Vladimir Putin hasn’t been having much luck with female anatomy lately.
Rest assured that I’m not resurrecting any of the old rumors of infidelities, or anything to do with his actual wife (the first lady is photographed so infrequently she may as well be bodiless). Nor would I suggest that the sober diagrams of Our Bodies, Our Selves would solve his problems (even if reading the entire book could go a long way). Our leaders work best for us when their bodies can be seen as primarily symbolic: they should be composed entirely of exteriors, with no reference whatsoever to the area Mikhail Bakhtin so delicately termed the “lower bodily stratum.” Probably nothing could have helped Jimmy Carter at the end of his term, but it’s a safe bet that the nightly news reports about his hemorrhoid surgery weren’t particularly helpful. And the viewers who asked Bill Clinton the infamous “boxers or briefs” question certainly had no idea that in just a few short years they would have detailed information about the contents of the presidential drawers.
Putin projects a carefully-managed image of rugged masculinity. Whether baring his chest, catching an opponent in a judo hold, diving for (fake) buried treasure, or posing with a veritable menagerie of not-so-wild animals, the Russian leader has starred in enough beefcake shots to fill more than one “Putin of the Month” calendar. Meanwhile, the state-controlled media (even tamer than Putin’s animal friends) have flattered his vanity with numerous depictions of beautiful women expressing their fawning good wishes for the country’s main man.
Yet Putin’s second term is starting to be defined by challenges from women. And not just women as an idea (the homemaker, the mother, or even the businesswoman), but women as thoroughly embodied subjects of the Russian Federation. First, of course, was Pussy Riot. Not only was the group explicitly feminist, but it had to challenge the general sensibility by appropriating a vulgar English term for vagina. Putin, who has made only a few public statements about the feminist punk collective, could easily have avoided discussing the ramifications of the name. But we’re talking about the man who declared that he would bomb terrorist in theirs latrines, and jokingly threatened a foreign reporter with circumcision if not castration; Putin leaves no vulgarity unturned. In an interview with the Kremlin-friendly Russia Today, he pressed the reporter to translate “Pussy Riot” back into Russian. It’s safe to say that Putin is well aware of the gynecological implications of this particular protest.
And now we have the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, which recently greeted Putin in the form of a topless woman with the Russian equivalent of “Fuck you” written on her back. Putin later expressed his lack of enthusiasm for what he saw, yet the look on his face during the incident was priceless.
But the obscene phrase on the woman’s back suggests something else about feminist public protest against Russia’s leader: the anatomical focus is meant to undermine heteronormative masculinity, even if the form of the protest (a topless woman) is familiar from male-centered softcore porn. The Russian phrase puts its object (in this case, Putin) in a passive position, since it refers to penetration by a penis. The gendering of Russian protest is something of a trap: from the front, the Femen protester appears to be offering herself up to Putin, like a pornographic parody of the traditional reception of Russian state leaders by peasant women presenting bread and salt. But the aggressive reclamation of the female body for feminist protest “feminizes” its object. There are plenty of reasonable objections to Femen’s tactics, but there is also something appealing in the opposition against a heavily symbolic, hypermasculine state body by the self-possessed body of a woman. And that woman’s body is quite clearly saying “no.”
There’s an old Russian joke that describes the sign on the door of a medical specialist’s office: “Женщины и другие болезни” (“Women and Other Complaints”). As I understand it, the humor is considered to be more grammatical than sociological, since the sign should have read “Женские и другие болезни”(“Women’s and Other Complaints”). But, like so many jokes, it works because it reflects a concealed, but easily identifiable social attitude.
All of these protests will probably lead to nothing, but for the moment, it’s satisfying to imagine Vladimir Putin suffering from women and other complaints.