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Men out of Focus

Men Out of Focus: Female Masculinity Meets the Masculinity Crisis (Marko)

Robert’s provocative post helped me recall his excellent book Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema. In it, Robert demonstrates how the Cold War transformed the understanding of lesbianism in the US. Whereas in the first half of the twentieth century, lesbianism was seen as a gender inversion (masculine/butch woman), the Cold War context reconfigured the lesbian into a “femme” and lesbianism became more about object choice. The lesbian had gone “incognito” and was tougher to identify. My working hypothesis was that this Cold War transformation did not take place in the USSR precisely because of the postwar masculinity crisis. To compensate for the masculine lack, women had to firmly occupy traditional and stereotypical female spaces – and then some.

One film in particular—Larisa Shepit’ko’s Wings (1966)—illustrates how tough it was to introduce non-normative views on femininity. The conservative attitudes made themselves evident in the moviegoers’ rejection of Nadezhda, the unfeminine and brisk heroine of Wings. As a local World War II hero, Nadezhda plays an integral role in her community: the regional museum has an exhibit featuring her wartime valor, she heads the local vocational high school, numerous committees depend on her dutiful participation, and the local newspaper features her feuilletons. Although Nadezhda figures prominently in the social and political fabric of her community, the movie emphasizes her inability to truly connect to those around her. This strict-looking woman in her forties, a mother of an adopted but emotionally estranged daughter, finds it hard to establish meaningful and lasting emotional connections. Her entire countenance reflects her Spartan character: her neat but dull suit, her tidy and no-nonsense hairstyle, and her strict and unadorned face. All in all, Nadezhda was too masculine-acting; moviegoers could not look past her unfeminine mannerisms to appreciate her striking and unique history. Nadezhda saw her world through the perspective of the war years and never readjusted. Her tactless brusqueness, her diatribes on matters of communist morality, and her unarticulated expressions of empathy, all made her a problematic heroine, a problematic woman.

In his review of Wings, Aleksandr Shtein stated that he overheard a female moviegoer confide in her friend that such heroines irritate her. Shtein locates the source of frustration in the heroine’s lack of feminine grace—whether external or internal. In a newspaper review, A. Poliantseva, a former commanding officer of the 586th Aviation Fighting Squadron, harshly rejected such impersonations of female pilots—regardless of the tribulations they endured during the war. She asks: “Can this really be a Soviet reality? A war hero, a mother, a person showered with accolades and with respect of the Soviet people and at the same time someone with a complete lack of affection, of compassion for children, of common courtesy.” The former commanding officer argues that women like Nadezhda are a figment of the movie crew’s imagination. Poliantseva claimed that she was not alone in her opinion. A group of female veterans that had watched Wings, also reacted negatively to Nadezhda as a heroine.

“We were not crude soldiers like Nadezhda Stepanovna was! Regardless of how tough things got at the front, we always remained real women: we beautified our dugouts with flowers and white tablecloths and we even tried to slightly alter the standard soldier’s uniform, wearing our berets, forage caps, and helmets differently than the lads did. And we were so glad to replace our uniforms with adorable skirts that we missed for four long years of war.”

Ia. Varshavskii noted a similar response from another female soldier who expressed her disapproval to the lead actress, Maia Bulgakova. The disaffected female veteran demanded of Bulgakova: “Why have you made Petrukhina so unfeminine? Why does she walk as if she were a soldier? You yourself are pretty; why did you make Petrukhina so unattractive? Look at my friends, other female combat pilots, and how many of them are attractive, charming women; they’re women whom war did not “toughen up” (nichut’ ne ogrubevshikh na voine).

I hypothesize that it’s not a coincidence that the vociferous and categorical rejection of Nadezhda’s gender performance came not long before Urlanis’ 1968 article “Protect the Men!” To compensate for the masculine “softness,” exploring female forms of masculinity became taboo. To Robert’s question then [Did the crisis of masculinity play the same role in solidifying modern forms of sexual subjectivity in the Soviet Union that it did in the US?], I’d say “yes” – even though the dynamics and outlines of the process looked different.

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

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