Cultural programming in comic books: practicing Portuguese with ‘Turma da Mônica’

So after one of my students gave me a few collections a couple months back, I’ve been turning to Turma da Mônica (“Monica’s Gang”) to practice my Portuguese. In print since the 1960s, Turma da Mônica is a beloved comic-strip universe portraying wide cast of characters in their day-to-day lives. The majority of strips focus on the antics of Monica and her friends, but others focus on the (as far as I know) self-contained worlds of a caveman, an angel, a ghost, and a dog who hosts his own TV show.

In addition to being great for language practice (the drawings help me pick up on vocab and follow the story so much more easily), I think comics also offer really interesting cultural insights. Because they’re made for kids, they’re designed to be accessible—mirroring the life kids already know. Although Turma da Mônica can occasionally be meta or subversive, I’ve observed that, for the most part, the archetypes it uses seem to reflect some broad patterns of life in Brazil.

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A spread of Turma da Mônica titles lent to me by a participant in English & Chill. Each collection focuses on a different character and has its own special storylines.

So like, for example, here’s an excerpt from a story where Mônica’s dad agrees to house-sit for his wealthy boss. Mônica doesn’t want to go, but her family packs up and moves to the boss’s fancy condominium—only to be swarmed by far-flung family members suddenly deciding to drop by for a visit. In the end, Mônica’s parents tire of having their new apartment overrun, and they decide to return to their old house instead. The final panel depicts the family’s welcome-home party, their house again crowded with people—but this time, close friends.

I think this storyline is interesting on a number of levels. First, it gives an example of what a fancy home is supposed to look like in Brazil: a nice gated condominium, complete with uniformed staff.

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Second, the storyline shows one dimension of familial relationships in Brazil. I’ve talked about how Brazil is much less individualistic than the US, and how there seems to be an expectation that you grant favors to the people close to you—so it’s reasonable that Mônica’s relatives would show up with warm smiles and open hands. Of course, the family members are depicted as inconsiderate and mooching, but I don’t think the story would work if this sort of behavior wasn’t already thought to be common and/or normal.

Digging somewhat deeper, I think this story also hints at how Brazil deals with class differences. Like the US, Brazil can sometimes feel status-obsessed and materialistic. And clearly, there’s a lot of income inequality here, with the rich and poor coexisting in much closer proximity than maybe is common in the US. But in Turma da Mônica, the lesson seems to be that having more money does not necessarily make you happier.

Here’s an advertisement on the back page of the same comic book, paid for by a Brazilian personal-finance organization. The blonde girl is telling Mônica and Magdali about her plans to go to “Bisney” during the holidays. (Among Brazilians, Disney seems to be the most-advertised and most-visited US destination.) When Mônica and Magdali say they’re going to stay home, the blonde girl says “How come?! It’s the holidays, you have to enjoy them!” Mônica and Magdali tell the girl that they will, going on about their plans to have a picnic and  hold seven-day game tournament and play with their new toys and watch movies with popcorn and juice. In the end, the blonde girl says “You want to know something? …I changed my plans! Is it too late to join you? Bisney can wait!”

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These advertisements provide some interesting additional insight. For example, check out the Turma de Mônica-themed nail polish. You can see from the puzzles in the middle of the collection that the book is targeted at a fairly young audience. Turma de Mônica is a cultural touchstone, but I don’t think anyone over the age of 10 would be super into using Turma de Mônica-branded makeup. So looking at this book, you could reasonably conclude that it’s culturally appropriate for young girls to wear nail polish.

I recognize this conclusion might not be super surprising, but I included it as a simple example of the sort of exercise I try to do with basically anything I encounter in Brazil.

Speaking of culturally appropriate things: I find it fascinating how some international stereotypes change when looking through the lens of a new culture. For example, there’s a whole rivalry between Brazil and Portugal (you know, colony/colonizer) that’s completely absent in American ideas about Portugal. But on the flip side, some stereotypes are exactly the same.

Check out the first page of this story, where “Master Zen” teaches Mônica to control her characteristic anger (and stop whacking her friends with the stuffed rabbit she carries everywhere) through some generic East Asian training at Temple Ding-Ling Ding (!):

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What won’t be immediately apparent to non-Portuguese speakers is that, in addition to being squinty and buck-toothed, the temple monks speak with an accent that swaps Ls for Rs. (Ls are pronounced super gently [if at all] in Portuguese, almost like Ws.) This depiction should be super familiar to US readers, and I was honestly shocked to see it portrayed so brazenly in print. But then again, who knows if Brazil’s had the same history of anti-Chinese sentiment as the US has had.

This storyline wasn’t the only one that relied on some tired tropes. In another story, blue-haired Rodolfo joins a gym just to talk to a woman he saw going into it—only to end up in a fitness class so difficult that he faints from overexertion and has to chase down this woman at her house to get the chance to ask her out. Chasing down women seems to be the schtick of all of Rodolfo’s storylines, but this particular arc was worse than normal. Check out the top-right panel:

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This woman, whom Rodolfo has been chasing for the entire story, doesn’t speak until this page. “Hm, weren’t you at the gym?” she asks. Rodolfo replies with an enthusiastic “I was!” before launching into pick-up lines that we don’t even get to hear. His dialogue is just a squiggly speech-balloon saying “And… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…” All we know is that he successfully won her over, as he leaves her in the next panel happily declaring “So, see you tomorrow!” Who this women is isn’t important; all that’s important is that Rodolfo wanted to go out with her, and she said yes. Also, you get a pretty clear idea of the relative importance of beauty standards with strip. I haven’t spoken a lot about Brazil’s sense of machismo (my impression is it’s somewhat muted in the south, especially among the Brazilians I spend most of my time with), but it’s on full display here.

By focusing on these outliers, I don’t want to obscure the more everyday adventures that fill the majority of Turma da Mônica collections. Most of the stories are just about the antics that Mônica and her friends get up to, devoid of any overt conversations about class or gender or race. For example, you can check out the picture below, which is literally about Mônica and her friend Magdali playing hairdresser:

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But as Turma da Mônica shows, even simple texts like a kid’s comic book can carry messages about the culture they were produced in. But what’s harder to remember is that this pattern is equally true for books and movies and TV shows that I see back home—the messages they carry are just so much more invisible to us, like water to a fish.

Lessons in language, culture, and critical-thinking—I don’t think you could ask for much more from a comic book. Turma da Mônica‘s pretty great.

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