Animated movies and tv shows are a major part of many people’s childhoods. We can often look back on the likes of Winnie the Pooh, Minnie Mouse, and SpongeBob SquarePants through the rosy lenses of nostalgia. That’s how Shayna Vayser, an Intercultural and International Communication graduate student, felt about the Soviet cartoons that she grew up watching as a child—cartoons that impacted generations of her family.
“There’s something about these cartoons that was really treasured. Not only by me, but also by my parents and my grandparents,” says Vayser.
Vayser is a first generation American. Both of her parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, and some of the few possessions they brought on their journey to the US were vinyl records containing songs and transcripts from their treasured cartoons. Two years ago, when Vayser was feeling homesick, she re-watched the animations—only this time, that nostalgic comfort from childhood was disrupted by a new perspective.
“I was struck by the overt messages that the cartoons were communicating. Interacting with something that I grew up watching as a kid, I was immediately thinking ‘there’s something here,’” says Vayser. “There’s theory to support a connection between this content and the tremendous social shift that women experienced in the Soviet Union following the collapse of the government.”
Vayser is referring to to the sharp drop in the number of women who participated in government after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1984, women made up 33 percent of the members of government, but women’s representation dropped to seven percent in 1989. According to Vayser’s research, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, pieces of mass media, like that of animation produced between 1950 and 2005, reflected the cultural values of the Soviet Union, specifically views on womanhood and femininity. Vayser argues that these views could have been a part of why such an abrupt drop in women in government occurred.
The “Ideal” Soviet Woman
Vayser spent several weeks watching Soviet cartoons for her research, ultimately reviewing a total of fourteen animated pieces ranging in duration between fifteen minutes to an hour and half.
“I know that my roommates were definitely not loving hearing the content over and over again,” says Vayser with a chuckle. “Hearing those same songs and seeing me going through the animations line by line got pretty tedious.”
She was watching and re-watching the animated pieces to spot patterns in the ways they portrayed characters and their relationships to each other. One particular pattern that she noticed across animations was the difference between characters she categorized as “brides” and “witches.”
The type of female characters who didn’t have any speaking lines or acted very passive were deemed “Brides.” These protagonists were drawn in the pro-USSR colors of red and yellow and were often represented as being submissive. They were devoted to their fathers and brothers and affirmed the choices of men: “It sends a pretty clear message to young Soviet women. The way they’re supposed to look and the way they’re supposed to present themselves,” says Vayser.
“Witches,” on the other hand, were drawn with the color green—shown to be either villains or superfluous characters who didn’t meet the standards of beauty and passivity that were required for a character to be considered “good.” They weren’t always the stereotypical broom-flying type of witch, either. The women presented as witches might appear as non-magical characters who were often hypersexualized and voiced by men. They were independent: commanding male servants or antagonizing male characters and therefore disrupting the Soviet ideal of gender hierarchy. In other words, “witches” were so far removed from the emphasized cultural norm that, by Soviet standards, they weren’t considered women at all. Or at least not the “good” kind.
Cartoons and International Relations
From Putin’s war on women to issues like bride kidnapping and significant pay gaps, it’s clear that women in post-Soviet countries continue to live in heavily patriarchal societies. The issues they face stand in stark contrast to the Bolsheviks’ emphasis on gender equality during the rise of the Soviet Union. Though rhetoric spread that there would be gender equality under socialism, reality and Vayser’s study do not support such claims.
“One of the main takeaways from this research is that when you just look at something like political rhetoric or the news media to understand what’s happening in a region, you don’t understand the full scope of what’s actually happening,” says Vayser.
She believes that Soviet animation is the clearest rebuttal of the idea that the USSR was egalitarian and argues that pieces of mass media, like cartoons, shouldn’t be discounted when trying to understand the behaviors of populations. Though political rhetoric and news media stated that men and women were equal, the Soviet culture that was reflected through animation told a different story. When the structure of Communism was removed—along with the quotas and economic factors that initially allowed more women to participate in government—post-Soviet women were left with a culture that encouraged them to be brides, not witches.
According to Vayser, those same cultural values could be why, decades later, domestic violence was decriminalized in Russia.
“It could seem like something like that comes out of the blue, until you look closer and see that there’s been a pattern of representation in one of the most popular forms of media that people consumed for decades—that I consumed, that my parents consumed.” says Vayser.