Early Monday morning Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, tweeted out what he deemed to be his “scathing take on Yulia Tymoshenko.”
I clicked expecting to hear her policies excoriated. Instead what I got was a lurid account of her “formidable charm,” as well as the “immaculate blonde tresses and sometimes kittenish ways” that have sometimes led politicians in Ukraine to underestimate her.
I came expecting to learn more about her involvement in the country’s notoriously corrupt gas industry and her role in the Orange Revolution. But several hundred words in, all I had learned of her political approach was that she’s “prepared to use her undeniable sexual magnetism,” and that an anonymous ambassador once dubbed a two-hour ride he took with her in a limousine “the most sexually threatening experience of his life.”
What exactly is meant by sexually threatening? Well, Lucas mentions that her “eyes, coquettish tosses of the head, and cooing tones are almost hypnotic.” But, he warns, she is also “capable of explosive anger.” And adds, “I have seen her shriek and curse in terrifying eruptions of rage: the kitten turns into a tigress.”
Takedowns of powerful women that revolve around petty comments about their looks or temperament are familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the headlines. Sometimes the remarks are subtle. Sheryl Sandberg writing in Lean In told the story of how at her wedding her siblings joked about how demanding she was as a kid.
“Some of you think we’re Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl’s first employees — employee No. 1 and employee No. 2. Initially, as a 1-year-old and a 3-year old, we were worthless and weak. Disorganized, lazy. We would just as soon spit on ourselves as read the morning paper. But Sheryl could see that we had potential. For more than 10 years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape…. “
To Sandberg the humor was tinged with a sort of lingering sexism, in which boys who take control are deemed alpha and girls who do are deemed bossy. (Research shows female leaders have to be much more conscious about what traits they cultivate and which ones they suppress.)
But the coverage of Tymoshenko goes farther: It’s dismissing her political substance by demonizing her sexuality. Tymoshenko has been called Vladimir ”Putin with a braid” for her hardline politics, and yet the treatment of their superficialities could scarcely be more different.
Putin’s machismo has been met with fawning and adulation, as described by Marin Cogan in her piece “The Secret American Subculture of Putin Worshippers.” The fact that he rides horses in the foothills of Karatash and hunts shirtless has, if anything, enhanced his political reputation around the world. (The worst ribbing he gets for it is when outlets like The New Yorker and The Economist photoshop his head onto the body of Olympic skaters.)
Tymoshenko, meanwhile, is vilified for her sexuality and “angelic looks” constantly. “Don’t let her looks fool you,” a particularly dim lede from The Daily Beast reads. “The woman of the moment in Ukraine, whose crown of braided golden hair is calculated to evoke mythical memories of rural strength, has always been a better icon than a politician.” The post’s author, Christopher Dickey, goes on to refer to her as a “hard-bitten ice queen,” (this frigidity stands in apparent contrast to Lucas’ portrayal of her as a sexually dangerous tigress). It’s not just the media. Even her Ukrainian nickname of “gas princess” is questionable.
Still nothing I’ve read approaches Lucas’s story from Monday in which the most substantive political thing we learn about Tymoshenko is that her “authoritarian ways and erratic policy-making won few friends.” What the author really wants us to know is that “her blonde hair became legendary” and that she’s “prone to irrational, often self-aggrandizing flights of fancy.” That, and according to a former and likely spurned adviser, she thinks she is the reincarnation of Eva Peron.
I will not attempt to assess here her role in Ukrainian politics (as has been done skillfully here by my colleague Marina Koren). I clicked on Lucas’s article because I wanted to learn about her politics from this senior editor at The Economist and self-proclaimed Russian expert. I came away convinced what he needs is a lecture.