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March 18, 2015

Ball Gowns and Boots: On the Rebel Fighters' Beauty Pageant in Donetsk

As fighting continues to rage in portions of Donetsk, Russian-backed rebel fighters recently took time out of their busy schedules  to honor International Women’s Day by . . . staging a beauty pageant.  The twist? The contestants were all female soldiers loyal to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.  The Telegraph’s coverage of the event includes a bemused soldier/contestant reflecting on her pageant attire, saying, “It’s really unusual. There are no heels on military shoes. Being in heels is enough, but also the dress is so open. We are still soldiers.”

The story told by The Atlantic’s photo essay about the event is, indeed, one in which women are adept at both soldiering and seduction. The pageant, itself, highlighted women’s dual role as loyal citizens of the “republic” by having them appear both in ball gowns and boots:

In fact, many images in the piece would be right at home in a 1980s commercial for the perfume Enjoli—the (in)famous ad campaign that celebrated women’s ability to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man.” The following shot of one contestant’s “presentation pictures” casts the Donetsk woman soldier as the ultimate multitasker, able to shoot bullets and come-hither looks equally well.

The contestant’s glamour shots look oddly anachronistic (with their panty hose and corded phone), but the event photos illustrate the fact that maybe we haven’t come all that long of a way (baby). During the Cold War, eastern European communist regimes touted their commitment to gender equality, but social attitudes about masculinity and femininity often mirrored the gendered and sexist thinking that prevailed in western democracies. So we should not be surprised to see a celebration of idealized feminine beauty staged at a time when, as the Washington Post recently reported, Donetsk residents “hope for a return to normalcy.” One female rebel fighter equated the pageant with normal life, saying, “We have to continue to live. War is war but life goes on.”

The pageant illustrates the lingering connections between statehood and (hetero) sexuality in times of war. Patriotic displays of female beauty are nothing new. Pin-up girls famously motivated the troops during World War II. Robert B. Westbrook explains that in wartime, women are often cast as “icons of the private interests and obligations for which soldiers were fighting.” The Donetsk pageant tweaks that formulation, presenting each woman as both fighter and prize, alternately able to inspire sacrifice for the cause and to experience it on the battlefield. The resulting optics are oddly schizophrenic—not because women can’t be capable soldiers and attractive individuals at the same time, but because the idealized feminine beauty on display functions more as artifice than as a reflection of women’s complex identities and abilities.

Consider the photo at the top of this post. The flawless porcelain skin on this soldier’s face has a mask-like quality (appearing a shade lighter than the skin on her hands), and her hair has been teased into feminine submission. It’s hard to envision this soldier on the battlefield. Her manicured nails, elaborately coiffed hair, and radiant skin wouldn’t last a minute.  Thus, on a day meant to honor the multifaceted nature of female identity, the Donetsk pageant presents its female fighters as living Barbie dolls, complete with multiple outfits.

The organizers of International Women’s Day tout it as a day which promotes women as leaders, artists, business owners, scientists, and athletes.  The Donetsk pageant is not just a comically ironic misunderstanding of International Women’s Day. It is a reminder of the pernicious power of patriarchy.

— Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson

(photo 1: Vadim Ghirda/AP. caption: A Russian-backed rebel fighter watches as colleagues perform during a beauty contest involving women from the main separatist battalions in Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 7, 2015. Self-proclaimed authorities in the rebel-held Donetsk held a beauty pageant for female rebel fighters on the eve of March 8, a women’s day widely celebrated throughout the former Soviet Union. photo 2: Vadim Ghirda/AP. caption: Russian-backed rebel fighters take part in a beauty contest in Donetsk on March 7, 2015. photo 3: Marko Djurica/Reuters. caption: Soldiers of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic take part in a beauty parade to mark International Women’s Day on March 7, 2015. photo 4: Vadim Ghirda/AP. caption: A Russian-backed rebel fighter’s presentation pictures are displayed on screen during a beauty contest in Donetsk on March 7, 2015. photo 5: Vadim Ghirda/AP. caption: Rebel fighters pose with the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic during a beauty contest in Donetsk on March 7, 2015.

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