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.