Polish Busts and Austrian Beards: The sexual politics of Eurovision

Conchita Wurst’s victory this weekend was an upset only for those hoping she wouldn’t win. A frontrunner from the start, she was always expected to place well, with optimistic bookies putting her in the top three. The odds were clearly helped by her choice of an ever Eurovision-popular power ballad, rounded off by an always crowd-pleasing belt.

Though clearly talented and worthy of the title on her own merits, it is impossible to ignore the implications of a bearded drag queen sharing the stage with representatives of a competing country which just last year passed legislation outlawing ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’. So alarmed at the very idea of a man in a dress appearing on television, viewers in Russia and its cultural allies Belarus and Armenia circulated petitions calling for her removal or editing out of the competition. When they failed and were forced to witness Ms Wurst not only performing, but winning, Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky quite literally announced ‘the end of Europe’.

It goes without saying that nothing could be further from reality. Ms Wurst received points from 32 of the 37 voting countries and top points (8, 10, or 12) from 23 for a score of 290 – the fourth highest in the half-century history of the competition. Long before the complete results were in, it was clear who Europe had chosen as their 2014 pop queen. Incidentally, it was also quite clear who they did not want sharing the crown.

Given the rarity of such visible platforms for drag queens or any other members of the LGBTI or queer communities to publicly engage on equal footing with their hetero/normative counterparts, the win seized upon one of few opportunities since the law’s passing to strike a well-deserved PR blow to the Russian political and cultural establishment. When the only way for a Russian politician to rationalize an event is to conclude that the culture of an entire continent has imploded, I’m inclined to think you’ve done something right. It’s worth noting that Ms Wurst came third in Russia’s popular vote, second in Armenia, and fourth in Belarus. Today, her song tops the Russian iTunes download chart.

Still, we should be careful. A friend remarked that there is a danger in preemptively celebrating Ms Wurst’s win as an end to homo- or transphobia in Europe. As has already been pointed out, there is still a huge gap between expectations and reality as far as tolerance in Europe is concerned. At the same time, I think you’d have to be suffering from a pretty severe bout of post-Eurovision euphoria to think otherwise. Up until the day of her winning performance, Ms Wurst was forced to use her press conferences to defend herself against organized hate from her own country, rather than discussing her performance and artistry. I do not think it is impossible to commend Ms Wurst while also acknowledging the very long way we have to go, and I certainly do not think anyone is under the presumption that because a drag queen has won a pop music competition, the lives of trans* individuals in Europe are markedly improved. But this doesn’t mean we don’t have reason to celebrate Ms Wurst’s win. Or do we?

Another friend suggested that far from marking a progressive moment for Europe, the win served merely to commodify a certain version of drag and trans* experiences. If Eurovision is known for its extravagant, excessive, and even absurd spectacles, then Ms Wurst fit the bill perfectly. Rather than being subversive and challenging gender norms, her performance was a socially acceptable version of their transgression, marketable for hetero- and homonormative consumption. While there is a tempting radical edge to this critique, I find that it rests on a dangerous claim to knowing exactly what constitutes subversiveness.

When Judith Butler cited drag as an example of how gender can be performatively construed, a very simplistic understanding of its subversive potential was made possible. Many seized the example to articulate how gender is ultimately permeable and fluid. Butler puts it thusly:

The bad reading goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender, stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism.

The reading imagines an agendered subject which can consider and decide upon a gender it was previously distinct from. In contrast, Butler explains:

…my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way—that gender is not to be chosen and that ‘performativity’ is not radical choice and its not voluntarism…Performativity has to do with repetition, very often the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms…This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in…

She goes on to clarify this repetition, or ‘imitation’:

To claim that all gender is like drag, or is drag, is to suggest that ‘imitation’ is at the heart of the ‘heterosexual’ project and its gender binarism, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations.

The danger in drag, then, is the same danger as in everyday life: the risk that even by imitating an idealized, and therefore unattainable gender, one participates in its perpetuation. Butler citesParis is Burning’ to explain how drag can be nothing more than an extravagant way to reinscribe the gender binary ‘…not all mimicry is displacing. I think, for instance, that this is painfully true of material in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning, that a lot of the miming actually reinvests the gender ideals; it reidealizes them – reconsolidates their hegemonic status’.

I agree with Butler here. Much of the documentary focuses on vogue balls in which queens compete in a huge range of categories, ranging from high fashion to military, but for which the judging standard is uniformly the same: realness. To quote an unembodied voice in the film ‘The realer you look means like you look like a real woman or you look like a real man…It’s not a take-off or a satire, no – it’s actually being able to be this.’ One subject in the film describes the standard as stemming from the experience of queer individuals having to constantly monitor whether they fit and blend in with their heteronormative surroundings. The balls, therefore, offer a space in which competitors ‘give the society that they live in what they want to see, so they won’t be questioned’, so that ‘rather than having to go through prejudices about (their) life and lifestyle, (they) can walk around confidently, blending in with everybody else’.

But isn’t this evidence of the inability of Ms Wurst to transgress gender norms in a meaningful way? Quite the opposite – there is one key difference between the queens of the 80s ballrooms of ‘Paris’ and Conchita: she fails the ‘realness’ test. In a ballroom competition, she would have been invisible for all the shade. It is her beard, decried by many as a cheap gimmick, which ensures her subversive potential. 

As another contestant in Livingston’s film put it, the point of ‘Parisian’ drag is to ‘erase all the mistakes, all the give-aways, to make your illusion perfect’. Ms Wurst’s facial hair is the mistake which enables her success. She fails to appeal to a Lacanian symbolic position of either ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and is therefore potentially more successful at displacing them both. The failure of her illusion constitutes a novel failure of allusion (to a gendered ideal) and is therefore all the more potentially transgressive. Ms Wurst’s unwillingness to aspire to idealized gender enables her to both mimic and displace it.

But perhaps more importantly, even if Ms Wurst’s particular form of drag could be considered subversive, is it really possible to meaningfully subvert much of anything at Eurovision? Surely pop music’s shadow of consumerism and consumption is the shadiest aspect of the whole ordeal. Perhaps – but I submit that in displacing gender norms, Ms Wurst also manages to displace the norms of Eurovision itself.

The spectacle and success of Eurovision almost invariably depends on hyper-gendered and sexualized performance and performativity. This year alone saw such blatant and tired appeals as Poland’s ‘Slavic Girls’, who are ‘proud of their natural shapes’, whose ‘lips have everything you need’, and whose ‘cream and butter tastes so good’. While at the other end of the spectrum we suffered the French entry who spent a full three minutes of the lives 125 million Europeans rhythmically lamenting their lack of facial hair (although one band member must have forgotten his). As mentioned above, Butler stresses that performativity often involves the repetition of painful gender norms. Ms Wurst repeated norms at both ends, and was therefore successful at neither. She also thereby repeated and potentially displaced some of the equally painful norms fundamental to the commercial success of Eurovision. In this way, any claims that she embodies the spectacle of Eurovision only serve to reinforce the success of her failure.

There is also the point that LGBTI and queer artists have limited opportunities to engage with such a large audience, and if one of those opportunities happens to be a competition known for its campiness and eccentricity – then so be it. To dismiss the opportunity on those grounds is to assume that something cannot be simultaneously campy, absurd, or commodified and subversive. This is a rather simplistic and boring position, and one which ignores its own commodification of more ‘genuinely’ subversive action. What’s more, it disregards the possibility that the performance may have been subversive merely by virtue of raising the question. I can’t help but think it also engages in an intellectual elitism that goes something like: ‘Participants of such a commercially driven enterprise like Eurovision are incapable of ‘real’ progress and are therefore only engaging with a commodified form of it’.

Again, I think the fundamental question here is whether anything or anyone can be commodified or capitalist by nature and simultaneously subversive. My tentative answer is yes. Here I again look to Butler who is even less confident in determining what constitutes subversive action ‘It seems to me that there is no easy way to know whether something is subversive. Subversiveness is not something that can be gauged or calculated. In fact, what I mean by subversion are those effects that are incalculable.’ I suggest that just as transgressive drag must appeal to gender ideals to alter them, Ms Wurst’s performance may have simultaneously participated in its own commodification and challenged it.

Even if this turns out not to be the case, we can, at the very least, be thankful for Ms Wurst similarly to how MsAfropolitan is appreciative of Beyonce:

Beyoncé both empowers *and* destroys me. Within the “pop” space, which is a patriarchal space, she has carved a feminist ‘altar’ for herself and I need her to do that. Like, seriously NEED her there as the Queen of Pop. Yet, in wearing this crown she simultaneously affirms the that pop (patriarchal) space. I cannot vilify her for being something I need her to be. But that does not make me blind to the “terrorism” of it. There is nothing that bell hooks said here which I don’t agree with, that I didn’t learn from… Man, I cherish that radical, revolutionary, wise brain of hers. But I also stand by Janet Mock, Beyoncé and all the other black women out there trying to be themselves in a world that constantly says that they can’t be.

Though still a part of a hetero-/homonormative, patriarchal, and capitalist enterprise, Ms Wurst has nevertheless shaped a space for herself within it which challenges it.

I’m also quite happy to look at Ms Wurst’s victory this way: if she hadn’t won, it would have been a victory for them. The denial of that alone is a cause for celebration. And lest we forget the most important factor of this debate: the queen can sing.

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