Na Labutenah: Russian Society in 6 minutes

by Lisa Gaufman

The video clip “Eksponat” (showpiece) released by the Russian rock group ‘Leningrad’ became a viral sensation within days. A catchy tune with Leningrad’s trademark obscene language tells the story of a woman who is going to various cultural events like the Mariinsky theatre and a Van Gogh exhibit wearing Chistian Louboutin shoes (‘na Labytenah’) and ‘f****** awesome pants’, where she is supposed to be the exhibit’s ‘showpiece’, at least compared to the rest of the women there. The video clip with more than 30 million views became an instant sensation and even created a minor PR scandal when managers of the actual Van Gogh exhibit in Moscow offered women wearing high heel shoes free tickets. There are different opinions on the video: some consider it anti-feminist, some just tragicomic, but there is no doubt that the creators of the video managed to capture the essence of a number of issues and maladies of Russian post-Soviet society.

The video itself shows a woman who is preparing for a date with a seemingly wealthy man. She vigorously engages in painful beauty procedures, trying to lose wait in two hours before the meeting, screaming at her mother for giving birth to her ‘with such a big ass’, and badgering her female friend to bring her ‘Labuteny’ – a knock-off of an expensive French shoe brand. In order to pass off as a young woman of ‘status’, she applies lots of makeup, fake eyelashes and even paints the soles of the shoes red to pass off as the real deal. In the end pride comes before the fall: after putting on the ‘Labuteny’ the heroine falls, loses consciousness and injures her leg. Despite a bleeding nose and inability to stand on her feet, she fixes her makeup, crawls to the door and answers the caller at the door, while having day dreams of marrying the man she is about to meet for the first time.

No country for feminism

An international audience unfamiliar with Russian social mores might very well be shocked by how shallow women are represented in the clip. The heroine seems to care only about the way she will look for her date, lies about her ‘rich daddy’, strives to marry a wealthy man and doesn’t know anything about art, misnaming pastel colours. The fact that the heroine’s dreams seem to be reduced to a marriage with a seemingly rich man reflects a popular Western stereotype of Russian ‘mail order brides’ and Russian society’s stigmatization of unmarried women.

The lyrics, even though performed by a female singer, are also quite misogynist. The protagonist calls other women in the Mariinsky theatre ‘tyolki’ (female cows), which is the way men usually call sexually attractive women. This term is particularly galling because of the recent ‘tyolka-gate’, when an oppositional and liberal mass media outlet Meduza referred to women using this term. It sparked an intensive debate in Russian-language digital media, with numerous male journalists wondering why women should get offended if they are only referenced through their sexual appeal.

Footage of the heroine’s futile attempts to fit into the ‘f****** awesome pants’ also show that she has a hard time fitting into the beauty standards and the persona that she strives to emulate. At the same time, the language of the heroine and of the song reflect a very poor command of Russian, and the profusion of obscenities combined with shabby accommodation suggest a an underprivileged upbringing. In contrast to the female protagonist, who needs more than two hours to become ‘worthy’ of her date, including a number of sadistic beauty procedures and home remedies that even make her throw up, the man she will be meeting doesn’t need to prepare for the date: he is shown at the office, working (the only character in the video to have a job), and one assumes that he will simply pick her up on the way.

Hello, World

The video shows that Russians live in a very westernized and globalized world. A sign of an ‘elite’ partner is his or her awareness for brands: the most important part of the outfit is the French luxury company. Even the heroine’s idol is Victoria Beckham – a British pop star and designer. Ultimately, the fact the heroine falls from her shoes can also be regarded as a metaphor for a colossus on clay feet: she cannot maintain her status as a rich woman and gets badly hurt in the process. This also shows the fragility of a female construct: just a few years stand between the heroine’s tireless beauty procedures and her becoming a stay at home wife with rollers in her hair – just like her mother.

The heroine’s room is supposed to look stereotypically ‘female’ with many stuffed toys, projecting the heroine’s immaturity and childishness. Moreover, the room is only half renovated: the one that the heroine shows to her ‘future husband’ on Skype looks minimalist and European, while the rest of it shows typical Soviet artefacts and furniture. This could also be seen as a metaphor for Russian society: seemingly reformed, but with a lingering Soviet legacy.

Another passing theme is the heroine’s disgust to bread that made ‘her ass too big’. Her mother’s response is that she won’t tolerate this kind of attitude to bread as her own mother survived the siege of Leningrad. This short interaction shows that even in questions of diet the traumatic memory of the Great Patriotic War comes to the fore. Another lasting effect from the war is the skewed demographics: the shortage of men as a result of the war caused a fierce competition among women. The legacy of this phenomenon is still visible in Leningrad’s video.

Moscow, we have a problem

The most disturbing part of the video is that it is a very convenient tool in inward misogyny, i.e., women shaming women. Being a part of a macho patriarchal culture is hard, so a lot of women side with the desirable and hierarchically higher in-group – men – and re-affirm female objectification and disparagement. Another popular example of women shaming is the LiveJournal blog by Lena Myro, where a supposedly female author constantly engages in rants about ‘inferior’ women, that she calls ‘kuricy’ (hens), who, like the heroine of the Leningrad’s video are intellectually challenged and primarily concerned with marriage. Especially telling in both cases are animal metaphors: women are ranked even lower than primates.

Thus, what this video and its popularity show is that Russian society is rife with patriarchal culture and woman shaming is an acceptable practice. Moreover, even though the video mocks misogynist stereotypes and consumerist values, whereby a person’s worth is based on the type of brands he or she wears, it is still a very common point of view. A glimpse of hope in this video is still present: in order to be an elite partner one has to be a connoisseur of culture. The fact that the protagonist goes to the theatre and art exhibit is an important indicator that wearing ‘Labuteny’ is luckily not enough.

Elizaveta Gaufman received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on the exploration of verbal and visual enemy images through big data analysis, combining international relations theory with media and cultural studies.

Twitter: @lisas_research

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