When Conchita Wurst, the carefully designed and meticulously planned stage persona of the Austrian artist Tom Neuwirth, won the 2014 European Song Contest with his song Rise Like A Phoenix, a majority of people simply enjoyed the power of music and a performance that most impressively managed to deceive the eye and blur common male/female gender divisions.
Everything about Conchita Wurst’s stage appearance suggests ‘female’: an immaculately groomed, angelic face, long hair, diva-esque attire, alluring body movement, the name, and, of course, the voice. Yet, this face comes with a beard (again, immaculately groomed), revealing the artist’s actual gender –providing a visible, constant element of disturbance to the artifice (an aspect that, remarkably enough, has resulted in some debate over the ‘correct’ iconography of drag queens even in LGBT circles).
A bearded man. Female appearance and attire. A beautiful voice. There is absolutely nothing unsettling about any of these features. If they appear individually.
Yet, when combined, one can be certain that some narrow-minded dunce will come along and decry the end of Western civilisation as we know it. (George Carlin said it best: ‘some people are really f—ing stupid!’)
Of course, one could argue that a civilisation that was both horrendous enough to invent, and resilient enough to survive witch burnings, the Spanish inquisition, two world wars, and even the holocaust, yet is likely to fall due to the success of a man in drag in a song competition, may not actually be entitled to survival – after all, Darwin made a case for the survival of the fittest, not the survival of the twittest.
Chances are, however, that Western culture will survive.
Perhaps it will even become a slightly better, more advanced, more inclusive, more open-minded civilisation still – a civilisation that eventually moves on from perceiving a gender-blurred art performance as a threat to its nauseating cult of masculinity; a civilisation that moves on to become a society in which masculinity never again has to be asserted by anyone posing publicly as pharmaceutically enhanced and chemically preserved half nude, displaying a yearning for his lost youth, subjecting men, women, and animals equally to wanton acts of cruelty.
Too unrealistic? Too esoteric? Too religious?
Yet, there is something deeply religious, something deeply spiritual about Conchita Wurst’s appearance, and this may well add to the ways in which one responds to her persona.
A lot has been written about the self-chosen surname of Conchita Wurst. Not so much about the first name. Conchita, a diminutive form of Concha, short for the Spanish name ‘(Immaculada) Concepción‘, immaculate conception – commemorating Christian dogma regarding the birth of Mary, the saviour’s mother, according to Christian faith. (This is not the story, mind, that the artist tells when asked about the origins of his name.)
The very face of Conchita Wurst, too, as has been observed by others before, is styled closely to resemble the iconography of Jesus Christ.
The religious connotations stretch beyond the Judaeo-Christian context, however. The sexual allure, including the fantasies that result from blurring gender distinctions, is something that had already been conceptualised by non-Christian cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
This is true far beyond the realm of show business (where female roles, in Classical times, were typically played by males). Macrobius, for example, reports the existence of a sanctuary on Aphrodite-Venus’s birth island of Cyprus displaying a statue of her with blurred gender lines (Macr. sat. 3.8.2–3, transl. R. A. Kaster):
Signum etiam eius est Cypri barbatum corpore, sed veste muliebri, cum sceptro ac natura virili: et putant eandem marem ac feminam esse. Aristophanes eam Ἀφρόδιτον appellat. Laevius etiam sic ait:
Venerem igitur almum adorans
si femina sive mas est,
ita uti alma Noctiluca est.
Philochorus quoque in Atthide eandem adfirmat esse lunam, et ei sacrificium facere viros cum veste muliebri, mulieres cum virili, quod eadem et mas aestimatur et femina.
There’s also a statue of Venus on Cyprus, that’s bearded, shaped and dressed like a woman, with scepter and male genitals, and they conceive her as both male and female. Aristophaness calls her Aphroditus, and Laevius says:
Worshiping, then, the nurturing god Venus,
whether she is male or female,
just as the Moon is a nurturing goddess.
In his Atthis, Philochorus, too, states that she is the Moon and that men sacrifice to her in women’s dress, women in men’s, because she is held to be both male and female.
A similar report of the cult statue of a Venus Barbata is reported in Servius’ commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid (at. 2.623) and other places in ancient literature, and there is significant evidence for gender-ambiguous deities in the ancient world – yet it may well be the love goddess herself (who also often appears in androgynous shapes) who is the most intriguing, blurring and removing boundaries in an area in which gender, gender preference, and gender assignment would appear to play a role of great importance.
It is little wonder that such ambiguity, perceived as irrationally threatening by some, has become part of religious worship: as Rudolf Otto has shown, the tremendum (tremble- or fear-inducing) in a mystery is one of the two central aspects that inextricably linked to the wider notion of ‘the holy’. The second one according to Otto, is the fascinans, the fascinating, the innate quality that attracts our gaze and forces us to watch.
If this is something that could happen and that could be displayed and even worshipped in societies that had much clearer defined gender roles than our own, then, one would hope, this need not be a problem now.
Unless, of course, one wishes to turn it into one, for one’s own sinister political or commercial purposes.