Last week, a bunch of friends and I went to Semyon Slepakov’s concert. If you aren’t familiar, Slepakov is the breakout star of Russia’s KVN and Comedy Club shows. He’s known for cheeky satire on everything from relationships to politics.
Having been impressed by his send-ups of Putin’s cronies and of Russian PM Medvedev, I decided to tag along to hear more of the political satire that’s been starved off Russian television.
And boy, was I in for a surprise. Sure, Slepakov made a couple of passes at Putin and the lack of free speech in Russia: “Я могу сказать про Путина все что хочу и ничего не будет: ни квартиры, ни работы…” When people laughed at his description of Putin, he parried with, “look at your own president (да вы на своего посмотрите).” Predictably, the audience exploded in gales of mirth.
The rest of the nearly two-hour-long concert focused on Slepakov satirizing human nature. And by that I mean the majority of his songs focused on how gender differences imbue every action.
Slepakov obviously didn’t get the material for his songs out of thin air. Satire – well, good satire – is based on observation and a deep understanding of the absurdity around the author. Slepakov’s take seems to go for the lowest common denominator rather than elevating his audience to the more profoundly interesting and relevant political send-ups. Instead, his “human interest” pieces exaggerate the worst ways men and women interact with each other and perpetuate ugly, demeaning stereotypes about women that are pervasive in Russia’s already extremely macho culture.
In such a milieu, songs like “Курица” and “Женщина в Лексусе” are worrying. These songs perpetuate the idea that a woman needs a man for basically everything because she herself is not capable of earning a living or even thinking beyond domestic duties. His many other songs about women or relationships to women aren’t much better. “Мать,” for example, focuses on thinness as the apogee of beauty.
Even more incredulous is the notion that women in the same auditorium as me found funny the crude image of a woman “earning a Lexus through blowjobs” and similar visuals. It should be offensive to all people, but the women laughing touched a particular nerve for me.
A fellow Ironed Curtains blogger pointed out that it’s telling that in “Женщина в Лексусе” Slepakov says that the possibility that the woman earned the money through real accomplishments makes him, the male narrator, feel like less of a man. “It’s like both genders are trapped in these roles prescribed to them,” she said.
Yes, satire is often exaggeration of the culture around the author. Where it becomes dangerous is when it reflects real attitudes and then perpetuates them to the point of where the exaggerated behavior described becomes the norm.
Like every comedian, Slepakov is the product of the culture around him. He is a messenger, but not necessarily a creator of the values and attitudes of the culture. And always the hard part is separating the messenger from the message. He may or may not believe in the things he says. But he does say them.
Maybe I’ve got to give him the benefit is the doubt. Maybe it’s really such delicate satire that the spoof is lost on the likes of me. Or maybe he has to sing about gender stereotypes so it looks like he’s not stuck on the politics and is in the opposition’s pocket. Or maybe these are the songs that get him on television because, these days, TV is the opium for the masses and well, lowest common denominator strikes again.
Maybe I’m too American after 21+ years here. Maybe I’ve thought too hard about what it means for men and women to have an equitable relationship without resorting to stereotypes. Maybe Russian humor is beyond me these days.
Maybe I just expected more.