Hegemonic discourse is that which is widely understood, often taken as truth, and yet not necessarily true. US media—new sites, movies, music, popular culture in general—all work to set the hegemonic discourse for the country, and in many cases, work to establish negative images of that which is not American. Hegemonic discourse is most dangerous when it propagates stereotypes and false identities of those who struggle to have their own voices heard; the common example today is the conflation of Muslim, Arab, and Terrorist that many media outlets hawk to the general US population. Another is the conflation of Eastern Europe with villainy, and Nina Khrushcheva who “teaches at New York’s New School [and] follows how Russians are portrayed in American entertainment [estimates that] the prevalence of Russians as villains hasn’t really abated since the days of the Cold War” (Brook, 2014). Through the Western lens of movies produced within and extolling US culture—particularly action and political dramas—Eastern Europe is clearly defined as backwards, criminal, or evil. It seems nuclear plans are always falling into Eastern European hands or the protagonist just barely makes a clean getaway from the Russian mafia. Indeed, “from a sadistic former KGB operative in The Avengers to the Russian evildoers in A Good Day to Die Hard, there’s certainly been no shortage of Russian villains on screen” (Brook, 2014). What these portrayals distract from—other than a clear labeling of “other” toward Eastern Europeans—is the number of celebrated actors and actresses, such as Mila Kunis, who are from those same geographical locations. It seems that once made “American” their identity as “Eastern European” fails to threaten them. Hegemonic discourse, and that which favors certain individuals such as successful celebrities, fuels a double standard within US media to dictate what is “good” and what is “bad”.
As the Guardian points out, when Western news sources report on “the ‘propaganda’ activities of Vladimir Putin’s regime” (Robinson, 2016), they fail to acknowledge that their news is propaganda as well. In this way, Western cultures (predominantly those of Western Europe and the United States) work to reaffirm themselves as champions of truth and liberty, while reinforcing the backwardness of Eastern cultures. Yet, “a substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs” (Robinson, 2016), which should reveal that Western cultures are just as agenda-driven as the Eastern counterparts they point fingers at.
One may ask then where to begin debunking hegemonic discourse and how to pursue a more accurate portrayal of another culture’s experience. Feminism seems an unlikely place to find answers for some, but the study and analysis of gender in relation to power and global contexts renders some striking truths to the East-West paradigm. The same stereotypes that are applied to Eastern European villains in US movies are often reaffirm by Western feminists’ visions of Eastern European women. A simple first step to analyzing the misconceptions around Eastern Europe through the Western lens can be found in Tatiana Tolstaya’s “Women’s Lives” and Beth Holmgren’s article, “Bug Inspectors and Beauty Queens: The Problems of Translating Feminism into Russian”.
Tatiana Tolstaya works hard in her writing “Women’s Lives”—a response of Francine du Plessix Gray’s book, Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope—to dispel Western myths about Russian women, such as their constant oppression by men and emotional frigidity. However, she simultaneously creates the image of the Western feminist as banging down doors, seeking to tell Eastern European women that they are oppressed and ask what they will do about it (Tolstaya 2). The discourse of Western feminists seeking to ‘liberate’ non-Western women from their cultures exists for a reason, but it too is a stereotype to some degree. For as much good as Tolstaya’s article does to provide counter-discourse to the hegemonic images of Eastern European culture, it also demonizes Western feminists so much so as to risk alienate them. When taken to the extreme, her writing could work the same way Western discourse works to define Eastern European feminists, but in the reverse.
Beth Holmgren, a professor at Duke University, expressed sentiments that Tolstaya “penned this grim portrait of Western feminists” (Holmgren 2) and then she looked to see how someone who identifies as a Western feminist could take Tolstaya’s writing and seek a middle ground. She writes that both Eastern and Western Feminists should recognize that they have differences in their predominant experiences and ideas of oppression. By recognizing this, both groups can benefit from the sharing of ideas and information with each other. Holmgren suggests that,
“Russian women can learn much from Western women’s struggles to participate in and reform different capitalist and democratic systems. In equal turn, Western women can learn much from Russian women’s long experience balancing the multiple burdens of family, home, and job and their effective involvement with other social and political causes” (Holmgren 8).
Through combining and attempting to see the oppressions and experiences of both groups of women, Holmgren actively works to diminishes the power of hegemonic discourse. Therefore, by examining feminist writings from both the United States and Eastern Europe, one can begin to build a discourse counter to the homogeny produced by mainstream US media. When looking for further directions to take to dispel hegemonic discourse from media outlets, Piers Robinson reaffirms feminism’s analytical power when he writes that, “in an age when think tanks and “public relations” experts dominate media output, it might also be time to engage academics more fully as sources of (relatively) independent comment and analysis” (Robinson, 2016).
Brook, Tom. “Hollywood stereotypes: Why are Russians the bad guys?” BBC – Culture. BBC, 5
Nov. 2014. Web.
Holmgren, Beth. “Bug Inspectors and Beauty Queens: The Problems of Translating Feminism
into Russian.” Genders 22 (1995): 1-15.
Robinson, Piers. “Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media.”
Guardian News and Media, 02 Aug. 2016. Web.
Tolstaya, Tatiana. “Women’s Lives.” Pushkin’s Children. Trans. Jamey Gambrell. 2003.