(This post is adapted from a presentation at the Davidson College Queer Russia Symposium on February 17, 2018)
In the middle of January, freshmen cadets at an aviation academy in Ulyanovsk (a provincial town bearing Lenin’s original last name), posted a clip inspired both by the Benny Benassi’s 2002 “Satisfaction” and a 2013 all-male British army parody, surely never intending to become the latest flashpoint in contemporary Russian culture wars.
With the benefit of hindsight, it should surprise no one that this became a cause celebre on Russian social media. And, in a climate of increased censorship and selective prudishness, the responses from Russian officialdom were even more predictable. “It’s a tragedy,” declared famous aviator Magomed Tolboev. “It’s a mockery. I would even compare it with Pussy Riot, when they made a mockery of the cathedral. And this is a cathedral of science.” The Rector of the Ulyanovsk Aviation Institute, Sergei Krasnov, agreed. “This is a great insult to the Ulyanovsk region, and to veterans.”
The connection to Pussy Riot, the most infamous example of young people in Russia appropriating a public space without a hint of solemnity, is to be expected. Calling a freshman dorm a “cathedral of science,” on the other hand, only makes sense if you’ve never actually been to a freshman dorm. Indeed, critics of the boys (and if everyone in Russian could call Pussy Riot “girls,” I have no problem calling these students “boys”) were at great pains to construct a notion of the public sacred on the fly, as it were: the head of the Samara Flight Club called the clip “a scandal for aviation. Perhaps this would be forgivable by children, but not by people who are dedicating their lives to aviation.” Granted, this works in part because of the Stalin-era cult of aviators. But it is also part and parcel to the general official response to perceived cynicism. The answer to the question, “Is nothing sacred?” has apparently become, “Everything is sacred.”
Sadly for the guardians of Russian public morality, this was not the end of the story. Soon people throughout the Russian Federation began posting their own “Satisfaction” clips, initiating a viral video campaign that, in a departure from the original English usage, Russians call a “flashmob”. I don’t have time to show them all to you, but for those of you who do not read Russian, I suggest taking a look at Masha Gessen’s New Yorker post on the subject, which includes links to videos made by construction students, agricultural students, emergency workers, stable jocks, a theater troupe, nurses, and, most delightfully, two headscarved and housedress-bedecked babushki in a St. Petersburg communal apartment. As a dedicated binge-watcher and meticulous completist, I have to echo Gessen’s recommendation to watch the videos in production order if you want to get all the satisfaction these videos can provide.
After years of unrelenting Russian media attacks on the LGBT community (not to mention the ever-increasing rates of physical attacks for which the anti-gay campaign provides cover), what could be more heartening than apparently ordinary Russians showing solidarity with a group of boys who so comfortably inhabited a two-minute homoerotic performance? Could actual tolerance, or even acceptance, be in reach, somewhere over the rainbow?
Blue Oyster Cults
Well, not so fast. It is true that some of the defenses of the Satisfaction boys have come in the face of anti-LGBT attacks. Certainly, Gessen’s story of the clip’s condemnation by identically pantsuited sexologist sisters deserves a video campaign of its own. A number of media commentators, both pro- and anti-Satisfaction, compare the performance to something one might see at the Moscow “Blue Oyster” bar, a gay nightspot whose name is both a gay pun in Russian and apparently inspired by a scene from the first Police Academy movie. Writing for the venerable extremist newspaper Zavtra, Roman Iliushchenko notes that the boys are obviously dressed in the uniform of “masochist f*ggots,” before speculating a connection between the release of the video and Sergei Krasnov’s cancellation of a contract with an American aviation company. But most of the criticisms I’ve seen have less to do with the boys’ supposed sexual orientation than their imperfect masculinity. One letter-writer to Komsmolskaia Pravda sees Satisfaction as the “natural result of of the repression of men’s masculinity,” noting that the infamous, victim-eating serial killer Andrei Chikatilo was humiliated as a child by his mother’s insistence on dressing him in women’s stockings. In the Soviet 50s, listening to jazz records and wearing zoot suits was just a short step away from betraying the motherland; today, it seems that childhood crossdressing and college-age twerking are the first steps on the road to cannibalism.
But the defense of the Satisfaction video is not waged on gendered grounds. Few bother to respond to attacks on the boys’ masculinity, and virtually no one who defends them is arguing that the video is, indeed, “gay propaganda” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). According to the logic of the pro-Satisfaction camp, the problem with the naysayers is not homophobia; the problem is that they are the enemies of fun. Indeed, the very title of the clip (“Satisfaction”) would seem to reveal just what it is that its critics oppose: pleasure. What, the defenders ask, is wrong with playful, erotic dancing? It turns out that the boys’ supporters are not enacting a virtual Stonewall uprising; rather, they are unwittingly reenacting the plot of Footloose.
As Gessen and others have already noted, the spirit animating the Satisfaction viral campaign and the on-line statements of support share an ethos with the 2012-2013 protest movement, whose tactics often included expressing serious discontent in a clever, meme-worthy, and superficially non-serious manner. We should also recall that one of the earliest repressive measures enacted soon after Putin came to power was the cancellation of a long-running satirical television program that used puppets to mock the powerful. The Satisfaction supporters are definitely fighting for something, but it is not LGBT rights: they are fighting for the right to be frivolous. And, in an atmosphere of pompous, self-righteously serious political and cultural pronouncements by politicians and media figures, in an atmosphere that demands that the state and its officials be treated with the utmost seriousness, the right to be frivolous is no frivolous matter.
But we should not mistake this for progressive-style coalition-building. Instead, the pro-Satisfaction camp is implicitly motivated by two key features: heterosexual privilege and the persistence of gay invisibility. This may sound perverse, and while I’m more than comfortable with perversity, that is not my intent. Quite to the contrary: it is about the unwillingness to see “perversity” when it is being performed right before one’s own eyes.
Boys Keep Swinging
Let me start with my own, personal, American reaction to the first time I saw that video. My first thought was, “There can’t possibly be that large a community of out, gay freshmen at the Ulyanovsk Aviation Institute, can there?” Perhaps my response is not just American, but over-the-hill: when I was growing up, before the days of Gay-Straight Alliances and the like, the idea that a bunch of straight boys could do a performance like this that was not explicitly mocking gays was unthinkable. Masculinity is too fragile an attribute to risk on a note-perfect performance of queerness.
As it turns out, though, straight masculinity is precarious and requires collective vigilance much more when male homosexuality is accepted as a fact of life than it does when gayness is all but unthinkable. I saw gayness in the Satisfaction video because I expect to see gayness now and then as a matter of course, and it doesn’t significantly refine my assessment of the people I’m viewing. But what most Russian commentators and netizens saw was something quite different: a bunch of boys who, by definition, are assumed to be straight. Gay men are so demonized in current Russian mass culture that they simply cannot be the boys next door.
No matter how homoerotic their dancing, the boys’ defenders generally allow no room to doubt their heterosexuality. Seen as a dance performed by straight men, the Satisfaction video is immediately assimilated to the tradition of cross-dressing and gender-bending as comedy. Satisfaction is a drag performance that makes us broaden our understanding of drag. Traditional drag, cross-dressing as we see on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, is, though transgressive and playful, an essentially serious endeavor: it requires a commitment to the form. Casual, humorous drag has a long tradition in Russia and America; look no further than Rudy Giuliani dressing in women’ clothing without any suggestion of queerness. In Satisfaction, the boys are engaging in what we might call “gay drag”—straight men adopting behaviors and clothing we would typically interpret as “gay.” What is most refreshing about this particular gay drag is that the straight men are, well, playing it straight: their dance is humorous, but not because it is making fun of gayness. It simple adopts gayness the way RuPaul puts on a frock.
Contrast this to the Russian social media scandal of the bearded Austrian cross-dresser Conchita Wurst’s victory in the 2014 Eurovision contest, shortly after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the Russian anexation of Crimea and not long after Russia’s adoption of the gay propaganda law. Conchita’s victory was seen as a slap in the face not just of traditional masculinity, but of Russia. The resulting viral campaign to get men to shave off beards was minor compared to the Satisfaction campaign, at least in part because the pro-masculinity, anti-beard message was rather muddled. No one ever questioned that Conchita was gay, putting her in a completely different category from the Ulyanovsk boys.
The Ullyanovsk boys, however, are consistenly read as straight. Or, more accurately, they are not read at all. By virtue of their identity as a group, they could do anything short of actually having sex with each other on tape, and their sexual orientation would remain unquestioned. The group aspect is critical: if any one of those boys had performed a solo video to the song, adopting a gay aesthetic could have opened them up to suspicion, since any group could have “one bad apple.” But all of them? This may be the greatest irony of the performers’ presumptive orientation: what is it that shields a near-naked, fetish-garbed dancing boy from suspicions of homosexuality? The presence of so many near-naked, fetish-garbed dancing boys all around them. An isolated boy could reveal a solitary sin, but homosociality renders gayness all but unthinkable. The boys may be dancing next to each other and even touching, but the space between them shouts out a confident “no homo.”
So how queer are the Satisfaction videos, or at least, the video that started the movement? In this case, only superficially. I would not be susprised if a very large number of the boys’ supporters would be perfectly happy seeing homosexuals imprisoned. But straight boys? Leave them alone. All they want to do is dance.