Monday, November 19, 2007

Sex in the City: Women's Roles in Russian Culture Today.

It's wedding season in Moscow, and young couples parade on Red Square to be photographed and showered with rose petals. Our FRONTLINE/World reporter, Russian-born American filmmaker Victoria Gamburg, congratulates them as she walks by but concedes, "It's not all romance and rose petals for women in Russia today."

Gamburg has been invited to Moscow to visit the set of a hot new television series, Balzac Age, modeled on America's Sex and the City. The show follows the lives of four women in their 30s. The first scene we see features the 35-year-old character, Sonya, who is frustrated at having no children, no husband and no job. Her friends cheer her up by hiring Chippendale-like marginally dressed hunks to clean and cook. It's a comedy show, but Gamburg explains that its success comes from poking fun at the real conflicts faced by Russian women today.

The shows stylist explains the paradox of women's expectations. "On the one hand, the husband wants dinner to be ready when he comes home. But on the other hand, he is not at all against having his wife work and not ask him for money."

The behind-the-scenes stories of the actresses illustrate that conflict between being a successful modern career woman on the one hand and a wife and mother in the traditional sense on the other. Before shooting a bedroom scene, the actress sits in the bed talking to her real-life son. The production is put on hold while she tells her nanny not to feed her 6-year-old son kielbasa before bedtime.

Next we follow the actress who plays Julia, a character who lives with her mom and drives a gypsy cab, but offscreen is a single mother of two. "The show was the beginning of the end of my marriage," she tells Gamburg. We learn that her marriage fell apart because her success made the partnership unequal.

Gamburg introduces us to a real-life Muscovite who also faces the dilemma that "success" often brings for modern women. Zhenya Timonova is a senior advertising copywriter in an international ad agency. Her boyfriend, Victor, stays at home and drinks. He takes Gamburg on a stroll through a Soviet-era park, where he stops and admires his favorite monument, a gold statue depicting women as mothers and workers.

Later, back in their apartment, Timonova explains that after World War II there was a decline in the male population. According to Zhenya, men had the luxury of saying, "Just be grateful that I exist," and women became a shoulder to lean on. Zhenya accuses men of being infantile as a result. Victor thinks that it has resulted in Timonova and other businesswomen valuing career over family.

This disconnect between men and women is a theme played out in the show, for example, in a scene in which the character Alla, now a high-powered attorney, runs into her old high school sweetheart, who is now a handyman.

Gamburg learns that characters like Alla are role models to Russian women like Vera, a 49-year-old retired teacher whom she meets in Gorky Park. Vera has just moved to Moscow and sells kabobs six days a week. Her glamorous makeup and well-coiffed blond hair make her look more like a star of the show than a vendor. However, her life is a far cry from the glamorous world of the Balzac women, as we see when Gamburg visits the two-room apartment that Vera shares with her daughter, sister and brother-in-law. But Vera's second occupation, selling products that enhance women's orgasms, could be scripted from the show. Vera's frank discussion with clients about how to make sex more satisfying would never have happened in the Soviet era, according to Gamburg.

Gamburg speculates that the show may, in fact, reflect a women's movement in Russia. One of the actresses sums up the new feminism with a story about grandmothers today. Before, grandmothers always helped our mothers care for the children. Today, they prefer to work as paid nannies for others. "Isn't that the beginning of feminism?" she asks Gamburg. "No, it's capitalism," Gamburg says with a laugh.

Whatever it is, women have more choices than ever before. Zhenya, the PR executive, decides to leave her alcoholic boyfriend for a new job in Kiev. Unlike the characters in Balzac's Age, she believes she will be happier on her own.

But many women, like the kabob maker, Vera, take their cues from the show. "I know many Russian women have an enormous potential inside themselves," she tells Gamburg. "Even in the show, there's a scene about how to become a successful woman." According to Vera, before the show, women were never taught these things. "It will be women who will change Russia," she tells Gamburg proudly. "Everything depends on women."

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I think that this new women's movement in Russia is great. Women are finally realizing they don't need to have a husband and they can have their own goals and aspirations to live up to. I find it entertaining that this movement correlates with a popular t.v show in America, that was at one time extremely controversial. I found it astonishing that several of the husband simply could not deal with the success that their wives were having and rather than celebrating the success they up and left. However I do realize that this will happen because women having a significant role in Russia is new and the acceptance of this will come with time.

1 comment:

hchapman said...

Wow. Great post Taylor!