poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

March 11, 2010

Some Thoughts on Russia and Feminism…

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 6:35 PM
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Oh this will be fun. What demon of masochism has sent me running into this busy highway? I suppose I sense some explanation is required. Some frustration is pent up. Some wiggle room is in short supply. Since I began writing about my interest in Russia, I have repeatedly been confronted with the popularly accepted notion that Russia is generally unenlightened, backwards, conservative or otherwise markedly hostile to feminist ideals. While I’ve no intention of arguing that the opposite is true, these assertions send me climbing up the walls, despite the fact that I consider myself a staunch feminist. Even as I write this, I suspect that the “well, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that” line of reasoning is next up after “whataboutism” for entry into the trash bin marked “Russophile Apologia.” Good thing I am a feminist and don’t allow the opinions of others to shut me up.

Before I explain why I’m climbing up walls, some clarification:

~ I don’t expect everyone to conform to my ideas about things. I’m not the purveyor of feminist credentials and have no say in who is a feminist and who is not, and of those who are, which ones are bad and which ones are good. Just not interested.

~ I personally believe it is up to the individual woman -not the state, not the church, not men, not other women- to decide for herself what her ideal of womanhood is, and if she wants to pursue it. And that she has the right to change her mind about it. Or to not care about it at all.

~ When I say I am a feminist, I mean I expect women to have the same rights, opportunities, recognition, pay, respect, recourse, protection, etc. as men, and in a way that takes into account the fact that women’s anatomy brings with it added responsibilities and vulnerabilities, and that we live in a world where we have not yet achieved the aforementioned equality and are therefore forced to put up with an incredible amount of unnecessary shit.

~ The following is simply attempt to shed light on my thought process. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, how is it that I can admire Russia, call myself a feminist and not fall into a self-loathing pit of despair?

1. The Fetishization of Russian women’s beauty, femininity, blah blah blah. When Americans do it.

International Women’s Day Special: Girls Of The Siloviki, by Team eXiled.

Yes, it’s the eXiled. But this is not a condemnation of their treatment of women. This is an illustration of the power of myth and those who propagate it.

“But then there was the other side of Women’s Day that makes us a bit nostalgic: Russia’s devushki. An abundance of devushki. So many devushki it gave you a headache. As this recent Komsomolskaya Pravda story on the “Girls of the Siloviki” shows, even the scariest devushki had a certain tantalizing “Amateur Hardcore MILF” quality about them that made it hard to think responsibly. (If you want to know more about the siloviki, click here. Would you like to know more?)

So here then is a March 8 photo essay showing off Kremlin Femdom at its best: The Girls of the Silovki:”

What follows is a number of photos of women in various professional and casual outfits. Far be it for me to start judging who is beautiful and who is not. But please look at these women and ask yourself, were they in American uniforms, had the article introduced them as the beautiful women of Omaha, would we still be gushing over them? For a country that churns out supermodels and ballerinas, I’m incredulous. Natalia Vodianova is out of my league. These women are not. I think I’m in a pretty nice league so that’s no insult. My point is that American men are just as swift to project stereotypes and see that world through a prism of ideals that don’t nec. reflect reality as anyone else. Another example:

What a Woman!!!, by American Russia Observations.

This post admittedly recognizes a lot of the hard work and achievements of Russian women, but I was struck by this:

“Personal appearance is a top consideration for most Russians, and especially for women. They do not throw something on to go to the store, but rather, like my mother in the 1950’s, get dressed carefully in a feminine way. Russian men are used to being around carefully dressed women and usually do not like the casual American look.

No matter how busy or how tight the budget, the women dress well. Russian women tend to be high achievers but don’t feel this in any way precludes their interest in appearing traditionally beautiful.

No woman will race out of the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style.[…]
Russian women accept a feminine role as normal and desirable. What makes the difference between her and a woman in France or the United States is the order of her priorities. Nurturing and comforting are high on her list.”

It may well be the case that the Russian wife who inspired this post by her American spouse meets these criteria. It may be the case that many people have wives who meet these criteria. But can I just say … get out more? Please. I have several female Russian acquaintances who will probably make your brain explode. Why the sweeping generalizations? You do realize that those same Puritan ideals of submissive women also dictate that they don’t go out looking like sluts. Oh wait, Russian women go out looking like sluts all the time. Everyone knows that Russian women are either prostitutes or open to that. They love to slave in front of the stove for their man, too. All American women, in contrast, are frigid and eat microwave dinners. Russian women are just perfect! Perfect for men, anyway!

… Kill me now please.

Russian women do tend to put more emphasis on their looks than American women, because America sets that bar astonishingly low. I won’t leave the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style, but I get shit about it. People think I am vain and shallow. The difference is not our natural tendencies as women, but the effect of being judged by others. Every minutiae of women’s lives is subject to social scrutiny, and depending on where you live, you choose your battles accordingly. Compare the women in Manhattan to those in Peoria. I know many American women who’d love to dote more on their appearance but can’t find the time, or if they can, sense no one would care anyway, so why bother?

In the two previous examples, those espousing “objectifying” or “outdated” attitudes about Russian women are … American men. These are relatively harmless examples. But let’s take another: sex work and trafficking. Home-grown economic conditions, organized crime, etc. are certainly directly responsible for the enslavement of women, but without the ostensibly enlightened modern foreigners to buy them, the market would be far less profitable, no? What about the less literal commodification and objectification of women, the promotion of unattainable perfection as a marketing tool? The culprit there is Capitalism. Anyone wanna argue that there is anything uniquely Russian about that?

I’ve no intention of denying the social, legal, economic, cultural Zeitgeist in Russia of responsibility for what has become a sometimes cartoonish ideal of Russian womanhood. But the idea that these potentially limiting ideas about women is a purely Russian phenomenon, borne of and propagated by their own innate backwardness and conservatism, appears to be bullshit.

2. International Women’s Day, or, “Waiter! There’s political correctness in my soup! And where’s the salad? I ordered salad! With no onions and extra olives.”

Domesticating March 8th, by Sean Guillory.

I have to say, this is an otherwise spot on post. But these two paragraphs bring back traumatic memories of of the burqa ban debate:

“Roses, tulips, and other colorful flowers extend from the hands of Russian women like prostheses. One day a year they replace the broom, the pot, and the child. The flowers, like the wedding bands on women’s fingers, are a symbol of property. Almost every woman strolling through the metro or down Moscow’s avenues has one hand around a man’s arm while the other clutches a bouquet. Thus, the object on their left hand says, ‘I’m taken’ while the man on their right says, ‘by him.’

What an ironic scene International Women’s Day has become in Russia. What was once a day calling for a ‘struggle against patriarchy,’ has in many ways become patriarchy’s reinforcement. Nothing says this more than the popular gifts bestowed on this day of ‘struggle.’ According to the Russian polling service VTsIOM, flowers are the most popular gift for March 8. Forty-four percent of women want them, and 54% of men are willing to give them. Candy comes in second with 19 and 39% respectively. This is followed by make-up and perfume. Gender equality has been substituted with gendered commodities.”

Well meaning men (and women) all over the world want to fight the good fight against patriarchal oppression by … uhm, telling women how to present themselves in public. It’s unavoidable. Because they have balls they should not get an opinion? Well… it’s just that… Look, if your female companion finds holding hands and getting flowers or wearing a wedding ring a symbol of oppression, respect it, or get a new companion. If you sire children, you probably have the right to impose your values on them. But why do leftist men have any more right to police the behavior of women than, say, the Church? Do you think the Church doesn’t believe it is well-intentioned? In the end, isn’t it an “enlightened” “feminist” position to allow women to decide for themselves what their attire or relationships “symbolize?”

And come on, Simone de Beauvoir would be the first to remind you that Marxism did a pretty lame ass job of acknowledging the value of women beyond their economic situation.

Ok I’ve done enough finger pointing. I hope no one takes it personally, they’re simply examples. Here’s a perspective that actually seems to avoid offending me, as a feminist:

Happy March 8th! Now smile and put on some make-up!, by Natalia Antonova.

A woman. Shocking.

“International Women’s Day has its roots in socialism, but where I come from – it has degenerated mostly into Valentine’s Day, minus fat-bottomed cupids. I appreciate indulgences as much as the next person, and (sincere) male courtesy besides, but it grates on even my flower-loving, frivolous soul that a day that originally centered female workers and female solidarity has degenerated into a ceremonial throwing-of-a-bone.

“It’s alright, ladies, if your salaries are crap, domestic violence rates remain high, and some of you aren’t even viewed as proper football fans anymore – here’s something pink to make up for it!”

One of my Russian friends – a largely conservative, Christian stay-at-home mom – recently ranted about the present futility of International Women’s Day:

“At least my husband realizes that I don’t WANT flowers and candy on one stupid day of the year. I just want a little respect on all days of the year. Anything else is tokenism. It means nothing.”

When I told her about how Engels viewed the traditional marriage as exploitation of women, she didn’t even bother to respond with a clever retort, as she normally does:

“What do I care about Engels? He’s just some guy who was supposed to help us all usher in a ‘bright future.’ A lot of good it did. Hah.”

Post-Soviet disillusionment is probably one of the main reasons why International Women’s Day is in such shambles across much of the former USSR. The earnestness of this day is a reminder of the crises and failures of the last twenty years – so it must be smothered in roses and champagne. Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.

March 8th-fatigue has been settling over many people I encounter nowadays as well. Last year, the popular Russian site APN.ru published a misogynistic yet oddly hilarious screed by a Russian Orthodox extremist who asked, among other things, that “Does the very sight of champagne bubbles not make one think of the sin of adultery?” [translation mine] as a way of discouraging the faithful from celebrating March 8th.

One can only hope that the vacuum of romance on this day is not going to be filled with foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalism. If there’s one thing more annoying than advertisements for cheaply made knickers as awesome March 8th gifts, it’s some bearded guy excitedly comparing fizz to ejaculation and how it will bring on the tortures of hell (as opposed to the tortures of a really bad hangover).

I sense more hope in the manner in which women congratulate each other on this day. My inbox has overflowed with e-cards – pink, flowery, but honest and true wishes for a great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success I can ever dream of besides – from my fellow ladies. This makes me happy. A great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success you can ever dream of to you too, ladies.

May you be celebrated for your amazing personhood – on any day of the year. And may somebody *cough* finally bring me some chocolates, dammit.”

Personally, I don’t see revolutionary female solidarity and gifts of chocolate and flowers … and knickers as mutually exclusive. If I am honest with myself, I want them all. If I can’t have one, I still want the other. I dated a boy who refused to celebrate Valentine’s Day for feminist reasons. In a misguided attempt to protect my dignity, he was humiliating me. Here I was in love with someone who was telling me romance was a myth dreamed up by the capitalist patriarchy. Fuck him. If I have to live in a capitalist patriarchy, and I do, can’t I at least be allowed to reap the few benefits it offers? In what universe is having to work a crap 9 to 5 job to line some powerful man’s pockets and getting no flowers, chocolates or knickers progress over having to be a housewife and getting the flowers, chocolates and knickers? [More about the flowers and the women doing it for themselves later.]

The other thing that strikes me about this article is “Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.” How is a country that actually attempted to institute women’s equality less evolved than those of us slowly climbing that hill? I mean hell, the way Russia celebrates International Women’s Day might be as cheap and depressing as all get out, thanks largely to Western influence, but America doesn’t even celebrate it at all. No one has ever asked me how I can reconcile being a feminist with being American. In fact as a feminist in America, I’m mostly just asked for money.

Anyway, let’s look at an “official” interpretation of the holiday:

Congratulation to Russian women on March 8. by Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin.

“March 8 is today – an easy, joyful, spring holiday. But it started quite in earnest – in the fight for the interests of women for equality with men. In this regard, and in this sense, our country, we in Russia have very, very much still to do – and for the protection of motherhood and childhood, and women’s access to various activities, to equal pay to equal working conditions. Let us face it – we still have some to work to do. And of course we will strive to ensure that all these problems are solved. And yet – in pursuit of equality with men – we will always appreciate in a woman that belongs only to women – tenderness, grace, charm.

Happy holiday!”

His actions speak louder than his words. He claims women have a monopoly on charm while putting on his most obnoxiously charmy smile possible. (It’s kind of creepy, so he may actually be right about the charm thing.) This is also the man who teaches little girls how to kick ass in Judo. Weirdly, I’m less offended by this proclamation than Mark’s, Robert’s or Sean’s. I personally find the tenderness, grace and charm shtick a bit rich and it makes me want to scratch his little eyes out. Gracefully, for effect. But at least Vova’s not asking women to choose between righteous prole and delicate flower. He’s clearly capable of holding these two seemingly conflicting ideas in his head. How hard is that? Pretty hard actually. But it’s something we’re asked to do each day. [More on this later.]

So far the most “enlightened” posts -IMO- we have are by a pretty Ukrainian woman and Russian macho man. Damn. It’s the backward brigade! And mysteriously, they’re the ones acknowledging that women are these multifaceted creatures, with both practical and impractical attributes, each of which have value don’t need to be apologized for. To this I can only say, bring on the backwards. It’s better than being valued ONLY for my contribution to the international communist struggle or ONLY for my skills as a housewife/mother/lover. You know what? Both of those perspectives only recognize women for what they’re doing for you. Building your airplanes, fighting your class struggle, making your dinner, sucking your dick. Giving a woman flowers is a way to say, “Today it’s not about me. Me and my airplanes and my politics and my dick. Its about you.” Why is this lamentable, precisely?

No, I can’t get riled up by the sight of a wedding band or bouquet of flowers.

3. Real Fucking Problems.

I bet you are expecting me to pull out some facts about how many American women ever actually win sexual harassment suits, let alone how many even get to court. Nope. Sexual harassment is ubiquitous in even the most “enlightened” countries, but there’s no excuse for not having a law against it. Shame on you, Russian government. And shame on the men who do it. Seriously, I was once pinned in the back of a bus by a couple of frisky young militsia guys who seemed to think I was on the evening’s menu. Who, please tell me, do you run to when the police are threatening to rape you? And you know what, shame on every single person on that bus who saw it and did nothing to help. Shame on your whole damn culture! Shame on your whole horrible country! Am I right? I don’t know. That’s not rhetorical. I don’t know.

4. По вечерам над ресторанами…

~ Do you know who was the first person whom I ever felt maybe had an inkling of what it was like to be a woman mistreated by men? It’s perverse, really. Dostoevsky. Seriously. And you just don’t know how many times in my life when, thinking I must be going mad, alone, feeling that no one could possible ever understand what this is like, there is a shelf of Dostoevsky. How can I explain this? It’s one of the things I don’t force myself to explain, but just accept. He’s there, and has saved my life on more than one occasion.

~ In college I became enamoured with the Russian Symbolists and “Sophiology.” Sophia. Eternal Femininity. Goddess of Wisdom. There was a whole philosophical movement based on women being symbols of this unattainable plane of mystery and wisdom and strength and grace and all of these beautiful, transcendent things. I found myself in the lead role in a theatrical adaptation of Aleskandr Blok’s Neznakomka. I was surprised by how much power I had in that character. It was sublime.

~ You can imagine my shock after growing up hearing my mother talk about the struggle for equal rights, she and her girlfriends in the 1960’s, ahead of the curve, on the front lines, marching for economic parity and political representation, to find that this was accepted thinking among many 19th century Russian revolutionaries…

~ I was floored by women in Russia. Just floored. They ran everything. At the time, it appeared there were neither men for jobs nor jobs for men. Women were doing just about everything. Running the households, the schools, the shops, the trains. Anything you needed permission for you needed to go through a tough ass bitch to get. Old ladies weren’t sitting at home mewing about aches and pains, they were sweeping the street and policing society while raising grandchildren and perhaps engaging in some entrepreneurial work. Young women held several jobs while attending school, and sometimes returned home in the evenings to cook meals and do laundry for the family because mom had gotten fed up with that shit and left. I knew a single woman who was a doctor and raising two boys, doing everything herself – no babyshka, no nanny, no nothing. What was exceptional about this was that she was not at all exceptional. I met a lot of women with similar stories. I thought this must be what the U.S. homefront was like during WWII. And there was something to some of the stereotypes. Dr. Mom also always looked fabulous and didn’t do a heck of a lot of complaining. I think I would have been less intimidated had they all complained more. There was a just a practical resignation: if we don’t do this who will? Not in a defeated tone, but in a, “Well, if we have to save civilization by kicking the Martians’ asses, we’ll just have to do that,” tone. They weren’t doing all this because they were women, and it was in their nature, it was their place or they were submissive. They did it because they were the adults in the room. All of these women deserve a hell of a lot more than flowers and chocolates. Sexual harassment laws would be a nice start. Then, more of those massive monuments recognizing their contributions.

~ You could travel from one coast to another in the U.S. and not see a massive granite monuments recognizing the contributions of women. In Russia, you have be blind to avoid seeing one.

~ One evening, going down Varshavskoe Shosse, the hot summer sun was setting and the hugeness of Russia hit me. A vastness I could not even comprehend. It was a vastness with a heartbeat. I thought maybe this is was it feels like to be in the womb, if we could remember that. The whole “Mother Russia” thing clicked. It was visceral, not intellectual. I dare say spiritual.

~ One of the many many things I like about being a girl in Moscow was the female camaraderie. My girlfriends and I would go around town holding hands, buying each other gifts, having all night commiseration sessions in the kitchen, with loads of blini and Nutella on hand. Maybe it was just that I was a foreigner, but there was always some sisterly or motherly figure looking out for me. A posse. Oh, I wanted to say something about flowers. In Russia everyone was always buying flowers. You didn’t show up on doorsteps without flowers. And chocolate too. People regularly bought boxes of chocolates just because. This in an economic crisis. I really liked these small gestures. Guests expected to make an effort. No one being made to feel guilty for buying a box of chocolates just because. I really liked being able to revel in platonic female friendships without it being taken as a rejection of men. On the other hand, I can see how, being so commonplace, such favors inspire little gratitude on March 8.

~ I also really enjoyed not having to limit myself to one “role” or risk suspicion of having a mental defect if I strayed outside it. I like to dress up. Make-up, skirts, cute shoes, product in my hair. I also expect to be taken seriously. For me, Russia was a magical place where this seemingly perverse combination of attention to beauty (and even, gasp, sexuality) and being well read, intelligent, competent, willing to debate the merits of various theories of film, etc. was not only not considered “weird” but was even kind of expected of me. Which blew my mind. It was a bit heavenly. It made me aware of how strictly compartmentalized we are in America. If you are a mom, you are expected to look, act, be a mom. Anything else is irreverent or sign of an identity crisis. If you are an academic, ditto. Of course, reality forces us into different roles throughout our lives, days even. So the standard procedure is to choose the least conspicuous qualities, preferably ones that can go from day to night with minimal tweaks. Strip ourselves of all individuality or emotion or peculiarity. All the fun things about being alive, cover it up in a shapeless neutral tone sack, learn to deny ourselves things and hate ourselves for wanting those things, don’t be too feminine, don’t be too masculine, choose androgyny-it’s most comfortable. Don’t worry, if you are a mom, you’re not expected to know anything about dialectics. If you are a philosopher, you’re not expected to be familiar with anatomy. Gah!! I hate this!! And don’t even get me started about the horrorshow that is America’s approach toward sexuality.

So this is what I think about when I think about being a feminist and Russia. Most of my love of Russia is feminine (as I define it) in nature. It doesn’t fit nicely into our enlightened but restrictive compartments we are obsessed with over here. Just being a woman alive in the world requires feats of cognitive dissonance. So does giving two seconds of thought to Russia. So if being a feminist who adores Russia creates it’s own cognitive dissonance – it’s not exactly throwing a wrench in anything. Besides, life is more fun when you stop stressing out about consistency. What’s the point of being a good feminist if it means you have to be stressed out all the time? Isn’t the goal less stress, more freedom to be ourselves? And isn’t being a feminist choosing to believe that whatever nightmare situation faces us, women have the intelligence, strength, determination, etc. to confront and improve it? Domestic violence, for example, is routine and sadly accepted by many in Russia, but there’s no reason it must remain so. There are enough Catherine the Greats, Alexandra Kollontais, Anna Akhmatovas in Russia’s history to convince me there is nothing in the gene pool that predestines them to lives of submission. And while Ukraine is not Russia, Yulia Tymoshenko, Russian speaking, born in the USSR, just came incredibly close to being president (and held significant political power before that.)

Perhaps some will accuse me of downplaying the plight of women in Russia. Perhaps some will say I’m only a feminist when it is convenient. Perhaps some will accuse me of imposing my Western values onto a culture that already has its own values thank you very much. Perhaps they are correct. I just wanted to illustrate that actually 1) us modern, enlightened types are complicit in much of Russia’s ill treatment of women, 2) us modern, enlightened types have our own ways of policing women and providing pre-approved options for them and 3) Russia speaks to the part of me that America does not. And that part of me is a woman. An irrational, poetic, emotional, beautiful, fierce, intelligent woman… For all our Cold War rhetoric about Communism, it seems that now it is America who sucks out our souls and everything that makes us messy complicated humans, who values us only for our labor, who demands conformity. Irony of ironies, Russia provides the antidote. My inner feminist rejoices!



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    Pingback by Some Thoughts on Russia and Feminism… « poemless. the blog. | Eastern Angels — March 11, 2010 @ 8:46 PM | Reply

  2. Looks like everybody else is too scared to comment 😛

    Excellent post….while that doesnt mean I agree with every point you make (nor have you asked for acceptance of your views) – it still is worth reading right through to the long, ‘umami’ end.

    Have you travelled elsewhere in the world, and did you feel elsewhere the way you did in Russia?

    I’d believe that women being more sensitive (than men in general) tend to absorb much more of the atmosphere of the land/country, and perhaps thats what you feel – although a place as unpredictable as Russia is bound to throw up some nasty surprises once in a while.

    Comment by blitzen — March 13, 2010 @ 1:47 PM | Reply

    • I know! The silence in haunting. I was fully expecting Guillory to kick my ass about this. Though it’s true I wasn’t looking for a debate. I don’t expect anyone else to see things my way, and those who don’t probably have some very valid points to make.

      I’ve travelled a bit elsewhere – nothing too exciting (France, the Baltics, Canada and Germany briefly) but I’ve only ever lived in America and Russia. Can’t say I’ve ever felt elsewhere the way I did in Russia. Nasty surprises indeed. But all places have their nastiness, surprising or not.

      Comment by poemless — March 13, 2010 @ 3:05 PM | Reply

      • I see.

        It might very well be that one aspect of countries (e.g. Russia) that feel right to you is the chaotic nature of the ‘system’ and consequently, the social structure…this allows for all kinds of forces to flourish, letting one feel more natural / express ones inner self in ones lifestyle better. This however does lead to imbalances, ugliness, and mixtures of beauty and bizarreness – which is what hits me when I read about Russia.

        On the other hand, the organized countries with intricate systems in place tend to be more cold, soulless – because of the mechanical nature of their system, and the homogeneity in the populace in their focus on the system as inviolable. So much so that the system can be used to perform all kinds of actions, without triggering a backlash, because people are all invested in the system, and need it to live their lives. Its like that over-quoted and over-rated ‘liberty’ for ‘security’ quote except that security here refers to their need to have a force in place to sustain them, and create a comfort zone. While ‘liberty’ refers to an environment in which the system is inclusive, rather than exclusive.

        In any case, about your core post, men and women are far more alike than most of us imagine or would want to believe. And even without considering biological imperatives like ‘perpetuating the species’, life is much richer with both men and women – without that diversity, life would be much duller. So it makes sense to make the most of that diversity, rather than fight it out of a need to remain rigidly trapped in our ways.

        That means for example, that I appreciate your views as coming from an aspect of the world that possesses a character that is unique, and distinct from my own. And it really doesnt matter who I am, what I am, or what it means to say that. Life is for living, after all 😉

        To avoid making that sound sickly-sweet, must add that one shuts out that which instead of adding to diversity, simply echoes something we already get too much of [mind-numbing stupidity for example].

        Comment by blitzen — March 15, 2010 @ 2:05 PM | Reply

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  5. Well I would never kick your ass poemless.

    I just don’t see the point in defending myself from your interpretation of what I wrote and articulating what my intention was. I’ll just say that it certainly wasn’t something like “telling women how to present themselves in public.”

    But since you directly noted this silence, here are some thoughts.

    Making feminism about individual choice is not a feminism that I subscribe to. Women can wear and do whatever they want as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see denouncing them or praising them for their choices as having much to do with feminism. However, understanding the political and cultural symbolism that envelopes all of us, regardless of what we think they mean for our individual identity, has everything to do with feminism since they construct us as gendered and sexual beings. Feminism for me is not just about the oppression/liberation of women but also about the ways in which society constitutes them as “women”, and by extension those of us with balls. So in my view, flowers and wedding rings have specific gendered meanings regardless of what the individual thinks or feels about them. If feminism is really only about a women’s individual free choice where the reclaimation of the “feminine” (especially a feminine that is based on heterosexual male desire) is a goal then it is truly dead as a political project.

    Also, I feel that the tone of this post forecloses my participation in the feminist project by virtue of the fact I am a man. I’m not playing the reverse sexism card here because that would be lame. I would only ask: Is feminism for you only about women? Must us well intentioned “leftist men” hold our tongue to not insult female sensibilities because we don’t “sire children”? Isn’t such a foreclosure only reproducing the very gender structure–woman as mother and child bearer–that is the problem in the first place?

    Lastly, I really don’t understand this compulsion to insert the America/Russia, enlightened/backward binaries on this. The place of women in a particular society has its own configurations. It is never that one place is better than another. The particular conditions only make women’s situation different.

    But even as you imply, all of this talk of representation, choice, and theory silence more important struggles–sexual harassment, labor, and when it concerns women in global South such things as fundamental as clean water.

    Comment by Sean — March 14, 2010 @ 2:06 AM | Reply

    • “Making feminism about individual choice is not a feminism that I subscribe to.”

      There are probably as many unique interpretations of “feminism” as there are unique people. But you shouldn’t entirely disqualify individual choice from the conversation abot feminism, as this is an undeniable historical focus of many feminist movements: the individual choice to get an education, to cast a vote, live a certain lifestyle, choice of career, dress, etc. And I’ll add not just the choice, but the freedom to make such choices without being forced to accept violence, social ostracizing or public insult as any kind of fair trade-off.

      “So in my view, flowers and wedding rings have specific gendered meanings regardless of what the individual thinks or feels about them.”

      The problem is, different people attach different gendered meanings to different things, and who is to decide which one is “correct?” And why is the person who is the object of our gaze not the most qualified to decide what her (or his) actions “symbolize?” I guess I just don’t get that. I mean, I catch myself doing this all the time too. But it is a rather … well, patronizing and ultimately objectifying and dehumanizing exercise, in my opinion. Largely harmless, you might argue. And maybe unavoidable, what with our primate minds trying to navigate society. But in some ways, it’s still a kinder, gentler policing of gender roles.

      “If feminism is really only about a women’s individual free choice where the reclaimation of the “feminine” (especially a feminine that is based on heterosexual male desire) is a goal then it is truly dead as a political project.”

      I clearly wasn’t arguing that it is only about women’s individual choices, or only the reclaimation of the “feminine” (especially a feminine that is based on heterosexual male desire). I think Joe (below) got this, so I think I did a fair enough job of explaining my aims re: this post.

      “Also, I feel that the tone of this post forecloses my participation in the feminist project by virtue of the fact I am a man.”

      Damn. I was going out of my way to be inclusive. However, it was largely about my own observations and experiences, so I can see how that would discourage participation.

      “I’m not playing the reverse sexism card here because that would be lame. I would only ask: Is feminism for you only about women? Must us well intentioned “leftist men” hold our tongue to not insult female sensibilities because we don’t “sire children”? Isn’t such a foreclosure only reproducing the very gender structure–woman as mother and child bearer–that is the problem in the first place?

      Yeah – it would be. And no, not at all. While it doesn’t mean, it gives men the right to tell us how to dress or judge our lifestyle choices, etc., I think men are extremely valuable in the “feminist project.” Without you we’d have a hell of a time getting laws passed, etc. And men benefit from it as well. Not just because they have mothers and sisters and daughters, etc. A safer, more equal, more open-minded society is better for everyone in it, don’t you think?

      “The place of women in a particular society has its own configurations. It is never that one place is better than another. The particular conditions only make women’s situation different.”

      I completely agree, and that was one of the points I was trying to illustrate.

      Comment by poemless — March 15, 2010 @ 1:52 PM | Reply

  6. To me, there are two ideas I extracted from this post. One – the power of Russian women – I have a kind of personal experience with. I am American and am not Russian, but I am Slavic on both sides of my family (Croatian and Slovak, to be precise), and know anecdotally from my family history and the family histories I learned that matriarchal families are far more the norm than the exception, especially in eastern European cultures. That Slavic women are raised to be strong and attractive is no surprise to me — it’s probably why, more than 20 years after my mom’s passing, I’m still pretty sure she’ll come down and whomp me one if I fall out of line. I am no sociologist and I can’t explain exactly how or why lessons taught to boys and girls while growing up in these strong matriarchal homes haven’t quite been expanded out of it (although if I had to guess, religion and overall cultural habits born out of decades if not centuries has something to do with it), but it was definitely imposed on me that the stories you told about your life with Russian women is one of those cultural norms that I still live with. And I know when I run into other Russian/Slavic-raised folks that my experiences aren’t isolated.

    That your connection with the feminine/matriarchal side of Russo-Slavic culture came as such a liberating experience to you I would chalk up more as not having been raised in those cultures, and where your love of Russian cultures becomes more enriched — as well as, of course, not having that kind of experience growing up in America in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era. Which leads me to …

    … The second thing I got out of this post. And I would summarize Point #2 as expressing your frustration with the alleged conflict between between being femiNIST and being femiNINE. To me, poemless, all you’re doing is saying one should be able to be both feminine and feminist without feeling like you’re betraying either ideal (or goal, or whatever you want to call it). And, not to put a fine point on it, but … yeah, I’m with you on that. Feminism should not be mutually exclusive with femininity – but, for a whole host of reasons and in a wide variety of situations, they have become competitive concepts instead of complementary or at least coexisting. (At least that’s the case in America, and based on the posts you posted, in Russia as well). Which is why you get things like International Women’s Day turning into a kind of competitor with Valentine’s Day thanks to (INSERT REASONS HERE).

    And men not willing to be the first to post on a post about feminism and femininity.

    What can we say? It’s a guy thing.

    Comment by EdgewaterJoe — March 14, 2010 @ 11:26 PM | Reply

    • I suppose that’s a pretty fair interpretation. That and just to challenge some of the assertions and suggestions I’ve been seeing…

      As for men not wanting to post… It’s funny because 1) you’ll notice a lot of the articles I link to are by men, who had no prob. writing about femininity then… and 2) where the hell are my female readers? I mean, I know at least 5 who read this blog pretty frequently, but they never -or rarely- comment. Hm…

      Comment by poemless — March 15, 2010 @ 1:19 PM | Reply

  7. Hi Poemless,
    Haven’t stopped by lately because I’ve had a lot of billable work–and it’s clients before blogs. Particularly because my Putinesque man has indicated that I need to step it up in the billable category because he’d like to step it down a bit so that he can pursue some entrepreneurial opportunities. Russian, American, French… All husbands in his position are feminists when it comes to their wive’s earning potential: better male/female pay-scale equality means more flexibility for all. (If I can swing it; not sure that I can, yet.)

    Anyway, I am glad that I took time to read your latest posts. I had the belly laugh I was looking for with the “people killing corpses”. But, this reflection on women’s roles isn’t letting me just surf away. I sympathize with your horrific experience on Moscow bus. I found myself in a few near-rape situations in Paris too. Once I hopped on an empty RER train car to return to center Paris after an afternoon business meeting at CDG airport; and when the buzzer went off as the doors shut, a head popped up and the man it belonged to walked the length of the huge wagon, seated himself opposite me, set his leg astride the seat next to me, pulled out his member and masturbated until we got to the next station-10 minutes later. Quite unexpected and horrible. That moment of feeling my vulnerability- as well as a few others like it – were just moments within a half-life (I think I’m about there) during which I’ve felt empowered and comfortable in my current vessel; that is, my womanhood. Now I’m in the process of raising both a son and a daughter. This puts a whole new perspective on things. As they reach into teenage-dom I’m more and more at a loss as to how to guide them re: their dealings with the opposite sex. My default answer is a little like yours: Dostoevsky. I say, “You need to read. I found my best answers and solace there. And the Russian classics hold a lot of clues.”

    Comment by Tess of the Uber Vie — March 24, 2010 @ 4:46 PM | Reply

    • Hi! I was wondering where you were…

      A significant point about the Moscow bus situation was that it was the police. I’ve lived in a big city my whole adult life, and have had some threatening encounters, but who do you go to for help when thevery people whose job it is to protect and serve are harming you?!

      Good luck with the childrearing. I’ve never had children (don’t want them) but I suspect a strong sense of self worth goes a long way in these situations.

      Comment by poemless — March 24, 2010 @ 4:57 PM | Reply

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