This post originally appeared at ESC Insight before the final of Eurovision 2018.
The only thing about this year’s first Eurovision semi-final that makes me happier than Saara Aalto qualifying with ‘Monsters’ is that part of the fun of watching the Grand Final with my girlfriend on Saturday will be seeing its high-camp demonstration of queer and lesbian kitsch.
Saara Aalto and the team behind ‘Monsters’ – including her fellow songwriters Joy Deb, Linnea Deb and Ki Fitzgerald, plus UK X Factor choreographer Brian Friedman – are tapping into what are now decades-long traditions of looks and images that queer stars and their audiences have built up together. Queer kitsch turns metaphors for LGBTQ people’s own experiences of marginalisation into riotous, transgressive and, yes, sexy performance and style; it deliberately blurs symbols of different genders together, and dresses bodies in exaggerated versions of powerful outfits that the majority straight world historically hasn’t given them the right to wear – often, in fact, it dresses them in symbols of the very institutions that have oppressed them in the name of the very nations where they have been told they don’t belong.
Most queer people – except the youngest and most fortunate – have grown up learning their queerness was something to be feared before they found out it could also be something to enjoy. Queer kitsch and drag tell stories of isolation and confusion, finding an identity and a community, and revelling in style that puts its hidden meanings about queer desire on show to onlookers who know the code.
Arguably the Eurovision Song Contest’s most iconic entries have reflected this very tradition back to queer viewers through the aesthetics of drag culture, like Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ and Dana International’s ‘Diva’, and lesbian camp, like Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’. In performance, Conchita (a bearded drag queen played by a cisgender gay Austrian man), Dana International (a trans woman who built her pop career in Tel Aviv’s gay clubs), and Šerifović (whose masculine gender expression made many viewers see her as lesbian or queer even before she came out in 2013), all let queer viewers recognise metaphors for experiences of their own and identify with the character that their songs portray.
Straight viewers see a spectacle of what they think queer culture is, if enough of the references are ‘legible’ to them as queer, or see an uplifting song about triumph over adversity even if they don’t.
Saara Aalto, a lesbian pop diva who’s attending Eurovision with her fiancée Meri Sopanen (my happy sigh on seeing Saara and Meri beside each other in the green room, waiting for the Semi Final result, should probably have been audible from space), goes deep into the thematic wardrobe of queer kitsch.
Monsters themselves, as Lady Gaga reminded pop fans by casting herself as ‘Mother Monster’ to her audience of ‘Little Monsters’, are a powerful queer symbol. When society, school, church, media, and sometimes even family have told you you’re essentially a monster because of who you’re attracted to, how you’re attracted to them or how you want your body to reflect your gender, wouldn’t you want to take the image of the monster back and transform it into something that represents what you are… or join precisely that thrilling, scary community beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ that you’re supposed to be so scared of, and, as Saara puts it, make friends with all the creatures that are hiding there under your bed?
‘Monsters’ stepped up its aim at Gaga’s throne with a video, released in March, that put some of the queer English-speaking internet’s favourite tropes on show: Drag Race boas, pastel make-up, glitter beards, a Last Supper-style feast that wouldn’t have been out of place at this year’s Catholic-iconography-themed Met Gala, and a diva and her entourage strutting through a spooky palatial house with the same kind of swagger as ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’.
Since Eurovision preview videos are something made to be shown in every country that will broadcast the contest, viewers might even take a perverse pleasure in imagining how far it might annoy LGBTQ-phobic religious nationalists (who, whatever Eurovision fan geopolitics might sometimes suggest, certainly aren’t confined to Russia).
Queer kitsch inspired by the drag scene is Saara’s speciality, from her runner-up Finnish national final performance in 2016 to stepping naturally into UK X Factor’s diva slot in 2017, when producers matched her with ever more ambitious staging concepts that could each have graced Eurovision themselves (including a tantalisingly gothic ‘Let It Go’, set in a forest of gargoyles when it wasn’t even Halloween).
Indeed, the X-Factor-sized expectations around Saara’s live show made ‘Monsters’ go into the semi-final shadowed by the ghosts of Silvia Night’s ‘Congratulations’, the shock exit of 2006, and other high-concept diva crash-outs from Eurovision’s past.
‘Monsters’, competing for attention in the favourites division with Eleni Foureira’s Beyoncé-style fire magic and Elina Nechayeva’s opera vocals and projection dress, gambles its first minute on semi-darkness and Saara singing from a revolving board. It’s on the last line of the chorus, ‘I ain’t scared no more!’ when the lights go up, Saara hits the catwalk, and we meet her entourage of dancers – two men in glamorous eye make-up and two women with short blonde hair, all dressed in light grey outfits with fetish-style harnesses that look remarkably like uniform.
Like ‘Molitva’, this is choreography that rewards a viewer looking for detail – and especially a viewer who’s already used to picking up the signals of queer aesthetics, or what media scholars would call a ‘queer gaze’.
Histories of not being able to express attraction openly make the smallest gestures and glances speak volumes when you’re queer. Though men accompany Saara’s transitions across the stage (helping her down from the board, walking her along the catwalk, and catching her when she falls backwards and – well – lets it go), the real chemistry is between Saara and the women – never more than when Saara waggles her fingers at the woman with the slicked-back hair, who gazes invitingly round as Saara passes by.
The viewer who’ll recognise herself most of all in that move has glanced like that at another woman herself, or felt a glance like that touch her own shoulder, or just longed to feel it from a woman she desires even if that makes her a monster in society’s eyes. We might even be telling ourselves enough of a story to notice that the woman with the tight blonde crop hardly gets a look-in with Saara by comparison – or read a sexual preference into the moment when the women dancers each push away a man.
The dancers’ high black boots, long gloves and leather harnesses are the latest example of how queer fashion has brought fetish style and dominatrix chic into the mainstream (gay figure-skating star Adam Rippon wore a similar harness over his tuxedo to the Oscars this year). Military uniforms have long been inspirations for the interdependent scenes of BDSM culture and queer fashion as well, dating back to the 1970s and 80s when almost all countries banned LGBTQ people from serving in the military – so that, as far as straight and cis society was concerned, queer people would never be wearing uniform ‘for real’.
But what’s troubled some viewers – especially at a time when racist populism is gaining political power across Europe, including Finland where the far-right Finns Party joined government for the first time in 2017 (and a group of ex-Finns Party MPs are still there) – is that the military chic of Saara’s entourage looked uncomfortably close to something that should have no place at all being celebrated at Eurovision: the grey uniforms of the SS.
From a Finnish point of view, there’s an easy explanation for why the dancers might have been dressed in grey rather than olive-green or camouflage, which might have communicated the broad idea of ‘military’ more directly to an international audience: the Finnish army’s service uniforms, unusually, are grey. Green might have distracted from the black-and-white stage (Saara wears a black dress and the bone-like neckpiece from the ‘Monsters’ video); or maybe they didn’t even want it to look too obviously military after all.
The military, as a social institution that historically repressed queer people but also as an object of erotic fantasy, has long inspired queer fashion and drag. Among the performance categories that US queer and trans people of colour created through drag balls long before a wider, whiter audience encountered the ball scene’s language through the 1990 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ (or ‘Drag Race’ today) is ‘military realness’. For a contemporary pop star serving military realness, look no further than Rihanna, whose 2009 video ‘Hard’ (pun very much intended) dressed Rihanna with a ‘couture military’ outfit for what felt like every rank in the army, plus a few left over from ‘Mad Max’.
Rihanna, however, is a black woman who was born in the Caribbean and works in the USA. Queer military chic is much easier to read as potentially celebrating, rather than subverting, military and fascist aesthetics when it’s on the bodies of white performers – even more so if they match the Nordic and Aryan ideals of beauty that white supremacists still venerate today. Popular culture has contained an image of the Nazi dominatrix since the exploitation films of the 1970s, part of a trend that Susan Sontag criticised as ‘Fascinating Fascism’ at the time.
Queer photographers, film-makers and theorists have often tried to work through the overlap of homoerotic and fascist aesthetics in their art and writing, creating a context – for spectators who are part of that cultural community – that isn’t immediately present when transgressive and fetishistic queer kitsch goes mainstream. Understandably, for some viewers, a light grey uniform feels too close to reality to dress up: Europe’s 20th-century history collides awkwardly with queer kitsch’s playful treatment of military chic.
Indeed, the militaristic and fetish-inspired strand of queer style owes much to Finland in the first place. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the artist Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen) created drawings of super-muscled, hugely-endowed bikers, cops, soldiers, sailors, cowboys and other fantasy figures which became a sensation on the US gay scene. Dome Karukoski’s biopic ‘Tom of Finland’ retold Laaksonen’s story in 2017, setting it in the context of Laaksonen’s own sexual experiences and fantasies in Nazi-occupied Finland during the Second World War – and the homophobic violence the film shows him receiving from police who caught him having public sex.
The narrative of Finland’s own progress from state homophobia and a repressive society towards marriage equality – which doesn’t solve the other ways in which society marginalises LGBTQ people, especially queer and trans people of colour, but still changes the shape of what many queer people can expect their life stories and love stories to be – has been told at Eurovision before, when Krista Siegfrids used her 2013 song ‘Marry Me’ to campaign for Finnish MPs to allow a vote on a marriage equality bill and finished by kissing one of her women backing singers on stage.
Finland, ‘Monsters’ wants to show us again, is an open-minded, tolerant enough country for this to be the face that the nation shows Europe – and perhaps also the country that helped make some queer subcultures on both sides of the Atlantic want to dress up in uniforms and chains.
Indeed, the context of the Eurovision Song Contest asks viewers to join in the fun of interpreting performances and the people who perform them as representations of the whole nation they’re competing for, even when some of the people on stage aren’t usually part of that national community (a growing cadre of backing vocalists have worked with different national delegations over the years – and sometimes become Eurovision featured acts themselves, like the UK’s SuRie, part of the Belgian team in 2015 and 2017). The two men beside Saara, Yves Cueni and Kane Horn, are both London-based dancers and models who have danced for talent shows and divas’ pop concerts in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. On stage, they still help to tell a story about a queer-friendly and multicultural Finnish nation – the Finland, and the Europe, that many Eurovision viewers would like to imagine it could be.
Both the monster metaphor and queer transformations of military chic are potentially risky elements of queer aesthetics to put on stage for an audience that brings such diverse contexts to making sense of Eurovision. Yet even that tension probably resonates with many queer women’s lived experience of how they want to present themselves to the world and how the world sees them – certainly, I recognise it intimately enough that watching ‘Monsters’ makes me feel as if the creators behind it recognise it too.
It doesn’t make ‘Monsters’ any ‘more’ queer than other LGBTQ-themed entries at Eurovision because Saara is out and able to appear with her fiancée in the green room, preparing to exercise marriage rights that Krista Siegfrids used Eurovision to campaign for in 2013: but it might just be the one that feels most like my own history of what it’s been like to be queer.