By Léo Azambuja

Leo webWomen. Though I make a heck of an effort, I probably will never understand them. Perhaps it has to do with my upbringing.

During my childhood years in Rio de Janeiro, my father was a top-notch advertiser. As a child, I had my cheeks pinched by more top models and TV and movie stars than anyone I know. I was once baby-sat by a Playmate while tagging along my dad on a business trip to São Paulo.

And by the way, that trip included having lunch with the editor of Playboy Magazine in the best steakhouse in Brazil. Did I mention I shared a meal with the Playmate?

Before you hate me, whether you’re a woman or a man, allow me to explain my journey.

The Playmate, Sandra Brea, was also a talented leading actress of many movies and TV shows. Her then-husband was a famous photographer and a longtime friend of my father.

More than anything, Sandra was a human being like you and me. No labels. Away from the cameras, she was caring, funny and down to earth. She had the same marital struggles and personal problems anyone else does.

When she pulled out of her purse a stack of pictures — shot by her own husband — that were published in Playboy (and off limits to minors), she asked me, an 11-year-old boy, all kinds of technical questions. She wanted my thoughts about the light, the composition, the set, etc.

Didn’t she notice she was naked in there?

Somehow the pictures in her hands looked like a natural thing. In the magazine, the very same pictures looked like obscenity.

But the point here is — and now it gets more interesting — I felt we were doing something against the status quo, against a vicious military dictatorship that ruled the country for 21 years.

She, a woman, made me feel empowered. It might have been the wrong tools, but it worked.

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, while Eastern Europeans suffered in gulags in the former Soviet Union, U.S. officials would teach torture to Brazilian officials — with live demonstrations — in theaters crowded with military personnel.

Also in those years and well into the 1980s, the government played an active role in censoring massive amounts of movies, books, shows, newspaper articles, music, etc.

Artists, musicians, intellectuals, teachers, journalists, students and plain regular citizens all suffered during the military rule, which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

Many were arrested and tortured. Some disappeared forever. Under the Institutional Act 5, hundreds were pulled out of their homes by police squads to never again be seen. Several went into exile, voluntarily or not.

When Sandra showed me those pictures, I felt like I was sneaking up behind the government to break the law.

The whole context of that business trip helped too.

The night before, we had gone to dinner at 11 p.m. in the notorious Italian neighborhood of Bixiga. We sat at a table with about 20 stage artists. Their unusual order was a giant pot of boiled vegetables, eggs and meat placed in the middle of the table. They were loud and fun; and I felt like one of them.

It was in that year that I started doing all the wrong things for what I thought were the right reasons, including graffiti as a form of rebellion.

The military dictatorship was replaced by a civilian government in 1985. Five years later, Brazilians elected their president for the first time in 30 years, thanks to a new constitution passed in 1988.

Unfortunately, one of the ugliest byproducts of the fight against the dictatorship and its censorship machine was the exploitation of women as objects, especially by big media and large corporations, Playboy included. Open the door to big corporations and they’ll put a toll booth in it.

But in a democracy, laws are shaped by morals commonly accepted within the society. Brazilians eventually began to figure out what to do with their regained freedom to shape their future.

Several laws now make it illegal to exploit women in advertising, which is different than censorship. It’s just a step, but a huge one, because the media is a powerful influence in the society.

I believe the day will come when men and women will be treated as such; as men and women. This means recognizing women as different individuals with their own needs that should be respected.

I may never be able to understand women, but I can easily learn how to respect them.

On a side note, Sandra has been gone for 14 years. When she died of respiratory complications, she had lung cancer and had been living with the HIV virus for at least seven years.

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