The good/dark old days when BBC viewers were ‘treated’ to Terry Wogan’s commentary are long gone. While lauded for many of his years in the box, much of Wogan’s observation centered on the portrayal of the jolly foreigners as a source of amusement, a peg onto which to hang old stereotypes, to show that Europe is just as ‘we’ expect and hope it to be. But this perspective isn’t limited to the ramblings of a late commentator – it is part of Eurovision’s fabric.
Stereotypes are not intrinsically a negative thing. In many cases, conforming to a particular set of traits amplifies the performance and offers a sense of authenticity. One image that is conjured when you think of Turkey is the idea of a mysterious seductress from the East. It is an image that is embedded within centuries of literature, art and folklore. Yet it was exactly those traits embedded within the performance of Sertab Erener with her belly dancers brought on stage. Clearly, belly dancing embodies an element of Turkish culture and made sense with the message of her song. The choreography utilised a cultural stereotype in a positive, non-problematic way. Similarly in 2018, Rasmussen conjured the imagery of the Nordic Viking in his grand stage show. Huge flags to recreate ships, rousing movement and a finishing snow flurry, Denmark embodied their own Scandinavian stereotype to make it their own. Riding the wave of popularity of shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings, Rasmussen modernised an age old cultural image to navigate his message of epic peace.
InCulto had a much more different approach in 2010. A tongue-in-cheek song with a firmly tongue-in-cheek velcro trousers, the lyrics intentionally mocked the Western perception of Eastern Europe. By discussing immigration status, jobs and perceived difference was used to dispel lines of national separation. The group engaged and immediately tackled with negative stereotypes to pave the way for something better, and are not the only entrants to do so.
Representations of gender are not always at the forefront of equality, but there’s a geographical cultural split in the stereotypes that get portrayed by acts and by the hosting presenters and broadcasters themselves.
Some stereotypes appeal to the public, drawing votes and points, or at least making noise on social media. When south and east European nations bring disposable pop bangerz fronted by female – preferably scantily clad- acts, voters seem comforted and will call in their support; this is what Europe wants from Cyprus (see: La la la, Fuego, etc), and across the Balkans and Carpathians (see: Balkan girls, My secret combination, or almost anything from Ukraine).
Other entries may have quality and may meet viewers’ expectations of national stereotype, but if it doesn’t fulfil the brief, a semifinal may prove to be a stumbling block. Yianna Terzi couldn’t have given Europe something any more Greek than Oniro Mou, but viewers abandoned it in preference for energy and sex appeal elsewhere in the lineup.
Regardless of their expertise and experience, southern European women tend to get represented as frivolous, while female hosts from the North are more likely to be given a script and an outfit that says ‘this woman is in charge’.
This is by no means to say that hosts and representatives of northern nations don’t apply the same stereotypes at times. More likely though, it is the male host who will pull the short straw. In today’s world, northern European society would pile scorn on any show that belittles women, but it is fine to script the guy to get his kit off. Or, just like the foundation of many an advertisement for household goods or services, let’s belittle the hapless male who needs a woman to keep in him order.
Stereotypes are increasingly difficult thing to define. It is incredibly easy to call out a stereotype in retrospect, but slightly more difficult in the present day. In 2007, Romania’s Todomondo sang in six different languages, Todomondo making the decision to dress their members in stereotypical outfit for each represented language. A suit and bowler hat for English – tapping into the gentleman sensibility. A sharp suit for Italian, hair styled back to give a mafia-edge. The performance included cliché flamenco and basic Cossack dancing. Horrifically cringe-worthy. By performing these cultural stereotypes on stage, was it supposed to be more authentic? Perhaps intended as a boost for French, English, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Romanian votes and those of their respective diasporas? In any case, the performance reduced the culture of no less than six nations pretty crudely.
The LGBTQ+ community’s affinity and involvement with Eurovision cannot be understated. Faithfully followed and sustained by a fan community that includes a broad LGBTQ+ spectrum, Eurovision appears as a more or less ‘gay’ event, depending on who and where you are. Nonetheless, when acts appear with a desire to express a queer message or use their LGBTQ+ appeal to entice voters, it is stereotypically through the medium of a supercamp performance (see: Saara Aalto, Sestre etc).
On that note, let’s tip our hats to Conchita who blew apart national stereotypes by taking to the stage for Austria in 2014, and avoided Eurovision LGBTQ+ stereotypes through a performance that avoided the camp cliché.
A talking point in 2018 was the representation of a love story between two dancers for Ireland who happened to be a same-sex duo. Having said that, what was the motivation for a same sex couple dancing together? Probably in it for the votes, but let’s let them off for doing it in a stereotype-busting way.
Eurovision exists because of a desire to bring a continent together, to share culture, to bring some frivolity to international relations. Though the contest continues to represent nations and communities with stereotypes. Some through the work of the EBU and host broadcaster, some through the choices made by competing nations in their three minute window. But perhaps it all happens just because it is what the viewing public want and expect.
What sets us apart seems to hold us together, especially when we can communally look down on each other. Thank you for accepting differences between us; both when you challenge stereotypes, and when you vote for them.
Contributors: Simon Wells, Oliver Lewis