So over the weekend, Russian feminist performance outfit Pussy Riot got two years in prison for their thirty seconds of performance in a Moscow cathedral, and that – much as you might expect me to say – is complete and total bullshit. Unsurprising bullshit, because you can’t take a look at Vladimir Putin’s background and trajectory in politics without thinking for a moment that such things would not happen in the Russia which he commands, but bullshit nonetheless. These three women, who have in their career pursued the cause of social justice in a country which has only the thinnest veneer of such (and I realize this is ironic, considering how the character of my own nation has waxed of late) have been convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Imagine that. Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, specifically for claiming that the Putin reelection campaign wielded the church as a weapon for its own benefit and that the man himself was “is as far as can be from God’s truth.” The members of Pussy Riot have done something remarkable in modern Russia, both in their actions before their arrest and in their statements during trial and conviction: they have straight up called President Putin on this political floor show, and declared bluntly and loudly that the Emperor has no clothes.
But as I said, you expect that. What I did not expect was for the complete and utter marginalization of the three performers by the Western media. Perhaps it is naive of me, especially considering what I write, to think that at least some major news outlets west of Moscow would try and handle the situation in a mature and factual manner, but from the very start these women have been pushed into the comfortable, sexualized box of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that film critic Nathan Rabin so well described back in 2005. Their looks and fashion have been analyzed and discussed more than their politics; the youngest member is described as being a “sultry sex symbol” with “Angelina Jolie lips”, another praised for her “pre-Raphaelite looks”. They are consistently called ‘girls’ and ‘punkettes’ despite the fact that they’re all in their twenties, two of them have children, and Pussy Riot is not a punk band but a kind of performance art outfit that just happens to have punk overtones. At a stroke, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alekhina have had their political ideals and gender identity hijacked, skewed, and repackaged as lukewarm youthful rebellion gone afoul.
Don’t believe me? Take this article from the New York Times, which focuses on the style of Pussy Riot. Or any of the other ones which talk about the members of the outfit in detail. Reverse their genders. Now what do you think? Do you see the same treatment of male dissidents? Do you hear about Julian Assange’s looks? Or a dissection of the decor at Oswaldo Paya’s funeral, and the oh so lovely outfits the Cuban police wore as they arrested dissidents attending without charge? Chances are the answer is no, because that’s completely fucking second to the point. And so is the gender of Pussy Riot’s three members.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know very well that sex has always been a part of Pussy Riot’s image – the name, their performances (such as a taped public orgy and a giant dick spraypainted on a Moscow bridge visible to most of the city when it ‘raises’.) This is entirely part of their mode and modus, but in the end is beside the point. So let me boil this all down to what really matters: three young, politically active artists who performed an impromptu act of protest on the pulpit of a Russian Orthodox cathedral were jailed, charged with hooliganism, and sentenced to two years in prison – reduced from seven, which is what the state wished to levy upon them before popular protest was raised. Two parents will be separated from their children for speaking up peacefully against their government. Their guilt has been essentially determined from the start, and their trial was a show; three people aren’t put in a glass ‘aquarium’ to be put on display for the media if a fair trial is at all planned.
That is what matters. That is what is important. And that is what the world – and the media – should focus on.