Ukrainian Women and their Representations: Beyond Stereotypes
On 24 February 2022, the West had no choice but to finally consider Ukraine as more than a ‘pawn in a geopolitical game being played by Russia’, according to Dr Olesya Khromeychuk. The Global North woke up shocked by the full-scale Russian invasion alongside its justifications and the brutality of the military campaign.
The West has had what Khromeychuk calls an ‘uncritical’ approach towards Russian culture, history and neo-imperialism, making it blind to the reality of the importance of Ukraine’s role on the world stage and how paramount it is to focus on Ukrainian culture and its people. Therefore, de-westernising how Ukrainians are portrayed in western media is essential, particularly the stereotypes of Ukrainian women that have an effect to this day.
‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ukrainian women stereotypes
Stereotypes in the Western media around Ukraine have consistently made it difficult for Ukrainians who interact with Western countries. Not only has Ukraine been made invisible compared to Russia, but the few times it has been mentioned, it has not been in a favourable way.
These negative perceptions run deep and are so ingrained in institutions such as Hollywood, that they are not seen as harmful by those who convey them. Stereotypes of Ukrainians include Ukraine being seen as under-developed with less-qualified workers or Ukrainian women as overly-sexualised, uneducated homewreckers who are desperate to live in the West.
Examples of this are prevalent and need to be reconsidered. One of the most recent and obvious stereotyping of Ukrainian women was in the Netflix show Emily in Paris. A new character, Petra, from Kyiv, is introduced in the second season and is presented as a kleptomaniac, helping her new friend Emily steal multiple things from a store.
She is also portrayed as being worried about being deported. Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko responded to this unnecessarily harmful depiction by saying it was ‘unacceptable and offensive,’ and that they will ‘have to continue to fight stereotypes.’
Andriy Pryimachenko, a Ukrainian filmmaker and director, has said that ‘Western audiences need to find out more about’ Ukraine. He highlights that Hollywood has depicted Ukrainian women as either ‘sex workers or very big, muscular women. The image that you get…is very unpleasant.’ Ukraine is seen as the West’s ‘steadiest source of low-paid cleaning women and chauffeurs.’
There is also a significant bimbofication of Ukrainian women. They are deprived of agency and objectified by Western media, as shown by Traveller’s Digest voting Kyiv as the best for beautiful women. This was in 2012, just in time for the European football championships to be held in Ukraine, and to incite football fans who apparently would be delighted by this possibility.
As if foreign visitors to the country are passive actors in this actively damaging stereotype of Ukrainian women being so eager to flee Ukraine, that they would be okay with being sexually exploited by Western visitors.
Daily Mail article encouraging men to visit Ukraine , due to its selection of women, 2012
In researching for this article, I was able to ask a few questions to Ukrainian women that had either been living abroad before the full-scale invasion or were forced to relocate because of it in February. The questions I asked related to their personal experiences or examples they had regarding stereotypes in the Western media and in what ways those stereotypes had affected them, particularly since the war.
Mariya, who recently moved to London after having lived in Berlin for university, spoke about her personal experiences with stereotypes in the West. What she conveyed about living abroad was that she had been in scenarios where men in bars or clubs would say ‘Mmm Ukraine, I heard many beautiful women in Ukraine.’
Having heard these sorts of comments repeatedly, she stressed you would start ‘wondering whether you’re a woman, a human, or an object of fetish desires.’ Was it her ‘Ukrainian blood’ or the idea that ‘all Ukrainian women are submissive and weak…housewives, sugar babies with no brains?’ She stated ‘[they] are definitely a fetish,’ how it moves from disgusting to dangerous is when Ukrainian women are ‘either hurt or kidnapped.’
Specifically, regarding Western media and its role in perpetuating these stereotypes, she emphasised that prior to 24 February coverage was ‘to say the least, not great.’ Apart from conspiracies surrounding Ukrainians being Nazis, she remembers articles on the reasons why Ukrainian women ‘choose prostitution as a line of work.’
What stood out to her about this was the fact that the ‘locations they mentioned [she knows] are also well-known places of human trafficking,’ including Ukrainian women being ‘brought over against their will.’ Finally, she stressed that although Western media is still a ‘long way away’ from accurate and representative coverage of Ukraine and Ukrainian women, since February, there is ‘a lot more information out there,’ even of a ‘positive’ kind.
I also spoke to Olga about various stereotypes that surround Ukraine in Western media. She was on a business trip in Greece when the war began and has been staying there ever since with her kids and working remotely for a Ukrainian firm as well as pro bono for Kyiv City.
Olga first specified stereotypes surrounding Ukrainian women wanting to stay abroad permanently. What she had to say was that the ‘majority’ of Ukrainian women are ‘looking forward to coming back home, to [their] motherland, houses, apartments, where all that [they] love and care about, [their] lifestyle, friends … [their] traditions, language, everything … is.’
In terms of Ukrainian women refugees, she said they are ‘grateful’ for the hospitality ‘but this is only a temporary, forced measure’ and that ‘many of [them] are returning back home literally now, regardless of blackouts and shelling,’ ending with a significant statement that ‘home and motherland can never be underestimated.’
She also highlighted stereotypes of Ukraine being less developed and Ukrainian workers being less qualified than the Western world and its workers. She emphasised the ‘accessibility and quality of medical devices … doctor’s appointments … of all kinds and specializations’ which according to her are easier to access and at ‘very short notice’.
She talked further about Ukraine being very ‘digitalised’ with a lot of their government services and ‘key documents’ easily accessible on their mobile phones. Regarding Ukrainians being low-qualified workers she underscored that this is changing as Ukraine ‘interacts more’ with the rest of Europe.
Despite some Ukrainians taking up lower-qualified jobs for a variety of reasons, ‘now you see also others’. [They] are highly educated professionals … [they] are fluent in English and a number of other languages … [who] manage to keep [their] businesses running regardless of war’.
Concerning the situation with Russia’s war in Ukraine more generally, she stressed that it is ‘not Putin himself who is committing devastating war crimes in Bucha or Kherson’ and the importance of considering the blame of the ‘majority of the [Russian] population’ as well. She says ‘[Ukrainians] did not start this war’ and that ‘Ukrainians are giving their lives to protect the world … [they] are on the front line for all.’
Then she underscored the reality of the West being ‘dependent on a maniac state’ for a long time and the need now to ‘change’ and leave an ‘independent, fair, open and democratic life to our kids!’
Lastly, I spoke to Anna, who has lived in London for many years, more specifically about Ukrainian women and stereotypes that have affected her, as well as her thoughts on the UK’s reception of Ukrainian women refugees. She talked to me about certain things that had been said to her as a Ukrainian woman, in the UK.
What stood out to me were questions such as ‘what do you do for a living?,’ or ‘have you successfully divorced?,’ directed at her as if surprised at how she could afford the car she was driving. More generally we spoke about being asked if Ukraine was ‘in Russia’ or if Ukrainian was ‘a language’ rather than just a dialect of Russian.
She then talked about Ukrainian women refugees more specifically by highlighting the stereotype of Ukrainian women being portrayed as homewreckers ‘breaking up someone’s family.’ The example she gave was the heavily publicised ‘one-off case’ of a Ukrainian refugee apparently stealing a British man from his wife, which she stressed was an example of ‘Russian bots’ and Russian propaganda.
Like Olga, she underscored that the Ukrainian women fleeing Ukraine are doing it for ‘safety concerns’ and not to ‘have a holiday.’ She then said she did place ‘blame’ on Western Europe for taking ‘dirty money’ from Russia and being ‘bribed’ by things like gas. She stated you ‘cannot be civil with a maniac.’
What she made clear to me was that the media does affect perceptions, however, she was optimistic about her safety in the UK with regards to being supported if she was confronted or threatened by Russians, something that cannot always be said with regard to other Western countries.
The final point she raised was the similarities between Eastern European women and Western women. She said they all have the ‘same human values’ and are ‘ambitious, independent, well-educated [and] caring mothers.’ What she highlighted was Polish, Bulgarian and Baltic women who are already ‘easily integrated into Western countries,’ and the benefits of ‘multicultural mixing.’
She ended on her–and the rest of Ukraine’s–hope of becoming a ‘full member of the European family.’ What these last months have shown is that, more than anyone, Ukraine deserves to join the EU.
Overall, these few testimonies demonstrate that these incredibly damaging stereotypes of Ukraine and its women have affected how they live in the West and their concerns with the war. It clearly points out that, as the European Parliament has said, Western countries need to take more of a stance in safeguarding Ukrainian women and refugees more specifically, from being harmed by these detrimental caricatures.
What is required is an overhaul of Western media that focuses on giving a voice to Ukrainians, alongside an overall spotlighting of Ukrainian literature, culture and history. Now, more than ever, it deserves to be put in the spotlight to help its fight against Russian aggression and imperialism.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is an assault on all of us who believe in the values of democracy, freedom and sovereignty. More should be done to help Ukrainians fight for our collective future.
If you want to help, please visit this article by the Ukrainian Institute London which has a comprehensive list of donation sites and organisations to support.