Masculinity in Russia
“So where are the prostitutes better, Russia or America?” he asked as we played pool. I was dumbstruck by the question, and coughed out that I’d never been to a prostitute in either place. The guy was a perfectly well educated, well-off 20 something, and the contrast has made the moment stick with me. Not only was visiting a prostitute considered normal enough behavior to ask for ratings, but to do it in front of women. Until that moment, I had never really thought much about gender roles in Russia. It’s become clear though that, Russian culture expects a different kind of “manly” behavior.
Beyond being personally competent in the quality of prostitutes, the idea of being a man in Russia is much more connected to sexual prowess – and prowess which extends beyond one woman, really no matter what your feelings about the matter are. I’ve been told that men will even tell their friends that they got laid and then came home to bang their wife or girlfriend without actually having done it, simply to keep up the image. It’s omnipresent in Russian film, and although it’s by no means absent in Hollywood, Russians treat it with a wink and nudge, as though it couldn’t be otherwise. From discussions of “secret places” in a man’s telephone and memes making light of various female responses to cheating to the turning point of the film Leviathan in which the protagonist’s best friend sleeps with his wife, it’s almost everywhere. Case in point:
“Be a man”
As there is in the US, there’s a strong tough-guy culture, of the sort that in the US drive spotless F150s to work. In Russia, of course, there are no F150, but what’s notable is that while in the US, there’s also a very large segment of men who would roll their eyes at the truck and the Budweiser in the front seat, I’ve not encountered such a group in Russia. Quite the contrary, the sort of simple man philosophy is viral in Russia. These two videos, one essentially about American views on masculinity and one about Russian views, came up in my social networks about the same time. They’re a study in contrast.
The American, biceps showing, street, and a bit vulgar, is talking about the absurd tough-guy images of masculinity we’re fed and encouraged to model ourselves on, as well as some of the deplorable consequences of those images. The Russian, didactic and buttoned up, is talking about an equally absurd male-model image of masculinity Russians took to in the the 2000s, but criticizing it from the traditional gender role position – and with a barb at the end for non-traditional gender roles. In essence, he’s supporting an aspect of the absurd tough-guy image of masculinity that the American is criticizing. However, it’s also interesting to note whereas the American complains that our image of masculinity doesn’t allow men to write poetry, the Russian offers to read some of his verses to excited Russian teens on national prime time TV. Whereas the American complains about the image of masculinity that treats women as sexual objects, the Russian attacks the macho men for trying to be playboys when they should have been soldiers. Moreover, both of them are playing up to their audiences: the American swears, talks with a street whine and bass, and is dressed to show his physique; the Russian is addressing Russian hoods – “po zhizni”, or “in real life” is a phrase with strong connotations of tough guy culture, and his homophobic slur is likewise (at least to a certain degree) aimed at reenforcing his own manliness.
The odd thing is, whereas in the US, much of the change in male roles was seemingly spurred by feminism (as far as I understand, at least), in Russia feminism is not popular. “I’m both a horse and bull, a woman and a man”, goes the saying. Women openly disdain feminism and men are expected to fulfill traditional roles. If we look at gender roles as a game both sexes have to play, where do they, and the changes they undergo, really come from?