A Russian father’s quest for new love ended in a battle over freedom of expression online
You couldn’t make this one up. A 12-year-old girl goes on a hit Russian matchmaking program to help her divorced father find a new wife, but ends up being bullied by the show’s hosts. When she stands up for herself online, the teenager finds herself battling not only Russia’s largest state TV network, but YouTube.
This is what happened to Anastasia (she didn’t want her last name broadcast) when she appeared on “Let’s Get Married,” triggering a David vs. Goliath-style struggle over how rules designed to protect content producers are increasingly being abused to silence free expression.
The popular dating show, broadcast on Russia’s Channel One, employs tricks familiar to daytime TV viewers in the West: intimidating speed rounds of questioning, dramatic reveals of exes and estranged family members, and tearful confessions, in front of a live studio audience.
Three female hosts — one of them an astrologer — grill each contestant after they’ve been introduced to the potential spouses selected for them, on a set ringed with mock Greek columns. It’s not unusual for the children of the romantic hopefuls to be included in the mix too.
But when Anastasia appeared on the show, she was the first to face off with the hosts, with her father left waiting backstage. Wearing a white dress approved by the producers, she arrived on set carrying a bouquet of roses for each host, as they had rehearsed beforehand. But the teenager says after that, things went totally off script.
Instead of asking the questions she had practiced with producers, the hosts gave Anastasia a verbal roughing up. They interrogated her about her father’s “sea of girlfriends,” ridiculed her for declining to share her birth month with the astrologist, and lectured her on how to be respectful — after repeatedly interrupting her.
In the version that was broadcast, the 12-year-old was on her own for more than 10 minutes before her father was finally brought on. And even then, the bullying continued. One host, Larisa Guzeeva, told Anastasia she was “ten times more frightening than any mother-in-law,” before telling her father that his daughter was “totally insincere.”
It was an experience that would have reduced many people to tears, but she kept her cool on set — a sign of the determination she would show later on. But the producers hadn’t finished with her. After filming was over, they released a social media trailer for the program, with the host Guzeeva calling Anastasia “hooorrible” in the comments below.
When the show aired, she saw that they added a soundtrack called “Twisted Horror” to the sections when she appears, as if “I’m some kind of monster.” And the teenager then started attracting bullying posts online.
But Anastasia tore up the script once more, surprising the program makers by fighting back. They “assured me that everything would go well,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t sign up to be abused or humiliated.” With her father’s help, she launched a video campaign on YouTube and social media, calling for an end to hate speech on Russian television. And she gave as good as she had gotten in the studio.
“Advocating physical assault against children on Russia’s main government TV channel — is this normal?” read one of her tweets, tagging the Russian government, parliament and state prosecutor’s office, and demanding that they shut down “Let’s Get Married.”
Clearly rattled by the teenager’s campaign, the Russian state broadcasting giant responded by accusing her of violating its copyright, because she had used clips from “Let’s Get Married” in her videos. That led YouTube to take her videos down, and give her “two strikes,” according to its rules. One more, and her newly-minted “Respect on TV” channel would be deleted entirely.
“The fact that they blocked my video and tried to silence my voice of course shows that I hit them where it hurts,” said Anastasia, saying that she was sure she had complied with YouTube’s “fair use” terms after studying them online. “I wanted to show them the power of the internet,” she added. And after weeks of dispute with the video-sharing giant, her material was restored last week.
The program has not made clear why it decided to target the teenager in this way. The producers did not respond to requests for comment. But host Larissa Guzeeva was recently quoted attacking Anastasia’s motives. “The girl wants to become famous in any way,” she told Russia’s state news agency, before suggesting that the authorities “find out what’s wrong with the father and mother.”
In Anastasia, though, Russia’s state broadcasting behemoth may have met its match.