As a historian who has worked on gender performance and the powers and weaknesses that such performances may bring, I have been watching this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with some excitement – but also with some scepticism.
The show ended with the winner pleading for tolerance and respect. In her press conference, Conchita Wurst said that her winning the contest
showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement.
Her performance was certainly brave and her victory real. What’s more, in the face of the homophobic backlash that has also been going on in Europe (but do these people watch the Song Contest?) and a song that was less than catchy (I left the couch with Dana International’s ‘Diva’ stuck in my head rather than ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, even though I had just heard the latter twice) the audiences and juries of Europe clearly decided to make a statement.
But was it simply a statement of progress? Did we indeed ‘move on’? Could Conchita Wurst not have performed her song a hundred years ago?
Wurst’s image reminded me of a character in a novel I read a long time ago: Mathilde, in Ted van Lieshout‘s masterly Raafs Reizend Theater. 1 Mathilde earns her living as the Bearded Lady in a show: a little bit like Conchita. But we can go further back.
Nineteenth-century fairgrounds formed the workplace of many people with ‘curious’ bodies: from the ‘miniature man’ to the ‘fat boy’, from ‘Anita the Living Doll’ to ‘Lofty the Dutch Giant’. Relics of these and other performers can be found in the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield. North American Annie Jones became particularly famous with her performances as Bearded Lady, as you can see from the inset image.
To what extent these people were performing voluntarily like Conchita, must have varied. To what extent the features they were known for should be seen as disabilities and diseases or, quite the opposite, as talents and skills, is an equally nuanced matter. But what is, I think, true for all of these people, is that they lived with certain bodies and minds every day of their lives: that to themselves they were their ordinary selves: ordinary selves which they had to cope with; ordinary selves which they might enjoy, too.
As soon as they got onto the stage, however, their bodies and/or minds became a spectacle, a curiosity, a matter of entertainment. And that is, of course, also exactly what Conchita Wurst was at the Eurovision Song Contest: a stage performance.
The Bearded Lady as a stage performance is nothing new. Bodies that cross the borders of what is deemed normal are not new. To display them is not new.
If people want to truly ‘move on’, as Wurst hoped, they must be able to see Conchita’s beauty off stage as well as on stage. They should see her feminine beauty and her masculine beauty all at once, in the dressing-room as well as under the spotlights. And the same, of course, applies to the ‘midget’ and the ‘giant’.
I am not sure such a thing will ever happen, because if the extraordinary becomes ordinary, what will we watch on a Saturday night? We crave the spectacular alongside the normal. But in as far as it concerns the ‘freaks’ I have been writing of – that is, in as far as it concerns real people who are turned into curiosities for a lifetime – it is something worth striving for.
Conchita, I hope to meet you drinking an ordinary Eiskaffee on an everyday Vienna terrace this summer!
Anna P.H. Geurts is a researcher at the Department of History, University of Sheffield and at the University of Twente. She has written on sexual identities and on how appearance and gender identity can be an asset as well as an obstacle in everyday mobility. You can read her other History Matters blogs here and find more of her work on Historian at Large.
- ‘Raaf’s Travelling Show’ has unfortunately not yet been translated into English. ↩