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  • Staging Socialist Femininity: Gender Politics and Folklore Performance in Serbia by Ana Hofman
  • Alexandra Balandina, Independent Scholar
Staging Socialist Femininity: Gender Politics and Folklore Performance in Serbia. By Ana Hofman. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2011. Balkan Studies Library series, Vol. 1. Language: English and Serbian. Pp. 148, book, CD.)

This book is an examination of ways in which socialist gender politics affected the creation of new femininity in the public sphere in southeastern Serbian rural areas in the period from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. To achieve this, Ana Hofman focuses on the Village Gatherings performances, state-supported cultural events, which played an important role in the construction and representation of socialist femininity in public space. Throughout the book, she strives to portray the experiences of female singers during socialism as well as their response to the newly introduced patterns of gender representation.

The introduction is largely descriptive, portraying woman's status within the rural society, her subordinate position within the family, and concepts of rural femininity until the end of World War II. This is a period during which many of the author's female field collaborators were born, "the last generation of women who actively participated in the old customs" (p. 5). Hofman notes that these historical gender hierarchies explain the long-lasting gender segregation in traditional musical practices, in terms of the repertoire, for instance. By giving examples of music transcriptions, lyrics (in both Serbian and English), and songs (on the accompanying CD), Hofman vividly describes four folk music customs or "outlets for female expression" (p. 34) practiced exclusively by women (Lazarice, Kraljice, Ðurdevdan, Sedenjke), some of which were banned after WWII by the socialist authorities, as she explains in the following chapter.

Chapter 2 presents thought-provoking observations about the changing attitudes of the state officials toward Village Gatherings that depended both on the political and socio-economic transformations in Yugoslavia and the new demands of the post-socialist entertainment industry. Hofman points out that although traditional rural music had never been placed under strict control and although folk culture, in comparison to popular music, was "less important for state ideology than in other socialist countries" (p. 112), the standardization of folk heritage was part of the broader socialist ideology of modernization. She concludes this chapter by offering important post-socialist nostalgic interpretations of the participants about the significant role of Village Gatherings performances as a forum for sociability and communication, thus challenging the dominant perceptions about the meaningless aspect of state-sponsored cultural activities under socialism.

Chapter 3 deals with the changes in the repertoire resulting from direct or indirect state intervention and the establishment of amateur music groups. As the author shows, state guidance encouraged certain songs and more "authentic" style of performance. At other times, the interventionist agenda was stronger. Officials censored performances related either to religious holidays or the Orthodox Church, and they discouraged specific music genres, such as newly composed folk songs. While Hofman reports the competitive nature of Village Gatherings and the role of the jury in shaping aesthetic [End Page 230] norms, an ethnographic approach to the analysis of the dynamics of competition events and their role in forming both the repertoire and the staged representations of performances is painfully missing. Elsewhere, she convincingly argues that despite the promotion of gender politics of equality in Yugoslavia, the state's demand for authenticity based on the traditional role of women "illustrates the contradictions of construction of socialist femininity in the public realm" (p. 83).

The analysis of the institutionalization of folk musical activities or the ideological guidance by state cultural institutions, local authorities, and party officials over folk culture could have been enhanced in chapters 2 and 3 if the author had taken into account Mark Slobin's well-known volume Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe (Duke University Press, 1996), which entails examples from former Yugoslavia and examines the ways in which the intelligentsia shaped or even created local musical aesthetics and repertoires in communist states.

The final chapter discusses the new "modern" image of socialist women promoted by the socialist body politics in the public sphere in rural areas. Hofman...


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