The Land of Real Men and Women: Gender and E.U. Accession in Three Polish Weeklies
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In the period preceding and immediately following Poland’s accession to the European Union (1 May 2004) Polish media were overflowing with “gender talk.” On the radio one would hear randomly placed banter about “natural differences between the sexes” (in fact, a new station, FM 94, was established in 2002 with “real men” in mind). Almost any event discussed on the evening news could spark a comment such as “this is what women are like” or “men cannot help but be men.” Magazines and newspapers provided an abundance of images featuring manly men and womanly women, as well as departures from such norm: notably, drag queens from the Berlin Love Parades. This article looks at a small portion of this broader phenomenon: namely, it examines a selection of gender-focused stories and images published in three mainstream political weeklies—Polityka, Wprost, and Newsweek Polska—between the spring of 2002 and the summer of 2005.
The abundance of “gender talk” and discourse on gender difference in the three magazines intensified abruptly around May 2004, particularly in the conservative Wprost, which was featuring stories about femininity or masculinity every other week. The phenomenon observed here is highly formulaic; hence, a major part of this study is devoted to defining the formula, and interpreting its significance. My purpose is to suggest a link between the media’s obsessive concern with gender and the process of Poland’s E.U. accession. I argue that anxieties evoked by Poland’s E.U. accession have been projected onto, and resolved within, the realm of gender.
Listening to Gender-talk
Polityka, Newsweek, and Wprost represent the mainstream of Polish print media. They are the top three opinion weeklies on the market in terms of distribution, selling between 130 and 165 thousand copies per week. On the spectrum of political views they range from liberal/progressive and pro-E.U. (Polityka) to neo-liberal and neo-conservative (Wprost), with Newsweek somewhat uneasily trying to occupy a neutral space, where various views of social phenomena are examined from a “common sense” point of view. Despite the differences between the weeklies, there is one striking similarity: in the period examined here all three presented a consistently pro-E.U. line, supporting Poland’s accession and encouraging readers to vote “yes” in the June 2003 referendum.
Between April 2002 and May 2005 the magazines asked a number of more or less worried questions concerning gender roles, sexuality, and reproduction in Poland. Here is a representative sample of cover stories: “What Does a Man Want Today? To Remain Themselves, Men Increasingly Take up Femininity” (Newsweek, 21 April 2002); “How to Raise a Child on Weekends. Working Mothers Besieged by Good Advice” (Polityka, 7 February 2004); “SHE works, HE does not. How the Shock on the Labor Market Destabilized the Traditional Polish Family” (Newsweek, 1 June 2003) (Figure 1); “Special Protection for Women. Who Needs the Government Gender Equality Program?” (Newsweek, 7 September 2004); “More Freedom – But What about Sex? New Research on Erotic Lives of Polish Women” (Newsweek, 24 May 2004). In the spring and summer of 2004 the spotlight was on reproduction: “If We Want to be a Healthy Society – Let’s Make Babies” (Polityka, 14 August 2004); “The Last Parents. Dramatic Decline in Polish Population” (Wprost, 11 April 2004). In the summer of 2003 the largely progressive Polityka wrote about the intolerance towards sexual minorities: “Homo-Condemnation” (9 August 2003). A year later the weekly turned its attention specifically to lesbians: “When a Woman Loves a Woman” (4 September 2004). In March 2003 the magazine featured a group of feminists on its cover: “Women’s Rebellion: Polish Feminists Take to the Streets” (Polityka, 8 March 2003). Meanwhile, Wprost was concerned about the way sexual minorities and feminists “terrorize” the “normal” majority: “The Terror of Equality” (Wprost, 13 June 2004). On a more optimistic note, the magazines were preoccupied with the prospect of Poland having a female president (Polityka, 13 September 2003), and with Polish women’s skills in various lines of business—vastly superior, according to Wprost, to those of women in Western countries: “What Polish Women Can Do” (30 November 2003). Finally—a theme to which we will return—soon after Poland’s E.U. accession, Wprost reassured its readers announcing “The Return of the Real Man” (30 May 2004) (Figure 2). Nevertheless, the magazines were soon worrying again about “The Unfaithful Wife” (Newsweek, 26 July 2004) and the results of her philandering: “Am I the Daddy? 12 Thousand Polish Men Have Taken DNA Tests to Find Out” (Wprost, 13 February 2005).
Each of the articles comes with an image, for they are all cover stories. In each case, the front page features a photograph of (usually anonymous) men and women, ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine respectively. Many of the Wprost covers can, in fact, be described as quasi-pornographic: out of the 16 gender-focused covers that appeared between June 2002 and May 2005, six featured air-brushed nude bodies. The couples are arranged in poses resembling the sexual act, the woman clearly “on top,” dominating the man. In the most explicit image, the woman is riding the man like a horse, holding the reins rather tightly (14 July 2002). Such images were more than magazine covers to be enjoyed in private. On the contrary, they received enormous public visibility. Displayed on newsstands the week a given magazine came out, they lingered in various waiting rooms for months afterwards. More importantly perhaps, they occupied public space in the form of large posters advertising the weeklies, especially in urban centers.
The intensification of “gender talk” in the period of E.U. accession (in the spring of 2004) was especially pronounced in the one magazine which was Euro-skeptical (though never explicitly opposed to E.U. accession), i.e., Wprost. There were 16 gender-focused Wprost covers in a period of 36 months, during which a total of 151 issues appeared (nos. 1019-1170). This amounts to 9.4 percent, or roughly one out of 11 covers devoted to gender in these three years. Yet five of the 16 appeared between early April and mid-June 2004, which makes up 50 percent of Wprost’s covers in this period, a five-fold increase. The jump is even more astounding if we consider the context. Poland was voluntarily giving up much of its autonomy as a state in order to join the European community of nations; meanwhile, Wprost was focusing its attention on men, women, and the games they play (or do not play) with each other. The stories progressed as follows: “E-Sexphilia” on the disturbing implications of Internet sex (4 April 2004); “The Last Parents” on the impending demographic catastrophe due to excessive professional ambitions of women (11 April 2004); “To Marry a Pole” on the rising demand for Poles of both sexes on the European marriage market (16 May 2004); “The Return of the Real Man” on the demise of feminism and inevitability of patriarchy (30 May 2004); and finally “The Dictatorship of Equality” about sexual minorities and feminists who engage in “cultural terrorism” in the name of “political correctness” (13 June 2004). Poland’s E.U. accession took place on the 1st of May, between Wprost’s jeremiad on falling birth rates, and its proud announcement that Poles are desired as wives and husbands.
Gender Talk as Displaced Nationalism
Wprost’s optimistic announcement of “The Return of the Real Man” is no more and no less fact-based than its anxiety about the unsatisfactory nature of Internet sex, or the “crisis of masculinity” which troubled Newsweek two years earlier. Rather than search for gender realities behind the gender myths, the stories are symptoms of a process that is not really, or at least not primarily, about gender. In my view, the media’s preoccupation with masculinity, femininity, and sexual orientation is tied to Poland’s E.U. accession—a link that becomes apparent once we focus on the structure of the stories rather than try to identify the social realities they claim to describe. A highly formulaic narrative emerges from the articles. The master-story unfolds as follows: (1) things used to be “normal” and “natural,” men and women used to know who they are, but (2) sex roles in Poland—indeed, worldwide—are in crisis today, so that (3) the future looks bleak. Nonetheless, (4) the natural order (i.e., male domination) will soon be restored. This structure appears in many of the individual articles, but it can also be traced at the intra-textual level: the progression of Wprost articles in April-May 2004 also roughly reproduces the sequence. It is hardly a coincidence that “The Return of the Real Man” was announced a week after E.U. accession. Needless to say, E.U. accession symbolizes a broader set of issues here: the ongoing systemic transformation, the pressures of globalization, and the resulting diminution of Poland’s autonomy as a nation-state a mere decade and a half after this autonomy was restored.
The link I diagnose here is, of course, not unique to Poland. Many scholars, focusing on a variety of cultural and historical contexts, have examined the close ties between discourses concerning gender and those which define national, racial or ethnic identity (e.g., Coetzee; Heng and Devan; Lubin; McClintock; Mosse; Stamp; Yuval Davis). There is also an ongoing debate within feminist theory concerning tensions and alliances that arise, due to the gendered nature of ethnic identity, between feminism and multiculturalism (e.g., Alexander and Mohanty; Lewis and Mills; Okin et. al.; Phillips). The central insight and departure point of these various studies is that the seemingly neutral liberal discourse on citizenship notoriously excludes women (Lister; Nash; Pateman; Walby), while nationalist discourses tend to be heavily gendered in ways that limit women’s agency, particularly in the spheres of sexuality or reproduction. To quote Anthias and Yuval Davis (315):
Women do not only teach and transfer the cultural and ideological traditions of ethnic and national groups. Very often they constitute their actual symbolic figuration. The nation as a loved woman in danger or as a mother who lost her sons in battle is a frequent part of the particular nationalist discourse in national liberation struggles or other forms of national conflicts when men are called to fight ‘for the sake of our women and children’ or to ‘defend their honour.’ Often the distinction between one ethnic group and another is constituted centrally by the sexual behavior of women.
Nation and gender are both culturally constructed categories; moreover, they construct each other via notions of what is “natural” and what is “cultural.” The negotiation of gender difference and the advancement of nationalism are parallel processes: ideologies that naturalize gender tend to naturalize race and ethnicity. As George Mosse elaborates, the history of nationalism is deeply enmeshed in the development of another powerful discourse: that of “respectability,” i.e., the bourgeois ethos which idealizes moderation, control of passion, discipline, and purity. In Europe both ideologies reached their peak influence in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Significantly, nationalism excluded all that was “un-manly” (in particular, homosexuality), and sexual stigma was often projected onto the ethnic or racial other (as in the attribution of homosexuality to Jews in Nazi Germany) (Mosse, 1-47; 133-153). As Nira Yuval Davis and others have shown, women are rarely vilified as outsiders, but they rarely attain the position of full participants of national processes. Their role is primarily that of biological reproducers and bearers of culture, while the nation itself is allegorically represented as a woman. Whether this woman is imagined as young or old, fertile or infertile, safe or in permanent danger, says a lot about a given group’s self-image. Following Boehmer, Ann McClintock argues that “the male role in the nationalist scenario is typically ‘metonymic’” (261). Men are examples, parts of the whole called nation; women, on the other hand, are placed in a “metaphoric,” or symbolic relation to the collectivity. “Excluded from direct action as national citizens, women are subsumed symbolically into the national body politic as its boundary and metaphoric limit” (261). In our three weeklies it is often not just that woman serves as metaphor for nation, but rather woman as half of a couple, where the other half might be present, implied, or conspicuously absent. Wprost’s images of couples with the woman in the dominant position can be read as an expression of anxiety that E.U. membership will disturb “natural” social hierarchies.
The idea of woman’s problematic relationship to nationhood and citizenship has been taken up by several Polish scholars in recent years, often in relation to the history of anti-Semitism in Poland (e.g., Janion; Hauser; Matynia; Umińska). Maria Janion, one of Poland’s most renowned public intellectuals, argues that we are in the midst of a convulsive “farewell to Poland,” i.e., to the romantic and peculiarly gendered mythology that has ruled our collective imagination for over 200 years:
Poland has been represented as an allegory, symbol, myth. The motherland’s body was usually a body filled with suffering, pain, misery—a body in chains, in stocks, pushed into an open grave, even crucified. She has died before our eyes, but we knew she would be resurrected. She sent her sons to their death in the name of this resurrection, and they went willingly. Dressed in dark flowing robes, this mother in deep mourning awakened in us dread and terror, but also a sense of pity, a quivering, fearful sort of love. (15)
According to Janion, Poland-the-dying-mother-of-us-all has evolved into a grotesque caricature of her former self. Conservative politicians now in power believe in keeping the corpse alive, but the youngest generation of Polish writers, artists, and intellectuals is bidding an impatient and often disrespectful farewell to nationalist ideology. Janion cites a number of recent essays and novels, in which the phantasmatic body of Poland turns out to be ludicrous, pitiful, and contemptible. There is nothing romantic about the disillusion: it is a symptom of the bankruptcy of national ideology. Yet the time of crisis has the merit of making the ties between gender and nationhood grotesquely conspicuous.
In the 1990s, transition to democracy established itself in collective consciousness as the re-masculinization of national culture, allegedly feminized by state socialism. As the British political scientist Peggy Watson has argued, “[t]he political exclusion of women as distinct from men—their reconfiguration as a ‘minority’—...[is] constitutive of the democratization of Eastern Europe. In the West ‘backlash’ is a name some have given to intimations of this built-in democratic exclusion” (146-147). The logic of recovery from “Sex-mission” has required women’s contribution to Solidarity to be forgotten (Penn), so that transition to democracy could be coded as restoration of a patriarchy. Backlash against women’s rights was legitimized within a narrative of return to normalcy and national sovereignty. Traditional gender roles became a guarantee of stability in an otherwise unstable world.
The influence of the European Union was represented as a reversal of gender roles. In the eyes of conservative commentators, E.U. legislation on gender equality and sexual minority rights was a sign of weakness and effeminacy; it was suggested that the Polish attitude towards the E.U. should be more manly. The pictures in my collection project anxiety about both hierarchy and reproduction. Consider the following images featured on covers of the three weeklies:
- Woman in a business suit with a child, but no man (Polityka, 7 February 2004) (Figure 3);
- Man with a baby, but no woman (Newsweek, 21 April 2002);
- Many babies, no parents to be seen (Polityka, 14 August 2004);
- Man, woman, and plastic doll (instead of child) at a breakfast table against a sickly green background (Wprost, 11 April 2004);
- Tall woman dressed for success towering over an incompetent man (no child) (Newsweek, 6 January 2003).
Also worthy of special mention are two images of gender-reversal:
- The presidential couple portrayed with swapped bodies. The result clearly more catastrophic for him than for her—the first lady looks quite attractive, if somewhat bulky, as a man, but the president is ridiculous as a woman, complete with a woman’s sexy legs and shoes (Polityka, 13 April 2003: 23; illustration of an article on Jolanta Kwaśniewska’s presidential ambitions);
- A somewhat dazed-looking woman nursing a grown man in a business suit, small enough to fit in her arms (Wprost, 9 March 2003: 60; illustrating an article on women’s excessive power in Polish society).
All these images represent a departure from an implied norm in family relations. All are anxious and worried. They speak eloquently of lack, dissatisfaction, imbalance, and the yearning for a natural order. Finally, they rely on the addressee’s ability to call up a normative image: a fantasy of familial bliss, a heterosexual, clearly differentiated and hierarchical couple with many children. A series of such reassuring images is presented inside the cover story on childlessness and imminent demographic catastrophe in the 11 April 2004 issue of Wprost. The large Polish family is presented as the healthy alternative to the man-woman-plastic-doll trio on the cover. The article itself draws a clear link between having many children, being a Polish patriot, and faring well in the capitalist market. According to the author, the traditional family—stay-at-home-mom, dad driven to succeed by the need to “feed” his brood, numerous children educated to be real patriots—constitutes “the best capital” and a “perfect micro-market.” In short, a patriarchal family serves one well in a “liberal economy.” Enemies of such a family are also mentioned: they include Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, as well as socialists and “feminist ideology.” Today, we are told, the family remains under threat in Europe (as opposed to the U.S.) due to high taxes and the excesses of the welfare state (which makes reliance on loved ones redundant). Significantly, this article appeared in Wprost three weeks before Poland’s E.U. accession.
Conservatism and neo-liberalism co-exist in perfect harmony here within a nationalist framework: “the autonomous family”—resilient, capable of reproducing itself as capital—is clearly a metaphor for the desired state of the nation. Selfless motherhood, i.e., women relegated to the private sphere, turns out to be a guarantee for community, patriotism, national survival, and, last but not least, the growth of capital. When women work, warns the author, the family is in danger of being ruptured by “internal competition, which often leads to conflict” (25). References to the U.S., viewed as the embodiment of traditionalism and economic well-being, help construct a fantasy of Poland’s “healthy independence” within the “unhealthy” body of the E.U. We are to resist European effeminacy by building a sturdy alliance with the manly America. Arguably, the U.S. that Wprost idealizes here is a deeply anachronistic vision, a “happy housewife” postcard from the 1950s. It is worth remembering, however, that the idea of domesticated women and aggressive market-oriented men is equally anachronistic with regard to today’s Poland: a country where a vast majority of women (71 percent) agree that to work for pay is to have more social respect, a mere two percent believe that homemakers are respected, and almost half the population names “partnership” as the preferred model of marriage model (Fuszara, 17-18).
Wprost provided an even happier ending to its gender drama in the last issue of May 2004. “The Return of the Real Man” takes us on a speedy tour of world history: from the Amazons, through feminism, parthenogenesis and cloning, to “newest research” which proves that “serious problems are caused by ignoring the role of sperm in procreation,” and finally the recent realization that women’s emancipation constitutes a grave health hazard. But help is on the way. A Belgian theologian is cited as saying: “It is important and healthy for women, for families, for societies, that we are dealing with the return of the human male, almost from the dead” (80). The cover features heterosexual (though as yet childless) harmony. The man, placed well above the woman, looks proudly and sternly ahead, into the future; the woman, teeth bared in a submissive smile, turns her trusting gaze up towards her mate.
Admittedly, Wprost is the most conservative of the three magazines. It promotes a mixture of neo-liberalism, nativism, and ethno-nationalism embraced by neither of the other two. Nonetheless, the view of gender featured in all three magazines shares a common structure. There is a blissful era of order and “tradition” somewhere in the past, a crisis/reversal in the present, and finally—this part is prominent in Wprost, suggested in Newsweek, and usually absent in Polityka—the promise of a restored gender order. Gender is given an aura of newsworthiness in these stories, but the sense of drama and change is undercut by the conclusion that, in the end, gender roles have an eternal, timeless nature. There is a tension between making gender seem dynamic and insisting that it is not—a contradiction that can be read as an articulation of anxiety about Polish national identity in a period of upheaval and change. The anti-feminist message is driven by a need to maintain the fiction of a constant, timeless, national spirit, while accepting the dramatic change that is, in fact, taking place.
This article is adapted from the chapter “The Land of Real Men and Real Women: Gender and E.U. Accession in Three Polish Weeklies,” in: Carolyn Elliott (ed.), Global Empowerment of Women: Responses to Globalization, Politicized Religions and Gender Violence (Routledge, Research in Gender and Society Series, 2007 - FORTHCOMING). Printed with permission.
Agnieszka Graff is Assistant Professor at the Center for American Studies at the University of Warsaw. She will speak at several U-M events sponsored by CREES, CES-EUC, and other units on December 5-6, 2007, including a symposium—”The New Lines of Tolerance and Intolerance in Europe.” (For more details on these events see: http://www.ii.umich.edu/crees). Professor Graff is also the translator of Virginia Wolff’s A Room of One’s Own, and a leading figure in the Polish women’s movement.
Permission to reprint images was provided by Newsweek Polska, Polityka, and Wprost.
Approximate average sales as recorded in February 2006: 165,000 copies (Polityka), 140,000 (Newsweek Polska) and 130,000 (Wprost) (Report of Press Distribution Control Union ZKPD, cited in: "Spada").
All Polish titles and quotations in A. Graff's translation.
Official results of the June 2003 Accession Referendum, as announced by the National Election Committee: 58,85% rate of participation; 77,45% of the voters supported E.U. accession; 22,55% opposed it (cited in: "Referendum 2003").
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