For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

I woke up this morning to some people asking me if Vladimir Putin was “hitting on” the First Lady of China. He had been caught on camera wrapping a shawl/blanket around her shoulders at the APEC Summit. Cue hysteria!

I explained that if a woman looks cold, a Russian man will drop everything and immediately give her a blanket/his own jacket/whatever. It’s not a sex thing, it’s just seen as good manners in Russia. This doesn’t, of course, mean that this gesture can never ever be flirtatious – but honestly, if a Russian man is flirting with you, there will be other ways in which he’ll let you know.

Protecting a woman from the cold is PARTICULARLY seen as good manners in Russia because of the complex cultural ways in which Russians treat the whole idea of being cold. For example, they always assume that being cold can make you very, very sick. Most well-mannered Russian men don’t even *think* about it when they offer you their coat outside – for them, it’s an automatic gesture.

Inevitably a friend wrote in to tell me this,

But don’t you think that Russian “chivalry” is more than a little sexist? It basically assumes that women are too weak to take care of themselves.

OK. So. People are entitled to their views on chivalry. But once again, it has important cultural contexts in Russia.

For one thing, Russia is not a very friendly place. It’s a macho society, where men are forever obsessed with the question of who’s dominating whom, and aggression is seen as a necessary survival trait, even in social situations.

Russian chivalry is one of the few ways in which people who don’t know each other very well will treat each other with politeness and kindness. I think this is one of the main reasons why it’s important to preserve it.

Secondly, Russian women don’t find it degrading. If anything, it’s one of the few expressions of hypermasculinity that isn’t made at the expense of a woman. It’s never about assuming that she is helpless – helplessness in women, I would argue, is NOT prized in Russia – it’s about recognition of her femininity as deserving of special attention from a man who, in most other social situations, is expected to act a bit brutish.

Honestly, no Russian man draping a blanket over a woman’s shoulders is thinking, “Stupid bitch can’t do it herself, and I, therefore, shall prove my masculinity by doing it for her.” It’s more like, “We can share a gentle moment in what is essentially an adverse world.”

Russian life is still built on ideas of survival and Russian women are the classic survivalists. They are expected to have both careers and babies. They are expected to do all of the housework and look glamorous while at it. Russian chivalry is a slight nod of recognition to all that – and it doesn’t, I would argue, obscure the very real challenges women do indeed face.

Most Russian gender norms are all kinds of screwed up. I wouldn’t put Russian chivalry on that list, though. Russian chivalry is nice. It’s sweet. And it particularly makes for a good change of pace when you’re used to men who won’t even *think* of, say, helping you with a heavy parcel (because God forbid they make you look “helpless”).

It may not always be appropriate at a political summit, but neither is it the sleazy, “OMG HE DID NOT” moment some people are trying to make it out to be.

Of all the things to be angry about when it comes to Putin, this just isn’t it.

*shrug*

10 thoughts on “For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

  1. As a Chinese and as a woman, I think Mr. Putin just did what a true gentleman supposed to do. There are many Chinese gentlemen will treat ladies like that too. The media is stupid.

  2. OMG, do you seriously imply this chivalry is a particularly Russian thing? I won’t say anything about other Slavonic or European peoples, but I assure you, on the average Ukrainian men are nothing less or maybe even more chivalrous than Russian. That’s a culture thing, you know. But there are two little problems with this Chinese “coatgate” situation: first, he was treating with this “chivalry” an important representative of another culture having a different cultural code, thus breaking a diplomatic protocol and, quite probably, damaging the lady and her husband’s reputation (same as with Lavrov recently greeting a royalty with offering his hand first). And another issue is Putin is khuilo and I wouldn’t let him anywhere near a decent woman for the fear of smearing everything around

  3. “Secondly, Russian women don’t find it degrading. If anything, it’s one of the few expressions of hypermasculinity that isn’t made at the expense of a woman. It’s never about assuming that she is helpless – helplessness in women, I would argue, is NOT prized in Russia – it’s about recognition of her femininity as deserving of special attention from a man who, in most other social situations, is expected to act a bit brutish.”

    Brilliant post. You bring the type of honesty and candor (inclusive of important cultural refences re a Russian understanding) that has been completely absent in the knee-jerk reaction to “shawlgate.”

    Twitter has been full of images of Putin shawl-in-hand along with accusations of sexism, chauvinism, patriarchal condescension, wife stealing, flirting, show-boating etc when really it seems a very natural and gracious gesture. Of course much of this derives from the current media-led efforts to demonize Putin over Ukraine.

    Thanks for introducing much needed sanity into the debate.

  4. Reposted comment:

    Peng-Liyuan, in the cited video or another related video from SCMP, almost immediately had an attendant remove the shawl/coat that Putin had placed around her shoulders. Chinese censors very quickly deleted the relevant videos from the Chinese internet. Even if Putin was merely practicing politeness, Mme. Peng might have feared that Chinese media audiences would perceive Putin’s gesture as a display of dominance over the Chinese First Lady. In any event, Putin’s gesture didn’t go down well with Chinese censors.

  5. This isn’t pertinent to Putin (because personally, I find the coat thing quite irrelevant), but I love your writing style! It’s fresh and very enjoyable to read. (:

  6. I don’t think that non-Russian kinds of chivalry — even, eh, American chivalry — are any less “nice” than Russian chivalry. I don’t think any man who ever opened a door for a woman or helped her to a seat at a restaurant ever thought of this as evidence of “how helpless this bitch is” — it always was, at least in the opinion of the participants, about good manners, about nice things that people could do to each other even if they hardly knew each other.

    There are different “readings” for such things, and I can understand that people see implications about the inferiority of women in chivalrous acts. But it does seem to me that they are also ignoring an important part of the act — they’re offering an oversimplified reading that is ultimately quite incomplete.

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