Michele Leigh and Lora Mjolsness: She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation

Brookline, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2020, ISBN: 9781644690345, 9781644690666, 230 pp.

​ ​ Masha Semashyna
​ ​ Animation; women’s cinema; female subjectivity; women animators.

The monograph She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation by Michele Leigh and Lora Mjolsness was published last year by the Academic Studies Press, an independent U.S.-based publisher of scholarly literature with a particular focus on Slavic and Jewish studies. The book’s authors both come from studies in Russian cinema: Leigh is an independent scholar working on gender in Russian film and television, and Mjolsness is a specialist in Russian and Soviet cinema and animation based at the University of California, Irvine. Located at the intersection of their academic interests, the monograph provides a detailed and insightful historical overview of the work done by women animators in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.

Animation in general is an area long-overlooked, in part due to the assumption that cultural production for children is not worthy of scholarly consideration. It was this assumption, the authors of the book argue, that allowed women professionals to enter the field and rise to the positions of creative power. In the field of animation, they were able to exercise more control over their work than would have been possible in other creative sectors (Leigh and Mjolsness 2020: 6–7). Given this higher degree of freedom, the authors suggest, Soviet animation may be read as expressing not only official politics, but the directors’ own visions, both as individual creators and as women, in their formal choices as well as in narrative twists they brought to existing fairy-tales. Leigh and Mjolsness thus aim to trace female aesthetics (manifested in the formal dimension of animated films) and the expressions of female subjectivity in the works of Russian women directors. In addition, they identify the ways in which this female subjectivity was uniquely Soviet. Therefore, in addition to the formal analysis of the films, they investigate the representation(s) of female characters (ibid.: 28).

Chapter 1, “Women’s Cinema and the Russian and Soviet Animation Industry”, provides a helpful overview of the existing studies on women in Soviet film as well as the key works of Western (Anglo-American) feminist film theory. It also elaborates on the reasons why it is important for the book to focus on female subjectivity, by which the authors understand a particular women’s view of the world and themselves (ibid.: 26). This importance lies in the fact that, as state control of cultural production tightened in the 1930s, it “pushed women animators away from simply utilizing a female aesthetic towards a more encompassing notion of female subjectivity”, which implies “focus[ing] on women’s lived experiences”, and thus often meant subverting the ideological requirements and gender roles (ibid.: 27). Further chapters are organised chronologically, spanning from the earliest days of Russian animation until the present. Chapter 2, “In the Beginning: The First Wave of Soviet Women Animators”, deals with the origins of Russian animation and the first generation of women animators that appeared in the 1920s. Chapter 3, “Female Creativity in the Wake of Censorship, Consolidation, and Disney”, discusses the changes that marked the industry in the 1930s; Chapter 4, “The War Years, Stalinist Repression, and Women Navigating the Animation Industry”, addresses the hardships of the 1940s and the 1950s and the turn to patriotic education and national folklore in animation for children. Chapter 5, “Reshaping Women’s Roles on and off the Screen: Animation during Khrushchev and Brezhnev”, and Chapter 6, “When One Door Opens Another Shuts: Perestroika and Proto-Feminist Films”, look at the progressive relaxation of state control and the emergence of hidden messages of resistance in the animated films of the 1960–70s and of the 1980s, respectively. The final two chapters – “The End of an Era: Women’s Animation and the Fall of the Soviet Union” and “Women Navigating the Past and Looking to the Future” – are dedicated to the post-Soviet period, the former focusing on the 1990s, and the latter giving an overview of women directors active in the 2000s and 2010s.

The analysis focuses on twelve directors, some of whom are discussed in more than one chapter: the immensely productive sisters Zinaida and Valentina Brumberg (Chapters 2–5), whom the authors present as masters of subversive messages; Olga Khodataeva (Chapters 2–4), the director of both propagandist and ‘ethnic’ fairy-tale films based on stories from around the Soviet Union; Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaia (Chapters 4–5), who brought the avant-garde aesthetic back with her Skazka o mal’chishe-kibal’chishe / The Tale of the Boy-Kibalchish (1958, Soviet Union); Inessa Kovalevskaia (Chapter 5), the director of the Bremenskiie muzykanty / The Musicians of Bremen (1969, Soviet Union), much beloved by generations of young Soviet and post-Soviet viewers; Nataliia Golovanova and Nina Shorina (Chapter 6), whose films explored contradictions between motherhood and femininity in the 1980s; Ideia Garanina (Chapter 6), who introduced live-action filming techniques to her work in puppet animation; Mariia Muat (Chapters 7–8), who brought back the femme fatale character of the silent film era; Anna Belonogova (Chapter 7), the author of CGI films and one of the first to approach animation as ‘women’s cinema’; and Iuliia Aronova and Darina Shmidt (Chapter 8), who have used cut-out and computer animation to approach femininity and motherhood in the 2000s and 2010s.

One of the most insightful parts of the monograph (esp. in Chapters 1 and 3–5, although there are sections dedicated to the inner workings of the industry in almost every chapter) is its discussion of how animation work was organised institutionally (ibid.: 13), the specific ways in which censorship allowed for loopholes (ibid.: 10), and the changes in both over the years. Leigh and Mjolsness write animation into the larger cultural history of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, from centralisation and the emergence of Soiuzmultfilm under Stalin (which brought with itself the Disneyfication of style) to the lyricism of the Thaw and the material hardships of the 1990s, and show how women directors responded to various challenges. One common thread that stands out in works from different decades is the “champion[ing of] mother-child relationships” on screen (ibid.: 20), which the authors read against the backdrop of Soviet mistrust of mothers and femininity even during the periods of pro-natalist politics.

A fascinating topic the monograph touches upon is the survival of avant-garde aesthetics in children’s animation. In 1924, women were actively engaged in the production of animated films for the first time, as part of the experimental animation workshop led, among others, by Olga Khodataeva’s brother Nikolai Khodataev. The participants for this workshop were recruited largely from among the VKhUTEMASstudents (ibid.: 34).1 Leigh and Mjolsness show how the films produced by the participants of this workshop, Mezhplanetnaia revoliutsiia / Interplanetary Revolution (Zenon Komissarenko, Iurii Merkulov, Nikolai Khodataev, 1924, Soviet Union) and Kitai v ogne / China in Flames (Zenon Komissarenko, N. Maksimov, Iurii Merkulov, Nikolai Khodataev, 1925, Soviet Union), relied significantly on the avant-garde-inspired “poster style”, with its use of geometric shapes and the impression of flat surface (ibid.: 35–37). Yet, this distinctive style was supplanted by Disney aesthetics in the 1930s (ibid.: 61). It was not until 1958, after the death of Stalin and the beginning of de-Stalinization, when Snezhko-Blotskaia directed her Skazka o mal’chishe-kibal’chishe that elements of this poster-like aesthetic, with simple line-drawing and refusal of conventional linear perspective, made its comeback (ibid.: 97–98). In this film, avant-garde-inspired imagery became a visual shorthand for revolutionary tradition, as employing it allowed Snezhko-Blotskaia to “ma[k]e the connection between her film, set during World War II, and Gaidar’s tale, which was published during the Civil War” (ibid.: 98). A lay reader might notice echoes of this turn to flattened perspective, line-drawing, and a higher degree of stylization in place of realism in later animated films as well, e.g., in the Brumberg’s Bolshie nepriiatnosti / Great Troubles (1961, Soviet Union), Rusalochka / The Little Mermaid (Ivan Aksenchuk, 1968, Soviet Union), and, more distantly, in Kovalevskaia’s Bremenskiie muzykanty (1969), where the simple lines of Skazka o mal’chishe-kibal’chishe meet the colorful exuberance of the Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968, UK).

Another way in which avant-garde tradition survived in animation is the trope of the “revolt of things” (primarily objects of everyday use) stemming from the poems of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov and familiar to most Soviet readers from Chukovsky’s Moidodyr (1923).2 It is curious to see how the implications of this revolt changed with time. In Khodataeva’s Vavila groznyi i tetka Arina / Terrible Vavila and Little Auntie Arina (Olga Khodataeva and Nikolai Khodataev, 1928, Soviet Union), housework tools liberate a woman by preventing her from working on March 8 and attacking her controlling husband, so that she can instead attend a women’s meeting (ibid.: 42–43). Similarly, in Krasnaia shapochka / Little Red Riding Hood (Valentina Brumberg, Zinaida Brumberg, 1937, Soviet Union), they help a little girl and her grandmother defend themselves against a big bad wolf (ibid.: 66). However, 50 years later in Nina Shorina’s Pro Buku / About Buka (1984, Soviet Union) and Vtoroie ia / Alter Ego (1989, Soviet Union), these objects reveal their complicity with repressive aspects of socially prescribed femininity (body-perfecting and controlling techniques, docility, the never-ending responsibilities of motherhood and housework), attacking the female characters (ibid.: 141, 144).

At the same time, it feels as though the scope of this relatively small book and the inevitable constraints which come with it did not allow the authors to flesh out a number of important theoretical points. Leigh and Mjolsness mine the films under discussion for potentially subversive messages, which, in the end, leaves the reader under impression that everything women directors produce is inherently feminist. Everything is resistance, even the Little Lion and the Turtle singing a song together in Kak L’venok i cherepakha peli pesniu / How the Little Lion and the Turtle Sang a Song (Inessa Kovalevskaia, 1974, Soviet Union).3 The most pronounced example is the authors quoting the director Darina Shmidt in saying that “the bane of our time is girl-superheroes [...] a woman should be weaker,” and concluding that this statement “speak[s] to the complicated nature of Russian feminism” (Leigh and Mjolsness 2020: 189). It is, however, unclear why Shmidt’s statement should be read in feminist terms in the first place. What appears to be lost in this reading is the fact that women can be indifferent or even averse to feminism and the ideals of gender equality, and their work may reflect this position, yet still be worthy of a serious and sympathetic analysis.

The key theoretical issue the authors miss out on is the need to interrogate the terms of their own analysis, in the spirit of Joan Scott’s foundational article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986: 1067–68): What is one looking for when doing a gender-sensitive reading? In this book’s case, we learn that these are “strong heroines, motherhood, femininity” (Leigh and Mjolsness 2020: 6), and the exploration of how women made contributions to the industry, “often portraying females and femininity in ways that push the boundaries of ideological and aesthetic norms in the Soviet Union” (ibid.: 5). While the authors maintain that “ideas related to female self-sufficiency and self-determination […] issues of eroticism and sexuality” are less applicable for children’s animation (ibid.: 7), they do nonetheless come up in the analysis (see e.g. the discussion of “feminine allure” below). The authors take pains to distance themselves from “a typical Western feminist approach” (ibid.: 5), particularly its second-wave version, in order “to situate these women directors and their films within the historical reality in which they lived”, to discover “a more unique form of feminism than is found in the West” (ibid.). And while the historical overviews in the chapters contribute brilliantly to achieving this goal, the close readings of individual films reveals the authors’ over-reliance on the white liberal Anglo-American feminist tradition, with its focus on individual freedom in educational and professional choice and sexual expression. Ironically, in their own analysis, the authors often arrive at conclusions which sound distinctly second-wave, with remarks like: “This power of transformation is the power all women hold” (ibid.: 87) or “[...] a changing female subjectivity that is more in tune to one’s sexuality and power as a woman” (ibid.: 122). The comparison between Soviet Russia and ‘the West’ relies on similar generalisations, for example, “[...] while most second-wave feminists in the United States sought to eradicate gender binaries, in the Soviet Union, feminists fought for the right to be feminine, to have the freedom to wear mini skirts, make-up, and Go-Go boots” (ibid.: 121), or “Saddled with the triple burden – motherhood, housework, and career – Soviet women wanted to display their differences from men” (ibid.: 112). The very premise of this argument, that “the cultural modes of the Soviet Union […] aimed to erase the differences between men and women” (ibid.: 141), which then allows for the emphasis on reading femininity as resistance, is in itself a sweeping statement that appears to be taken as self-evident. In addition to falling prey to such generalisations (“all women”, “Soviet women”), the very dichotomy ‘Soviet women’s experience vs. Western feminism’ necessarily creates both as monoliths, seemingly uniform in their difference from each other).4 One wonders how this comparison could be different if different strands of Western second-wave feminism were considered,5 as well as voices of the Soviet women of different social classes and political leanings. For instance, an important context for animated films which praise motherhood is provided by Russian dissident feminism, most strikingly by Nataliia Malakhovskaia in her essay “Materinskaia sem’ia” (“Maternal Family”) published in the Zhenshchina i Rossiia (Woman and Russia) almanach. In this piercing text, Malakhovskaia characterises Soviet family life and motherhood as requiring creative women to “kill a Mozart in themselves,” since “practically, being a mother and a creator are incompatible things in our circumstances” (Malakhovskaia 1980: 36–37).6 Putting such disparate positions in conversation would allow for addressing differences among Soviet women, complicating a celebratory reading that leaves little space for acknowledging conflicts and tensions.

One of the effects of privileging resistance while homogenising both ‘Soviet women’ and ‘Western second-wave feminists’ is that the equation of “feminine allure” (ibid.: 112) on screen with ‘female power’ is at times rather perplexing.7 For instance, the Princess from Bremenskiie muzykanty, with her long flowing hair and long legs under a mini-dress, is read as a strong statement against the femininity-erasing gender politics of the Soviet state (ibid.: 122). In a similar vein, the self-beautification (and, one might say, self-domestication) of the prehistoric Woman from Kot, kotoryi gulial sam po sebe / The Cat Who Walked by Himself (Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaia, 1968, Soviet Union) is interpreted as a kind of positive objectification, in contrast to objectification as it is known in Western feminism, done in order to gain male approval:

the woman’s transformation towards individuation and its subsequent “othering” comes from the objectification of the female body. This objectification appears to be on her own terms. [...] she transforms her appearance for her own satisfaction [...]. Her feminine transformation in this tale creates a female selfhood that is grounded in beauty, a stark difference from Western second-wave feminism (ibid.: 112).

It is curious how this approach never seems to take into account neither the male (nor female) gaze outside the film, to which the directors might be catering, nor the existing popular, rather than state-promoted, gender stereotypes. While this may be a conscious decision on the part of the authors to distance themselves from the automatisms of Western second-wave feminist critical analyses and to foreground the agency of women on screen, the lack of acknowledgement of these factors beyond the screen feels like a missed opportunity to address the complexities of the field in which women directors had to operate.8 Moreover, this same approach characterises the analyses of Kot, kotoryi gulial sam po sebe (1968), Bremenskiie muzykanty (1969), and Mariia Muat’s animated film for adults Koroli i kapusta / Kings and Cabbages (1996, Russian Federation), which is all the more curious given the difference in historical contexts that informed the production of the films under discussion. As regulations on what could and could not be publicly portrayed grew more relaxed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the shift to market economy, and commercial concerns grew stronger, the 1990s saw a proliferation of hypersexualised images of women in advertisement, in magazines, and on screen.9 It would therefore make sense to talk here about women as astute creators maneuvering the demands of official ideology and the market, and the complicity that comes with such maneuvering. In the same vein, the films which uphold and romanticise motherhood during periods of official pro-natalist politics (the 1980s as well as the 1940s), like Skazka o tsare Saltane / The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Valentina Brumberg, Zinaida Brumberg, 1943, Soviet Union) and Mal’chik kak mal’chik / A Boy is a Boy (Natal’ia Golovanova, 1986, Soviet Union), might be doing so at the cost of a particular complicity with the state.

Just as it remains unresolved why the animated films created by women need to be read as uniformly promoting a pro-woman agenda, “female subjectivity”, the key concept in the analysis, remains vague throughout the book. Films under consideration are said to “create” it (ibid.: 75, 190), “contribut[e]” to it (ibid.: 108), “alter” (ibid.: 139), “add layers” to (ibid.: 153), and “shape” (ibid.: 184, 187) it; the Brumberg sisters are said to have “provided a framework for the everyday enactment” of it (ibid.: 89). As with the male gaze, it is unclear whether female subjectivity is something outside the films (something women have that films can express or convey) or something that films themselves shape and create, and if both, then what the relationship between the two is.

Finally, a problem related to the homogenisation of Soviet women’s experience is the lack of discussion of Soviet Russian culture as a colonising force when it comes to films based on “ethnic fairy-tales” (Leigh and Mjolsness 2020: 109). This lack of attention to Russia’s colonial past and present manifests itself in Gogol’s The Lost Letter being unproblematically characterised as an example of Russian national heritage (ibid.: 80), as well as in the vague mention of “territorial disputes” among the problems that have marked the last twenty years of Russian history (ibid.: 171), which feels like a bit of an understatement. A more nuanced discussion of the complex cultural politics of the Soviet state with regard to the ‘friendship of peoples’ would offer an opportunity to address the relationship between Russian women and non-Russian Soviet people as variously othered Soviet subjects meeting each other in these works.

These theoretical considerations pertaining to film analysis do not, however, in any way diminish the immense value of this monograph. It offers valuable insight into the organisation of the animation industry and a fascinating study of women animators working in changing and uncertain conditions of the Soviet state throughout the years. In addition to the twelve directors whose work Leigh and Mjolsness bring into the foreground, the authors mention that many women “who worked as in-betweeners, inkers, and colorists” (ibid.: 14) were not given screen credit and thus so far remain “invisible” to scholarship. It is breathtaking to think how many more women’s contributions future research might reveal.

Masha Semashyna
Central European University, Budapest/Vienna


1 VKhUTEMAS (short for Vysshiie Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskiie Masterskiie, Higher Art and Technical Studios), was an interdisciplinary art and technical school founded in Moscow in 1920, where some of the foremost Russian avant-garde artists like Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Aleksander Rodchenko, Aleksandra Ekster, and El Lissitzky taught their courses.

2 In his article on Chukovsky, Gasparov (1992) argues convincingly that the origins of the vivid imagery in this children’s poem, which has domestic objects fleeing from the protagonist and an imposing commanding washbasin reinstating order, lie in the poetry and thinking of Russian Futurists and Formalists.

3 See Krylova 1992 on the prevalence of the “resisting subject” in Soviet studies and its genealogy.

4 For a detailed discussion of why this is a problem for feminist analysis, see Mohanty 1991: 70–71.

5 There are several potential lines of comparison which could have revealed more similarities. Both French feminism and at least certain strands of ecofeminism, especially those close to the Goddess movement, valorised sexual difference, motherhood, and femininity (for the historical perspective on the deep roots of this difference-focused tradition in European thought, see Offen 1988). The concerns raised by Marxist feminists and activists of the Wages for Housework campaign could speak to Soviet women’s dissatisfaction with their ‘double’ or ‘triple burden’. And the work of Black women activists could have offered a parallel perspective on how access to conventional femininity itself is unequally distributed, so that some women may experience it like something they have to fight for, rather than an imposition they would want to emancipate themselves from. Marxist and Black feminists thought also tended to focus relatively less on cultural dimensions of sexism, like popular stereotypes and lookism, and more on material hardships faced by women, especially those from marginalised populations – something that speaks to Maiia Turovskaia’s concerns in her article “Woman and Cinema” which Leigh and Mjolsness cite (Turovskaia [1991] 2021). While it is true that liberal feminism, together with elements of the radical feminist tradition, has over time occupied the place of the “typical Western feminism” in popular imagination, and while these alternative strands of feminist thought may not have impacted film theory to the same extent, they were hardly small niche phenomena either: Western feminism was as heterogenous as ‘Soviet women’ were. On how these imaginary histories of feminism emerge and what they often occlude, see, e.g., Hemmings 2011.

6 «Практически быть матерью и быть творцом – вещи несовместимые в наших условиях»; «[...] и убивает в себе Моцарта». See also the recent re-publication of the almanach: Vasiakina, Kozlov, Talaver 2020.

7 See, e.g., the analysis of Kot, kotoryi gulial sam po sebe / The Cat Who Walked by Himself (Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaia, 1968, Soviet Union) in Chapter 5 (Leigh and Mjolsness 2020: 110–112), the Princess in Bremenskiie muzykanty in Chapter 5 (ibid.: 120–122), and Koroli i kapusta / Kings and Cabbages (Mariia Muat, 1996, Russian Federation), in Chapter 7 (ibid.: 162–164).

8 For instance, one might compare the Woman from Kot, kotoryi gulial sam po sebe to Lilith and Eve from the play Bozhestvennaia komedia / Divine Comedy (Sergei Obraztsov, theatrical premiere 1961, television version 1973, Soviet Union) of the Moscow State Puppet Theatre. One can see how the stereotypes which the portrayal of these three versions of the first woman relies on are in fact quite similar: the women are clever, notably cleverer than men, adept at manipulation, good at making themselves beautiful and desirable, interested in comfort, and vain. It appears that, in this respect, the two works draw from, and speak to, the same selection of cultural ideas of what women are like. But whereas in Obraztsov’s play, especially in the case of Lilith, these traits are arranged into a misogynistic portrayal of a woman who is ultimately destroyed for her arrogance, in Snezhko-Blotskaia’s retelling of Kipling’s story, the same stereotypical features are what enables the Woman to become the driving force of civilisation. The curious aspect of Snezhko-Blotskaia’s animated film, from this perspective, is the way in which she works to create a positive character without challenging the existing ideas of femininity.

9 Helena Goscilo (2006: 266–272) lists a number of examples from different genres. Early post-Soviet caricature offers particularly pronounced cases of buxom femme-fatale images with which Muat’s film appears to be working. See the digital archives of humour magazines Krasnaia Burda / Red Sludge, Vokrug Smekha / Around Laughter, and others, online: http://www.cartoon-twins.ru/djvu/kb.html, http://www.cartoon-twins.ru/djvu/period.htm; as well as the Ukrainian-based Russian-language and largely Russian-culture-oriented magazine Igra / The Game http://igra.chgk.info/. See also caricatures by Roza Drukman in Krokodil 1989, no. 7, 8–9. In the case of Koroli i kapusta, the authors argue, the female characters’ exaggerated lips, bottoms, and breasts can be read as “hinting at a new type of post-Soviet feminism, in which women use their sexuality to wield their power over men” (ibid.: 162). However, when looking at these characters in the context of the broader visual culture of the time, one can see that Muat uses existing and widespread highly sexualised and hardly feminist-inspired images of women to produce a more women-friendly narrative.


Masha Semashyna is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, based in Budapest. She studied philology at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine, holds an MA degree in Gender Studies, and specialises in gender in Russian avant-garde literature with a focus on the OBERIU group. She has taught introductory courses on art, literature, and philosophy at OLIve, an education initiative for people who have experienced displacement, and Milestone Institute, an advanced studies programme for gifted students.


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Suggested Citation

Semashyna, Masha. 2021. Review: “Michele Leigh and Lora Mjolsness: She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 12. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2021.00012.256

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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