Israel’s Controversial Eurovision Win Highlights Need for Intersectional Thinking

Netta at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest

This year’s Eurovision Song Contest was as wild a ride as ever. From the Danish entry drawing comparisons to the White Walkers of Game of Thrones, to many an IKEA reference at Moldova’s fun and colourful staging, the swinging from “deadly serious” to “camp and kitsch” had audiences and Twitter live-tweeters whiplashing over their prosecco and cackling with delight.

As the evening drew to a close, however, and Israel’s entry TOY, performed by Netta Barzilai, started to pull ahead of the other acts, the tone of the watching audiences started to divide. Most viewers acknowledged the troublesome nature of celebrating a nation whose conflict with Palestine has been painful, oppressive and deeply violent towards its enemy. Some people argued that Israel’s human rights history shouldn’t be a factor in enjoying the song itself (which is arguably a bop).

“Many fat women felt an instant burst of joy that we had representation singing just for us… but then the flash wore off after a few seconds and I realised something.”

On my own Twitter feed, the overwhelming initial response to Netta’s eventual win, was one of celebration in seeing a talented fat woman thriving on stage while singing “Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature,” and “I’m not your toy / Stupid boy.” And there is no denying that this is a powerful statement for a fat woman to make on one of the biggest platforms in the world. With Netta’s vivacity shining bright, and her lyrics telling us that she was beautiful, desirable and not taking any shit from anyone, many fat women felt an instant burst of joy that we had representation singing just for us.

Watching her performance, that was certainly my first thought too. I even tweeted a since-deleted exclamation about it. But then the flash wore off after a few seconds and I realised something – Netta was performing in a kimono, with buns in her hair, in front of a wall of waving Lucky Cats.

There are a few factual facts I want to lay out before I go any further:

  • There is nothing in the song which is affiliated with Japan or Japanese culture
  • Netta Barzilai is not of Japanese heritage
  • Israel is on the Asian continent, but is not part of Japan (we know, this, right?)

After the win was announced my feed was initially full of (mostly white) people celebrating the representation. But for me, a fat Asian woman, I couldn’t celebrate. The song is fine, the fatness is great, and there are also troublesome aspects of Netta’s performance and win on other levels.

Intersectionality (a term introduced and explored by Kimberlé Crenshaw, to speak about how structural oppression applies to the social identities of Black women, who exist within two different marginalised groups), has expanded as a concept in recent years to highlight how there is no single blanket experience that encompasses the realities of one social group. My lived experience as a fat Asian woman can never be the same as the experiences of a disabled woman, or a non-binary Black person. There is no universal umbrella under which all minorities live. Netta may be chubby, but she was also appropriating a culture to which she had no ties and no rights.  

I’m happy to say that my pointing this out on Twitter led to many people contacting me, both privately and publicly, to acknowledge how problematic the performance was. I’m really grateful that there are so many people in my online circle who genuinely want to learn and recognise their privileges. I was also, much to my chagrin, featured in Buzzfeed and Unilad articles which drew attention from people seeking to erase my concern, silence me, and troll me in general. A few days later, someone I had thought to be a friend accused me of behaving like “the sole arbiter of what’s acceptable on Twitter.”

“The issue with pointing out problematic behaviour is usually that it involves highlighting said behaviour to a person who has privilege in this scenario.”

Of course, it isn’t solely white people that can be accused of appropriating other cultures.  East Asian cultural traditions are often viewed as exotic and desirable, and stereotypical imagery can be seen across the media – just this past weekend, Nicki Minaj has been criticised for wearing a cheongsam (a traditional East Asian dress), and chopsticks in her hair, in a performance on SNL. This again highlights the need for intersectional thinking – Minaj, a Black woman, is being readily lampooned for her performance, and meanwhile a white teenager who wore a cheongsam to the prom has had so much public defence that she feels empowered to say that she would do it again.

Sadly, the issue with pointing out problematic behaviour is usually that it involves highlighting said behaviour to a person who has privilege in this scenario. The people who were celebrating Netta’s Eurovision win in the first instance were invariably white – and therefore benefitted from not having to think about the cultural appropriation. Acknowledging privilege is often an uncomfortable experience — one that many find so difficult to do that they will resort to denial at best, or ad hominem attacks at worst. When faced with this sort of resistance, minority people can often find the thought of speaking up to be an anxious one, and understandably so.

The truth is, we shouldn’t have to keep asking people to think twice about the intersections of experiences that they might be navigating, but it’s a long and difficult process to change generations of learned behaviours. What we all can do, is listen to minorities, accept that we are not always perfect and not always right, and try to take these lessons forward. Creating an atmosphere where minorities can celebrate their diverse backgrounds without fear of them being co-opted as a costume, will hopefully lead to a culture where we can all appreciate each others’ heritage in a more nuanced and sensitive way.

And if you want to co-opt my culture or show your appreciation for it, you can totally find better symbols to use than the Lucky Cat, guys.

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