Challenging Gender Presentation Through the Reclamation of Queer Identity
By promoting female empowerment through gender presentation, Turbofolk begins to rewrite the definition of masculinity within pop music. Acknowledging Ceca’s criminal history, Hedge exemplifies this theme through the image of the Balkan diva. By portraying “herself as a strong, yet sad, mysterious, and suffering woman,” Ceca is able to shape her own image within the media (Hedge, p. 41). In fact, Hedge notes, Ceca uses her platform as a musician to shape how her audience views her: a strong woman with even stronger ties to her Serbian roots. Ceca’s ability to capitalize on her womanhood and femininity amplifies her power and authority within the Turbofolk genre. As an example of Ceca’s powerful presence within her music, her song “Nevinost” offers insight into the ability of Turbofolk to offer a safe medium for female empowerment. The title itself, translated as “Innocence,” suggests of Ceca’s ability to find power within female fragility. As she places herself within the camera frame, her stoic, upright posture and powerful vibrato echo the courage and perseverance found throughout her lyrics: “when I fall, I know how to stand back up again.” She allows herself to be vulnerable within her lyrics, but she remains a strong and withstanding presence in the video, proving her ability to take charge. This shift in power, in turn, allows Ceca to challenge the idea of traditional masculinity as she not only takes control of her own feelings, but also presents herself as a strong, intelligent, and emotional woman.
To further explore this rejection of masculinity through female embodiment, Jelena Karleusa, while promoting the same balance of strength within femininity, is more explicit in her message. In her video for “Upravo Ostavljena,” Jelena is shown wearing a black bodysuit, among other outfits. She shows her confidence within her own body by flaunting her figure, while also presenting her identity as a sexual being. She continues to sing the lyrics “we just made love,” crossing the boundary of the traditional, conservative female and allowing herself to be seen and heard as a strong woman who is in control of her own body. By allowing the power to fall into her own hands, Jelena—like Ceca—challenges traditional masculinity. Or more accurately, these women are “dominant, uncompromising personalities that overtly wield sexual and social power on screen and stage” (Tunić). And as a result of their strength, the women also label men as secondary characters, rather than the main protagonists of Turbofolk. This shift of owning and belonging then provides the audience with a safe environment to explore themselves and their own identities with the knowledge that there is no shame in the loud and unconventional. Therefore, singers like Ceca and Borisavljevic emphasize the ability of female empowerment to challenge the idea of traditional masculinity within Turbofolk, while paving the way for unconventional, or queer, relationships to be depicted within the genre.
Besides empowering women and encouraging gender expression, we may find Turbofolk subverting heteronormativity, or the idea that heterosexuality is the only natural expression of sexuality. Perhaps the main takeaway from Overholser’s paper on gendered norms in a traditional folk dance particular to Hungary does not focus solely on the Hungarian tradition, but rather how male-female relationships are traditionally viewed in Eastern Europe. In fact, Overholser writes that the heteronormative dynamics between the male and female dancers are typical of folk-originated art media (Overholser, p. 109). Because Turbofolk originated from Neo-folk music, we expect to see many of these same traditional ideas entangled within the genre. However, as depicted in Mia Borisavljevic’s video for “Gruva Gruva,” we notice how the typical role of the subservient and reserved woman is shattered and replaced by the image of a more balanced dispersion of power. In her video, Borisavljevic is shown wearing several revealing outfits. However, the audience’s attention does not fall on her own almost-naked body, but rather on the bodies of the men dressed solely in underwear, with hats and fake mustaches to add to the image. Therefore, not only does Borisavljevic define her art through the refusal of the traditional, submissive female position, but she also checks and questions the idea of sexual objectification by reversing the traditional roles within objectification: the objectified becomes the objectifier. The woman no longer dances in the background. She is in charge within the relationship.
Exploring further the embrace of queerness, Ljupka Stevic contributes to the rejection of heteronormativity with her music video for “Etiketa.” The most notable image within the music video is of Stevic’s male backup dancers wearing nipple tassles and high heels—an extremely shocking scene for many audience members of pop music. Instead of standing stoic and strong above Stevic as her male interests, the dancers engage in dancing in costume with Stevic. They share her aesthetic as well as her stage. The men do not assume a higher rank than Stevic, but rather join her in creating a fierce spectacle of the balance of male and female, masculinity and femininity. In doing so, Stevic explicitly breaks the boundaries of traditional masculinity, where men represent strength and women weakness. She instead questions the meanings behind these assigned terms by reassigning them herself. A side effect of her approach, perhaps unintended, is the positioning of men in a more sensitive and fragile state, where their bodies are viewed as material, rather than resources of strength and power. This fragility then introduces the audience to the acceptance of queerness, or the ability to view relationships of power outside of the traditional norms. These performers reconstruct how we look at ourselves and our relationships with others.
While we have spent the majority of this paper looking at how Turbofolk has been challenging traditional ideas of gender performance, we still have to wonder how the rewriting of this term has promoted queerness within the genre. In Mikus’s words, perhaps we can interpret protests for LGBTQ rights “in relation to the social marginalization of perpetrators and point to exclusionism inherent to liberal and human rights projects,” and thus view the position of the larger population towards accepting and expanding LGBTQ rights (Mikus). In fact, Mikus emphasizes, a large portion of activism for these rights has happened within the popular music genre. Jelena Karleusa published a column in a high-circulation tabloid in which she talked—rather crudely—about the importance of accepting the LGBTQ community and the hypocrisy within the Serbian government’s discrimination of the queer community. Jelena Karleusa, mentioned earlier in this paper, has been an influential Turbofolk singer, and her promotion of queerness can be seen not only through her written column, but also throughout her work as a performer. While several of the artists previously mentioned perhaps did not have the intention of explicitly promoting queerness, they did provide a space in which the idea of “traditional” was picked up, tossed around, and placed upside down. And with queerness flourishing in the unconventional, these artists performed a huge feat for the queer community: they created a safe space for human expression of every kind. With no shame or humiliation, the relationships and presentations within these videos allow the audience to think of people as free entities who unapologetically express their states of existence.
In summary, we analyzed several music videos within the Turbofolk genre in an attempt to capture the shift occurring within the idea of traditional gender roles. With the rise of female empowerment and the subversion of heteronormativity among the music of the genre, gender is being re-written; not only do we see a balance of power and easily accessible role switching, but we also see how others outside of the direct Turbofolk genre are accepting and adopting these ways of thinking. By partaking in activism, these musicians are able to spread their own ways of thinking and help others feel more accepted within their own communities. Whether advertently or not, the ability of these artists to create a space outside of the “traditional” promotes queerness as an idea that relies on the ability to fall outside of the metaphorical, average box.
“Etiketa.” YouTube, uploaded by Ljupka Stevic, Apr. 30, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6ETEXO4GFo
“Gruva Gruva.” YouTube, uploaded by Mia Borisavljevic, Oct. 29, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JmFiMbKvWI
Hegde, Radha Sarma. Circuits of Visibility: Gender and Transnational Media Cultures. New York University Press, 2011.
Mikuš, Marek. “‘State Pride’: Politics of LGBT Rights and Democratisation in ‘European Serbia.’” East European Politics and Societies, vol. 25, no. 4, Nov. 2011, pp. 834–851, doi:10.1177/0888325411426886.
“Nevinost.” YouTube, uploaded by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, Jan. 30, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa1xPMSexFc
Overholser, Lisa. “Establishing Gendered Norms in Hungarian Staged Folk Dance through Ethnology and Heteronormativity.” The World of Music, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 105–122. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24318178.
Tunić, Srđan, et al. “Queer As Turbofolk (Part II): Body Politics.” Balkanist, Eurovicious, 13 July 2018, balkanist.net/queer-turbofolk-part-ii-body-politics/.
“Upravo Ostavljena.” YouTube, uploaded by Jelena Karleusa, Dec. 31, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xK3-hR61Wh4