Whether you love it, hate it, or don’t know what to make of it, it’s hard to deny that We Are Slavic made an impression. It’s a performance that sparked countless thought pieces in the press; Is it sexist? Is it pornographic? Is it racist? Is it all a joke we’re taking too seriously? While some were working through their reactions in print, a number of groups decided to respond to the video in kind – making their own versions of We Are Slavic. Here we explore the second life of the controversial video and ask what happens when bodybuilders, high schoolers, gravediggers, drag queens, and firemen become “Slavic Girls.”
Why all the fuss?
My, Słowianie (translated “We Are Slavic” or “Slavic Girls,” literally “Us, Slavs”) is collaboration between Polish producer Donatan and singer Cleo that debuted on YouTube November 4, 2013. The video, featuring Cleo performing the tune surrounded by women dressed in what might be described as a stereotypical male fantasy of traditional folk costumes, is certainly…memorable.
Read more about how Polish folk costumes ACTUALLY look.
If you’re one of the over 50 million people who have watched the video, chances are you remember it. If not, the scene opens with Donatan awaking in bed, accompanied by two women. He starts the day by blowing into a huntsman’s horn – that he, conveniently, keeps in bed – and the clip moves to Cleo performing in her “updated” folk costume. The video intersperses Cleo’s performance with scenes of women (including model Luxuria Astaroth) seductively churning butter, kneading bread, washing clothes, and drinking milk (an activity with which they evidently struggle, as the white liquid suggestively runs down their chins).
What kind of song could possibly warrant this visual treatment, you ask? Well, a sampling of the lyrics gives you an idea,
We are Slavic, we know how it is
We like to shake what mama gave us in our genes
This hot blood, this is our Slavic call
We’re Slavic girls, we know how to use our charming beauty
Now shake what your mama gave ya!
This is our Slavic blood, this is the beauty and grace
We have what no one else
We like that natural shape
Vodka is better than whisky and gin
The best in us whatever you want
Girls grown up on country cream
Fresh as Polish bread
No better than our Slavic girls
Whose seen and tried, he knows!
Well, their “natural shape” is certainly on display. Perhaps too much so?
We Are Slavic drew criticism for a number of reasons. In An Open Letter to the Author of Slavic Girls, culture.pl’s Filip Lech points out the problematic vision of “Slavic-ness” portrayed in the song, as well as almost pornographic images of women seductively wiping cream from their faces. Lech is not the only critic to underscore these issues. Donantan has been criticized elsewhere for promoting an exclusive vision of Slavic-ness and objectifying women in his videos.
While some of the video’s views may have come from concerned citizens, it’s not hard to imagine that many tuned in and enjoyed the raunchy (and catchy) clip. One could even argue that in its over the top production, We Are Slavic exposes the ridiculousness often overlooked in music videos and the popular imagination of Slavic women. Many who defend the video suggest that critics are taking everything too seriously and just “don’t get it.” While Donatan’s comments in the press suggest that he truly believes in his image of a natural, sensual “Slavic-ness,” defenders of the video point to the “disclaimer” that precedes it, presented in the accelerated speech characteristic of side effect warnings in pharmaceutical commercials. But can it excuse everything?
If you have problems with a sense of humor and keeping a healthy distance from the world, or you suffer from hypertension or senility, don’t watch this video. In any other case, before playing the clip, familiarize yourself with the meaning of the world “irony” and contact your doctor or pharmacist, for misunderstanding of this video many cause health problems or death.
“Two Boobs Too Far”
Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the controversy, We Are Slavic was selected to represented Poland in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. The live performance of the song blended the original Polish with the English translation and maintained the visual elements of busty women churning butter. As was the case with the music video, this live performance garnered mixed reviews. Making it through to the finals of the competition, We Are Slavic finished the competition in 14th place (of twenty-six).
In a contest where each song is awarded points based on public voting (50%) and the scores of a panel of judges (50%), the fate of We Are Slavic in the United Kingdom illustrates the characteristic mixed reactions to the piece. Though it won the popular vote among UK citizens, the song failed to receive points from the UK, for it came in last among the judges. Laura Wright, a soprano serving as a UK judge, commented,
It took away from what the contest is about. I’d say it was soft porn. It was two boobs too far for me. It’s obvious why their performance has gone down well, but that makes me really sad from a woman’s perspective.
Wright’s statement echoes the debates that have swirled around the song since it burst onto the scene – it’s borderline pornographic. It’s deeply troubling from a woman’s perspective. And despite it all…sex, undeniably, sells.
When Slavic Girls become Slavic Men
Less than a month after We Are Slavic was posted (and many millions of views later), Poland’s V-Unit released one of the most viewed parodies of the video. Watched over eight million times, their video – We Are Slavic– Parody (Men’s Answer) – sets new lyrics over the original’s catchy tune. Gone, however, are the buxom women and idyllic setting of Donatan-Cleo’s video. The “men’s answer” is set largely in a gym and urban streets and is performed by the men of V-Unit.
V-Unit (a group whose tongue-in-cheek description of their genre as “Gangsta Rap! Ultra Hard Street Rap! Yodeling!” gives you an idea of their character) opens their music video with a disclaimer similar to that of Donatan-Cleo, though without the cutting suggestion for those who are not amused to get a sense of humor.
This song is not intended to offend anyone; it is purely humorous and satirical.
From there, the clip moves to the group of five, track suit clad men performing their version of the song. Rather than cutting away to scenes of butter churning and bread kneading, the …Men’s Answer features scenes of bodybuilders in the gym and the men of V-Unit acting out the lyrics of their verses. The sexualized display of the female body is replaced with muscled men – posing, flexing, and playing to the camera. Of these “Slavic men,” V-Unit raps,
We Slavs know how vodka affects us
I always eat everything my mom puts on the plate
This is the turbulent blood
This is the call to brawl
We Slavs know how to sculpt our bodies
Blood full of testosterone
Strength, weight, and crafty bluff […]
We do what no one else does
Stealing cars from all over the world
In this parodic vision of masculinity, we’re presented with an image of a man who postures in the gym, brawls on the streets, steals your car, but also doesn’t dare upset his mother. Is this what “Slavic men” are really like? Obviously not. No more than “Slavic girls” resemble anything of the hyper-sexualized and domesticated image depicted in the Donatan-Cleo video. So should we read both of these videos as critical of the very national stereotypes and gender identities they enact?
Should V-Unit make us laugh? Make us think? Probably, both.
The Polish cabaret group Skeczów Męczących delightfully brought a bit of the macabre to We Are Slavic with their May 2014 parody video, Us, Gravediggers (which has over two million views). Rather than opening on a scene of awaking in the morning, Us, Gravediggers begins with a man apparently rising from the dead. The opening chorus offers a glimpse at the sense of humor Skeczów Męczących bring to the song,
We gravediggers arrive when you do not work
When you do not move what your mama gave you
This is our cold blood
This is our cemetery shape
At the center of this performance are the men of the group, dressed as gravediggers and looking rather less than seductive (unless pole dancing on a shovel is your thing). Comically evoking other elements of the original video, Kabaret Skeczów Męczących “sensually” dig graves, drip (or pour) water down their chins, and dance surrounded by a group of middle-aged women dressed in folk costumes. Like the V-Unit parody, Kabaret Skeczów Męczących’s video uses the images of We Are Slavic– taking them in obviously absurd directions for comic effect. Again, perhaps this can make us think about the absurdity of the portrayal of “Slavic girls” in the original – while, of course, bringing a smile our faces.
A Siren Song – The Firefighters’ Response
Parody videos have not only reimagined “Slavic girls” as gravediggers, but also as firefighters. At the end of 2013, the Fire Station of Szopienice posed their response, We Are Slavic– Parody (Firefighters’ Response), which has since been viewed over two million times. Much as the women of the original donned the costumes of “Slavic girls,” the firefighters in this video are dressed in their own “traditional” costume – full fire suits and helmets. Dancing in front of the fire truck and posing with the tools of their trade, the firefighters perform their own lyrics over the original track.
We know how to fire up the beasts, the acoustic fritz
This is the fireman’s blood, this is the siren sound […]
We know how to enter, and not to drop
This is the burning blood, this is the call
Here, “hot Slavic blood” – quite literally – heats up.
Donatan-Cleo Goes to School
Given the controversial lyrics and video for We Are Slavic, it is perhaps not a natural choice as the focus of a school wide project. The students of Juliusz Słowacki High in Chorzow, however, have created their own version of the tune and video. With over 200,000 views, this impressive student adaptation explores “how the school works on them” and borrows elements from the original. The familiar hand claps, the seductive poses, dancing in circle – they’re all there, but now made explicitly playful as enacted by high school students. With lyrics like “this is our ‘Slowacki’ blood, this is our intelligence…” We Are Slavic begins to read like a slightly juvenile anthem of exclusivity – and perhaps that’s all it has ever been?
Kim Lee in National Drag
One of the most recent – and most provocative – versions of We Are Slavic was released on June 26, 2014. Promoted by the left leaning Krytyka Polityczna, the video features Kim Lee, a Polish drag queen from Hanoi, Vietnam, in the central role. Neither typically “Slavic,” nor typically “girl,” Lee’s performance challenges the image of “Slavic girls” put forth in the original We Are Slavic.
The clip, directed by Małgorzata Suwała and produced by Jaś Kapela, features Lee performing to a cover of the track recorded by Justyna Jary. While not the extravagant production the original is, the Kim Lee video features her dressed in a similarly “folk” costume, frolicking in the fields.
American scholar Jodi Greig notes that while drag performances highlight that there is no “essential” gender (rather a series of imitative acts that we recognize and think of as “gender”), Lee’s We Are Slavic also highlights the constructed nature of ethno-national belonging. Here Lee also "performs" Slavic-ness, thus exposing the degree to which such an identity is imagined.
Distilling the value of Lee’s performance in the context of Donatan’s troubling views on gender and nationality, Greig comments,
Donatan, in his abhorrent, transphobic remarks at Eurovision, juxtaposed “our healthy girls” with [Austria’s winning performer] Conchita Wurst’s “chick with a beard.” “Healthy,” in this context, means heterosexual, able-bodied, and sexually available. “Our” means Slavic or ethnically Polish (specifically not Jewish or Roma). These links between heterosexuality and ethnic belonging (between “healthy” and “our girls”) are forged continuously throughout the original video, both in the lyrics and the images. “Slavicness” is somehow “in our genes” and thus natural and enduring.
In Kim Lee’s version, on the other hand, drag not only highlights that gender is constructed and performed, but also calls into question the coherence of the ethnic and national identity espoused by Donatan and presented in the original video. Kim Lee, frolicking sensuously in the idyllic Polish countryside dressed in traditional clothing, produces a kind of national drag, pushing back against Donatan’s problematic coupling of heterosexuality with “Polishness” and showing that “Slavic” identity is also a construct.
So, What Do We Make of All This?
Taken together, these videos have almost 69 million views – and the parodies discussed here represent just a fraction of those that can be found online. While We Are Slavic has made waves around the world, video responses are largely limited to Poland. They can, however, speak to a global audience. We Are Slavic is not just a catchy song and sexy video, but also a provocation to think about representations of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. Parody videos might not have the answers, but at least they’re raising the questions. And they’re not Polish questions, they are universal.
alena aniskiewicz 04.07.2014