In the trailer for Luc Besson’s latest film, Anna, supermodel and actress Sasha Luss delivers the badass moves we’ve come to expect from onscreen Russian spies. Gracefully walking into a restaurant, she sheds her luxurious fur coat and matching hat to smash furniture and plates over the heads of numerous combatants. She breaks necks and shoots men in the face without batting an eyelid. Like most Russian women in mainstream western cinema, she is beautiful, seductive, and deadly — just one more iteration of a sexist stereotype dating back to the Cold War that still lingers in the global imagination.
Anna is as Russian as it gets — as long as you’ve never been to Russia. A blonde, blue-eyed, skinny, gorgeous woman who has a dual career as a model and a KGB agent, she navigates dazzling luxury hotels and bunker-like corridors, wears long coats and sexy lingerie, and excels at lying. Helen Mirren pops up with a poor Russian accent. The backwards N in the title, intended to resemble the Cyrillic letter И, is as sure a sign as any that this is filmic clickbait.
The lineage of Russian female spies and assassins in blockbusters is long. James Bond, of course, has encountered his fair share over the years, from Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love (1963) to Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye (1995). Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was a more cartoonish iteration. It’s not hard to see the trope is a distilled creation of the male gaze — a gaze filtered through the dominant geopolitical lens. Recent years have seen Russia regain its position as global bogeyman, and culture has fallen in line behind the clash-of-civilisations rhetoric of Russophobia. At the very point where we should know more about Russia than ever before, we should be able to recognise these visions as one-sided, flawed and outdated. And yet global audiences are still entertained.
The geopolitical trend back towards Russophobia is easy enough to parse, but it’s the regressive sexual politics of these films that are more insidious. While the depiction of Russian women as seductress-spies is very much the stuff of fiction, the impact it has on how actual Russian women are perceived abroad is real. As a Russian woman who’s lived in the UK for the last eight years, I have seen these stereotypes in action many times. “I’m from Russia,” I would say when asked about my accent — and then observe how the perception of me changed. We would sometimes talk about literature, sometimes about the cold weather, sometimes about politics. Sometimes it would slip into that uneasy territory, where I would suddenly become mysterious, exotic, and seductive beyond my intentions. Sometimes, I’d play along because I felt flattered — only to discover later that the person has never really seen me as I am, their vision obscured by the Russian fantasy of films and the news. Not to mention the boredom of endless Russian spy jokes, which I have heard at work, at parties, and even in bed.
While the depiction of Russian women as seductress-spies is very much the stuff of fiction, the impact it has on how actual Russian women are perceived abroad is real
As critic Bilge Ebiri points out in The New York Times, Anna is not unproblematic in light of sexual assault allegations against Luc Besson which emerged last year. “It’s hard not to be reminded of such matters when watching a film that often turns on seduction and shifting power dynamics in male-female relations”, he writes. But Anna is just one in a long line of spy thrillers which offer at best questionable perspectives on gender and Russianness, and at worst offensive and deeply skewed distortions; distortions that Russian women then have to live with.
Red Sparrow, which came out in 2018, is one of the more offensive recent releases. American actress Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina in modern-day Moscow whose career ends abruptly after an onstage injury. No longer able to pay for her ailing mother’s care, she’s forced to make a deal with her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schonaerts, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the current Russian president). She ends up in a spy school where agents teach her how to turn her sexuality into a weapon capable of extracting information. The film is built on a Cold War exploitation aesthetic from start to finish: its supposedly contemporary Moscow is a landscape of Stalinist architecture and grim, uniformed men. Red Sparrow not only fetishises sexual violence, it also offers a perfect dirty fantasy of Russian womanhood: a combination of ballerina, whore, and honey-trap.
The women in these films have usually been put in compromised position by external forces — their tough upbringing, desperate situation, or trauma — or by men. Often, despite being killing machines, they are vulnerable, princesses waiting to be rescued and made whole by a male hero (Cilian Murphy’s Leonard Miller in Anna, Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash in Red Sparrow). Or, towards the villainous end of the spectrum, dehumanising and orientalist stereotypes dominate: lying seducers who can be mercilessly exterminated when the protagonist figures out their game. A rare deviation from this norm is Villanelle/Oksana Astankova in the BBC’s Killing Eve: an unapologetic, charismatic psycho, she is disinterested in men and possesses agency which goes beyond male power.
“But you don’t look Russian,” people sometimes tell me, which I, following some flawed logic, used to take as a compliment. I don’t look like a Hollywood version of a Russian girl: I’m not blond, or skinny, and I don’t know how to strip-load a Kalashnikov (yes, I have been asked if I can do that). I later realised that these comments took away my right to be singular — to be anything different at all — in much the same way women of many different backgrounds, especially women of colour, are only allowed to exist within categories created by and for the imaginations of white Western men.
Anna is just one in a long line of spy thrillers which offer at best questionable perspectives on gender and Russianness, and at worst offensive and deeply skewed distortions
When stereotypes remove agency, they echo traumatic histories of inequality. The Russian spy trope is not just distasteful, it also channels decades of sexist oppression across Eastern Europe: from communist-era state overbearance, to the 1990s, when female sexuality swiftly became a monetisable capitalist commodity. In every pretty Russian spy on screen there is a part of these women, who are my sisters, mothers, and grandmothers; a bit of their pain and loss, and also a bit of me.
There are many reasons why Hollywood should finally give up on these sexy Russian spy thrillers. There are certainly more timely stories to tell and deeper female characters to write. But the main argument against is the fact that these are not just stories. These are stereotypes which continue to harm Russian and other Eastern European women who are discriminated against at the workplace, while travelling, or in their homes — seen through the lens of Western male fantasy rather than as real people.