Representation of Women in Russian Media - By Maria Stambler, Russia Correspondent for Safe World. May 2012.
The representation of women in Russian media and advertising is a phenomenon of everyday life.
Through the power of images and words it can create associations, links between certain things, and emotions.
"Salami - can also be used as food"
These are just a few examples of how intensely sexualised and subordinated women are made out to be by the Russian, and Ukrainian advertising.
“Suck enough to get a summer house”
Women are presented as nothing but sex objects, and worse – sex objects attainable through purchases and monetary exchanges.
Advertising, as an industry, is still relatively new in Russia.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, advertising mostly existed in a propagandising form for the Socialists, that was the USSR. The laws that were put together were rather hasty and not well-thought out.
The weak advertising laws that are already in place are further undermined when the government itself blatantly breaks these laws, as in the 2011 election campaign video, 'Putin's Army'.
Here, Putin’s PR machine presents attractive young women, with several instances of close-up shots of their breasts, as hardline supporters of the ex-Prime Minister.
The video suggests to male voters that voting for Putin may somehow lead to being with an attractive young woman. The government is unabashedly using sexually, appealing images to lure potential voters.
Weak Laws and Regulations
The West has invested time in conducting thorough research on the effects advertising can have, especially on creating stereotypes and sexist representations of women, which Russia, clearly, has not.
"Zippo, 'will never say no'"
In most cases, the female body is used as ‘bait’ to advertise products targeted at men; cars, building supplies, technology, etc.
Laws pertaining to ethics, truthfulness, and morality in advertising do exist. They are overseen by Russia’s Federal Anti-monopoly Service, but these laws are not strictly adhered to because fines are very insignificant. And the laws are very vague in themselves.
For example, Article 8 in Russia’s law concerning “unethical advertising”, states; “unethical advertising is advertising that contains textual, visual, and audio information that breaks the commonly accepted norms of morality and humanity by ways of using abusive and offensive words, comparisons, and images regarding one’s race, nationality, profession, social status, age group, sex, language, and religious, philosophical, political, or any other views.”
This law lacks any kind of clarity or precision of definition, and opens up to debate what exactly are the “commonly accepted norms of morality”. Finding loopholes in such laws is very easy for advertisers.
Continued representation of Russian and Ukrainian women in this way creates certain stereotypes, not only at home, but also beyond Russia, and Ukraine’s borders. This can lead to a wide array of very serious problems.
Fuelling the Sex Trafficking Trade
Although illegal and seriously punishable by Russian law, a growing number of Russian women are trafficked as sex workers to Europe and other nations.
There is demand for women who are perceived to easily fulfill favors of a sexual nature, in return for money or gifts, as these types of ads insinuate.
Lack of concrete statistics make human trafficking difficult to assess. Some sources believe that half of these women are tricked into becoming sex workers, and are subsequently subjected to serious physical, and psychological violence.
This is quite a common problem that cannot be resolved if the media continues to represent women in a highly sexualised manner. In addition, there are few legal resources to address this problem, and public opinion on the whole views it as a minor problem. This is in part due to the media for showing that it is normal and acceptable to see women as nothing but sexual objects.
Civil Liberties and Equality
Though innocent at first sight, the ad below is a reflection of the still prevalent image of Russian and Ukrainian women as housewives and mothers, first and foremost.
Not many young Russian girls, especially in smaller cities and rural areas, are motivated to get an education, and embark on a career.
This is not because laws favor men over women. Russia’s Civil Code and Article 19 of the Russian Constitution assures equality in the workforce, and maternity leave laws are quite favorable. Pregnant women are entitled to 140 days of paid leave at 100 percent of their wage, paid for by the national social insurance fund. Women also have additional protections against termination, and must be granted part-time work if requested.
However, it is not uncommon for employers to discriminate against women of child-bearing age to save on costs, and require women to sign agreements that they will not get pregnant, and are forced to resign if they do. Given these circumstances, many women must choose between having a career and having a family.
With images such as these saturating the media environment, from an early age, women see their roles in society pre-determined. When forced to make the decision between work and family, they are more likely to stay at home and look after the family.
Content analysis of Russian advertisements points to a very gendered definition of roles in society
Thirty-nine percent of advertisements directed at women offer them products that will help them be physically attractive, while the other 61% offer products that will help them keep the house clean, and look after their children and husbands.
Women are quite often portrayed as “limited” human beings, whose only real concern is how to make her husband’s shirt sparkling white. Advertisements tell with gleaming fascination how they have figured out the perfect recipe for soup, thanks to a particular spice.
Women have Low Levels of Political Participation
Given these cultural obstacles, Russian women do not hold many of positions of leadership. They are therefore not in power to influence policy that may favor them, and represent them as individuals capable of making serious contributions to society.
In 2006, the upper house of the Federation Council, had only eight seats out of 169 (or 4.7%) held by women. There were only two females ministers in the federal government, and only one of the 83 regions was governed by a woman.
Problems of Domestic Violence Continues to Rise
As long as women are culturally seen as less equal to men, and remain dependent on men financially, domestic violence will continue to persist.
Observers believe domestic violence against women is rising. No statistics are available, but the Committee Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) believes that around 30% of married women experience regular violence at the hands of their spouses. This is exacerbated by the absence of any kind of legislation penalizing domestic violence.
Looking Towards Neighbours as Role Models
In the process of image construction of collective female identities, advertisements in most Western European countries are now using images offemale beauty, talent, and success in association with messages of confidence, self-worth, and goodwill. Well-known women are becoming UNICEF’s “ambassadors of peace”.
Progress towards gender equality in Russia and Ukraine may pick up pace, if the media and advertising industry looks to neighboring Finland, to see how women are represented there. Since the 1960s, women’s rights have been actively promoted in Finland.
Women in Finnish advertisements are often portrayed doing something very useful for society, such as raising awareness about environmental problems, promoting hi-tech innovation, or taking part in cultural activities, and not simply trying to decide which refrigerator will keep food fresh longer.
Representing women as active members of society is one of the reasons that the previous government saw a woman – Tarja Halonen – occupy the highest position. Numerous other positions of power are also held by women.
Women as Key Contributors to Society
Russia and Ukraine have made significant progress towards gender equality in the recent past.
Women receive equal access to education and employment. Russia’s literacy rates are at an enviable 100%. A study done by the US Department of State found that the number of women taking managerial positions increased from 30% to 40% since the economic crisis of 1998. These statistics show that progress is being made, but continued representation of women as sexual objects and/or housewives in the media.
Russia and Ukraine still have a long way to go until their existing cultures accept that women are more than just that.
Women can make many significant political, social and economic contributions to society, but these stereotypes are proving to be stumbling blocks.
- Gender Index Russia
- Moscow Center for Gender Research *
- Women in Nordic Countries and Russia: Media and Cultural Approaches Conference
- The New York Times
* = Text in Russian