Eurovision, the annual continent-wide song contest, is usually a fairly predictable international spectacle. However, this year’s winner—Austria’s Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen who performed the popular “Rise Like A Phoenix”—has inspired a flurry of comment and critique both in and beyond the continent. Conchita Wurst is the performing alter-ego of Tom Neuwirth, an Austrian singer who made a name in his home country after appearing on reality shows Starmania and Die Große Chance (the latter in his Conchita persona). Wurst, who represents Austria’s first victory in nearly a half-century, has become an extraordinarily controversial figure in Europe.
Perhaps most destabilizing for Eurovision viewers is Wurst’s very fluid gender identity. She is a female-identified persona, complete with dramatic and familiar feminine touches—long, glamourous hair, sparkling outfits, beautiful jewelry—but marked very significantly with an accessory: a very prominent beard. It is this seemingly contradictory signifier—this glamorous woman with a distinctly masculine beard—that is causing such social and cultural shockwaves.
Wurst’s performances are fairly predictable; “Rise Like A Phoenix” is a soaring ballad that has been described as reminiscent of countless James Bond film ballads. In many ways, she would be yet another chanteuse singing bombastic pop music. Yet her stubbornly discordant beard disrupts the banality of her appearance. Indeed, Conchita Wurst’s beard queers the predictable image of female pop singer and calls directly to the constructed nature of gender performances.
It is the subversive presence of this facial hair, and the instability it represents, that has engendered such controversy throughout and after the Eurovision contest. Other writers at NOTCHES have written previously about the many gender and sexual signifiers attached to beards both historically and in the present. Justin Bengry has argued that beards have served as an “important signifier of manliness, inscribing crucial gender and sexual meanings onto the male body” although these meanings have been unstable and prone to frequent contradiction and transformation. Likewise, historian Julia Laite has critically examined the many fraught meanings of bearded masculinity in the midst of rousing over bearded hipsters who fail to be ‘real men.’ Both Laite and Bengry have traced well the unstable signifiers of bearded masculinity; they can imply virile, hardy, heterosexual masculinity, but they just easily can be transmuted into other signs, pointing to potential disease, homosexual desire, or a faux-hipster manliness.
It is therefore unsurprising that the threatening, (de)signifying facial hair of Ms. Conchita Wurst has threatened sensibilities and political alliances on the continent. Petitions submitted to state broadcasters in Russia, Armenia and Belarus specifically asked that the troubling bearded lady be kept off national viewing screens. The Belarusian petition was perhaps the most explicit:
The popular international competition will see our children filled with European liberals become a hotbed of sodomy! Belarus, one of the few countries in Europe that was able to maintain normal and healthy family values based on love and mutual support between men and women!
Indeed, much of the conversation about Wurst can be mapped onto larger political/sexual concerns in Europe. Eastern European nations, most notably Ukraine, have been battling over closer ties to Western Europe or to their historic partner, Russia. Much of the dialog has centered around Western Europe’s supposed sexual libertinism, contrasted with the religious orthodoxy, conservatism, and social order to be found in the East. This contemporary situation has led to a fascinating social media phenomenon occurring in Russia. Young, ostensibly heterosexual Russian men are shaving their beards to remove the now queer/destabilizing symbol that had so recently marked them as securely, properly masculine.
Such a shift is in keeping with the larger social shifts in Russia, which passed a law against “gay propaganda” for youth, and recently has paired strengthened homophobic laws with increasing geopolitical aggressiveness in Ukraine. As Catherine Baker has noted, Eurovision has a lengthy history of combining camp, gay sensibilities, and extra-national nationalism into complex political formations of queerness. Of late, Eurovision’s queer sensibilities have also allowed for a narrative of universalized, Western European LGBT tolerance that can be read as threatening attempts at hegemony over the entire continent. One can read these shaving images along with repressive anti-gay laws as a means also of delineating what is ‘properly’ or naturally Russian or Eastern European in the wake of two decades of expanding European Union membership and decreasing Russian influence. Yet this continental cultural divide is not merely between East and West; as Łukasz Szulc has written, Polish politicians have used Wurst as a means of articulating competing visions of modernity, nation, and gender. Conchita Wurst and her disruptive beard offer a powerful lens to examine larger questions of nationalism, sovereignty, and shifting sexuality in Europe and beyond.
T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University. His work focuses on race, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa and other settler societies. He also tweets from @Halfrican_One
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