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A bit of a drag: what Eurovision tells us about the federal budget

By Rob Cover - posted Friday, 16 May 2014


Although the lead-up to the Commonwealth budget dominated much political and public discussion in Australia over the past few weeks, the unlikely site of Eurovision has contributed significantly to shifts in gender politics, representations of sexuality and new frameworks for thinking about performance.

These are all elements of contemporary everyday life that, when thought about as political, will have far further-reaching effects than in both Australia and globally than the national budget.

The Eurovision Song Contest, which has a substantial following in Australia often culminating in the weekend-long Eurovision party. Thinking about Eurovision can help us to understand the political, cultural and social climate in which the new Budget has been produced and the debates that have, and will, happen around it.

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There are many similarities between the theatrics of parliamentary and partisan politics in Australia and the theatrics of Eurovision, including the fact that both submerge ideological stances beneath the dress-up of pleasantry and entertainment or tag-line and slogan.

Where Eurovision songs, song choices, lyrics, costuming and humour disguise old rivalries or new manoeuvres (such as Russia's intentions over Ukraine), Treasurer Joe Hockey's eloquent speech that all Australians must share in budget pain and step up to personal responsibility disguises the further entrenchment of inequalities his budget produces.

Where the Eurovision audience in Copenhagen made clear their views on Russia's intentions in Ukraine by booing and hissing the beautiful performance by the Tolmachevy Sisters, the Australian Commonwealth Budget will be booed and protested in a performance of dissent for which the government is pre-prepared and expects as a built-in response to its more unpalatable fiscal plans.

Important here is not that politics involves an element of theatrical performance, but that all theatrical performance is-to varying degrees-political. Unlike many other years, the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest and its winning performance were acts of politics that demonstrate recent, important shifts in how we behave and relate to one another.

The Bearded Winner

The real political change that has been occurring over recent years and that is so strongly signified by Eurovision centres on the politics of gender and the practices of normativity. Eurovision 2014 was won by Austrian with the entry by Conchita Wurst, a drag performer whose appearance was staged as a glamorous woman with a beard, a classic beauty with a man's power-ballad voice. Effectively, a complexification of gender categories and norms.

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Twenty-five year-old Thomas Neuwirth performs Conchita as a character with a specific persona, preferring the pronoun 'she' when representing herself in drag (although not necessarily in everyday life as a man).

Conchita is not transgender, in the sense of a person who identifies and lives as a gender category not of one's birth and which may be pre-, post- or non-operative in terms of sex re-assignment surgery. Indeed, there is significant variance in how transgender persons live their gendered lives, the issues, forms and language of transgender are complex. For example, the important work of Norrie-May Welby who in April 2014, after a four-year legal battle, had the High Court of Australia rule that the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages must, according to her wishes, record her gender as non-specific. An important political shift that helps us overcome the tyranny of a very narrow and very strict two-gender system - a gender system in which not everyone fits, and yet in which most people at some stage in their life are regimented, pressured and coerced to perform. Norrie-May's legal win, and the public discussions, theorisations, discourse and politics that make this win possible, usefully points out the extent to which a two-gender system is a myth, and that human beings are far more complex.

Eurovision is a wholly different environment from parliament and the courts - it is a site of entertainment, but in a politicised form. In Copenhagen this week, Conchita had a similar win (a highly political one) from a different perspective.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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