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Gendered Divadom: Hyperfemininity, Sponzorušas, and Artifice in Balkan Turbo-Folk
by McKenna Gessner
by McKenna Gessner
6 May 2019
“Popular music is often the central cultural domain within which such discursive struggles take place…One such struggle takes place around the Balkan musical genre of turbo folk” (37)
From its roots in neo-folk, the turbo-folk movement emerged in a time of chaos and uncertainty in the post-socialist Balkan region. Crossing borders and amalgamating identities in its production of a “shared culture” (Cvoro 124), turbo-folk incorporates both rural and urban elements through its merging of traditional Balkan folk music styles with techno beats and frequent portrayals of club culture. In many ways, turbo-folk functioned as a means to dissociate, instilling a sense of escape and dream-like fantasy amidst unrest and nationalist conflict throughout the Balkan region. Following the rise in popularity of Balkan turbo-folk in the 1990s, many critics contended that Balkan divas’ performances upheld rigid gender structures and promoted values of consumption, beauty, and nationalism (Jelača 38). In their work examining the production of gender in turbo-folk, Zala Volčič and Karmen Erjavec describe a triad of characteristics among turbo-folk divas: “beauty, rural origins, and urban style” (39). While there is mounting evidence that turbo-folk represents a hybrid of rural and urban styles and emphasizes aspirational beauty in its lyrical and visual content, not all depictions of beauty in turbo-folk music can be read as complacent with normative femininity. Some contemporary scholars like Jelača are attempting to understand turbo-folk divas as transgressive figures, interpreting their work as a threat to patriarchal gender norms rather than simply a reification of them. Exemplified by the music videos and lyrics of turbo-folk artists like Ceca, Jelena Karleuša, and Nikolija, turbo-folk challenges normative notions of gender and female sexuality through themes of hyperfemininity, sexual agency, and female empowerment. As a result, turbo-folk not only participates in the construction of womanhood, but also its deconstruction.
Turbo-folk content subverts gender norms in its representation of gender through the use of hyperfemininity. One of the prominent characteristics of turbo-folk music videos are the deliberately exaggerated portrayals of female divas, offering the audience an overly-constructed version of the women. Jelena Karleuša (JK), a contentious figure in turbo-folk, represents a prime example of this exaggerated womanhood. In the 2005 music video “Upravo ostavljena,” JK’s appearance and movements demonstrates her particular brand of absurd hyperfemininity. Disorienting visuals and choppy body movements characterize the video as scattered and somewhat disturbing. The video begins with a flash of JK appearing in leather and tattoos in one shot and decked out in Marilyn Monroe aesthetics in another. Later, ballerina dancers are juxtaposed with glowing lights and rapid dance movements, which only heightens the oddity. One recurring shot features JK completely clothed, holding a book that appears to be the Bible and placed next to two half-naked men. At the end of the video, JK is displayed on a cross—here, she is not the revered Virgin Mary, but instead a female portrayal of Jesus Christ. In this music video performance, JK manipulates and transforms her femininity in a way that subverts patriarchal gender norms, recreating herself as a threatening subject rather than a demure object while still maintaining high femme aesthetics. By employing this gender performance, JK as a turbo-folk diva subverts the male gaze and overturns notions of womanhood as male desire. A hyperfeminine JK deliberately flaunts artifice and inauthenticity in a way that Jelača finds to be full of transgressive feminist potential (44), posing a challenge to the hegemony of patriarchal gender norms. Embracement of this “hyper-feminine drag” (Jelača 47) can help to dismantle patriarchal gender norms by calling into question restrictive definitions of womanhood and feminity. In this regard, JK’s exaggerated, synthetic femininity sheds light on the construction of the post-socialist Balkan woman. In doing so, it “occasionally undoes, or makes visible, some of that power’s most implicit structures” (Jelača 47).
Another example by perhaps one of the most prolific Balkan turbo-folk icons also toys with gender performance. In her 1995 music video “Nije Monotonija,” Ceca lays adjacent to a tiger cub. This scene is rich in symbolic imagery, given that in the same year she married Arkan, an infamous Serbian criminal who commanded a paramilitary force colloquially known as “the Tigers” (Volcic 40). In the video, she lovingly pets the tiger, and the viewer catches a maternal, soft glimpse of Ceca before her eyes look directly into the camera in a dangerous, powerful gaze.
This video demonstrates one example of the ways in which “many of the biggest turbofolk divas are simultaneously hyperfeminine and hypermasculine: they’re dominant, uncompromising personalities that overtly wield sexual and social power on screen and stage” (Eurovicious). Fittingly, Ceca dances the line between submissive and dominant femininity just as in real life she somewhat successfully claims an apolitical identity while being complicit in her husband’s nationalism and war crimes (Volcic 41).
Turbo-folk content also grants sexual agency to divas, with radical portrayals of female sexuality and autonomy. In Jelača’s analysis of what she deems “feminine libidinal entrepreneurship” (38), she recalls common readings of turbo-folk as patriarchal and criticizes this reception of turbo-folk as dismissive (Jelača 38). While much of the criticism of turbo-folk stems from its reliance and propagation of the figure of the sponzoruša, or the gold-digging ‘sponsored woman,’ featuring this motif also draws attention to women’s marginalized socioeconomic positions within the patriarchal order. This particular cultural archetype of womanhood is recalled each time a turbo-folk diva employs her sexuality as a tool for wealth-accumulation (Jelača 39). The sexual nature of performances by prominent turbo-folk stars demonstrate these characteristics.
For example, in “Nije Monotonija,” Ceca embodies the disruptive nature of female sexual agency. For this particular video, Ceca has striking makeup and long red nails, wearing lingerie and moving in deliberately sensual and provocative ways throughout the video. Ceca’s repetitive gestures feature her curves prominently. The first shots in the video focus the audience’s attention to several discrete locations on her body, zooming in on her hips in one shot, depicting her bent over with her back to the camera in another. In her analysis, Jelača notes that “the panning camera concentrates only on women’s body parts instead of bodies as wholes…This visual challenge to the wholeness of bodily integrity, its dissection, if you will, coupled with the identitarian unoriginality and unnaturalness of the performers illustrates an unnerving challenge to the integrity of gender, libido, and identity” (47-48). The video clearly emphasizes a woman with sexual agency, but the video focuses less on sexual partnership and more on Ceca as a willing promoter of sexual self-objectification. In this regard, the aspirations of the sponzoruša can be understood as a feminist pursuit, “deploying her libido as a tool for upward mobility” (49). This notion of “feminine libidinal entrepreneurship” (Jelača 38) sheds light on the economic precariousness of womanhood and grants turbo-folk divas the autonomy to be sexual agents for their own gain.
In addition to the promotion of sexual agency, turbo-folk incorporates components of female empowerment through lyrics and visuals that encourage female comradery and female relationships. For example, in JK’s “Upravo ostavljena” she sings about a recent breakup, chanting “Now there’s no one who will destroy your mood / And you will have more place for your own stuff” (“Upravo Ostavljena Lyrics”). She speaks directly to the listener, pleading “Don’t cry girl / Love will come by itself” (“Upravo Ostavljena Lyrics”). Here, JK frames the loss of a significant other as a burden that has been lifted, overturning traditional notions of romance and idealized love affairs. Moreover, by calling out to her turbo-folk audience, she promotes a community of emotional support. Another example of female empowerment is Nikolija’s “Ćao zdravo.” Much like JK’s “Upravo ostavljena,” in “Ćao zdravo,” women enter the frame dressed in leather headgear and body tattoos. The positioning of the six women around Nikolija represent a ‘girl gang’ of sorts, with Nikolija as the center ostensibly sitting on a throne.
As the women begin to dance with chains and masks, the video turns into what appears to be a lesbian fantasy, with Nikolija holding the literal and symbolic chain leashes. With furrowed brow, Nikolija shouts the lyrics, staring directly into the camera with striking aggression. In their series on turbo-folk in the Balkanist, Eurovicious describes the video as “threatening,” with Nikolija as an “unsmiling and unglamorous,” “aggressive” character, qualifying that “This is what’s so great about Serbia’s divas – they’re not afraid to be scary” (Eurovicious). In addition to the visibility that this video gives to female relationships, whether that be a platonic girl gang or a sexual lesbian partnership, Nikolija also represents an unapologetically empowered woman.
The turbo-folk content examined here suggests a strong potential for turbo-folk divas to subvert gender norms and promote female empowerment in their work. Showcasing artificial, performative hyperfemininity, such as in JK’s performances, can help undermine the systems that grant authenticity to certain kinds of womanhood. Moreover, while turbo-folk divas are routinely sexualized, their consensual self-objectification in the name of entrepreneurship is a locus of female sexual agency. These divas draw attention to the conditions in society that make women like them economically vulnerable in the first place. Building on the work of scholars like Dijana Jelača, future research should pay special attention to the transgressive nature of turbo-folk content and examine the implications of such content in the Balkan context. Analyses of gender in turbo-folk could also be extended to other realms of Balkan cultural production in order to better understand the sources that shape the (de)construction of womanhood.
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