It’s been a pleasure to interview J and to be regaled with her recollections of the nightmare-comedy she experienced whilst studying drama on her Moscow placement.
It’s all funny now of course, but to live through it was an entirely different matter. Last week we ended with some dubious practical tips on dodging cars driven by creeps. This week we’ll start with some insight into gender roles and how to “do” them properly.
Boys and girls
“They found it strange that we wanted to lift a chair!” J exclaims. Well, it was not so much that the English women wanted this specific task; more so that it wasn’t worth a second thought either way. We would think it odd that anyone would remark upon such a triviality, especially when work needed to be done. It wasn’t only “strange” to the host academy however, it was policy!
She laughs at the memory: “No women were allowed to pick up any furniture during scene changes, so there were all these guys running around!”
J speaks of hosts emphasis on those Russian gender roles – even exaggerated into the realm of stereotype, and of the “hyper-masculinity” that males chose to adopt. The flipside to this chivalrous, macho extreme is the car full of stalking creepers that we examined last week. Isn’t it odd that cultures can simultaneously accommodate two such ballooning cartoons at opposing ends of the behavioural spectrum? -and all under the banner of ‘normality’ too.
While acknowledging chivalry, J paradoxically decries traits of, “Inherent chauvinism and misogyny that (even) filter into the way you get taught.” Strong words about her classroom experiences, indeed, and sadly with good reason as we will discuss later. The verdict isn’t all dark however.
Whilst the men pushed out their chests, did the women wait delicately in the background – as discarded wallflowers? No, there was power and influence to be had if “the girls” knew how to grasp it. In conversation with a female Russian colleague, J lamented the rigid gender expectations and her unwanted place within them. Sagely, her acquaintance replied: “This is the way it is, but it doesn’t stop us being who we are.”
It became apparent to J that the cards you hold are not as important as the way you play the game. I ask if some (women) could knowingly exploit the situation, and J is unequivocal: “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed with eyes widening emphatically. She then enlightens me on the Russian art world’s feminine inside-track as she witnessed it:
“Women in the artistic world had power,” she tells me “But that power came from a feminine place. They were respected and acknowledged through their femininity and sexuality.” She considers for a moment, and then adds: “or through their Matriarchy.”
“Like the Babushki?” I offer, and with a glint of recognition, she agrees.
Grandma, we fear you
We’re getting a little off-track here, but a little explanation is called for. Essentially, don’t mess with the Babushki. That’s plural, Babushka is singular. Either way we all initially say it wrong in the west (perhaps it’s Kate Bush’s fault); the correct emphasis is on the BA, not the BU.
“BAH-boosh-ka. This title can mean elderly woman, grandmother or granny, but in general it gets treated as a term of respect. It comes from the word baba, which means a married woman, and iyushka, which indicates something small or fragile. Literally translated, it means little old married lady.”
It’s another fascinating contradiction of Russian culture: seemingly male dominated, yet yielding on a familial level to sharp-tongued authoritarian Grandmothers.
They are fonts of knowledge, masters of arbitration, carers of grandchildren, and respected seniors who sit in judgement over the errors of younger men (and women) within and without the family.
More about J next time.