Stepmonster

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Girls Gone Wild? Why Pussy Riot Matters

Pussy Riot writes a new language of protest

Russia is the land of not only some of the world’s greatest literature, but also of the world’s greatest literature of dissent. It is also, unnervingly and not coincidentally, a country where people on trial sit in cages. These are often made of high-tech, modern materials like glass and steel, but there is no getting around the signifier (and the reality) of the cage—or of the implication (and the reality) of being incarcerated before one’s trial has even concluded...or begun. Or of one’s trial being a literal spectacle.

Which is just the way Pussy Riot might have wanted it.

Recently three young women from what has been mischaracterized as the “female punk band” sat caged in a Moscow court on trial for the crime of “hooliganism.” More specifically, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were being tried for a February musical protest performance in a Moscow church in which they allegedly desecrated that sacred space with a song that called upon the Virgin Mary to free the country from totalitarianism. The Orthodox Church had recently endorsed the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin and his government and the members of Pussy Riot argued in court, unsuccessfully, that theirs had been a political protest in a politicized venue, not an act of “religious hatred” as the prosecution contended, in a politics-free zone. The sentence—two years in a penal colony—was about as definitive a backlash against Glasnost politics as one could imagine.

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Pussy Riot is a radical performance-based activist collective masquerading as a girl band, a group that draws on our fascination with female spectacle as a way to disseminate their message. Or, more accurately, their many messages. Because Pussy Riot speaks a polyglot language and, far from just some Slavic girl caging of punk, draws from a number of movements. On August 17th, Nadezhda wore a “No Pasaran” t-shirt—while raising her fist in a gesture of defiance that was once the symbol of the Black Power movement. Pussy Riot pulls together strands from music (everything from punk to riot Grrrrl-ism to folksy Vietnam War protesters to the Rolling Stones’s late 60s/early 70s sexual up-endeness), post third-wave feminist syntax with its against-the-grain use of the term “girl” as well as the word “pussy”; and activist collectivism in the tradition of the Dadaists, Gran Fury and The Guerilla Girls to name just a few quotations and influences. Hooking into our desire to look at “hot girls gone wild” in order to satirize it, Pussy Rioters (the name is no accident, a kind of Pussy Galore/Riot grrrrl hybrid) dress in brightly colored tights, short dresses and balaklavas, slyly displaying their covered selves. They thwart our desire to see more of them, underscoring the message that dissidents are everywoman and everyman, but have to remain anonymous and invisible.

Just as soon as they were embraced by the West and sentenced came the inevitable and predictable response: “measured” articles analyzing why our whole-hearted support of Pussy Riot was wrong-headed and naïve. Did we know, a New York Times opinion piece demanded, that these women wouldn’t like us Americans any more than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ultimately had, that they’re not into democracy any more than they are totalitarianism, that they are anarchists who would bite our hands if they could? Did we know that one of these incarcerated mothers participated in an “orgy” while she was pregnant? Did we know that the majority of Russians did not want clemency for Pussy Riot?

Pussy Riot would presumably say “Fuc* you” to all of that. Having sparked the fourth wave of feminism, infused the music scene with a new and urgent relevance, and succeeded in making a spectacle of repression, their work is done. Or, it is just beginning.

 

Further reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/opinion/the-wrong-reasons-to-back-pussy-riot.html

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is the author of the book Stepmonster.

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