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"Russia! Our women look like men!"
Ryan Stiles, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Eastern Europe is subject to a lot of generalizations in foreign eyes. Basically all people from Slavic, Eastern European, Belarussian or Russian countries are pigeonholed as the same people. When they are young and attractive they are Sensual Slavs. A female may be an Ice Queen who is emotionally reserved and needs to thawed in order to show her beauty and happiness underneath the stern façade, but generally this stereotype shows them as sympathetic exotic erotic beauties with a heart of gold. Far worse is the opposite stereotype, depicting them as ugly, even with two variations:

  1. A young/middle-aged muscled, mannish worker and/or athlete, usually with moustache hairs and/or heavy eyebrows. She may even wear a uniform and is generally unable to laugh.
  2. An old wrinkled troll-like hag, wearing a "babushka" (a grandma headscarf) tied below the chin. She may have moustache hairs and heavy eyebrows too. Usually she is crooked, searches twigs to make a fire and mumbles in herself. In some cases she may even be a Wicked Witch in disguise.

As with most stereotypes about people it's difficult to find out where these images came from, though the Wicked Witch from Slavic Mythology Baba Yaga is an example from within the culture itself, down to her headscarf. What is certain for a fact is that the "ugly Eastern European woman" stereotype became more prevalent after The Russian Revolution came in effect. Soviet propaganda always showed a lot of muscle strong women working in the fields alongside the men as their "comrade-in-arms". As fashion was considered bourgeois in Soviet society the industry in this field was fairly limited, resulting in domination of purely functional, often very ugly and shabby clothes designs. This also fit propaganda purposes, as it showed that everybody was equal. In the West, where the Red Scare was strong, these strong Russian women were seen as a threat or something laughably repulsive. Most Western women were still expected to be housewives and even those who did work for a living were not particularly encouraged when doing so. Apart from that the muscular Russian women looked like bitchy manwives in most Western males' eyes. Western Red Scare propaganda also did a lot to hammer this image in people's minds and became more and more prevalent at the height of the Cold War. Especially in the USA, TV sitcoms, films and stand-up comedians liked to crack jokes about hideous Russian women.

The image may also be due to the main way the West got exposure to Russian women — from sports, particularly the Olympics. Russian women are either svelte gymnasts and tennis players or horrible shot putters. (Rumors that the Soviet Union secretly juiced their female athletes with steroids might have also had an effect.)

This is largely a Forgotten Trope after the end of the Cold War, though old Slavic ladies (YMMV whether you find them ugly or just charming) still pop up in tourist brochures. Nowadays it's mostly been replaced by the Sensual Slavs portrayal.


Examples

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    Advertising 
  • This Wendy's commercial, which is called "Soviet Fashion Show." It takes place in a dimly lit auditorium with a lot of uniformed, unsmiling men in the audience. As a violin/balalaika band plays an off-the-wall version of Volga Boatmen chant, the MC reads out "Is next... Dayvear!" "Is next... Eveningvear!" The model is a large, plain woman in a utilitarian outfit with a babushka who strides briskly onto the stage — same outfit each time (Eveningvear has a flashlight, Svimvear has a beach ball). The idea is that at Wendy's you get to choose what to put on your hamburger.

    Comic Strips 
  • Bloom County:
    • One strip showed the effects of democracy coming to Russia as the Cold War ended, with the same potato-faced woman first in dumpy clothes and headscarf, then in American attire.
    • Another briefly showed a dumpy Russian man and woman reading a Pravda headline that Oliver had hacked with a peace message (but mistranslated as "Gorbachev Sings Tractors: Turnip! Buttocks!"). [1]
    • Rosebud the Basselope also dresses as one for espionage. [2]

    Film 
  • This trope was used as recently as 2004 in Dodgeball with the ugly woman with a unibrow from "Romanovia".
  • Top Secret! has a variant on this theme, when they comically present the "East German Women's Olympic Team" (East Germany being a vassal state of the Soviet Union, i.e. Russia), looking like male bodybuilders in drag; a reference to the rumors that the East German women's swim team took testosterone to make themselves better athletes (and therefore appeared manlier).
  • Get Smart: Played with. One group of women at a fancy dress party infiltrated by Max and 99 are your more typical Sensual Slavs (tall, slim blondes), but come off as bitchy (i.e. ugly personality-wise), while Max does the tango with another one who is overweight. Later, at the Moscow bakery serving as a front for KAOS, the female clerk, who is probably mid-50s and not very attractive, briefly gets the hots for Max.

    Jokes 
  • To paraphrase an old Soviet joke, "Where once were ladies and gentlemen, there are comrades and comrades."
  • One joke involved a man going to sleep next to his lovely wife of the first type and being horrified to discover, the next morning, that she has passed her "expiration date" and transformed overnight into the second.

    Literature - Fiction 
  • America (The Book) hits both ends of this trope: "Russian women are known for three things: their beauty, their heartiness, and the speed with which one turns into the other." This is illustrated by a picture of a young, attractive woman, captioned "Miss Vladivostok", and an old crone, captioned "Miss Vladivostok, [some implausibly short amount of time] later".

    Live Action TV 
  • Watch some old (uncensored) The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson monologues — at least once a week Johnny Carson would make a joke about how mind-numbingly ugly Slavic women were. And, since he was the most respected comedian in America, everyone copied him.
  • This trope became a running gag for Yakov Smirnoff's character on Night Court. In his first appearance on the show, Smirnoff's character (also named Yakov) is an immigrant from Soviet Russia who speaks almost no English, and Harry is forced by circumstance to befriend him despite the language barrier. It Makes Sense in Context. At one point, Harry gets to see the inside of Yakov's wallet and see photos of his loved ones. Harry is initially confused as to why Yakov has a photo of Soviet Premier Breshnev in his wallet, until Yakov explains that's his wife, Sonia. Since then, each time Yakov made an appearance, reference is made to how painfully ugly Sonia is, until the episode where finally we get to meet Sonia... and she's absolutely gorgeous. Naturally, Yakov thinks she's a KGB impostor, even as she claims her new appearance is due to Magic Plastic Surgery, required due to an accident.

    Mythology & Folklore 
  • Baba Yaga: Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch from Slavic mythology, is an example from the culture itself, though it must be said that she isn't always depicted as a bad character.

    Music 

    Standup Comedy 
  • Comedian Yakov Smirnoff was using this as late as The '80s: "In Russia we have a saying: 'Women are like buses.' That's it."

    Western Animation 
  • Ren and Stimpy: In the episode "A Visit to Anthony", Ren and Stimpy leave their house (apparently located in Hollywood, Yugoslavia, according to the caption) and are kissed goodbye by their very masculine-looking wives, wearing a babushka and visible beard stubble.
  • The 1957 Merrie Melodies cartoon Rabbit Romeo has Elmer Fudd inherit a large Slobovian rabbit named Millicent. Fudd tricks Bugs Bunny into being Millicent's companion. Bugs is repulsed by this obese, love-crazed lagomorph that speaks with a vaguely East European accent and grammar structure: "Give to me large kiss." Millicent's voice was supplied by June Foray, using an accent that would become Natasha Fatale's voice from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

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