Ukraine and Women Warriors: The Mavka Folkloric Tradition Brought to Life

Mia Bloom ()

Women warriors tend to fall into one of two distinct categories. There is the allegory of the female warrior who disguises her gender by pretending to be a man to fight for her people because society refuses to allow women to fight. Her androgenous appearance moots any femininity as she must blend in with the men around her. In these stories, the warrior’s identity is inevitably revealed as part of the narrative arc, usually when she falls in love or is discovered by her military band of brothers. The story of Mulan exemplifies this trope, as do the Viking Valkyries, or, folkloresque — the Marvel Universe — Carol Danvers. On the other end of the spectrum, are hyper-feminine super-sexual female warriors. In this tradition, the women are breathtaking in their beauty and use their comely appearance like sirens, possessing great but deadly power. Such examples include everything from Xena Warrior Princess, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, and the Amazons of Themyscira. As we examine the trend of modern militaries in which women have been permitted to serve, these two traditions continue to exert their influence. The women in the US military resemble the more androgenous stereotype and femininity and sexual attraction is deliberately downplayed. In contrast, recent conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria have been marked by women who are not just attractive, but exceedingly so. In the Ukrainian conflict against the 2022 Russian invasion and the KDP Kurdish fighting forces that opposed ISIS, propaganda portrayed women warriors as beautiful and desirable. In social media, memes, and recruitment videos, the women warriors emasculate the men by defeating them with their heroism and their beauty. There is a precedent for this in Ukrainian folklore: the Mavkas - beautiful young girls who entice and lure young men into the woods, where they "tickle" them to death. The Mavka is derived from classic Ukrainian literature, unfolding in a universe that blends ancient Slavic myths and legends using a modern narrative. “ The Mavka was different from other female spirits… her evil is not intentional. At the sight of a young man, she falls into a trance and realizes her actions too late to change anything.” The Mavkas possess almost supernatural powers, akin to folklore about vampires. Mavkas have no reflection, neither do they cast shadows. The portrayal of female warriors leverages existing gender stereotypes in especially fragile masculine settings. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS warned its jihadi fighters that they would lose their place in janna (heaven) if they were killed by a woman. This paper explores the role of women warriors in folkloric tradition with a particular focus on its modern manifestation in the Ukraine war. By examining Ukrainian war imagery and social media posts, the paper analyzes how hyper-feminine women were an effective military strategy buoying Ukrainian military morale and emasculating Russian soldiers by defeating them.

Part of V5-04 "When Things Are Very, Very Bad, We Laugh": Folklore from the War in Ukraine, Thursday, October 12, 10:30 am–12:30 pm