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A Comparative Visual Analysis of Queer Embodiment and Performance in Balkan Pop
Simplifying Eastern Europe as a homophobic, transphobic, misogynist region is reductive and requires a more critical eye to history. Eastern Europe is not a “monolithic, undifferentiated whole”, and the labelling of the region as such demonstrates a failure to recognize the impact of Western European imperialism as the creator of sodomy laws and the specific brand of Christianity that centers on homophobia (Queer as Turbofolk Part I). However, no matter the origin, violent homophobia in the region is a chronic concern. On a larger scale, the nuances of Eastern European identity both within and without a queer lens have been subject to constantly varied negotiation. Nationalist political-cultural debates have been well documented within Balkan courtrooms and war zones in the Balkans, yet a key site of identity formation remains critically understudied. Through music, the boundaries of essentialist identities such as gender and nationalism are repeatedly “set” and “marked” (Baker, p. 741). Though women writ large hold a secondary status in Serbia, it is necessary to note that “the standpoints of the subjugated are not innocent positions” (Haraway, p. 584). Through a comparative analysis of the visual works of Serbian singers Nikolija and Marija Šerifovíc, I will analyze the evolving relationships between gender, sexuality, and nation in the Balkans.
Feminine aggression, male objectification, and an embrace of drag aesthetics can be marked as indicators of subversive queerness in turbofolk. However, while the presence of divas and drag queens may speak to the homogenized entertainment interests of queer men, the community and media of queer women in turbofolk has received marginal attention. For queer women consuming the genre, the only opportunities of subversion appear to be the plasticized, exoticized, queer-bait of hyper-aggressive divas. Subversive, queer turbo-folk absolutely exists (such as within openly gay Serbian hip-hop artist Damjan Los’ “Ne diraj mi fegete” and trans artist Nastasa Maza’s “Dekolte”), but perhaps not in the all-encompassing way that the literature suggests.
“Cao Zdravo” by turbofolk star Nikolija opens with a stark silhouette, transitioning to a mostly-nude, heavily tattooed woman bearing a chain. With the count of the song, the screen shifts between five other women, all slim with large breasts, each adopting the face mask and chain of the first. Once the beat drops, Nikolija is seen sitting on a plush throne with the six, masked women surrounding her, dancing. Nikolija is the only character with her mouth visible, coated in a smear of crimson lipstick. The video erratically shuffles through frames of blatantly sexual dancing, the first verse ending with the segmentation of Nikolija through a close frame of the opening of her legs to reveal the crotch of her bodysuit. The music video steadily reduces all of the women into segmented body parts: breasts, crotch, sculpted abdomen, lips. This objectification of individual body parts is normative in heterosexual media (Milillo, p.381). Nikolija is at times in an explicitly dominant position over the women, whose chains are now around their necks, the loose end in Nikolija’s hand. Face stern and fur-clad, Nikolija removes agency from her six dancers. As the chorus continues, the masked women are shown flirting with contact, sterilized and performative in a way not too dissimilar from Madonna, Brittany Spears, and Christina Aguilera’s 2004 Video Music Awards performance. The chained women are clearly subservient to Nikolija, jerking their bodies upward with the flick of her hand. However, rather than act as a cohesive whole, they are each portrayed as highly distinct characters (Nikolija [Feat. Teča], "Cao Zdravo").
Nikolija then appears in a snapback hat, tied shirt, and leggings. Though a departure from her first costume, the presence of pants and a hat is far from masculine. Though she positions herself as powerful and aggressive through the video, a distinction should be made between aggression and masculinity. Rather than follow heteronormative dichotomies of the “feminine” indicating submission and the “masculine” indicating aggression, a queer reading of presentation instead urges a holistic view of the ways gender presentation both gives and denies power. The blatant sado-mascochist, kink aesthetics present in the music video do not, in their own right, denote queerness. Though subject to debate, this piece asserts that kink is not inherently queer. While both queer and kinky individuals are identity-based sexual minorities with sex and relationships that are not normative, sex acts alone are not the marker of queerness. Especially in non-affirming geographies, queer people face a host of sociocultural, legal, and safety struggles that heterosexual, cisgendered individuals do not. While a (publicly identified) straight, cis person like Nikolija may have aspects of life such as intimate power dynamics, clothing, and sexual acts that may denote non-normative elements, they are still within an existing structure that allows them privilege and comfort in the greater sociopolitical sphere. The etymology of “queer” is inseparable from radical resistance, and attempting to “queer-wash” all non-normative behavior with the label removes critical, nuanced critiques of heteronormative power (“Being Kinky Doesn’t Make You Queer”).
Nikolija, an “imperious hypersexual” turbofolk diva, is surrounded in “Cao Zdravo” by objectified female bodies at “[her] disposal”. While there are subversive elements to this script as identified by Eurovicious in the Queer as Turbofolk series, it is necessary to also investigate the ways that the divas themselves are also a site of objectification for masculinist consumption Eurovicious’ very descriptor of “lesbian-themed” for “Cao Zdravo” emphasizes that for women in turbo folk, queerness is still relegated to accessory (Queer As Turbofolk Part II). While Nikolija can be argued to subvert some gendered expectations and be subject to a feminist reading, doing the same for queerness seems dismissive of the extent to which patriarchy guides portrayals and embodiments of sexuality. The author themself speaks to this, affirming that despite an “empowered and amazonesque presentation”, women in turbo folk can “sometimes remain vulnerable and exploited” as the field is created “on male terms” (Queer as Turbofolk Part VI). Additionally, the fact that it is gay male directors and creatives who guide these divas’ turbo folk music videos emphasizes the lack of queer women telling their own stories and creating their own media within the genre (Queer as Turbofolk Part II).
While many turbo-folk music videos definitely display aforementioned “queer aesthetics”, this definition of subversive queerness is implicitly exclusive of queer women (Queer as Turbofolk Part IV). While Eurovicious asserts that the video is not “faux-lesbian” as “titillating men is clearly not a priority”, the author’s dismissal of commodified faux-lesbianism is hasty. Looking to pop culture and video game heroines, it becomes evident that feminine aggression and leather/bondage gear is still a source of sexualization for male consumption. Lesbian media has several, quantifiable differentiations from the mainstream. Through framing and aesthetics, visual media creates subtle signaling about dominance and subordination within social structures (Milillio, p. 381). While mainstream media’s portrayals of women’s relationships to each other is framed by individualism and competition, as seen through the segmentation of the women in “Cao Zdravo”, lesbian-intended media writ large emphasizes connectedness (Milillo, 382). When contrasting Nikolija’s media with that of Serbian pop artist Marija Šerifovic, an out lesbian, this dichotomy is made apparent.
Gradient red lights strobing, a short, suited figure approaches center stage. White shirt untucked, bowtie cavalierly tossed around the neck, trainers chunkily laced, Marija Šerifović boldly sings the first notes of “Molitva” at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. During the Serbian national heats to qualify for Eurovision, Šerifović donned traditional, feminine performance markers: frilled jackets, glittered skirts, teased hair, soft vocality. Her delivery of “Molitva” prior to taking the international Eurovision stage was relegated to the realm of simple performance, technically excellent though lacking connection. The Eurovision final in Helsinki marks a turning point for Šerifović. Though publicly identified as a lesbian since 2004, she had never expressed gender non-conformity in the public sphere. Confidently dressed in distinctively butch attire, Šerifović’s embodied female masculinity translates “Molitva” from rote love song to a powerful, heart-wrenching folk ballad. The two women flanking Šerifovíc, though slim and normatively attractive, wear suits identical to the singer. All three women on stage have a bejeweled, red heart pinned to their suits, acting as a symbolizer of group membership. Three more women then join behind, hands clasped, forming a semi circle around Šerifovíc. As “Molitva” swells to the bridge, the accompanying women turn to each other, momentarily placing their hands in the prayer position before laying them upon Šerifovíc’s shoulders. As Šerifovíc sings the final notes, all of the women grasp hands to reveal the red half-hearts each has painted on, creating a complete heart when united. While token at first, these symbols of continuity have a long tradition in international lesbian media which utilizes small signifiers to emphasize group membership and solidarity (Milillo, 391). While there is not explicit sexuality present in this performance, an embodied intimacy radiates (Marija Šerifović, "Molitva").
While “Cao Zdravo” uses queer aesthetics as agents of intrigue, the music videos of the openly queer Šerifovíc approach sexual dynamics in a dramatically different way. Šerifovíc sings mainly about love, longing, and heartbreak; normative topics for the pop genre. However, Šerifovíc herself is rarely on screen. Rather, bearded men and slim women enact romantic, intimate situations with Šerifovíc, invisible, singing behind them. Kissing at weddings, public dinners with friends, walking down the city hand in hand: the heterosexual actors in these music videos live out the everyday intimacies not afforded to queer people in Serbia. Perhaps most notably, in “11”, the narrative of the music video focuses on the intimate moments a young couple experiences in the public sphere of the city square. Softly lit by the sun, the man is seen silently composing a song over the piano while Šerifovíc’s voice is behind him. The couple are then serenaded by Šerifovíc herself, accompanied by an orchestra (Marija Serifovic, "11"). This heteronormative couple are placeholders in the personal, inherently queer story Šerifovíc writes, but is unable to convey fully to the audience. As a method of popular survival in lesbophobic environments, Šerifovíc must distance her lived, queer experience from her musical ouputs.
While Šerifovíc’s visible butchness is tolerated in the public sphere, her success as a popular artist is dependent upon her queerness being labeled aesthetic rather than embodied. It would be impossible for genuine interactions with women on screen to be seen as non-threatening in hetero-normative, nationalist spaces as nationalism itself is an inherently masculinist construction (Nagel, p. 244). As such, the denial of feminity by butches is a blatant threat to dichotomous male hegemony. Nikolija as a publicly heterosexual, hyper-feminine individual is able to tease at the possibility of performed queerness, as this does not directly threaten established gender expectations in the Balkans. The “complexity and fluidity” of queer desire indeed threatens an “undoing” of the rigid socio-national boundaries put in place in Post-Yugoslav society (Bilić, 3). In some ways, Serbia is still a “resilient regime of discrimination”. By analyzing the faceted “biographies and social realities” of female artists such as Nikolija and Marija Šerifovíc, we can view intimate scales of human interaction as “emancipatory struggles against the state” in their own right (Bilić, 7).
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