Earlier this month, a trend took Russia by storm, spurred by a group on social media called "Beautiful Girls and Shawarma". Women in droves took pictures whilst consuming the traditional Arab food. Why, you ask, why? The origins of the meme are quite the riddle wrapped around a kebab.
"Beautiful Girls and Shawarma" was set up on VKontake, the Russian version of Facebook, ostensibly by "social media marketers" Roma Bordunov and Aleksey Novikov. As reported by Sputnik News, the two had a dream: "pretty girls and shawarma. They provide the photo session and shawarma, the girls provide 'their presence.'" The surface narrative goes that the popularity of the original pictures soon caused the page to go viral, spurring women from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and far-flung shores to send in their own poses with meat and flatbreads.
However, the British-based Express claims that the social media campaign was instigated by Russian President and frequent meme-target Vladimir Putin as a way to draw attention from the consumption of Western fast-food. Putin's war against Western chains is established and ongoing. The idea here is that the lure of lovely ladies chomping down on a more locally-made product makes you forget about hamburgers entirely. "Beautiful Girls and Shawarma" would essentially be a homegrown anti-McDonald's ad.
The Express mentions "the page claims to have been set up with backing from President Vladimir Putin's health ministry," though other articles have framed this same affiliation as tongue-in-cheek. Whether Putin's government originated the concept or not, it's clear "Beautiful Girls and Shawarma" has their blessing, as the notoriously controlling Putin has tried to ban celebrity memes and most recently access to the Internet Way Back Machine.
Now at more than 11,000 subscribers, with the most recent photograph submitted mere minutes ago, the VKontakte page would not still be up and running without a nod from Putin. The Express quotes a page organiser giving a delightfully unrevealing statement:
This project in the social media world is designed to praise shawarma as an object of cooking art and to praise the beauty of a woman.
We may never know exactly how the meme came to be, but it seems harmless enough -- though several pictures of women with their kebabs are shot suggestively, others are whimsical and silly -- and it's certain that the shawarma peddlers in Russia have seen a boost. All in good fun, right? "Doner girls" demonstrates how blurry the lines can be between true virality, advertising, and propaganda. Let's take a look.
My contribution to the craze: my favourite Russian lady eating shawarma with some friends