In amongst all the glitz, glam, costume and key changes, Eurovision — the final of which is happening this weekend — is one again embroiled in controversy.
Petitions from Belarus, Armenia and Russia have called on the Austrian participant Conchita Wurst — a drag queen with a beard — to be removed from the contest or edited out of telecasts in their country. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov has been one of the leaders of the charge, calling for a Russian boycott of the “Europe-wide gay parade” and “sodom show”, and invoking Russia’s controversial anti-gay propaganda laws. “The participation of the obvious transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian singers on live television is blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay,” he said.
Yet, behind the campness of the competition, there is something much more powerful going on. Something that, in 2014, Conchita Wurst highlights beautifully. Once again Eurovision has shown itself to be at the epicenter of challenging our gender, sex and sexuality norms — and in a much more radical way than any other event like it.
Eurovision And Sexual Progression: A History
Eurovision’s challenges to sexual norms might date back to 1957. That year, the Danish competitors Birthe Wilke and Gustav Winkler entered into a passionate 11-second kiss — quite a statement at the time. Wilke and Winkler broke all the rules of how sexually you could act in a public place, setting a standard for competitions to come.
And that standard has been met year after year. Eurovision has long been a hotbed for homosexual activism, with many openly gay competitors bringing with them both controversy and success in equal measure. Known for their overly sexual performances for example, Russian duo tATu had to be warned to tone it down during their 2003 performance. Whilst they relented, not even kissing during their act (which was odd for them at the time), the ensuing debate about sex and sexuality was important. In 2007, the Serbian entrant, lesbian Marija Šerifović, continued the homoerotic themes; surrounded solely by women throughout her performance (which is unusual for Eurovision), Šerifović won the competition with the song ‘Molitva’.
It’s not just LGBTQI artists flipping norms of sexuality; many straight artists have brought sexually progressive performances to the table, too.
Some of the challenges they present have been quite subtle, but they’re just as important. In 2004, for instance, Ukrainian entrant Ruslana won with the song ‘Wild Dances’. In her performance (which, while not overtly sexual, was still pretty damn sexy), Ruslana donned the clothes of an Amazonian warrior and surrounded herself by whip-wielding men. In doing so, she combated perceptions of gendered power and control: she was a woman taking charge, and she made it sexy.
And it’s not just women. Last year, male entrant Cezar sang the song ‘It’s My Life’ completely in falsetto, while wearing a large black cape/dress, covered in jewels. Other competitors have been more overt. In 1997 for example, leather-clad Icelandic entrant Paul Oscar sang whilst sitting on a couch surrounded by four women dressed as dominatrixes. The performance (of an unfortunately pretty bad song) opened the world of Eurovision to the leather and dom/sub community.
A similar attempt was made by German entrants Alex Swings Oscar Sings, with their song ‘Miss Kiss Kiss Bang’. The song featured burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese dressed in a corset and carrying horse riding crop, strutting on the stage as the lead singer Oscar Loya sang about her. The female participant was taking the dominant position again.
But as we’ve seen, challenges to gender go well beyond just costuming. Long before Conchita Wurst, transgender Israeli competitor Dana International won the competition in 1998 with her performance of the song ‘Diva’. Dana’s entrance caused uproar in Israel, particularly with Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some even took to the streets to protest, and there were reports of death threats made to the artist.
In 2007, the Ukrainian entrant Verka Serduchka took it to a whole new level with ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’ (one of my favourite Eurovision songs ever). Performing in drag in a completely silver costume, Serduchka ignored all rules about gender presentation in a performance that almost won the competition. Where Dana International had brought the issue of transgenderism onto the main stage, Serduchka’s radical drag rejected set gender roles, in many ways making them irrelevant.
Why Is This So Important?
These sorts of examples are littered throughout Eurovision’s history. What’s remarkable is how radical they are. Not in the ‘we have a gay person on stage and that makes us radical’ kind of way (noting, of course, that gay people being on stage was at one point very radical). No, we’re talking actual radicalism.
Eurovision goes well beyond any set standards we have of gender and sexuality. Being gay is pretty much passé in the competition now days — there are often gay competitors, and they often succeed without a meal being made of their sexuality. But Eurovision explores much more: transgenderism, drag, androgyny, and straight out sex. And it does so on one of the most mainstream, most-watched shows in Europe, and around the world.
In the midst of this year’s controversy, the Austrian performer Conchita Wurst said something quite beautiful. After the Armenian competitor Aram MP3 (yes that’s his name) declared that Wurst’s appearance was ‘not natural’ and that she needed to decide whether she wanted to be a man or a woman, she was quick to reply: “I told him I don’t want to be a woman. I am just a working queen and a very lazy boy at home.”
I can imagine Wurst has had to make this defense too many times, but in many ways it encapsulates some of the radicalism of Eurovision. In one statement Wurst not only challenged our gender and sexual norms, but managed to make her point in a very human way. Her declaration, her performance, her response to the controversy has not just been political, it has been also been about our everyday lives — the life of a working queen, and a lazy boy at home.
This is what Eurovision has somehow managed to do. It provides a space to challenge so many of the norms that dominate our society, and it does so through the living rooms of millions around the world. And that’s what makes it powerful.
The Eurovision Semi Finals will be broadcast on SBS One on Friday and Saturday at 8.30pm; the Grand Final happens on Sunday May 11, at 7.30pm on SBS One.