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.
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.
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?
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.