Putin subdues a Siberian tiger! Putin flies a jet fighter! Putin defeats opponents in martial arts! Putin fishes and rides horseback — shirtless!
As Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidated power during his first three terms in office, the media regularly painted him as a macho superhero. The purpose of these displays is to represent Putin as a strong, decisive leader who can be counted upon to solve challenging problems with a convincing mixture of cool levelheadedness and the credible threat to use force as needed. He is portrayed as a masculine leader who is re-masculinizing Russia, after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.
But “masculinity” is not only about what men do. A male politician’s “manly” image can also be enhanced by portrayals of attractive young women’s support for him. And Putin’s image makers have embraced this tactic.
In 2010, as a gift for Putin’s birthday, twelve female students and alumni of Moscow State University’s prestigious journalism department published a calendar featuring photos of themselves in lingerie, each woman suggesting herself as a potential lover for Putin. “You put the forest fires out, but I’m still burning,” smiled a student illustrating the month of March. In a similar vein, in 2011, an all-female group called “Putin’s Army” announced an “I’ll Rip [it] for Putin” contest via an Internet video clip that ended with a cleavage-boasting young woman ripping open her tank top to demonstrate her dedication to Putin.
That same month, a bikini car wash took place in Moscow in Putin’s honor, where scantily-clad young women from the “I really do like Putin” group volunteered to wash Russian-made cars for free. It appears that Putin’s Army and the “I really do like Putin” group may not have been spontaneous manifestations of support for Putin. Kremlin-sponsored youth group, Nashi, reportedly funded Putin’s Army along with a range of other pro-Putin web projects, according to emails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous. Unsurprisingly, this has not been confirmed by the Kremlin.
In 2011, Putin’s Army continued its activity by filming a video for Putin’s birthday. Promising that their birthday gift would be “the sweetest,” a handful of women wearing only underpants and white button-down shirts were shown baking their idol a chocolate birthday cake (decorated with a heart) while squirting whipped cream into their mouths.
In early October 2012, the United Russia party’s youth wing, Young Guard, produced a video featuring attractive young women mimicking a variety of Putin’s “manly” exploits. The video upheld Putin’s image as a highly desirable man from the standpoint of the women, who grew giddy at the prospect of seeing him in person.
“A male politician’s ‘manly’ image can also be enhanced by portrayals of attractive young women’s support for him.”
The latest “spontaneous” outpouring of love for Putin from a female fan appeared on YouTube in late January 2015 in the form of a new song by Mashani, a Russian female singer from Novosibirsk. The catchy pop tune, “My Putin“ (Moi Putin), lauds Putin for his fearless ability to face the “war that threatens on all fronts” and for his willingness to “challenge” those who stand in the way of his goals. In the music video, a tall slender woman with ribbons in her long hair wears a tricolor dress patterned after the Russian flag and proclaims her delight that Putin has taken Crimea, and — more surprisingly — that he’s going to “revive the Union.”
She is also shown in a blue-and-yellow dress — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — looking alarmed and sad, trapped inside a bombed-out brick building, seeking help from Putin. The chorus, which she sings in the guise of both “Ukraine” and “Russia,” in her different outfits, brings together Putin’s machismo in foreign policy and his appeal as a man. Her lyrics:
You’re Putin.I want to be with you.I’m calling after you.My Putin, my dear Putin,Take me with you.
Such examples show how female sexuality has been used in the service of male political authority in Putin’s Russia. Pro-Kremlin activists have mobilized female sexuality in various ways to show Putin’s desirability both as a man and as a state leader.
Another means of mobilizing gender stereotypes in politics is to undermine opponents by questioning their manliness. In one such instance, in 2011, a pro-Putin youth group named “Stal’” (Steel) went out in Moscow with a petition asking people to have the prosecutor’s office investigate charges that the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov had been raped while serving a 15-day jail sentence for participating in an opposition rally. The group had no evidence that such abuse occurred. With this rather unsubtle example of political sleight-of-hand, Stal’ in effect “accused” Nemtsov of being the victim of sexual abuse and thus of being insufficiently “masculine” to fend off attackers (or perhaps, even being a willing participant in gay male sex).
“Putin is portrayed as a masculine leader who is re-masculinizing Russia, after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Putin also used homophobia to confront the masses of protestors who flooded Moscow’s streets objecting to widespread fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011. During Putin’s annual call-in TV show in 2011, Putin jested that he thought the protestors’ white ribbons (which stood for clean elections) looked like condoms and that perhaps the vast crowd of protestors were actually AIDS activists. His remarks were intended to paint the protestors as gay, thereby rendering them objects of ridicule in the context of Russian state-sponsored homophobia.
Similar tactics appear in foreign policy when gender-related imprecations are lobbed against world leaders. Putin, for example, used homophobic terms to dismiss Georgia’s Rose Revolution (a democratizing effort in 2003), when he responded to a reporter’s question about Georgia by saying, “A rose revolution — next they’ll come up with a light blue one!” In Russian, “light blue” is slang for “gay male.” Putin’s ally in that conflict, the president of South Ossetia, likewise remarked about Georgia’s president, “Saakashvili is far from having democratic values — not to speak of male ones — he doesn’t have any of those at all.”
An emblematic example of this approach of putting down the “masculinity” of your foreign opponents appeared in the Twittersphere in 2014. Just after the U.S. imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia, and in the wake of the shooting down of Flight MH-17 in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted out a pair of photos side by side. One showed Putin holding and petting a leopard, while the other depicted Barack Obama holding and cuddling a white poodle. The caption read, “We have different values and different allies.”
“When ‘masculinity’ is at stake at home or abroad, especially in armed conflicts, we had all best be aware of it before urging our politicians on to victory over the other team.”
Such tactics are by no means unique to Russia. Interviewed on Fox News in March 2014, Sarah Palin compared Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in gendered terms. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” she said. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Palin went on to condemn Obama for his “weak leadership” and inability to understand “peace through strength.” In so doing, Palin was criticizing the President by questioning his manliness in conjunction with his policy choices.
When political actors wield gender norms this way, they are wrangling over the ownership and attribution of masculinity and femininity, and over the masculine strength and power of leaders. Painting a male leader as being “feminine” — that is, as being insufficiently strong and insufficiently “masculine” — undermines his authority in a way that’s easy for people raised on sexist and homophobic stereotypes, as most of us are, to grasp.
Tough, “manly” leaders are typically perceived as being best able to handle a crisis. And this paves the way for the escalation of conflicts, like the one in Ukraine. It enables the macho dictum that “You don’t back down” to prevail. When ‘masculinity’ is at stake at home or abroad, especially in armed conflicts, we had all best be aware of it before urging our politicians on to victory over the other team.