Gender, and How to Stop It

Tolstaya’s presentation of political correctness follows the familiar right-wing narrative of an Orwellian movement that enforces ridiculous linguistic norms as a way of silencing dissent.  The “free speech” argument against PC comes up frequently in the Russian media, often as an example of Western hypocrisy:  the West claims to value liberty, but punishes violations of linguistic etiquette with a totalitarian zeal.   The article that provided the image for one of last week’s posts (Lady Liberty muzzled with a fetish ball gag), claims that the public utterance of the word “n*gger”, or even “calling a black-skinned person ‘black”” can lead to court summons and fines (“Only “Afroamerican,” nothing else will do).   

Never mind the lack of evidence, or even the complete ignorance about the American legal system (state law vs. federal law vs. campus speech codes); these stories work because they fit with the general (and, frankly, justified) understanding that, in comparison to Russians, Americans are hypersensitive about racial nomenclature and stereotypes.   What is absent is any explanation of the actual reasoning behind such sensitivity.

Focusing on PC entirely in terms of speech norms would, however, limits the possibilities of political correctness as a clear and present danger to the Russian Federation. Polemically, one could engage in a bit of “whataboutism” and point out that recent laws against “hurting the feelings of religious believers” are far more Orwellian (and far more restrictive of free speech) than the PC paper tiger.  But to do so would be a more direct intervention than I care to make.  The point here is not argue for different cultural policies, but rather to see how certain arguments play themselves out. 

In any case, America’s racial concerns do not translate well when they cross Russian borders.  Instead, there is another aspect of PC (and liberalism in general) that is often posited to be a direct attack on Russian values: issues of gender.   

“Gender” is a more immediate threat because the male/female divide is presumed to be universal; as such, it moves liberalism and PC from a solely American-centered problem to an ailment of “old Europe.”     Gender also has the advantage of being both foreign (presumably, everyone has at least a connection to gender, even the non-binary or “agender”) and ubiquitous.  When women’s studies and feminist studies came to Russia in the late 1980s and early nineties, there was no term readily available to denote “masculinity” and “femininity” as extrabiological, non-essentialist, constructed categories.[2] 

So what did Russian feminists do?  The same thing that Russian free marketeers did when they coined the word “ваучер” (“voucher”) during the first wave of privatization: they imported an English word, that, in Russian sounds clumsy and opaque. “Gender” became “гендер,” an ugly (and, ironically, masculine) noun that, like the “voucher,” sounds like something Russians never used to have and have little use for now that they do.   

The foreignness of “гендер” plays a role in the opposition to feminism and LGBT rights throughout Eastern Europe.  The title of a 2015 essay collection says it all: Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise?. [3] In an English-speaking country, the idea of an “anti-gender” movement would sound not just odd, but radically progressive.  But, as the authors of the articles make clear, “gender” is invoked not in its originally imported meaning of socially constructed category superimposed on biological sex, but an alien, pernicious movement designed to destroy the family as we know it.  These “anti-gender” movements frequently refer to what they call “gender ideology,” a phrase that encompasses a range of feminist and progressive attitudes towards gender and sexuality.  




As the emphasis on “traditional values” grows, Russian anti-liberalism looks increasingly like gender panic.


Next: All Happy Families



[1]- "За публичное употребление фонем «n*gger» и производных от них, или даже просто назвав чернокожего «black» можно получить повестку в суд, а после него – кругленькую сумму штрафа. Только «афроамериканец» и никак иначе.”  Fig leaf asterisk added, of course.  (  

[2] Yet another irony: English, which does not recognize grammatical gender, has the word “gender”; Russian, in which every noun has to have one of three genders (including neuter), does not have a similar word that isn’t bound up with categories that would conflict with feminist notions of what gender entails.  The Russian word used for grammatical gender (“род”) is far too rooted in concerns of family and clan to be available for a socially constructed category. 

[3] Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategizing for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe.  Edited by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.  Heinrich Bollstiftung Publication Series on Democracy Volume 38. 2015.