Usually, I hate the Eurovision Song Contest.
I have a deep loathing of the trivial, and the Eurovision is nothing if not a shallow, never-ending quest to find the lowest common denominator. But something happening this time. It wasn’t just that Netta won spectacularly, but she did it in such a such a way that it made me, and many of my fellow Israelis, proud. For, unlike most Eurovision entries, her song had something to say. Whilst the words “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy,” lack a certain Shakespearean grandeur, they nonetheless make a point that is both important and topical, especially for girls. When the flamboyantly-attired Netta, in all her largeness, sang “I’m a beautiful creature,” she became a worthy role model for all those other beautiful creatures out there, some very young, and worrying about their less than perfect form.
There has been no shortage of female singers who have tried to spread the message of female empowerment. For a previous generation of young women, Madonna’s exploitation of her sexuality as a source of power, rather than a source of vulnerability, was a message that many girls and women could identify with. There was one problem with that; the body in question had to be perfect, achieved by endless sessions in the gym, dieting, makeup and costumes. As such, the role model remained distant and unachievable. Beyoncé, Rihanna and the rest continued in this vein; empowerment through the achievement of a totally impossible ideal of feminism. The Spice Girls, by contrast, deserve an honorable mention for their attempt at a girl-next-door image and their song “Wannabe,” about girls making the rules of their relationships, thus giving some substance to their signature slogan, “Girl Power.”
As the Eurovision judges’ votes came in and the tension mounted, it looked like the lithe Cypriot performer, Eleni Foureira, would win. My dismay at the possibility of a Cyprus victory was not fed by patriotic zeal (OK, that too), but by the fact that the singer’s perfect features were straight out of the Rihanna school of unachievable womanhood. By contrast, we had the Netta school of “I’m proud of my large body and I’m going to flaunt it” school of feminism. Suddenly, the competition became a battle not between the songs, but of the way we want our girls to feel about themselves.
It was reassuring that in the end, the cliffhanger around the judges’ voting proved to be an illusion, and the popular vote pushed Netta into a landslide victory. I like to think that there were many girls and women out there, who, in contrast to the committees of judges, identified with the “different” Netta. Despite Netta thanking the fans for voting for difference, what the voters were really celebrating was similarity — between them and her. The “difference” she referred-to was between her and the other divas.
In their defense, one could argue that Beyoncé et al at least promote a body image that is curvaceously healthy. Such could not be said for women who work as models and dancers.
Back in the ’80s, I worked as a cameraman for several of Israel’s dance companies. I heard harrowing accounts from one ballerina who had previously danced at the New York City ballet under the legendary choreographer, George Balanchine. She described how the dancers were required to remain dangerously thin, and how bulimia had become such a norm, that it was perfectly unremarkable for a dancer to absent herself to the restroom with the explanation. “Just going to throw up.”
The prevalence of eating disorders in the fashion industry is well documented, and there have been attempts in Israel and elsewhere to outlaw the use of underweight models. It is beyond my ability to understand why the problem will not go away.
So who actually thinks a dangerously thin woman is beautiful? Well, Victoria Beckham OBE, for one. The Spice Girl turned fashion designer has come under attack for her use of ultra-thin models. Girl Power? I think not.
As far as I’m concerned, Netta can take to the runway any day of the week. For once, let the fashion designers design clothes for a real woman.