Don’t Believe What You’re Told—The Intersection of US Media and Eastern Europe Through a Western Feminist Lens

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).

Works Cited:

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.

Deirdre McGovern

Eastern Versus Western Feminism: How Western Feminists Impose Feminism on the East

The word feminism is tricky to define in a global concept. There are so many women in this world, and feminism is claiming to bring equality to each of those women. This sounds great in theory, but in reality how can one feminist theory apply to the varying types of women in the world. This has become a major disparity between different cultures, mainly with Western women from the UK or US monopolizing the word feminism and what it means in the global context. This dominance leaves women from other countries to either identify with Western feminism or refer to themselves as a non-feminist. By definition, feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men (Oxford, online). This broad definition does not include specific goals or things women are fighting to change, but it has become something that Western culture has come to define and shape to their own needs and beliefs. This post will examine the inadequacies of feminism and why it fails to fit into Eastern culture, specifically within Poland.

 

Two feminists Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman discuss this disparity in their essay “Have We Got a Theory for You.” This article is addresses the dominance of white/Anglo women within the Feminist movement, and how minorities are not as well represented. The article uses the voice of a Hispanic women to discuss the disparities within feminism, and it brings into question the lack of intersectionality within feminism. Intersectionality addresses the different characteristics a woman may possess that make up her identity, including race, gender, class, ability, or ethnicity (Oxford, online). This means looking at a woman as more than just a gender, but as a person with different elements within her life that may influence her desires, beliefs, and ideals. Western Feminism according to Lugones and Spelman has “arisen not, for the most part, arisen out of a medley of women’s voices; instead, the theory has arisen out of the voices, the experiences, of a fairly small handful of women, and if other women’s voices do not sing in harmony with the theory, they aren’t counted as women’s voices’ (Lugones and Spelman, 19). They are emphasizing the white/Anglo women’s dominance in deciding the beliefs of feminism, and how it affects other women. Feminism has become a word that is associated with a specific group of women and their definition of equality within government, the economy, and society as a whole. In one section of Lugones and Spelman’s reading the voice of a Hispanic women addresses white women’s dominance, “you theorize about women and we are women, so you understand yourself to be theorizing about us, and we understand you to be theorizing about us” (Lugones and Spelman). While this specific quote is the voice of a Hispanic women, it stands to represent all those women who feel as though feminism has become a term that they, as a woman, do not feel protected by.

 

The inclusion of others is the main inadequacy of feminism, as well as the lack of solutions. Third World Women and the Inadequacies of Western Feminism” by Ethel Crowley discusses how “more time and effort is spent on ideological nit-picking than on the formulation of strategies to redress the problems they highlight” (Crowley, 17). This comes from there being a broad amount of women under the word feminism, and its’ struggle to firmly define what the goals are of feminism because they are so many different types of women. This article further focuses on the idea that it is “not useful to apply theoretical concepts in a fixed, determinate way because this leads to a kind of ‘monoism’” (Crowley, 19). Like Lugones and Spelman, Crowley is addressing the singularities within feminism and how one solution cannot fit all. There are many different cultures within our society with different histories, religions, and cultural beliefs that make defining equality and how to achieve it very difficult. Western women isolate other women from their definition of feminism, and it does not help them advance in the Western terms of feminism. This, however, is a major issue that occurs between Western women and women from other cultures. The sense of superiority and moral righteousness that Western women feel they have earned through their feminist writings and actions can come across as arrogant and frankly, very American. It is almost ignorant how much Americans believe they know best, and feminism seems to be another place where this occurs. Of course, an American myself, I do believe that feminism can help women with unfortunate circumstances rise above their oppressors, but it also means that I have specific ideas of what oppression is and what is not.

 

Rosalind Marsh, a professor of Russian Studies at the University of Bath, discusses this relationship between Eastern and Western women in terms of feminism in her essay Polish Feminism in an East-West Context. According to Marsh, “Western feminists have sometimes offended women in Central and Eastern Europe by implying that they know ‘the truth’ or by concentrating on certain issues that have not been particularly important to women in the regions (such as pornography), as opposed to the survival strategies and reproductive rights that are closer to the experience of the women in the post-Socialist countries” (Marsh, 53). Both of these points have been key issues in the discussion of the inadequacies of feminism, and have become some of the main reasons why feminism has not become a term women widely associate themselves with in Eastern Europe. “Some of the problem may be due to the term feminism itself–even in the West many women regard it as being associated with such stereotypes as hairy man hating lesbians (Marsh, 48). The stereotypes of feminism may be part of the issue, as well as the term feminism and its connotations in regards to who it benefits. Throughout her reading, Marsh highlights the historical differences that occurred in Poland, such as communism and the illegalization of abortion. These historic differences meant that Polish women are growing up in an environment than Western society, and their societal roles mean that they are not fighting for the same equalities as Western women. The Communist era, for example, meant that women were allowed in the workforce but it created the double burden for Polish women. The double burden is the duty a woman feels burdened with by taking care of her household, her husband and children, along with working a job. This meant that while Western women were fighting for their right to be in the workplace, Polish women were already in that position, but were looking for other ways to look out for themselves and their family. Plus, the political involvement of women then became known as the triple burden, which included the home, work, along with political involvement.

 

Feminism is a word that in its broad definition promises to fight for equality for all women, but that definition does not take into consideration the many different women within our society. The differences Rosalind Marsh presented were only limited to Polish society, and showed how Western feminism does not fit the mold of the common Polish woman. Perhaps it is because people get so hung up on the word feminism and not the meaning behind it; maybe if every country was able to create its own word for feminism there may be some more advancements, but there will always be different voices wanting different things, and one or two voices that dominate that conversation. Although it sounds pessimistic, trying to change existing ideologies is always going to be difficult, especially when people’s beliefs about how to change them vary depending on who they are, where they’re from, or what they believe in.

Bibliography

Crowley, Ethel. “Third World Women and the Inadequacies of Western Feminism.” Global Research. Global Research, Mar.-Apr. 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

Lugones, Marcia C. and Elizabeth V. Spelman Have we got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for “The Woman’s Voice.” Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy. Wadsworth Publishing Company: California. 1986.

Marsh, Rosalind. “Women’s Voices and Feminism in Polish Cultural Memory.” Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Newcastle. 2012.

Unknown. “Oxford Dictionary” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com Accessed October 4 2016.

Domestic Violence and Abuse Under Patriarchy

Domestic violence occurs everywhere. It occurs in the United States; it occurs in Europe. It occurs in Africa, Asia, and South America. Wherever there are people, there is domestic violence. Domestic violence is constituted by the perpetration of violence in a household or family setting, by a partner or family member.[1] According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “victims and survivors often experience more than one form of violence (i.e. physical, sexual, psychological, economic).”[1]

Recent research has shown that levels of domestic abuse abroad are higher than those in the U.S. According to the CDC, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) affects more than 12 million people each year.[2] Between 1994 and 2010, approximately 80% of victims of IPV were female.[2] The statistic we’ll use to compare the U.S. and foreign is this: 23.3% of women in the United States (approximately 1 in 4) have reported being victim to violence.[2]

The figure below represents research done by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights through the Violence Against Women survey administered in 2012. It shows, by EU Member State, the percentage of women who admitted they had experienced violence by a partner or non-partner since the age of 15 years. Countries with the highest percentages of violence against women were Scandinavian, not Eastern European. However, Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and other Balkan states reported violence percentages between 30% and 40%, numbers which are much higher than U.S. averages.[3] Notably, research by the UNFPA identifies sources of reporting bias among victims of domestic violence in Eastern Europe. The UNFPA cites a “lack of trust in state-run institutions” and institutional incompetence between police, judges, and health professionals to properly report acts of violence as impetus of reporting bias among victims in Eastern Europe, specifically.[1] Survivors of domestic violence in this region are often subject to victim-blaming or imprisonment upon reporting their experiences. Reporting bias helps to explain the percentage differential between Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and suggests that the Eastern European percentage of women who have experienced domestic violence is compromised in the data, and is much greater in reality. But what is driving these instances of violence against women in Eastern Europe? Our studies strongly point to one factor: common, patriarchal, societal frameworks.

 

© FRA - All Rights Reserved - FRA gender-based violence against women survey dataset, 2012 | Yes | All : All
© FRA – All Rights Reserved – FRA gender-based violence against women survey dataset, 2012 | Yes | All : All

 

We saw a prime example of abuse in Agnieszka Holland’s film, A Woman Alone.[6] The film chronicles the life of Irena, a single woman and mother living in utter destitution in a newly post-communist Poland. As a consequence of her inferiority (due to social class and sex), throughout her entire life, Irena was subjected to physical and verbal abuse. From the context of the movie, we know that she was hit by both her father, ex-husband, and lover; she was physically restrained by a Communist Party member; she was verbally abused by her elderly aunt. Two scenes illustrate her horrendous experiences with physical abuse, in particular.

One night her ex-lover returns to see their son. Upon his arrival, regardless of the presence of another man, Irena feels incredibly threatened. The fear she exhibits is jarring. His presence threatens her safety. She fears he will hit her and it will not be the first time. Her body language and facial expressions indicate helplessness and learned submission. In another heated scene, her current lover, Jacek, is angered and strikes her hard in the face. Immediately afterwards, she simply sits in silence. She did not cry. She did not fight back. This reaction indicated that she had adopted a learned response to such occurrences from her excessive experience with abuse. Irena recognizes abuse as an inherent property of her life.[7] Physical domination of women due to their perceived inferiority to men has rooted itself deeply into the Eastern European mindset. Eastern European women, just like Irena, are perpetually the casualties of domestic violence. 

The physical and verbal abuse of women appears, throughout history, as a ubiquitous characteristic of Eastern European culture. It is the result of a patriarchal framework that has underlined the entirety of Eastern European society and culture for centuries.[9] This patriarchal framework breeds attitudes and social norms of acceptance of domestic violence and abuse. These attitudes and social norms support stereotypical, female gender roles. Women are seen as the inferior sex. Women are solely keepers of the hearth and home, bearers of children, and caretakers of family. They are slave to the domestic, but also the domestic authority. To their husbands, women are the “formidable opponent” of the domestic realm, an opponent which must be stifled and oppressed by all means.[4] Due to patriarchal attitudes and social norms, domestic violence is perceived as normal and an effective strategy to assert authority and resolve conflict. If a wife argues with her husband, acts with excessive independence, fails to maintain the home, or neglects her domestic duties abuse seems justified. It is regarded as a method of communicating that a woman has neither a place nor authority outside the home and her duties therein. 

One piece of literary evidence is the Domostroi, or “Law of Home.”[5] The Domostroi is a sixteenth century text that was distributed to all Russian households. It provided thorough instructions for men on how to physically abuse their wives.[4]  According to the UNFPA, Eastern Europe is currently seeing a reemergence of conservatism regarding stereotyped gender norms and roles of women. This has heavily contributed to the reinforcement of strict gender roles and the perpetuity of IPV within the domestic realm.[1]

One current and poignant example of this patriarchal framework to February of 2015 in Poland. At this time, Poland’s lawmakers narrowly approved the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention requires the government of any ratified country to penalize domestic violence, aid victims, and teach children about tolerance and equal rights between sexes in society.[8] Polish critics of the convention were reported as interpreting its intentions as challenging the traditional, established gender roles of men and women of Catholic Poland.[8] Conservative lawmakers feared that this convention threatened the historical, patriarchal framework the nation has embodied for centuries. By extension, they feared that some of the convention’s regulations would undermine Poland’s traditional roles of motherhood in the domestic sphere.[8] Although the convention was passed, and then ratified in 2015, it holds that there is a large constituency pushing to keep women vulnerable and inferior in their prescribed gender roles as domestic laborer and mother. The UNFPA posits that it is these “prevailing cultural and patriarchal attitudes” which “manifest in failing to protect victims and survivors and prevent domestic violence from occurring.”[1]

The products of patriarchal societies, Eastern European women have learned not to take up arms when a man asserts his dominance, whether his actions are overtly abusive or not.[7] For these women it is not the bruises or sores that remain, but the emotional burden created by these experiences. The social and psychological consequences of their experiences with domestic violence are something that these women carry with them their entire lives.[7]


Works Cited

[1] “Combatting Violence against Women and Girls in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.” (n.d.): n. pag. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (2015). 9 Dec. 2016.

[2] “Intimate Partner Violence: Consequences.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 03 Mar. (2015). Web. 9 Dec. 2016.

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/consequences.html

[3] Violence against Women: An EU-wide Survey: Main Results. Vienna, Austria: FRA, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2014). Web.

http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-eu-wide-survey-main-results-report

[4] Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston. “The Domostroi.” Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. (1994).

[5] du Plessix Gray, Francine. Soviet women: Walking the tightrope. Anchor. (1991). Pg 117.

[6] Kobieta Samotna. Dir. Agnieszka Holland. Perf. Maria Chwalibóg, Boguslaw Linda. (1987). DVD.

[7] Graff, A. Untitled. Untitled Blog Post. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. (2016). Web.

[8] Press, Associated. “Poland OKs Law against Domestic Violence after Fiery Debate.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 06 Feb. (2015). Web. 09 Dec. 2016.

http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2015/02/06/poland-oks-law-against-domestic-violence-after-fiery-debate

[9] Graff, A. Untitled. Untitled Midterm Paper. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. (2016).

Anna Graff