Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters / Landov

Putin’s tactical misogyny

A Kremlin-backed TV channel degrades Ukrainian women as part of Putin’s wider culture wars

August 20, 2014 6:00AM ET

Despite Russia’s notorious arsenal of media propaganda against Ukraine, one tactic has gone practically unnoticed: the rampant use of misogynistic rhetoric. This discourse aims to discredit the people behind Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising to cast doubt on the ongoing situation in Ukraine as one caused by emotionally unstable individuals and to further underline Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a protector of traditional values, which help keep women subservient.

The prime time TV program “The Furies of Maidan: Sex, Psychosis and Politics” is a particularly shameless example. The show, which depicts a Ukraine that has regressed into a nearly literal inferno of gyrating women, is a sexist, distasteful and at times so-outrageous-that-it’s-almost-humorous TV “exposé” from NTV, one of Russia’s biggest Kremlin-backed channels. It is largely representative of the attitude that Putin and his cronies have toward women.

The program, which first aired in April, opens with a promo segment in which a voiceover announces, “They like it rough” and “they are aroused by fear.” Amid scenes of Euromaidan gatherings and clashes, we see some of the women who will subsequently be insulted, interlaced with images of purportedly rough sex and a psychiatrist analyzing “women’s extremism.” In the 30 minutes that follow, the show’s producers attempt to discredit female leaders, activists and politicians involved in Ukraine’s Euromaidan — the protests launched in November 2013 for closer integration with the European Union that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government in February — by presenting caricatures of sexually depraved and psychologically unstable “furies.” Revolution is portrayed as an outlet for their apparent repressed sexual drive and unhealthy aggression.

“Furies” runs the gamut of sexist accusations — sex used for professional advancement, inappropriate outfit choices and hysterical facial expressions, eyes and laughter. The narrator even suggests that journalist and activist Tetyana Chernovol’s much covered brutal attack was in fact self-inflicted mutilation to gain attention. Journalists and politicians are prime targets. NTV’s list of “furies” includes a Ukrainian anti-corruption journalist, two Ukrainian parliamentarians and a doctor who ran the Euromaidan medical treatment facility. It even reaches Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state, and Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s president, two outspoken supporters of Euromaidan. The program brands the last two with one of the worst slanders possible in the eyes of NTV: Western lesbians.

Deliberate misogyny

It’s not clear how many people worldwide watched “Furies,” but in Russia, Gazprom-Media estimates its channel’s viewership at 130 million. After the video was uploaded to NTV’s website on April 19, it continued to pick up thousands of views per day, reaching more than 64,000 plays in the first month. The video also received tens of thousands hits on YouTube. It is significant that NTV airs not only in Russia and is watched by Russian speakers in many former Soviet countries as well as in the U.S., Germany and Israel. Whereas since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, Putin’s image abroad has sharply fallen, at home his anti-Ukrainian propaganda machine has resulted in a 20 percent jump in his approval ratings since the beginning of the year, reaching a high of more than 80 percent.

By demonizing the women involved in Euromaidan, Russian propaganda undermines not just Ukraine’s recent revolution but female politicians and activists everywhere.

With one exception, the Western media has not paid attention to “Furies of Maidan.” This is both surprising — it’s perfect click bait — and an alarming indication of the lack of understanding outside Russia and Eastern Europe of how sexism goes hand in hand with the rise in homophobia and nationalism in Russia. When used as a tool of mass media, this overt and deliberate misogyny has a significant social impact. It signals that the government is actively defining gender roles and dictating what is an ideal woman. To imply that politically active and outspoken women are less feminine and mentally unstable is a linkage that is dangerous to spread, especially in a social context that does not often question many other gender stereotypes.

By demonizing the women involved in Euromaidan and relying on tired stereotypes, the show undermines not just Ukraine’s recent revolution but also female politicians and activists everywhere. In one scene, an elderly male professor of psychiatry informs the viewers that women who self-actualize through politics no longer need to be women in bed and will discard their husbands.

Back to the kitchen

After decades of Soviet state policy of gender equality that in effect promoted a double standard for women — as on the surface liberated in the workplace yet responsible for maintaining the household and caring for children — Russian society remains deeply patriarchal. Although women have mostly equal access to education and jobs in major cities, strict division between traditional male and female gender roles dominate popular culture and mass media. Advertisements and television programming present women as either hypersexualized or traditionally feminine and subservient keepers of the hearth. Differences between men and women are often explained as essential and natural, and grave problems with domestic violence and sexual harassment are overwhelmingly not addressed by the government and rarely addressed in public dialogue. In 2013 women made up only 13 percent of Russia’s parliamentarians.

In this context, telling Russia’s women that it is not ladylike to protest or seek political office further confines them and attempts to discourage more than half the country’s population from participating in anti-Putin demonstrations or running for political office in opposition to Putin’s cronies. Misogyny has, in short, become a tool to promote the Putin administration as well as anti-EU sentiment in eastern Ukraine.

This tactic becomes even more evident when the highest-ranking male politicians in both Russia and Ukraine make painfully sexist statements in their official capacity as leaders. Yanukovych once advised his political opponent Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, to go back to the kitchen. (He eventually decided that prison was a more suitable destination.) In 2012, before Putin granted amnesty to the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, he said, “If they had not broken the law, they would now be at home doing the housework.” This message isn’t confined to TV. A day before the premier of “Furies,” Russia’s controversial member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky attacked a pregnant journalist during a press conference, proclaiming her a victim of the “uterine frenzy” attributed to Euromaidan before instructing his subordinates to violently rape her. When he realized the journalist was pregnant, he told her to go home and that “we need healthy people at work.”

Now that Putin’s main Ukrainian ally is gone from power, it appears that the Kremlin and its supporters have taken matters into their own hands. Along with Putin’s homophobia and nationalism, misogyny is just as toxic a mechanism to which Kremlin-backed actors are increasingly resorting. Faced with these outrageous statements and “Furies,” one is left to wonder whether Putin really imagines a world without women in politics — or whether the message behind “Furies” is part of a larger strategy to cater to a socially conservative demographic in Russian-speaking populations. Perhaps Putin’s ideal is not a world devoid of what he sees as the weaker sex but one in which “weak” and “sexually deviant” women do not interfere with his imperialistic ambitions.

Antonina Vikhrest is a Fulbright fellow researching human rights and women’s access to justice in Ukraine. She has advocated for and monitored human rights issues with NGOs and international organizations in the U.S., Mexico, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Ukraine. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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