5 min read

More than a singing contest: politics and gender in Eurovision

Earlier this month I went on an escapade down to London for Eurovision. No, not the actual event. That will take place in Vienna next year. (It’s been a fair while since the UK has got even close to the honour of hosting.) I went to see Paul Jordan aka ‘Dr Eurovision‘ talk about the history of the contest and in particular the way that a supposedly apolitical singing contest nonetheless has telling examples of politics and gender.

Apparently Jordan’s moniker is the brainchild of a BBC journo when he began giving expert feedback on Eurovision for BBC TV slots including the semi-finals on BBC2. (Given that the Spice Girls’ nicknames came from a TOTP writer, there are worse things that could happen.)

Though the name may be all sizzle, his credentials are legit. His doctoral thesis investigated how Estonia’s landmark Eurovision win in 2000 become a way for the country to dissociate itself from the former Soviet Union and instead become part of Europe. The 2001 Eurovision show in Tallinn thereby ended up being strong on national identity via the theme of fairy tales … and also surprisingly heavy on promoting their beautiful Estonian women, an issue of gender and identity that Jordan also looked at in more detail across the course of the seminar.

The Estonian title card is pointed in using a Sleeping Beauty scenario (a country waking from a sleep?) and of course, the woman is beautiful and fighting off the men!

The singing Olympics? More like the World’s Fair

Before the talk, I’d had some thought that Eurovision had been set up to improve Continental relations. However, it turns out that the contest itself had in fact technical rather than political reasons. Eurovision was a good way to test the limits of broadcasting at the time and was arguably the first international live contest. This pushing of technical limits would go on throughout the show’s history, from the start of video walls in Belgium (something that Celine Dion’s flawless stage performance would take full advantage of) to the introduction of the televote, and finally the grand stage performance of Baku that was of such extravagance that Malmo and Stockholm were both asked to deliberately tone it down in order to not make it become a race to the top in terms of costs.

While Celine Dion’s clothing may have dated, the use of cameras and screens in 1988 makes it a spectacle as well as a show

Controversies and gimmicks? That’s just Eurovision

The gimmicks and controversies are both the fun part of the modern Eurovision performances and also what puts some less-entertained people off. (Was the Poland 2014 performance hilarious or just cheap? It depends who you ask). However, they’be been going on as long as the show. In 1957 the Danes debuted in the competition with a performance including a then-shocking snog.


Even now it’s a little jarring given the context. And the 1965 song by Serge Gainsbourg had definite sexual innuendo (though the singer claimed she had no idea, and given the era, maybe she didn’t).

And of course, the infamous skirt ripping from Bucks Fizz is now a staple of the Eurovision theatrics.


Queer is as queer is recognised

While Jordan explained that in general ‘Eurovison is the only place where you have to come out as straight’, this isn’t always the way that performances come across. I’d been told from other international people I know that countries that are not particularly safe when it comes to LGBT people are often astoundingly blind to seemingly queer indicators. This has come across in a number of Eurovision performances, such as Serbia’s Molitva: while she hadn’t come out at that point, the performance for a Western audience attracts a lot of suggestions such as the butch clothing and female crew.

Similarly, some conservative countries are oblivious to the performers they send screaming queer to other more gay-friendly countries.

While I’d known that Dana International was Eurovision’s first transgender performer, what I hadn’t known was that she was deliberately named after Ireland’s 1970 winner Dana. What’s ironic about this association is that Dana’s performance was recognisably Catholic-schoolgirl with sickly sweet song that could have come out of the Sound of Music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awhQjT14cdA

Dana…and Dana International

Jordan pointed out that Dana International’s performance is not itself entirely devoid of criticism (note the powerhouse backing vocalist is left to stand to the side to sing since she potentially doesn’t fit the aesthetics) it certainly has its own trajectory that would later be repeated with Conchita.

Politics is always there, and it’s hard to know what’s in and out

While Eurovision is always pushed as being apolitical, that hasn’t proven to be the case when it comes to the competition. While there have been some performances banned for overly political statements, others get through as there’s no set way to state what is in and what is out. For me as a foreigner it’s easy to forget how there was trouble much closer to the UK in the past. When the 1971 Eurovision was in Dublin, the UK deliberately sent an Northern Irish singer in an attempt to counter any terrorism. There were high security measures on guard for the Israeli contingent in the 1980s and 90s (including Dana International, but this was more due to her gender rather than her nationality). More recently, this has taken place between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia’s stepping out of the Baku 2012 competition was hardly surprising. Before that, the two countries had been fighting over some land inhabited by Armenians but by law belonging to the Azerbaijani. In 2009, when a picture of a statue in this said area showed up as part of the Armenia postcard in the semis, Azerbaijan complained and so it was removed for the final. However, Armenia cannily retaliated when it came to the televote.

After this, Azerbaijan interrogated people who’d voted for Armenia using the phone lines, which is a chilling reminder of how seriously some countries take the show.

There are also ongoing questions about voting and possible bribery, which is possibly the reason that this year’s Eurovision made public each country’s judges and how they judged. (Though this now also raises the issue of whether judges really understand their country, given that this year the UK put Poland first and the judges put it last).

Still, sometimes it can be good. Ruslana’s 2004 win for Ukraine win meant that the country suspended visa requirements for EU citizens in preparation for the 2005 hosting: a practice that continues up to this day. (Less fortunately but perhaps more expectedly, Jordan noted that post-Eurovision, while you can go back there, you’re not necessarily going to feel safe there if you’re gay). And Estonia’s win was used by the country to brand Estonia as a Nordic country rather than a Soviet one, and according to Jordan’s own research was seen by some of their politicians as directly contributing to them becoming accepted in the EU.

For anyone interested in more on Eurovision and the politics around it, Jordan’s website and blog are well worth looking at as he writes about Eurovision and politics, particularly relating to Eastern Europe.  His thesis has also been repurposed as a book (unfortunately it’s only in hard copy and it has to get sent over from Estonia!) His talk that I attended also went into a lot more detail about things such as how Eurovision has featured different types of camp which I haven’t talked about here, so it’s well worth keeping an eye out if the talks get done again.