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Russia, Hollywood’s Mirror

Can American filmmakers find a new script for the latest round of East-West tension?

Feature

Brooklyn, New York

If Russians didn’t exist, Hollywood would have to invent them. In a sense, Hollywood has. In English-language cinema, Russians aren’t so much a nationality as a set of tropes, sometimes resembling human beings but more often functioning as a kind of dark mirror for American and British protagonists. Russians are spies and hackers, soldiers and seductresses, terrorists and ideologues, dissidents and gangsters, and sometimes fully abstracted as nuclear mushroom clouds. The one thing they are not is ordinary people.

Those of us who study Russia, the country, are forever dogged by Russia, the pop cultural stereotype. If only we had chosen a country most Americans know nothing about, instead of a country most Americans know a few big things about, most of them gleaned from movies and TV shows. Since the Cold War, American audiences have fixated on the Russians, usually understanding them as villains but sometimes as antiheroes. Either way, Russians have typically been cast as cunning, intense, and fanatical, products of a society shrouded in darkness and tragedy, in contrast to the more straightforward and optimistic Americans.

That said, their role has shifted over time in sync with America’s anxieties about them. Over the past 50 years, cinematic portrayals of Russians have generally tracked with the perceived health of Russia and of its relationship with the West. Our popular perception of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia has transitioned over time from powerful adversary to fallen empire, and more recently to a revived and worthy foil.

The central question Americans seem incapable of resolving, either in our popular culture or our foreign policy, is whether Russia is strong or weak, and whether the threat it presents — that it presents a threat always goes without saying — is one of order or chaos.

By revisiting how we’ve gotten Russia wrong before, maybe we can do better this time.

Since the 2016 election, Russia has been a staple of cable news and social media in the U.S. But Americans aren’t really talking about Russia as much as we’re talking about ourselves, about what frightens us and where we perceive our greatest vulnerabilities as a society. In doing so, we find ourselves drawing on half a century of our own evolving cultural depictions of Russians, casting about for a simple answer as to how we left ourselves open to foreign manipulation.

What we’re doing isn’t new, but in many ways the Russia we’re dealing with is. By revisiting how we’ve gotten Russia wrong before, maybe we can do better this time.

The First Cold War

“From Russia With [fill in the topic of your article here]” is a headline that never needs to be deployed again, an endlessly replicated format that traces its origin to the 1957 Ian Fleming novel “From Russia With Love” and the 1963 film adaptation starring Sean Connery as Agent 007. The titular love interest, Tatiana Romanova (played by Italian model Daniela Bianchi, dubbed over with a British accent), helped establish a durable archetype: the sexy Russian spy deployed to seduce our protagonist. This trope is so popular that the media ate it up this past summer when federal prosecutors accused the alleged Russian agent Maria Butina of using sex to gain access to officials in Washington, an accusation they more recently withdrew.

This is not an imaginary concept. The KGB may not have invented honey traps. But since the mid-20th century, they and their successor organization, the FSB, have frequently used them as a way to blackmail and recruit British and American officials. Romanova, the conventionally beautiful love interest, is juxtaposed with the implicitly lesbian and explicitly butch villainess Rosa Klebb, a mean-spirited authoritarian whose name is a play on the Russian words for “Bread and Roses,” Fleming’s neat little jab at the commies.

The 1960s were the height of the Cold War, defined by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear age satire “Dr. Strangelove” two years later. But they were also the height of American can-do optimism, an attitude that persisted until late in the decade.

One of the most beloved cultural artifacts from this era, the animated series “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” (1959-1964), features as its villains Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, Eastern European-accented criminals from the fictional dictatorship of Pottsylvania, where they report to the de-ideologized strongman Fearless Leader. Boris and Natasha are obvious Russian stand-ins, engaging in deception and sabotage against the titular, all-American, and perpetually good-natured flying squirrel and moose.

But it’s all in good fun, a gentle send-up of the manichean Cold War struggle portrayed by politicians and the media in the wake of the McCarthy era. If the diminutive Boris and the vampy Natasha are the face of the Soviet threat, there’s really no need to panic.

In a similar vein, Norman Jewison’s “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” (1966) depicts an accidental Soviet invasion of a New England coastal resort, where Soviet submariners find themselves stranded, causing the locals to panic. The whole thing is played as a cheerful light comedy, in which violence is avoided and the Soviets and Americans are able to resolve their misunderstandings and work for the common good.

1966 also saw the debut of “Star Trek.” The series portrayed a utopian future in which the Starship Enterprise, commanded by all-American Captain James T. Kirk, sported a diverse crew that grew to include Pavel Chekov — who first appeared in 1967 as a young Russian Starfleet ensign and navigator.

Chekov was played for two seasons and seven subsequent films by Walter Koenig, an American actor of Russian Jewish descent, with a ludicrous accent, somewhat resembling the accents of the mostly American actors in The Russians Are Coming.

In 2009, a more culturally sensitive reboot of the original Star Trek crew featured the Russian-born Anton Yelchin as Chekov, a role he played in three films prior to a fatal car accident in 2016. In both incarnations, Chekov is a valued member of a crew that also featured an Asian man and a black woman — a very rare sight on television in 1960 and only slightly less so today.

Chekov’s presence on the bridge of the Enterprise was meant to signal hope for a peaceful reconciliation between the Soviet bloc and the West, a theme also allegorically present in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” released just weeks before the real Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

The idealists of the 1960s hoped that the United States and the Soviet Union could resolve their differences and avert nuclear war. On some level, they perceived a common humanity between Americans and Russians. But by the 1980s, some filmmakers were more interested in reimagining the Cold War as a hot war. Under Ronald Reagan, the Soviet Union was dubbed “the Evil Empire.”

This meant not only that the Soviets were malevolent, but that the Americans were the underdogs — even though in retrospect the 1980s were the years when the Western Bloc decisively outstripped the Eastern Bloc in economic productivity. “Red Dawn” (1984) revisits the premise of The Russians Are Coming, but this time the Soviet invasion isn’t a comedy of errors, but an implausible, gory conquest of the American heartland. The film features scrappy Colorado high schoolers successfully resisting sinister, battle-hardened communist troops through guerrilla warfare, in a neat inversion of the dynamic in Vietnam a decade prior.

In “Rocky IV,” released in 1985, Philadelphia’s Italian Stallion — having spent the previous three films establishing himself as the Great White Hope and all-American heavyweight champion — is pitted against the doped-up Soviet superhuman Ivan Drago (not a Russian name, which is fair enough since Dolph Lundgren is not a Russian actor).

Here we see a new theme: Russians as cheaters, as opposed to the authentic and hard-working Americans, a trope likely informed by pervasive suspected doping by Eastern Bloc teams at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York that same year saw the famous “Miracle on Ice,” in which the U.S. defeated the heavily favored Soviet hockey team, a victory later commemorated in the 2004 Kurt Russell film “Miracle.”

Rocky IV clearly draws inspiration from that match, as the odds are stacked against Rocky in every way. He travels to the Soviet Union to avenge Apollo Creed’s death in the ring at Drago’s hands (the Soviets, in case it wasn’t already clear, are evil), and in dueling training montages, we see Rocky chopping down trees in snowy Siberia while Drago injects steroids in a high-tech laboratory.

Not only does Rocky win, surviving what should be a lethal pummeling, he then unilaterally ends the Cold War a few years early, inspiring the Soviet spectators to cheer for him instead of Drago and inspiring Drago to assert his repressed individuality against a hapless Gorbachev lookalike. This is not a subtle film.

Nuclear panic was a significant undercurrent in the 1980s, featuring prominently in “War Games” (1983), “The Day After” (a 1983 TV movie), and “The Terminator” (1984), as well as the influential 1986 graphic novel “Watchmen.” In the first half of the decade, the Reagan Administration ordered a significant buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, deployed Pershing missiles to West Germany and pursued new technologies such as stealth and missile defense, all of which engendered a heightened fear of nuclear war that in retrospect was well justified. Although it wasn’t known to the public at the time, 1983 was the year the U.S. and the Soviet Union came closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis 21 years earlier, in the now-infamous Able Archer military exercise.

The sense of existential angst fueled by Reagan’s military buildup in Europe was as formative for young Generation Xers as the Cuban crisis had been for baby boomers. In both cases, the Russians were inextricably linked to fear.

The other major theme to emerge in the 1980s was the plight of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents. The 1984 romantic comedy “Moscow on the Hudson,” featured Robin Williams as a Soviet circus musician who defects while touring in New York City. In a totally different genre, the 1984 Tom Clancy thriller novel “The Hunt for Red October,” adapted in 1990 as a film starring Sean Connery (whose Scottish accent rendered the Russian word khorosho, “good,” as kor-a-shaw), depicted the defection of a Lithuanian nuclear submarine captain.

What films like these hinted at was what the end of the decade would confirm: the Evil Empire, far from being all powerful, was rotting from within and struggling to meet the basic needs of its citizens. The Soviet collapse, when it finally and abruptly arrived, removed Russia as a theoretically equal geopolitical antagonist and yielded instead a broken, embittered Russia whose problems threatened the West in new and unexpected ways.

Between the Cold Wars

I was born in 1984 and barely noticed the end of the Cold War, let alone the films that marked the Soviet Union’s final years. But as an 11-year-old boy, I was the eager target audience for 1995’s “GoldenEye,” featuring Pierce Brosnan as the face of a revived Bond franchise. Bond could have battled Arab terrorists or eco-villains, but in Brosnan’s first outing, he was pitted against those reliable bad guys, the Russians.

The Soviet Union, however, was gone, and what was left in its place was a country of dilapidated architecture, rogue hackers, gangsters, smugglers, femme fatales, leftover Soviet super-weapons, and former military officers and spies out for revenge. GoldenEye also featured a tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg, which I’m fairly sure was my first glimpse of Russia’s second city, and it made a lasting impression. All of this seemed extremely cool.

Brosnan’s Bond revisited the region in 1999’s “The World Is Not Enough,” in which the villain is a KGB agent turned terrorist and much of the action concerns an oil pipeline through the Caucasus. As with GoldenEye, the premise is that the Soviet superpower has been reduced to a corrupt, chaotic ruin being sold off for parts. This theme was also the basis for “Air Force One,” a 1997 action film in which Harrison Ford plays the U.S. president and Gary Oldman plays the lead hijacker of the president’s plane, Ivan Korshunov, a loyalist to a fictional, deposed Kazakh dictator.

In a rant that feels prescient in retrospect, Korshunov holds the United States responsible for the degeneration of the former Soviet Union. “This is all of your doing, this infection you call freedom, without meaning, without purpose,” he tells the captive president. “You have given my country to gangsters and prostitutes. You have taken everything from us! There is nothing left!” This grievance notwithstanding, the film is quite clear that Korshunov and his crew of hijackers are monsters, and that America and its president stand for liberty and justice.

The popular image of the former Soviet Union as a collection of failed states is perhaps best confirmed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat Sagdiyev, first introduced in 2000 and the subject of a hit film in 2006. Borat is ostensibly Kazakh, but he in no way resembles an actual Kazakh, and Baron Cohen himself has said the character was inspired by a doctor he encountered in the Russian city of Astrakhan. Borat’s accent is clearly Russian-influenced, and the stereotypes he embodies are drawn from across the former Soviet region: he comes from a poor village; he talks constantly about prostitutes; and he is cheerfully bigoted against Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals.

The important point about this character is that the Americans Baron Cohen tricked into filming with him found Borat believable, because Borat embodied exactly what they wanted to believe about the post-communist world.

The 1990s were also a period when Americans were reevaluating their own historical memory. This helped underpin a culture of jingoistic reverence for World War II veterans, via Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” (1998) and Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan” (also released in 1998).

The revived interest in World War II was paralleled in post-Soviet Russia, where the victory over fascism in the Great Patriotic War (during which the Soviet Union sustained over 60 times as many casualties as the United States, of which a large majority were civilians) was one of the few things that could unify a country going through a crisis of national identity. American audiences mostly ignored the scale of the Soviet sacrifice, but one modestly successful exception was “Enemy at the Gates,” a 2001 film which sympathetically depicted (British-accented) Soviet soldiers battling the Nazis at Stalingrad.

“K-19: The Widowmaker,” released the following year and starring Harrison Ford, was a historical thriller about a Soviet submarine disaster in 1961, and outright flopped. Even during the brief post-9/11 window when relations between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin were warm, and when the appetite for war movies in general was strong, American audiences had very little interest in rooting for the Soviets.

“The New Cold War”

I studied Russian language and history in college and grad school during the Bush years, and I can assure readers that Americans didn’t care much about Russia then. I spent Barack Obama’s first term, a period defined by the Great Recession and the U.S.-Russia “Reset,” in Washington, and I can assure readers Americans didn’t care much about Russia then either.

But after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, this time sporting distinctly anti-American rhetoric, Americans started paying a bit of attention to their old nemesis once again.

The punk activists Pussy Riot gained a modest following; images of a shirtless Putin on horseback became ubiquitous; the plight of LGBT Russians became a Western cause celebre; and the 2014 annexation of Crimea and ensuing war in Eastern Ukraine dominated headlines, at least for a few months.

In Putin, the U.S. national security state and its media counterparts finally had what they had sought since perestroika and never really found, despite their best efforts with Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden: a worthy national adversary.

In Putin, the U.S. national security state and its media counterparts finally had what they had sought since perestroika and never really found...a worthy national adversary.

Putin himself is of a generation that has had plenty of exposure to Western media, and like most Russians, he is well aware of Russia’s image in the West. Many American commentators have compared Putin to a Bond villain. To the extent this comparison is apt, it’s not because the Bond movies got Russians right, nor is it some freak coincidence; rather, it’s a conscious effort by Putin to play into a set of cultural tropes legible to Russians and Americans alike. It’s not unlike how George W. Bush pretends to be a cowboy, or how Donald Trump pretends to be a businessman.

We’re not actually in a new Cold War, no matter how many books and articles assert otherwise, but as far as popular culture is concerned we might as well be. The highest profile fictional portrayal of Putin’s Russia might be the Netflix series “House of Cards,” the third season of which (released in 2015) prominently features President Viktor Petrov, an obvious and devious Putin stand-in. The members of Pussy Riot make a cameo denouncing Petrov, one episode features a gay Russian dissident, and a major plot arc involves U.S. and Russian geopolitical maneuvering in the Jordan Valley, with clear parallels to the ongoing real-world crisis in Syria. This is the Russia Hollywood longs for: one with a powerful dictator, a major global footprint, and sympathetic freedom fighters, not a broken nation drowning in oil and booze.

Since 2016, most of the American attention on Russia has existed, like so much else, in a nebulous space between politics and pop culture. For the first time in my adult life, Americans are now obsessed with Russia. Liberals see FSB conspiracies everywhere; conservatives see an inspiring nation of Christian white supremacists keeping the gays and the Muslims at bay; and the young, revitalized left has both a fondness for the revolutionary aesthetic of a century ago and a palpable annoyance with what many perceive as a new McCarthyism.

Russiagate conspiracy theorists are a whole cottage industry on Twitter, as are their mirror image, Russiagate deniers. Kremlin-backed Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has a popular Instagram where he does mixed martial arts. Lazy, homophobic depictions of Putin and Trump are an unavoidable joke format. Everyone now knows what kompromat means.

Russia itself has played a significant role in shaping its own contemporary image in the West. As Peter Pomerantsev explains in his 2014 book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” state control of television channels has been crucial for the Kremlin’s efforts to reassert domestic legitimacy following the chaos of the 1990s, and for disseminating a kind of postmodern, reality show-inspired anti-ideology in order to justify the status quo. Under the guidance of Putin’s colorful propagandist Vladislav Surkov, the media in Russia co-opted every political tendency from right-wing nationalism to hipster liberalism in order to induce a state of confusion, mistrust, and apathy among the Russian population, all of which ultimately benefits Putin and his inner circle.

Russia’s cynical view of American society as hopelessly divided and dysfunctional is increasingly mainstream among Americans

As many American commentators have noted, the basic logic of this system has been exported via social media to the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, in which every political faction now stands accused of being infiltrated and amplified by Russian bots. Russia, in other words, isn’t simply pro-Trump; it’s pro-chaos, and it advances its interests through bad faith, contempt, and trolling, all carefully tailored to incite mutually antagonistic Western audiences with the help of algorithms developed in Silicon Valley. Russia’s cynical view of American society as hopelessly divided and dysfunctional is increasingly mainstream among Americans, with our corroded public sphere serving as proof of concept.

Even as many Americans are angry at Russia now, many others welcome Russian interference, and still others wave it off as merely stoking existing divisions. The national security establishment wants Russia back as an antagonist, but Russia is just as likely to serve as a kind of metaphor for what America is inexorably becoming.

It’s too early for any of this to have influenced the cinematic landscape, but it’s a safe bet that it will. One inauspicious indicator is this year’s Jennifer Lawrence vehicle “Red Sparrow” (based on a 2013 bestseller with the same name). Despite its timely subject matter — it’s yet another espionage thriller, but now with contemporary, gangster-capitalist Russia replacing the old Soviet role — the film bombed critically and commercially in the U.S. But it’s only a matter of time before Russian political interference and cyber warfare become cinematic staples.

It’s only a matter of time before Russian political interference and cyber warfare become cinematic staples.

In the meantime, certain recent popular depictions of Russia are actually, against all odds, great. Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin,” a British-American collaboration released last year, could have settled for being a snarky satire in the manner of “Veep,” his HBO series about Washington. Its rhythms are deceptively similar; both depict politics as defined by backbiting, humiliation, venality, and stupidity. But The Death of Stalin is also strangely moving.

If the point of Veep is that none of the self-important jerks in Washington actually matter, the point of The Death of Stalin is that the Soviet ruling class actually did matter, and that their petty rivalries inflicted unspeakable bloodshed and trauma on a whole nation. Iannucci never shies away from showing regular people denounced and taken from their homes, cold-bloodedly executed in prison camps, or molested and tortured by Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police. Iannucci captures the pervasive fear that Joseph Stalin inflicted on the Soviet people, a fear that would outlive him by years.

While more than a few historical events are simplified, distorted, and compressed to fit the film’s satirical format, there’s a surprising attention to period detail. Much of The Death of Stalin was filmed in Kiev, where the Soviet architectural legacy is alive and well, and Iannucci did his research when it comes to the outfits of the communist party leadership and the aesthetics of their offices. The faux Cyrillic English lettering on documents serves as a kind of visual reminder that this is, after all, a comedy, but that reminder is only necessary because The Death of Stalin does such an impressive job of evoking the grandiose style of late Stalinism.

It couldn’t have been intentional, but The Death of Stalin also serves as a kind of allegory for Donald Trump’s administration. Anyone who follows White House reporting knows that Trump is surrounded by a court of bumbling, self-interested gargoyles who don’t respect him, don’t trust each other, and love to rat one another out. It’s all very funny, until you remember that there are Puerto Ricans who have gone months without power, Central American refugee children in cages, entire nationalities that have been banned from entering the country, and millions of Americans whose access to essential health services is in imminent danger.

Granted, Trump still has a long way to go in terms of matching Stalin’s body count, but it’s become common to compare the U.S. president to an authoritarian dictator. What Iannucci does better than anyone is to show how incompetence and idiocy at the top of a political system manifest themselves as existential horror at the bottom.

And then there’s the defining depiction of Russians of the past decade, the recently concluded FX series “The Americans” (2013-2018), which tells the story of a pair of KGB agents posing as a married American couple in the DC suburbs during the Reagan era. The show was directly inspired by the widely publicized 2010 incident in which the F.B.I. arrested and deported 10 “illegals,” Russian agents who had lived in the U.S. for years under assumed American identities. One of the real-life illegals, Anna Chapman, became a sex symbol and tabloid sensation in both Russia and the U.S., as she perfectly embodied the Russian seductress template established half a century ago and still going strong. She now has her own prime-time show on Russian television.

The Americans ingeniously presents the tension between “Russia” as depicted in popular culture and Russia as a country with a set of meaningful historical experiences. At first glance, the show is a bit silly: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by the British actor Matthew Rhys and the American actress Keri Russell, are just a little too perfect: gorgeous, amazing in bed, flawless impersonators, masters of martial arts, experts in tradecraft, and utterly ruthless, sociopathic killers, all while somehow running a functioning travel agency.

None of it feels strictly realistic, and questions like “how does no one notice all these random murders around Washington?” and “why does Washington look exactly like Brooklyn?” occasionally nag. The show is undeniably fun and addictive, but does it say anything important about actual Russia or the actual Cold War?

Against all odds, yes. Creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA analyst, took pains to guarantee authenticity in terms of how the series portrays Russians. Many scenes throughout the series take place in the Soviet rezidentura in Washington, as well as in Moscow, and the characters in these scenes, all of them fully fleshed out humans no less dignified than their American counterparts, speak perfect Russian, the dialogue carefully vetted for idiomatic accuracy by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen.

Moreover, while a show about Russian spies may seem about as original as a show about Italian-American mobsters, The Americans succeeds in doing for the late Soviet Union what “The Sopranos” did for Italian New Jersey: it functions as an extended and nuanced meditation on a people. We see patriotic KGB agents, hooligans growing up amid postwar famine, corrupt party officials, dissident Jewish scientists, proudly capitalist defectors and their disaffected children, grandmothers browsing empty shelves. We see, in other words, a panoramic view of late Soviet society.

Even as we are constantly reminded that this is a repressive state with brutal intelligence services, we are also provided with a coherent set of motivations and a convincing worldview for the protagonists. Reagan really was a warmonger; the U.S. really did restrict civil rights at home and export violence and oppression abroad; the Soviet people really did live through a series of immense traumas and in many cases really did believe in their Motherland, and even in its utopian ruling ideology.

So the Americans is the rare fictional depiction of Russia that doesn’t hit viewers over the head with its politics. It convincingly recreates the Soviet perspective even while hinting all along at what we know lies in store for the Soviet system. It manages the difficult feat of neither mocking nor apologizing for Soviet rule. Instead it lets its characters and their admittedly outlandish exploits speak for themselves.

Russians are, after all, human beings, and somehow a show about KGB spies manages to present them as such. It would be lovely and surprising if the sudden interest in all things Russian led to a cinematic depiction of Russians in which they get to be human beings first and foremost, though no one should hold their breath. But ideally some brave Hollywood producer would option one of the many recent novels by Russian-American authors, such as the newly released and thoroughly satisfying “A Terrible Country.”

It would be lovely and surprising if the sudden interest in all things Russian led to a cinematic depiction of Russians in which they get to be human beings first and foremost

Keith Gessen (Masha’s brother), the author, came from Russia to America as a child and returned to Russia a decade ago to take care of his grandmother, and this serves as the basis for a fictional narrative that is funny, heartbreaking, and powerfully relevant. The FSB isn’t completely absent from A Terrible Country, but the focus is on the lives of regular Muscovites who play hockey, dabble in questionable businesses, drink overpriced lattes, join young socialist organizations, or grow old and embittered.

Gessen does a better job than anyone of capturing what Russia has become, a raw expression of neoliberal capitalism, rather than what it was a generation ago. In doing so, he avoids the sense of whimsical post-Soviet decay that characterizes other contemporary fiction about the region, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” (2005) or Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan” (2006).

Instead, Gessen takes Russians seriously enough to engage with their politics and with the material reality of their lives, and he puts forward an ideological critique that feels fresh and looks toward the future. In his telling, Russia and America aren’t so different anymore. Both countries, and really all countries, are now dominated by a globalized oligarchy that commodifies and destroys everything human and meaningful. Russia, to Gessen, isn’t America’s enemy; instead, in the best Marxist tradition, the people of Russia and America confront the same enemy.

Someday, maybe someone will make a movie about that. But in the meantime, we might have to settle for the pee tape.

Illustrations by Mila Leva