Sun August 28, 2011

Bling And Borscht: 'Russian Dolls' Play Up Stereotypes

Lifetime's Russian Dolls is just the latest "reality" TV show to have a tenuous relationship with reality. It's Real Housewives meets Jersey Shore meets Brighton Beach — a New York neighborhood full of Russian transplants. "It's one square mile of Brooklyn, jampacked with crazy Russians," explains one of the show's characters. But residents of the largely immigrant neighborhood say the show hardly reflects their reality.

Russian Dolls is crammed full of short skirts, short fuses, plastic surgery and gaudy jewelry. It gives the impression that Brighton Beach's women hang out in bath houses all day and drink vodka in Russian clubs all night. In their downtime, they talk behind each others' backs.

Home In 'Little Odessa'

Brighton Beach is largely a working class community nestled under a subway trestle, the final resting place on the B train in Brooklyn. It became a stronghold of Jewish immigrants starting in the 1930s and '40s, and it's now often referred to as "Little Odessa" because of the heavy concentration of immigrants who fled the former USSR to rebuild their lives.

"Brighton Beach is the Russian mecca," explains Elina Miller, the co-creator and co-executive producer of Russian Dolls. "Anyone who moved from the former Soviet Union knows exactly what Brighton Beach is."

Miller emigrated from Russia as a child and grew up in Chicago. She says the idea behind the show came from a desire to showcase a family on TV that looked and sounded like her own. "American popular culture likes to equate Russians with vodka and bears and those furry hats, but we show something a little bit deeper," Miller says.

Crgy Arinkin just moved to the U.S. from Kazakhstan and says he sees little resemblance on the show to the community he now calls home. "They took brat girls and scandal girls who could make a show," he says.

Letters of criticism from Russian-speaking residents have complained about everything from the title of the show to the women in it. Local politicians and residents drafted a letter of protest to Lifetime before the show even premiered, asking the network to stop making ethnic cartoons out of their culture.

Troy Patterson, television critic for Slate magazine, isn't surprised by the backlash: He says the show portrays the women of Brighton Beach as "a bunch of borscht-eating gold diggers."

Granted, this is "slice-of-life"-style reporting. But like a lot of reality TV, the show tends to serve as a springboard for petty squabbling. The portrait of these women, Patterson says, "tends to be used as the backdrop for tarted-up agony about life decisions."

Former Soviet Stereotypes

Russian Dolls is not the first to paint a not-so-nice picture of Brighton Beach. On CBS's Blue Bloods, the area is a haven for the Russian mafia. A drug run on Brighton Beach is the setting for the 2007 film We Own the Night.

Yelena Makhnin, director of the business improvement district in Brighton Beach, says these television shows are just peddling a product that the world seems to want. "It's a stereotype," she says. "It's kind of making a product for people to buy."

Russian culture in America isn't about brand names or diamonds, she insists, "We are a nation of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Lermontov."

Producer Elina Miller has read the criticism, but insists that she's still putting together a reality TV show. "I know that people want us to show the librarians and the nurses and the computer programmers," she says. "'I've read all those comments. But that's not necessarily what is interesting to people."

Miller says the women of Russian Dolls are strong-willed and smart. And, it seems, they all share a distinctive quality — they are willing to talk behind the backs of their girlfriends, dump their boyfriends, and cry on cue in front of the camera.

But despite the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the show, Makhnin remains hopeful: "I believe that the majority of people are smart, and they are not going to judge the entire Russian-speaking community on those [Russian Dolls] characters."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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