- Making War, Not Love: Gender and Sexuality in Russian Humor
Making War, Not Love is an excellent resource for raunchy Russian humor. In his latest exploration of jokelore in Russia, Emil Draitser compiles an array of jokes and chastushkas (rural folk rhymes often sung and accompanied by an accordion or a balalaika) about gender and sexuality told primarily by and for men. The book is a study of the construction of masculinity in Russian humor and the role of sexuality in that construction. In order to illustrate these functions of wit, Draitser explores cultural standards of physical attractiveness and sexual behavior for men and women, as well as the themes of courtship, love, abuse, rape, marriage, impotence, and adultery. The examples [End Page 111] he examines are drawn from his personal collection and from published compilations of jokes. Although Draitser believes that "any folkloric material, especially of such a delicate nature, should be discussed not only with reference to text and texture . . . but in terms of context," (p. 12) the present work remains a purely textual study. The historical and cultural context that he provides only partially compensates for the lack of information about the performances or performers.
Draitser begins his analysis by linking contemporary humor to Russian traditions of male dominance and historical reservations regarding public discussion of sexuality. Despite immense changes in Russian social, political, and economic institutions in the past century, Draitser argues that male denigration of women and the expression of sexuality through folk humor have remained relatively stable. This, he believes, is because of the retention of "predominantly peasant attitudes and customs" even within contemporary urban life (p. 23). For example, he understands the failure of the national proclivity for robust bodies—both male and female—to completely disappear despite exposure to the Western validation of thinner bodies to be an example of an unwillingness to incorporate new understandings of health. He does not consider the possibility that a validation of "images of portly women as sexually appealing" (p. 24) might actually reveal a healthier understanding of bodies and desire than images of undernourished Western women.
This example also reveals the conflict between traditional, rural understandings of beauty and sexuality and Westernized, urban understandings that is beginning to emerge in Russia. As Russians have begun to internalize Western conceptions of body image, humor has enabled a displacement of desires seen as embarrassing onto ethnic minorities such as Jews and Armenians. Thus, desire for heavy women, like homosexual activity and oral sex, is often described in jokes as the activity of others.
Changes in economic and political situations are reflected in many aspects of Russian humor. For example, Draitser links portrayals of women as sexually promiscuous to the difficulties women face in a rapidly shifting economy. If the only access a woman has to food, shelter, and modern plumbing is through sexual activity, then a man is likely to get whatever favors he desires. Economic and political instability also partially account for male misogyny. The restrictions placed on Russians by the Soviet regime resulted in a need to reconstruct male strength and aggression through verbal denigration of women. This compensatory activity is compounded by what Draitser understands as a universal male need to achieve independence by denying attachment to women and demonstrating superiority over them (pp. 102–104). "A vicious circle is created," he argues, "by the need for distancing from women, both culturally and biopsychologically, and the behavioral imperative of male promiscuity dictated by the dominant position of men in the Russian gender hierarchy and exacerbated by traditional misogyny and indulgence in drinking" (pp. 114–115). Thus, he believes humor is a necessary outlet for male insecurities.
In the world created by male jokes and chastushkas, women are alternately promiscuous and frigid, unintelligent and manipulative, seductive and hideously ugly, too thin and too fat, deserving of abuse and desiring rape. In this world men are the victors, overcoming social, psychological, financial, and political hardships through the destruction of female subjectivity. In this world heterosexuality...