Catharine Hughes comments on attitudes towards harassment and gender equality in Russian society in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal
Sexual harassment has been prominent in the headlines more than ever in the past few weeks. The fire was sparked with the Harvey Weinstein reports and each day the list of perpetrators grows longer. Courtesy of The New York Times we can track all the alleged perpetrators in one (all too frequently updated) place. The normal reaction, one of widespread condemnation, has come in the form of career threatening cancelled contracts and unflinching reporting in the media.
One take on the events that has, for the most part, slipped under the western radar, is that of the Russian film industry. Meduza, the Riga-based online newspaper, recently published a series of reactions from Russian film stars to the Weinstein saga. The reports reveal shocking disparities between the assumptions of Russian show business and that of the US; it seems that what in the US is denounced as shocking abuse is in Russia is accepted as a way of life.
As much as I disagree with the following opinions, I am not attacking these women for expressing themselves. Rather, I want to look deeper into why these mentalities exist, and how they shape a society. It is also fundamental to recognise that these views do not speak for a whole society, but they do exist, and are currently louder than their counterparts.
The first outstanding comment comes from actress Agniya Kuznetsova:
These girls got what they wanted … Women were created for schemes like this. Give them a chance, and they’ll weave some plot against you
Kuznetsova has taken the narrative that Weinstein’s victims genuinely wanted to be involved in the reported sexual acts to further their careers. It almost seems too obvious to point out that if both parties want to engage in sexual relations then it categorically cannot be classified as rape. She then goes on to point the finger at womankind for its scheming. This strong accusation goes beyond the mark of classing a woman as a second-class citizen, not only is the woman inferior but they will manipulate men by seducing them. To sum it up in a phrase, Kuznetsova is accusing her fellow womankind of being snakes, not a great contribution to the Sisterhood conversation.
Next in the spotlight is actress Lyubov Tolkalina;
‘They [the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault] haven’t been very ladylike. Because sexual harassment is actually wonderful, honestly. If you have a role, then what difference does it make how you got it?’
‘How can you even accuse a man of sexual harassment? This is the whole reason men even exist in the world. If he has power that he uses this way, that’s fine.’
The woman is always to blame for sexual harassment by a man. If you’re a real woman and if this kind of thing happens, then you’ll never tell anyone about it. Because this, it seems to me, discredits both of you in the eyes of the public.
‘I think the whole history of great filmmaking, all over the world, is always about romances between directors and actresses, one way or another. Where’s the line between sexual harassment and romance? Explain that one to me.’
The most light-hearted aspect that can be taken away from this interview is that Tolkalina’s first name (Lyubov) actually means Love in Russian. Link that back to the fact that she cannot seem to differentiate between sexual harassment and romance, and the irony turns bitter. In case anyone else is unclear about the line between sexual harassment and romance, romance and flirtation are very much mutual and reciprocal, an outcome of both parties being mutually interested. Sexual harassment is an unwanted advance. If you can’t tell the difference between the two, you’re doing something wrong.
After Tolkalina’s comments were published by Meduza she tried to retract her account. The media outlet then went on to publish an audio clip of her interview. Not only did she say all of these things, but laughs flippantly throughout.
What these attitudes boil down to is the idea in Russian society that men and women have certain parameters to live within, designated roles and characteristics that cannot go unfulfilled. To do so would be detrimental to society as you have failed within your duty. That is to say that a man should be big and powerful; cue big and powerful Harvey Weinstein. Just doing his job. Just ‘being a man’. As Tolkalina said ‘this is the whole reason men even exist in the world’.
So, in this twisted game of who’s who, where do women fit in? To take another leaf from our cited actresses we understand that a woman must be ladylike. The definition of ladylike tells us that this means ‘graceful, polite, and behaving in a way that is thought to be socially acceptable for a woman’ – submissive. This definition may invoke more questions than it answers, but whatever ‘socially acceptable for a woman’ means, it definitely should not be read as ‘silent after having been subjected to manipulative, aggressive intimidation and/or forced sexual interaction’.
Russian society has veered in this direction ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Back in the good old days of communism at least everyone lived under the pretence of equality, everyone was a Comrade. The Communist Manifesto called for the abolition of the status of women as ‘mere instruments of production’ and the eradication of prostitution ‘both public and private’. Nowadays it is a society based on nostalgia for ‘tradition’. One tryingly obvious demonstration of how detrimental this yearning for tradition can be was the decriminalisation of domestic violence back in February 2017. The reason for this? For a man not to be able to assert his dominance in his own household threatens his masculinity, and thus threatens the values of a traditional family.
These actresses have demonstrated exactly why people don’t speak out about sexual harassment both in Russia and in the West, perpetuating the oppressive machine of shame. The irrational expectations of ‘what it is to be a woman’ revoke a woman’s right to her own voice. As Tolkalina put it, ‘if you’re a real woman and if this kind of thing happens, then you’ll never tell anyone about it’. It is for this reason that sexual harassment and rape cases don’t exist in the Russian media, the concepts are not offences but a mere ‘fulfilment of duty’. Russia hasn’t even started the conversation on harassment, there is a very long path to walk before any steps are taken to purge this behaviour from Russian society. In the meantime at least they’ve got powerful President Putin to look after them. I don’t need to thank him as Miss Russia has already beat me to it: ‘I believe that these situations cannot happen in Russia, and for that we have to thank Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and his policy. It’s very rare that you hear about such cases in our country and I’m very happy about that’.