The Body of Conchita Wurst in Defiance of Russian Heteronormativity
Irida Zhonga, University of Groningen
Drag queen Conchita Wurst’s performance in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest challenged the sexual ideologies of conservative states in Eastern Europe and particularly Russia, and her victory was transformed into a political statement on the status of LGBTQIA+ rights in Europe. For Russia, Conchita’s win represented the loss of traditional family values, the idealised masculine body, and heteronormative gender conventions, whereas for much of Western Europe her performance and speech was used as a beacon for human rights advocacy and liberal expression of sexual identity. This paper aims to explore how the geo-split between Russia and Europe first emerged, and how national identity is represented through sexuality and gender. Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity and how the body is constructed within society will be discussed to illustrate the ways Conchita’s physical body challenged the heteronormative system of Russian popular media by blurring the strict division between masculine and feminine identity through her drag persona. Conchita plays with binary notions by using seemingly opposed, heavily coded gender signifiers to destabilise the two by blurring heteronormativity’s distinct lines between the sexes and genders. Finally, when exploring the European and Russian media landscape in the aftermath of Conchita’s win, and despite the highly conservative nature of the Russian society, there have been some indications that the population is starting to become a little bit more tolerant to non-heteronormative gender expressions.
In the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), the bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst became the winner of the competition, sparking a heated discourse on gender and identity across Europe.1 Even though the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), responsible for organising the event, has always proclaimed the apolitical nature of Eurovision, the stage has often been used by its contestants and representing nations as a platform for state identity-building and cultural diplomacy. After all, the ESC is a platform for national self-representation: the contestants do not compete with their individual names but as their countries, creating a “prime arena for nations” which “provides a popular authentication of European-ness,” thereby cementing the political correlation of the competition.2 Additionally, while Eurovision has long had a transnational gay following, transgender performer Dana International’s victory in 1998 marked the moment that Eurovision became a platform closely associated with LGBTQIA+ politics. Since then, it has been considered a site of tolerance, inclusivity and visibility, which, due to the contest’s enormous popularity and geographic expansion (with 39 participating countries and 183 million viewers in 2021), has transformed it into a mega-event on a comparable cultural scale to the Olympics.3 This has produced a wider discourse regarding LGBTQIA+ politics, gender and sexual diversity, and human rights policies within the ESC and the participating countries.4 In this way, the European Union’s image as an exemplary place of modernity and inclusivity is reinforced even further and has consequently separated it from the narratives of the homophobic East, which has led to the geo-split between the EU and the former eastern European states, and Russia in particular.5
This paper will explore how this geo-split first emerged and developed between Russia and Europe, and the ways that national identity is represented through sexuality and gender. For contemporary Russian culture, any sexuality or other non-normative body representations outside the “normal” heterosexuality is a symptom of bourgeois decadence imported from “the West” which has given rise to local societal and political concern.6 For a more in depth analysis, I will employ Judith Butler’s theory on gender and the body to explore the effect Conchita Wurst’s performance had on the Russian media discourse regarding representations of her body during and after the Eurovision Song Contest. Gender for Butler is constructed and policed in society by defining the masculine nature via femininity.7 Interestingly, Butler’s way of destabilising the assumptions of the binary notion of gender identity is through the practice of drag.8 Conchita Wurst is therefore the perfect example to demonstrate this disruption of heteronormative gender stereotypes in Russian society.
The Eurovision Song Contest is a widely celebrated international musical competition which attracts an audience of almost 200 million viewers each year, making it one of the most viewed and longest-running television spectacles.9 The competition features performers representing a participating nation with an original song, while the viewing audience and professional juries vote for their favourite selection. The winning song (and winning country) is responsible for hosting the contest the following year. Its establishment in 1956 by the EBU, in an effort to unify western European countries after the Second World War through cultural events, occurred just a year before the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in Rome in 1957.10 The founding of the EEC aimed to “promote economic cooperation and greater European interdependency,” and this idea of the member states coming together “to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles” has been, for the past 70 years, the main political focus of the member states.11
The promotion of human rights and democracy as core values shared by European states has been pivotal in the shaping of the European Union’s relationship with external nations. According to Ivan Raykoff and Robin Deam Tobin, this has led to the creation of a type of pan-European identity which has evolved into a new model of citizenship and provides access to a “democratic, capitalist, peace-loving, multicultural, sexually liberated, and technologically advanced” idealised modern community of European belonging.12 This Eurocentric perspective of modernisation is not a new notion and has its roots in the Enlightenment period and the “colonial-imperial processes of dissemination” that occurred during that time in Europe.13 As Karen Fricker and Milija Gluhovic state, the notion of “Eastern Europe” was created by western Europeans as ‘‘a construct of an expanding geographic and cultural imagination,” thereby constructing a "binary opposition between civilisation and barbarism."14
Moreover, the ‘civilised’ European identity has not always been ascribed to all western European countries, with the same principles of cultural and sociopolitical superiority used against all colonised countries, including those in western Europe such as Ireland.15 By promoting a Western-centric narrative of European modernism, the East and the Balkans were in a disadvantaged position and were perceived as states on the periphery of ‘civilised’ Europe.16 This geopolitical divide continued after WWII with the distinction of the Western and Eastern Blocs during the Cold War, which perpetuated notions of Western superiority.17
Before proceeding any further, it is important to clarify how the terms “Western Europe” and “Eastern Europe” are being used in this paper. Following the ideas posited by Ulbricht et al. in their essay “Queer to be Kind,” I discuss the terms East and West on a temporal and geopolitical Cold War Othering distinction: countries from the former communist world (with the exception of East Germany), the former Eastern Bloc and members of the former Warsaw Pact will be referred to with the term “Eastern Europe” or “the East.” This term includes countries from the European continent that have, or have had, ties with the Russian cultural sphere, and it is not associated with countries in the east of Europe, such as Greece, Cyprus or Turkey. Similarly, the terms “Western Europe” and “the West” refers to countries from the former Western Bloc or western-aligned states which used to refer to themselves as the “Free World” as a form of propaganda to influence audiences against the communist system during the Cold War.18 This distinction between the West and the East is not only found in the language used by some of the governments and press of western European states but also by Slavic and Russian politicians and media outlets.19 While this may be a somewhat a simplistic distinction - which in no way is trying to unify these culturally and politically different states - it is crucial to define these terms so to avoid any confusion.
Following the end of the Cold War, a new form of citizenship emerged in Europe. A fundamental feature of this European identity had been the protection of human rights, the promotion of diversity and the creation of “a narrative of progression in terms of sexual citizenship linked to European liberalisation.”20 This European collective identity, as already mentioned, resulted in a spatial division between the West and the East, thereby allowing for perpetual stereotypes and prejudices, either real or imaginary, against countries that are not (yet) considered part of the western discourse.21 Perceived attitudes to LGBTQIA+ rights and gender equality amongst nations became barometers of a country’s modernity in their path towards European integration.22 The fall of the Berlin Wall created a new geopolitical situation resulting in changes in the European Union’s enlargement rules. The 1993 Copenhagen European Council summit demanded that future member countries guarantee democracy and respect of human rights, whilst the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999 reinforced the aforementioned criteria and extended the legislation to include the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights as a prerequisite of EU membership and, consequently, of European identity.23 When Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, countries from eastern Europe had already started negotiations towards their European Union integration.24 Similarly, the Eurovision Song Contest experienced great change in the early 1990s with its membership states expanding.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Eurovision welcomed in 1993 and 1994 Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia, with more countries from the former Eastern Bloc joining in the following years.25 In 2004, the introduction of a semi-final in Eurovision – a symbolic expansion which meant that low-scoring countries would not have to wait for a year to compete – coincided with one of the largest EU expansions with the accession of Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary in May, just a few weeks before the competition took place in Turkey.26 Before their integration into the European Union, countries such as Estonia and Latvia used the ESC as a stage to conduct national identity branding in an effort to alter popular perception, or re-enforce their link to the liberal European identity by promoting a modern “European” image of the hosting nation. For example, when the competition took place in Tallin in 2002, Estonia redefined itself as a Nordic European state by selecting a Swedish singer to represent them in that year’s competition.27 More recent examples also include the 2007 performance of the Serbian entry, Marija Serifovic, which incorporated queer subtexts in an attempt to promote a more progressive image at a time when the country’s European integration was at stake.28 Similarly, Russian Eurovision winner Dima Bilan, used his “metrosexual” appearance in the 2008 ESC to break conventional identity concepts and elicit a homoerotic reaction to attract Eurovision audiences.29
According to Koen Slootmaeckers, the European Union’s expansion in 2004 highlighted an inherent tension within its borders, as countries that were once regarded as its subordinate “Other” were now part of the EU identity apparatus.30 Thus, while all states had to implement some LGBTQIA+ equality legislation in order to be accepted as part of the EU community, some newer members, such as Hungary, Latvia and Romania, saw nationalist political powers promote homophobic rhetoric after their countries’ accession, presenting the EU’s human rights policies as “a threat to the nation and local culture.”31 This European identity and the perceived attitudes towards sex and gender in Western Europe has intensified a separation between "Europe” and “Eastern Europe,” and, in our specific case, a country outside the EU, Russia.
The East-West axis constructed around sexual freedom and LGBTQIA+ rights has been intensified even further due to certain incidents which featured predominantly in Russian politics. Russia has been heavily criticised by the EU and the United Nations for its homophobic and transphobic policies, as well as the security threat it poses Syria and, most recently, its military invasion of Ukraine.32 Within Jasbir Puar's concept of "homonationalism,” countries “are increasingly defined by their gay-friendliness or homophobia,” and LGBTQIA+ equality politics are being co-opted to fit the goals of nationalist ideology, generating a new type of injustice and sexual "democracy.”33 This reframing of sexuality is often used to stigmatise populations on the basis of gender, race, class or religion on a local or transnational level, and to rationalise prejudiced attitudes. Puar argues that homonationalism should be used as an analytic principle for understanding “how ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ for gay and lesbian subjects have become a barometer by which the right to and capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated.”34
In our case, as Alexej Ulbricht, Indraneel Sircar and Koen Slootmaeckers have stated, this narrative has placed Eastern European countries as developmentally “behind,” whereas Western European countries are presented as an idealised place of inclusivity and progress.35 These racialised depictions of Others as enemies of the LGBTQIA+ community ignore the xenophobic voices within the Western "civilised” society or the existence of LGBTQIA+ eastern Europeans and Russians, and the effect this narrative has on their community. These depictions also seem to overlook the polarising ideological positions in regard to LGBTQIA+ issues observed within the EU community in some of the newer member states such as Poland and Hungary, as was discussed above.36
In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” in the midst of great criticism from past winners.37 This achievement, however, coincided with the Russian punk band Pussy Riot being arrested in Moscow after a performance criticising the Orthodox Church's support of president Vladimir Putin’s oppressive policies.38 Moreover, Pride parades and performances are being prevented from happening in Russia, while in a 2014 interview during the Winter Olympics Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin implied that gay people were paedophiles, asking them to stay away from children since the country has “a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia.”39 These types of narratives of sexual dictatorship and injustice clearly portray how the geo-temporal biases “place the East as developmentally and civilizationally ‘behind’ the West.”40
Contrary to Western Europe’s inclusivity and LGBTQIA+ friendliness, in relation to sexuality specifically, the Russian Federation follows a conservative political and societal discourse with a strong focus on heteronormative behaviours. According to David Tuller, during the Soviet period "normal” heterosexual behaviour was associated with love for the Party, while minority sexualities outside that resided in an atmosphere of quiet obscurity.41 The opening of the public archives after the end of the Cold War allowed for a unique access to documents and journals of unofficial reports of (male) homosexuality during a period characterised by repressed sexual behaviour.42 So, when discussions of (homo)sexual desire surfaced into the public sphere, they were considered a bourgeois symptom infiltrated from the West aiming at the degradation of the Russian state.43 Dan Healey states that the aforementioned geo-cultural West/East divide produced a “comparatively innocent Russia interpolated between a ‘civilized’ Europe and a decidedly ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’ East, [which] permitted and permits Russians to imagine their nation as universally, naturally, and purely heterosexual.”44 The refusal to acknowledge any other kind of non-normative sexuality, and the government’s intention to regulate sexual identity, desire and behaviour, can be explored through Judith Butler’s concept of the “heterosexual matrix” and Samuel Chambers’ conceptualisation of “heteronormativity.”45 Both are used as a “regulatory practice” to describe an invisible norm that appears to come naturally, is not constructed and defines everyone and everything through the perspective of heterosexuality.46
In Russian society, heteronormativity is the generally accepted norm for gender identity and forms part of the foundation of Vladimir Putin’s conservative political agenda. Under President Putin’s autocratic regime, Russia has remained a highly authoritarian state for over twenty years. Though the country’s constitution claims that its state is “democratic, federative, law-based with a republican form of government,” Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation which assigns countries a “Democracy Score” out of 100, scored Russia a 5 (dropping 2 points since the start of the war with Ukraine), citing the president’s oppressive tactics through parliamentary corruption, control of the media environment, violation of human rights and suppression of any opposition.47 Putin’s policies aim to guarantee the preservation of national unification, control any expression of sexuality and identity, and deny all kinds of diversity in order to manage his current and future domination. For example, in 2007 Putin created the “maternity capital” programme which provided mothers who had a second child with roughly $10,000 USD upon the child turning three years old.48 However, this programme was targeted solely to heteronormative married couples, and it failed to recognise single mothers or any other non-traditional family forms.49 In the same cultural milieu, in 2012, Putin, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, pushed for a new family norm with an average of three children by promising additional financial benefits.50 In both cases the main focus of these campaigns was to encourage heterosexual reproduction and to regulate traditional gender roles in the midst of concerns of an allegedly demographic decline in birth rates.51 According to Michele Rivkin-Fish, the nationalist Russian government blamed the country’s population reduction on the “sex education and family planning programmes” implemented by a hostile West as “deliberate tactics to weaken Russia.”52
In June 2013 Vladimir Putin signed the controversial “propaganda-law,” adopting a nationwide ban on expressing any positive information about homosexuality and “non-traditional” sexual relations around minors, which has been understood as an exclusion to free access to information on LGBTQIA+ people’s lives.53 This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, information provided by all media outlets, teachers and medical professionals as well as a ban of Pride parades and any queer activities.54 Allegedly, any values that sit outside the traditional, binary and heteronormative gender roles of Russian society, pose a threat to the moral health of young children. This law created an international outrage as it was perceived as a violation against human rights, including freedom of speech.55 More so for Russian society, this law was there to control any sort of expression of sexual and gender identity outside the strict bounds of heteronormativity, denying and condemning any diversity outside that prism. When Putin was asked to comment on the law, he said, “This is not about imposing any kind of sanctions against homosexuality ... this is about protecting children ... the law does not infringe in any way on the rights of sexual minorities. They are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way.”56 However, it was evident that interpretation of this law could lead to arrests of anyone appearing to support non-heteronormative views. Since its implementation in 2013, the law has impacted LGTBQIA+ people’s lives and created a climate of fear. There have been several cases of websites with valuable information for LGTBQIA+ Russian teens being shut down, and mental health providers have voiced concerns for not being able to provide support and accurate medical information for fear of persecution.57 Moreover, same-sex married couples have been forced to flee Russia and seek asylum in other European countries after being terrorised from the police authorities, while in 2020 more than thirty people were detained in Moscow for protesting in support of LGTBQIA+ activists.58
To complete our framework in understanding how this contributes to the creation of this new Russian identity, Lee Edelman’s observations on the concept of “reproductive futurism” and Lauren Berlant’s argument on the assurance of the “national future,” regarding the role of children in US politics, could be used to explain the role of children in Vladimir Putin’s politics.59 Edelman’s understanding of the child as an entity that is pure and innocent, needs protecting and is representative of the future.60 For Berlant, the way conservative and authoritarian leaders attempt to establish national domination and security for future generations is through reproductive heterosexuality. In this way, whatever comes between the “national future” - children - and the security of the state, is considered a threat against stability and a threat against children.61 As such, any discourse that comes between the two, such as queer culture, is instantly considered dangerous. Even though Berlant’s analysis is focused predominantly on late 1990s America, the continuous rise of conservative policies of Putin’s United Russia party allows for a comparative application of her theory.
Vladimir Putin is trying to build a Russian national identity, with a large focus on gender identity politics, thereby promoting a return to the supposed glory days of the former Soviet Union, when the country was still considered a beacon of power and superiority. In this context, the president is not only using his politics of “reproductive futurism,” to rationalise his policies but he is also self-staging his public self as a prime example of a strong and confident man, over-emphasising his machismo in the media as a protector and patriarchal figure of the Russian nation.62
Having explored the discourse on European and Russian identity and its connection to gender and sexuality, the following analyses of Conchita Wurst’s performance in Eurovision through videos and social media platforms aims to demonstrate why her gender and non-normative body representation received such backlash from Russian media, and was perceived as a threat to the country’s stability.
Since its creation in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has developed into the longest running annual internationally televised music competition.63 As Robert Deam Tobin discussed in his article “Eurovision at 50: Post-Wall and Post-Stonewall,” due to its camp aesthetics, the ESC has gained great popularity within the LGBTQIA+ community, resulting in a large and active fan base.64 Sexual identity has often been the focal point around Eurovision performances and this theme became even stronger after transgender performer Dana International’s win in 1998.65 The queer community came for the kitsch but stayed for the politics. According to Tobin, Eurovision has a unique queer appeal and, as quoted by Ivor Lyttle, it offers its audiences “an important counterpoint to heterosexual culture.”66 Dafna Lemish, meanwhile, has identified the personal and cultural connection between the ESC and certain Israeli gay men.67 Even though most performers are coded as straight, the competition has evolved to function as a safe space for non-normative performances of identity and, as Tobin states, “allows for a notion of citizenship that is ‘queer’ in a more rigorous sense – that is, a kind of citizenship that deconstructs identity claims.”68 The sense of citizenship Eurovision offers is understood as a sense of belonging to a larger community that shares the same ideals, rights and representation. In this larger community the Eurovision identity aligns with the (west) European identity as a framework for the expression and protection of all types of identities.
The Russian Federation joined the Eurovision song contest for the first time in 1994. The country’s relationship with the competition has been controversial, in more than one instance, and it has often reflected the political tension between the participating states and Russia’s place in relation to the rest of western Europe. After almost a decade of moderate successes, the country caused controversy in western media by selecting the group t.A.T.u. to represent them in the contest in 2003.69 The popularity of the “faux-lesbian” duo revealed the country’s contradictory ways in their effort to redefine their national identity and their position in European discourse. The group was conceived in 1999 by Ivan Shapovalov, who claimed that the reasoning behind its creation was to tap into heterosexual male pornographic fantasies, and its public image “would depend heavily on illicit sexuality.”70 After the release of their English-language single “All the Things She Said” in 2002, t.A.T.u. became the first Russian performers to reach number one in the European pop music charts.71 The female duo became famous for pretending to kiss on stage, and even though their alleged homosexual relationship was always acknowledged in Russia as a marketing trick in the rest of the world the act was framed to defy notions of morality and sexual identity. Russia’s decision to enter an already successful and recognised act into the competition can be considered as an indication of the country’s determination to win. At the same time, identifying Eurovision’s gay-inflected identity politics, the Russian Federation appeared to use the controversial act to challenge both conservative and progressive voices in Western Europe, and even “mock the 'sacred cows' of (European) diversity, equality and tolerance.”72 Even though t.A.T.u. came third in the ESC, the group’s popularity within Russia indicated a greater change in terms of sexuality and openness to queer tendencies that characterised predominantly younger generations and women living in urban capitals.73
The country reached its prize-winning zenith in 2008 with “Believe” by Dima Bilan, whose camp performance reached its peak when he ripped his shirt during his act.74 Singing barefoot, with seductive postures and wearing an all-white outfit, Bilan bent on his knees gazing and reaching out at the audience whilst being accompanied by two more men, violinist and composer Edvin Maron and figure skater Evgenii Pliushchenko. With his shirt open to reveal his smooth-shaved chest, Bilan seemed to be an accurate illustration of Mark Simpson’s description of “metrosexuality” as "a desirable, smooth-skinned, buffed boy with a tarty grin" who "'queers' all the codes of official masculinity of the last hundred years or so: It's passive where it should always be active, desired where it should always be desiring, looked at where it should always be looking."75 Even though the singer’s sexual orientation has never been publicly disclosed, there have been several popular accounts in the Russian press and social media questioning his sexuality due to the way he is presenting his body as an object of consumption and desire.76 Moreover, Dima Bilan released a very different video version of his song “Believe” for Russian-speaking audiences which stands in direct contrast to his Eurovision performance from an aesthetic and narrative perspective. According to Stephen Amico, whilst Bilan’s performance in the competition played with notions of gay fandom, in the video version he presented a more “masculine” and heteronormative image.77 By exploiting the competition’s queer aesthetics, Dima Bilan managed to bid for the grand prize.
Despite Russia’s internal conservative and homophobic politics, the country utilised "pinkwashing” tactics to promote a softer image of Western sexual modernity, establish its place in the competition and secure that year’s victory.78 Bilan’s Eurovision win was considered a political success for Russia with both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin congratulating him for his victory, the latter stating that “This is not only Dima Bilan’s personal success, but one more triumph for all of Russia.”79 Bilan’s feat also coincided with other Russian “triumphs” in European football, ice hockey, and the Miss World competition.80 Despite the increasing gay-friendly Eurovision entries and the small victories of the Russian LGBTQIA+ community in the civil rights front with the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1993, the ESC hosted by the Russian Federation was perceived by the local government as an opportunity for “state identity (re-)branding and status signalling.”81
During the 2009 Eurovision finals, Dima Bilan’s winning act was heterosexualised with the singer being presented as a traditionally “masculine” man, breaking down walls, surrounded by a group of excited women, and joined on stage by a female back-up singer. Bilan’s homoerotic Eurovision trajectory came to a halt as the country was focused on promoting traditional gender roles and “normative” sexual identities as part of Putin’s growing anti-gay statements and state sanctioned homophobia. As already mentioned, by 2014, this had created tension which resulted in a strained relationship with the rest of Europe. Moreover, the state’s status has become even more marginalised because of Putin’s statements during the Sochi Olympics, the occupation of Crimea and the 2022 war in Ukraine, despite the EU’s and United Nation’s diplomatic pressure.82
At the 2014 Eurovision in Copenhagen, against this socio-geo-political backdrop, the increased anti-Russian sentiment in Western European countries led audiences to express their disapproval by booing Russia’s entry, the Tolmachevy Sisters.83 2014 was also the year that the drag artist Conchita Wurst (the stage persona of Thomas Neuwirth, a cisgender gay man) triumphed with her song “Rise Like a Phoenix,” creating a political and societal stir in the corridors of Russian power as she “fell” through the cracks of gender normativity. While Conchita’s victory is notable, it is worth mentioning that she was not the first drag act to perform at Eurovision, as there have been multiple drag performers in the past – such as Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka in 2007 and Carlotta Rivello, who performed during an interval break in 1973. However, these earlier acts largely entailed comical or “gimmick” elements, tapping into the competition’s camp aesthetic. Wurst’s inclusion of a beard as part of her drag act’s character, while not unique, had never been incorporated into a Eurovision performance before and was described as “the most genderqueer yet.”84 Her appearance represented the European identity narrative of progression in terms of diversity, inclusivity and sexual liberation, and her message of “peace and tolerance” was viewed as in direct opposition with Russia’s newly signed propaganda-law and the aggressive gender normativity and warped presentation of masculinity in Russia.85 Despite her vast success in western Europe, Conchita's win received severe criticism on social media within Russia, with some individuals expressing their dissatisfaction and directing their male followers to shave their beards to “prove you’re not Conchita.”86 Among these individuals were Russian broadcaster Andrey Malakhov, who posted a selfie on his Instagram along with the caption “shocked by Conchita Wurst,” and rapper Alexander “ST” Stepanov (Figures 1 and 2). Among the two selfies that Stepanov posted, was one of him shirtless, giving the middle finger whilst shaving and another of him clean shaven while making the sign of “devil’s horns” with his hands, thereby signalling his disgust as Conchita’s victory and aligning himself with a traditionally masculine, “tough guy” identity.
The public appeal of popular figures calling their followers to shave their beards so they can maintain their masculinity is the embodiment of Judith Butler’s gender theory. Butler argues in Gender Trouble that “gender is the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”87 Following this, gender is culturally constructed and controlled in our society by defining males’ identity against the female, and vice versa. As represented by the above example of men shaving their beards in protest of Conchita, there is a clear clash between Conchita’s atypical body representation and the traditional heterosexual stylisation of the male body, as facial hair is a characteristic of male sexual maturity. The appearance of facial hair on a female body is considered by the same regulatory framework as non-feminine and therefore unattractive and transgressive. According to Butler, a woman’s “essence” is an ongoing practice “open to intervention and resignation” and not set on the body.88 In this respect though, a “man’s” essence can be seen on the body by visible facial hair, but because a “woman’s” essence is more fluid and can be reassessed, the “essences” have flipped and now a hairless face is considered more masculine than a bearded one.89
This sentiment is expanded onto the physical form in an image posted on Facebook with the caption “The new Austrian man,” comparing the bodies of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and Conchita (Figure 3).90 Here Schwarzeneggar’s physique is foregrounded as an acceptable heteronormative male body whereas the stylisation of Conchita’s body is read as feminine and, consequently, illicit, thereby mirroring Butler’s notion that “the body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.”91 What is perceived as a socially acceptable masculine body in Russia is a bodybuilder form with bulging biceps, referencing a bulkier physical version of Michelangelo’s David. For the hegemonic and homophobic press, Conchita’s body represents a lesser form, a threat to social stability, and by ridiculing it they try to render it as inferior.
For Butler the practice of drag can destabilise the implicit assumptions about gender identity. Drag can be used through exaggeration as a playful way to demonstrate that there is not an “original” gender and to argue that gender is “rather … an identity tenuously constituted in time - an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts,” hence it is performative and a form of theatricality.92 Ulbricht, Sircar and Slootmaeckers suggest the disruptive nature of drag can challenge the notion of heterosexuality and “expose the internal structure of heteronormativity.”93 Conchita, by visually appearing as a feminine figure with a beard, ruptures the foundation of the heteronormative system. By denaturalising the culturally accepted gender norms and blurring the strict division between masculine and feminine identity, the rigidity of the heteronormative system is eventually exposed as false. Wurst is not just another drag queen diva but, through her artistic practice, is deliberately queer, while her beard is there to remind the viewer of the transgressive nature of her act. Conchita thus plays with binary notions by using seemingly opposed, heavily coded gender signifiers to destabilise the two and blurring heteronormativity’s distinct lines between the sexes and genders.94 Contrary to preceded Russian performances such as t.A.T.u., which used female same-sex attraction to play on male fantasies that did not disrupt and challenge Russian gender norms, Conchita Wurst did not appeal to a certain kind of straight male audience because they could neither see themselves in Conchita nor find her attractive since she was not marketed towards a heteronormative spectator.
Conchita Wurst’s win in the Eurovision Song Content was perceived by Western European media as a cultural and political success against conservative homophobic ideologies, and she was portrayed as a symbolic opponent of Putin’s Russia, transforming her into a queer, human rights icon. “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom … we are a unity and we are unstoppable!” she proclaimed during her winning speech.95 With these words she demonstrated her support for all people with a non-heteronormative identity and emphasised the power of a respectful and inclusive community. By inviting audiences to share her beliefs, she encourages them to accept and respect others’ gender variances. Viewers broke Eurovision Twitter records when they flocked to the platform to show their excitement, generating more than 5.3 million tweets – 1.5 million tweets compared to the previous year – making it the most tweeted television programme in 2014.96 Popular response suggested this was a triumph over prejudice, ignorance and intolerance, presenting Conchita as a symbolic adversary of Putin’s policies, whereas activist groups outside the Russian geo-political framework, such as Zagreb Pride, used Conchita’s image to symbolise their own struggles with conservative political powers.97
The Austrian president Heinz Fischer spoke of Conchita’s victory as “not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe,” while the music and nationalism scholar Philip Bohlman stated that with Conchita’s win “Eurovision had reclaimed its relevance by being able to confront state homophobia and provide a space where the queering of the ESC had given common meaning to Europe.”98 Conchita’s status as a human rights and democracy ambassador was solidified when she visited the European Parliament and the United Nations. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged to “continue his fight against transphobia and homophobia” and that “discrimination has no place in the United Nations, nor in the world of the 21st century.”99
In contradiction to most of Europe’s positive reactions, as we’ve already explored to some extent, Russian officials used the Eurovision Song Contest as an opportunity to appeal for a return “normalcy,” and to intensify the geo-political division with Europe.100 Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, who had already positioned Europe as a threat to “Russia’s moral sovereignty,” said after Conchita’s win that “the participation of the clear transvestite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian performers was obvious propaganda for homosexuality and moral decay.”101 In a similar discourse, nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky proclaimed that the Eurovision results represented “the end of Europe. It's rotted away. There are no more men and women. There is just ‘It’!”102 Russian newspaper Kul’tura, meanwhile, published an article stating, “Serious people are concerned if the example of Thomas-Conchita will corrupt our youth – a sudden desire to combine a skirt with a beard is transmitted, like chickenpox?”103
Looking at the above reaction, non-normative sexual identities appear to have been portrayed as a combining of “a skirt with the beard,” and have been pathologised when described as “transmitted” - or imported - from Europe. The notion that non-normative sexual identities could “corrupt the youth” communicates again to Russia’s future generations that the state is eagerly trying to control through their seemingly “protective” policies. Conchita’s gender expression does not fit the narrative of Russian identity since her body cannot contribute to the wholesome reproductive futurism. Similarly, Europe is still viewed as a place of decadence, weakness, and a lack of moral values. The concept of gay Europe (geiropa) is brought forward once again by many who believe that Europe’s “gayness” is symptomatic of “its lack of power, energy, discipline, and order.”104 Russia’s strong traditions and heteronormative lifestyle do not fit with the apparently more tolerant European way of life, and for them countries that might find the European Union attractive are immediately deemed decadent and, hence, gay. As a result, a few days after Conchita’s win, Russian officials rejected a request for a parade in honour of Wurst’s victory deeming it a security risk as it could lead to confrontations between activists and their adversaries.105
Even though many Russian politicians and high-end public figures reacted in a negative manner, German journalist Jan Feddersen noted that Conchita’s victory suggests a far greater cultural similarity across Europe than is often assumed. Emphasising this, Feddersen points to the fact that Conchita “garnered nearly as many votes from Southern and Eastern European countries, like Italy and Slovenia, as from traditionally left-leaning countries like the Netherlands.”106 Furthermore, traditionally conservative countries such as Armenia, which shares similar anti-gay sentiment as Russia, voted "Rise like a Phoenix" into second place, while the Russian public votes placed Conchita third in popularity.107
The landscape becomes even more interesting and complicated when we compare the votes between the public votes and the national juries. Ulbricht, Sircar and Slootmaeckers, who conducted a study analysing how the points in Conchita’s victory were allocated, found that the overall voting behaviours confirm that there was an “Eastern bias,” with Eastern European countries, specifically countries of the former Soviet Union, scoring Conchita’s performance lower than Western European countries did.108 It seems that the national juries were harsher when it came to the votes. For instance, as Ulbricht, Sircar and Slootmaeckers found, the national jury from Armenia ranked Austria in 24th place (2nd in public votes), while Belarus ranked them 23rd (4th in public votes) and Azerbaijan in 24th (3rd in public votes).109 This pattern though is not only evident in the case of Eastern European countries but also in more seemingly “progressive” countries of the west, such as Germany. Germany’s national jury placed Conchita in 11th place (1st in public votes), the same ranking as Russia (3rd in public votes).110 These discrepancies between the public and the national juries demonstrate an “elite hostility” towards Wurst’s performance, and suggests that the public is more progressive and open to non-normative identities than is portrayed in popular media.111 Dennis Scheller-Boltz, confirms this point in his book The Discourse on Gender Identity in Contemporary Russia when he states that many Conchita supporters were not represented in media outlets since those views go against Putin’s political agenda of reinstating and maintaining traditional gender roles and heteronormative behaviours.112
The leader of the Russian LGBTQIA+ organisation Equality, Yury Gavrikov, referenced the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Eurovision public vote from the local people “who are under really aggressive government propaganda in the past couple of years, (but) in spite of all of this, they voted for the Austrian.”113 The influence of anti-gay propaganda became evident in a 2018 poll conducted by the Russian analytical research organisation Levada-Center, who showed that 69% of participants considered same sex sexual relations to be “wrong,” an increase from 54% in 1998, just a year before Putin first joined office.114 The following year, Levada again asked the public their thoughts about equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, 47% expressed their support.115
For the LGTBQIA+ community, Wurst’s victory was considered a triumph and an indication that the Russian public was slowly starting to change their point of view in the hopes of a more inclusive society. Russia appears to be a divided society split between modernity and the traditional ideology championed by the state. Overall, since its establishment in 2013, the propaganda law has imperilled LGBTQIA+ rights in Russia. There has been an intensification of persecution, harassment and attacks against LGBTQIA+ people and activists, and, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, this law is an example of “political homophobia … targeting vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain” and presenting them as second-class citizens.116 The Human Rights Watch report also discusses the impact of the law among LGBTQIA+ youth who are denied access to information, mental health support and advice on matters relating to their actual or perceived sexual and/or gender identity.117 In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the law “had violated the European convention on human rights on freedom of expression (article 10) and prohibition of discrimination (article 14)” and that was indeed harmful to minors.118
Even though there is little evidence to contend that Putin’s government is becoming less hostile towards LGBTQIA+ people, the revocation of the 2020 bill that aimed to prohibit marriage for same-sex couples and prevent legal recognition for transgender people was considered a small victory for the community.119 Jonny Dzhibladze, a coordinator for the LGBTQIA+ rights group Vykhod, noted that the legislation received a “tremendous level of public outrage about the bill’s homophobia and transphobia,” as well as backlash from online campaigns, medical professionals and high profile figures of Russian society.120 This was one of the few instances where public figures (actors, tv hosts and lawmakers) voiced their support for LGBTQIA+ people and their rights, which could potentially indicate a “moment of transition” and societal change.121 Again, when compared to Conchita’s Wurst’s 2014 popular voting patterns, it seems that the wider population is more tolerant and inclusive towards sexual minorities, and, as Alan Renwick wrote in The New Statesman, “readier to accept that different people might be different” than the conservative ruling elites.122
After Conchita’s victory, Russia threatened to leave the competition and even create its own music contest as a response to the degrading of European society. Despite the protesting conservative voices, the country maintained its place in the contest and competed with Polina Gagarina the following year. She finished in second place and was seen celebrating after the grand finale next to Conchita Wurst. The result was welcomed by most of her fellow compatriots; however, Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, known for his controversial and anti-LGTBQIA+ beliefs, not only accused the Eurovision of falsifying results, but also accused Gagarina for being a traitor and for becoming “a propagander of Western sodomic values.”123 Similarly, Ukraine’s win in 2016, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, led to suspicion and allegations of cheating by Russian officials, which eventually caused Russia to abstain from the competition in 2017 before returning in 2018.124
2021’s Russian act was a welcome surprise for Eurovision’s LGTBQIA+ audience, causing controversy within the country’s music and political establishment. Manizha Sangin, selected by public vote, performed in the 2021 ESC in Rotterdam with the song "Russian Woman,” a feminist anthem written “about the transformation of a woman’s self-awareness over the past few centuries in Russia.”125 The artist, who moved to Russia as a baby from Tajikistan, is a social activist, advocating against domestic violence, anti-immigrations policies, and is an outspoken supporter of LGTBQIA+ rights. She has also publicly shared her opposition to the invasion of Ukraine on her Instagram account by posting an image of a black square and stating, “My future husband is half Ukrainian. My close friends are Ukrainians. Russia and Ukraine are not just two countries. We are family and friends. Any war between us is fraternal.”126
It is therefore not surprising that conservative organisations and prominent political figures, such as Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, have accused Manizha of “illegal” lyrics which “incite hatred toward both Russian men and women.”127 Despite these reactions, the singer received support from the Tajikistan president, Emomali Rahmon, while a poll showed that 50% of the public were indifferent to her selection, perhaps indicating that Russian society is more accepting of non-heteronormative gender expressions.128
In the 2022 competition, Russia was set to participate in Eurovision with the blind singer Yaroslav Simonova. The invasion of Ukraine on February 24, however, resulted in Russia being banned from the competition in an unparalleled turn of events.129 Despite the fact that the EBU has always proclaimed the apolitical nature of the event and had initially stated that the organisers had no intention of excluding Russia from the competition, on February 25th, and in the midst of protest from European state broadcasters such as Iceland, the Netherlands and Estonia, the European Broadcasting Corporation reversed its decision by releasing a statement claiming that “no Russian act will participate in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.”130 They continued by noting, “the decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute.”131 As a response, the Russian broadcasters VGTRK and EBU withdrew from the EBU the following day.132
The Eurovision Song Contest is not just a music competition focused on entertainment anymore, but has transformed into a stage for international politics and an opportunity to promote notions of inclusivity, diversity, and European identity. Politicising the ESC in 2014 (and even more so in 2022) was a firm rebuke against Russia’s strict policies regarding homosexuality and human rights, and the country’s subsequent entries (with some exceptions) have often received negative reactions and booing during their performances, reflecting Russia’s increasingly ostracised place in European politics.
After examining the framework surrounding European and Russian identity, and the ways in which Conchita’s body and gender expression is posited as a threat, it becomes clear that a main feature of Russian society is normative heterosexuality. The refusal to acknowledge any kind of non-normative sexuality, and the government’s intention to regulate sexual identity, desire and behaviour has been thoroughly implemented in the country’s reproductive and anti-gay propaganda laws.133 Furthermore, throughout our exploration it has been revealed that the policing of gender norms and identity has become more immediate because of the rapid expansion of technology and social media. By investigating public figures’ responses on social media, the discontent for Conchita Wurst is clearly seen as a reaction to the way she presents her physical body. By blurring the lines of “normal” masculinity and femininity in the Russian context, she is disrupting the preconceived notion, and state-sponsored promotion, of what it means to be a man by presenting a more fluid understanding of gender through her drag persona. This poses a threat not only to the country’s heteronormative structures but also to the “national future” since this type of gender expression is deemed contagious and a result of harmful western influences.134 As a result, the ever-growing role of social media and technology in the post-Soviet space has become more prominent, as it allows for an open space of both confrontation and support to be visible. It is also worth noting here that social media also offers ways to circumvent state-owned/controlled media organisations (this has particularly become more evident to outside audiences since the invasion of Ukraine).
Finally, despite the large number of powerful conservative voices and corresponding aggressive government propaganda, it seems that there are changing attitudes within Russian society which were evident during the voting process in 2014 and which continue to slowly transform public opinion due to the ongoing battles of Russian LGTBQIA+ activists.
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Irida Zhonga is a researcher and filmmaker whose artistic expertise lies in mixed media and stop motion animation. She holds a BA in Film and Television from the University of the Arts, London and has been working for more than a decade as a director, animator, educator and film curator. She's currently completing a Research MA in Arts, Media and Literary Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands with a specialisation in Film and Animation focusing on gender and sexual identity, ecocinema and animation aesthtics. She is a fellow of the ARTWORKS SNF Artist Program (2019) and has received scholarships from the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Educators Forum (2020) and WIA-Women in Animation (2022). In June 2020 she was voted as an ASIFA- Hellas (Greek Animation Society) board member. She currently works as a Research Assistant at the University of Groningen and as a Research Assistant at the University of Tubingen's Research Center for Animation and New Media.