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The Acceptable Faces Of Women At Eurovision Written by on May 9, 2018 | 5 Comments

Female artists at Eurovision must walk a fine line to ensure they appear acceptable to the televoting audience. They must be confident but not too confident, sexy but not too sexy, funny but not too funny. Lisa-Jayne Lewis explores the way that societal biases about femininity affect results and reactions at Eurovision.

While I have written similar things before, about the way femininity is policed in entertainment, and especially at Eurovision, we need to keep having this conversation. Nothing is changing as the commentary on social media and in mainstream media about women continue to link beauty standards with the enforcement of the male gaze. So, let us take a look at how our female artists have to make themselves acceptable to the audience to secure their votes.

Dress Size

Let’s start with the obvious. Putting a big girl on stage is always a risk. Larger females have traditionally been portrayed on TV as either the ‘fat-funny girl’ (think Melissa McCarthy or SNL’s Aidy Bryant) or as someone who has low self-esteem and no confidence. While the media tide may be slowly changing with the likes of Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, a strong, confident woman who is not a size 6 is generally intimidating to a viewing audience, and the force of that is felt online. We saw it happen to Bojana from Serbia; we saw it happen again as soon as Netta was announced as the winner of Israel’s national final; we’ve seen it again this week with nasty comments directed at Australia’s Jessica Mauboy. How fans think that this is helpful is really beyond me. I see the comments — and, yes, sometimes I get a bit hurt by them myself. When people hurl harsh criticisms at one bigger girl, they are essentially saying it about all of us.

Angry Faces

If a female artist emotes anger or conflict down the lens, apparently televoters won’t pick up the phone and vote for them. The quality of the song is immaterial. We’ve seen it time and time again, and usually it is something that happens to women who have come from an acting or musical theatre background. Emoting is taught as part of the requirements of many roles, and yet when it is transferred to the Eurovision stage, the ability to portray strong emotions can form an actual barrier to voting. We saw it last year with Lucie Jones from the UK, and this year I worry about Malta’s Christabelle as her intense performance may well fall into this category. Beyonce did not win the Grammy for Album of the year for Lemonade — an iconic record portraying anger and disappointment — and the prize went to Adele instead for her yearning, soulful 25. A coincidence?

Funny Faces

Not only should a woman not emote anger if she wants to win points, but being comical also is a barrier. While the ‘fat-funny girl’ is one of the acceptable roles for larger ladies on TV, women can quickly become too funny or too quirky. And then the negative comments start flowing. For every Francesco Gabbani who mugs for the camera, qualifies for his country and finishes 6th, you have someone like Ida Maria who mugs for the camera and doesn’t even qualify. Cheeky winks at the camera, knowing smiles and face-acting don’t seem to be a barrier to male artists but for women it’s a whole other story. Seeing someone like Israel’s Netta on stage giving it her motha-bucka all should not feel so unusual, but it does. It actually does.

Too Much Confidence

A confident male performer can garner lots of votes. In recent years we’ve seen Sergey Lazarev and Robin Bengtsson do very well with confident, strong performances. A strong independent woman feels too much to handle, by contrast. Whilst fans of the contest fawn over the ‘slaying’ women every year, that love doesn’t seem to come back from the voting public or the juries. Are people intimidated by the confidence? Society has always portrayed women as weaker and needier, and as ‘less-than’ men. Whenever confident women have spoken and shared their opinions and/or experiences publicly, they have been immediately slated on social media. The interview that Megan Markle did with Prince Harry to mark their engagement is a classic example of this. She was called pushy, opinionated, loud, and obnoxious, among many other derogatory terms.

We have seen confident Eurovision women being passed over in the voting many times because they do not fit into the defined box of how a woman who act or be. Was DiHaj too edgy? Was Nina Sublatti too intimidating? During this past week we have seen social media memes calling the Amar Pelos Dois songwriter Luisa Sobral “pushy” for being on stage with her brother in 2017.  This year I am concerned for Cyprus’ Eleni and Finland’s Saara Aalto. Will their diva performances scare off the televoters? Are they too confident, too independent? They are told they are ‘slaying’ but when does the ‘slay’ translate into being too much to handle?

These categories of difficulty that female Eurovision performers can find themselves in are all caused by the internal biases of the audience. Even in people who do not think of themselves as sexist, the background level of sexism in our society leads to people making assumptions about what being female means. As long as society has a very narrow idea of womanhood and femininity, the creativity of our female performers is being stifled. Let the women of the contest do what they want with their faces, voices and bodies.

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5 responses to “The Acceptable Faces Of Women At Eurovision”

  1. Shai says:

    You are spot on about how women are treated by fans of this contest.

    It corresponds with wha Shi from has written about semi final 1- when writting about Cyprus she wrote,among others, the following:
    But seeing it rock to the top of the odds, and seeing the fan reaction or social media reaction of people thinking this would make a great winner, makes me so incredibly uncomfortable. For me and for many other women and girls out there, the takeaway message from last night’s show is that the moment getting the strongest reaction from the audience is when five attractive women stand on stage and spread their legs. A song doesn’t necessarily need to have a message, but this one does, even if it didn’t intend to. Be hot. Take your clothes off. Make men want to sleep with you because that’s sexy. Flick your pretty hair around, smile to the camera, shake your boobs and your ass. A song? Vocal talent that’s more than just passable? In a song contest? That’s only for ugly girls, sorry. Tough luck, ladies, you need to work harder.

    I don’t expect the audience to give a damn about this, although I expect (or at least hope) the juries might. I imagine many of the people reading this will roll their eyes at me and ask why I can’t just relax and enjoy some harmless fun for a little bit. But that’s the thing. I don’t think it’s harmless. I think it’s degrading and offensive, and even if it’s definitely not the worst competitor this year, it’s definitely the worst possible winner. I think we forget how wide the reach of this competition is beyond our bubble, and it pains me to think that this is the message to come out of it. I’d love Cyprus to win, I really would – but not with this, and not with this performance”

    And she is damn right about it.

    Your article also echo a comment I placed on sofabet in the run down to the contest.
    I was talking about the fact that the aggressive Hungarian performance is not precieved as something to alienate the audience but if a women will be perceived as slightly aggressive, she will do just that.
    Double standards -that how it called.

    Enjoy the contest, and just keep us conscious 😀

  2. Martin says:

    My pounds worth here…

    Dress size – totally agree, ridiculous for anyone to even need to focus on that aspect of any performer, male or female. Ironically being larger actually helps vocal quality in some genres and has no stigma, opera being the prime example.

    Angry faces – unfortunately Lucie’s theatrical background disadvantaged her last year. The face she pulled would have looked odd on any performer, of either sex, because it was so OTT compared to the emotional level of the song. Having seen Christabelle last night, it all appears very measured and relevant to the content of the song.

    Funny Faces – not great for either sex in music and that was part of the reason for Francesco finishing dixth, rather than top, last year. Unfortunately Ida Maria isn’t a great example to use here as her funny faces weren’t the reason for her not qualifying – she didn’t sing well, the whole act was a hot mess and she fell over on stage. That and even if she had been perfect, the votes showed that Alexander Rybak was always going to win by a landslide. I don’t think that Netta’s facial expressions will have any bearing on her winning or not this year but the messiness of her staging, the loss of her major USP (live vocal looper) and tendancy of playing only to the crowd might…

    Too much confidence – I have no problems with confidence on stage as surely that is the mark of a great performer. Eleni goes for it full throttle with her backing singers/dancers and Saara has a great theatrical show. Both play to their strengths. Ironically Eleni doing what she wants with her face, voice and body does then raise counter issues as flagged up by Shai above – when my partner Ellen watched SF1 in the Arena, Cyprus left her (and quite a few other women I know) cold. I don’t think she will win because the juries have shown that they will downmark very sexual performances – remember the UK jury penalising Poland 2014?

    Important issues all and hopefully time and education will reduce the effects of any such prejudice…

  3. Marc says:

    Here in the UK, the BBC are encouraging us to sneer at the contest in general whatever the sex of the performer. So instead of telling us about the next act during that precious postcard time, Scott Mills is eagerly reading out Lewis from Sunderland’s tweet about it being all over because the fat lady has sung. This is a part of the bigger problem we face with large sections of the media and population not giving the contest any respect.

  4. Constantino says:

    An excellent article, raising an important issue. I’m glad you didn’t take the obvious route of denouncing Eleni’s achievements or talent because she’s tapping into what is popular and doing so successfully – almost too successfully for it to win.

  5. Netta seemed to do OK 😀

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