Balkan and botoxed: one playwright holds up a mirror to Serbian beauty ideals and the result isn’t pretty

Balkan and botoxed: one playwright holds up a mirror to Serbian beauty ideals and the result isn't pretty

From oversized prosthetic bums and bosoms to perfectly polished nails, the costumes in Staša Bajac’s all-women production are just one of the ways the Serbian playwright unpacks the dark side of male desire.

15 January 2020

“In the Balkans, the patriarchy is complex and full of contradictions,” muses Staša Bajac, a Serbian playwright and screenwriter from Belgrade. “On the one hand this isn’t Saudi Arabia: women can dress revealingly, vote, run for public office, manage businesses, get divorced. But on the other hand, as they do all that, this male horde judges them, sabotages them, and assesses their femininity. And to make things even more complicated, this doesn’t make these men repulsive to them — no, these capable, accomplished women believe that men are the head of the household and the stronger sex, whatever that means.”

The multifaceted, complex nature of gender roles in Serbian society is the subject of Staša’s recent play, This One Will Be Different (Ovaj Će Biti Drugaćiji), which was the winner of the fifth annual Heartefact prize, a regional open call for dramatists from the former Yugoslavia, who are invited to submit an original script on a sociopolitical theme. The Belgrade native is better known as a screenwriter, having written Vlažnost (Humidity), which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016. Directed by Djurdja Tešić, this is the second of three productions written by Staša that have made it to the stage, in addition to one radio play.

This One Will Be Different debuted in March to widespread critical acclaim at Belgrade’s Atelje 212 theatre and is, in Staša’s words, a play “about these three girls who are trying to find the ideal man, this one that’s going to be different to all the others, and how they should go about finding him and what they need to do to themselves — physically and mentally — to be desirable to him.”

The play, which is entirely character driven, unfolds as a candid dialogue between its three female leads: Ivana, Mirela, and Jovana, who are played by the actresses Ana Mandić, Tamara Dragičević and Milica Janevski respectively. The audience becomes a fly quietly stuck to a beauty salon wall, eavesdropping on an intimate yet brutal conversation between the trio, in which the more clued-up (and more jaded) Mirela and Jovana trample all over naive Ivana’s almost child-like understanding of love and romance, disabusing her of her innocence and reinforcing the patriarchal standards that they themselves have internalised. They lay down the law like a pair of drill sergeants, dictating to Ivana how she has to look, act, and think if she’s going to tie down an unnamed and unseen man that she’s smitten with. Through their words, we’re offered an insight into the pressures placed on women in male-centric Balkan societies.

“Let me see your nails!” Mirela barks at Ivana in the first act. “You can’t go out with nails like that […] What you have there are the nails of a young wife, a young spouse. What you have there, those groomed, manicured nails painted in skin-coloured polish, those arrogant nails of yours that signal that you don’t have to seduce anybody, that you don’t have to dig anyone’s eyes out; those are the sort of nails that come paired with a wedding ring. What you have there, girl, are the nails of a madame who carries the same surname of the man that she goes to bed with; those are self-satisfied nails that exude the sort of calm that only comes with a ring. You urgently need to glue some claws onto them, tiny blades; your little hands are Swiss army knives that signal to every other cow just like yourself out there that if they dare come near your man, an ashtray is going to come hurtling towards their skull.”

“It’s a performance played by three women. No male character appears but I often say that it’s a play about men”

For clarity, the blade-like claws that Mirela refers to here are artificial nails that are widely popular in Serbia and across the region among a certain milieu of women. Along with heavily-applied makeup, hair extensions, towering heels, and cosmetic surgery, these elements represent a standard of female beauty that was first popularised by folk singers and reality TV stars before seeping into the mainstream. It’s an aesthetic primarily designed to satisfy the male gaze at the expense of female comfort, as Mirela highlights in another outburst.

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“Do you think that anyone cares about that chest that you grew yourself?” she yells at Ivana. “Do you think that your chest is worth anything when it doesn’t have a couple of incisions that say ‘look how they cut me open for you; look how somebody took a thin scalpel and sliced a delicate little line in my skin and stuffed a couple of bags filled with rubber just above my lungs […] Look how I laid down on an operating table for you and let them push objects into me before they bandaged me up and pumped me full of meds’?”

The costumes of the play’s characters are designed to mimic this look: Mirela, Jovana, and Ivana all have silicon talons stuck to the ends of their fingers and comically oversized prosthetic bums hidden under tightly-fitted velvet tracksuit bottoms. But as Staša tells me, even though the play is told from a female perspective and lacks any male characters, the real subject matter of her script are men and the world that they’ve created.

“It’s a performance played by three women. No male character appears but I often say that it’s a play about men,” Staša says. “It’s not about women because it’s not about what they want, it’s about what they were taught by a very male-centric world and what’s expected of them. Their dreams and their fears and their desires have been shaped by this extremely patriarchal society.”

“These women are the byproduct of male fantasies,” according to Staša, who traces the emergence of this milieu back to Serbia’s troubled 1990s, when folk singers like Svetlana “Ceca” Ražnatović dated mobsters and represented the epitome of female desirability. The play, therefore, feels like a much broader critique of post-Yugoslav Serbian society.

“It really erupted in the 90s when this nationalistic, patriarchal, macho culture was at its peak,” she says. “What kind of man dreams up a woman like that? It’s during the onset of war. It’s a sort of alpha male hysteria. And especially after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing economic crisis you have this man who failed, who failed at this ridiculous task and keeps on failing. So for him to feel confident and for him to feel manly he needs a woman who’s a hyperbole — everything about her is a woman multiplied: the size of her lips, the size of her breasts, anything that would traditionally be considered feminine is times 10.”

“I knew that I was talking to a middle class mainstream audience, among whom these women are considered trash, sluts, and gold diggers”

The ideas explored in Staša’s play are drenched in a pitch-black, sardonic humour that makes her work both insightful and, at times, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And even though Serbia is a country where female emancipation lags at least a couple of decades behind the West, the play has been incredibly well received, despite (or perhaps because of) its provocative theme.

“There’s been this deluge of women — and men — coming up to me to share their stories,” says Staša. “They come with their personal experiences that are very much at their essence connected to what the characters are going through. This is a play with very vulgar language that explores a very contemporary topic, and it was the first time that some of these women have heard their own issues discussed on stage. It was written by a woman, directed by a woman, played by women, the costumes and the choreography were done by women, so it has a very specific angle.”

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How about the men in the audience?

“A lot of men have sort of come up to me to apologise,” she says with a laugh. “They feel a need to say sorry, so they direct it at me, which is quite funny.”

Despite the positive reaction, Staša isn’t under any illusions that her play is going to make a dent in the patriarchy. When I ask her what she hopes her work might achieve socially, if anything, she reveals a much more grounded ambition of fostering compassion for the Ivanas, Mirelas, and Jovanas that inspired her work.

“I knew that I was talking to a middle class mainstream audience, among whom these women are considered trash, sluts, and gold diggers – they’re ‘them’, not ‘us’,” she says. “I really wanted to make the audience look at them as human beings with desires and dreams and to just sort of shift the angle at which you observe them, to create this space where you can compare hopes and obstacles. I think bridging the gap between people that are different in many ways – due to class, background, aesthetics, whatever – is always good. Nothing bad ever came out of understanding someone. I think the more empathic you are, the end result is that you’re even better to yourself.”

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