spied on millions of Brazilian citizens, businesses, and officials, including Rousseff herself.

Needless to say, this year Rousseff ditched the Obama-referencing “Hope” poster. Her new revolutionary portrait seems more likely to evoke the famous image of Argentinian rebel fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an icon for students railing against capitalist interests and the wealthy political elite, such as Rousseff’s opponent in the presidential race—or at least according to her campaign. The ideological leftward shift in imagery is bearing out in politics as well. While Brazil-U.S. relations remain at a low point since Rousseff canceled her visit to the White House last year, Rousseff’s post-election phone call to leftist Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner thanking her for support and arranging a bilateral meeting in November highlights strong Brasília-Buenos Aires ties.

But has the new imagery done anything for Rousseff’s stauncher opponents?

“This image doesn’t make me want to vote for her,” the bespectacled Borba said as he entered a voting station in the southern city of Blumenau on October 26. “Her government was great for social programs, but I think now we have to pay the bills.”

Nearly half the country agreed with Borba, underscoring the huge challenge that the real Rousseff now faces—trendy frames or not—in pulling a fractured country out of a divisive and bitter election.

Tags: Barack Obama, Brazilian elections, Dilma Rousseff
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