How the World Misunderstands Pussy Riot
Imagine this: The three men sit in a Moscow court, awaiting their verdict. The youngest, an experienced dissident described by Western media as a “sultry sex symbol” with “Angelina Jolie lips,” glances at his colleague, an activist praised by the Associated Press for his “pre-Raphaelite looks.” Between them sits a third man, whose lack of glamour has led the New Republic to label him “the brain” and deem his hair a “poof of dirty blonde frizz.” The dissidents — or “boys” as they are called in headlines around the world — have been the subject of numerous fashion and style profiles ever since they first spoke out against the Russian government. “He’s a flash of moving color,” the New York Times writes approvingly about their protests, “never an individual boy.”
If this sounds ridiculous, it should — and not just because I’ve changed their gender. These are actual excerpts from the Western media coverage of Pussy Riot, the Russian dissident performance art collective sentenced to two years in prison for protesting against the government. Pussy Riot identifies as feminist, but you would never know it from the Western media, who celebrate the group with the same language that the Russian regime uses to marginalize them.
The three members of Pussy Riot are “girls,” despite the fact that all of them are in their 20s and two are mothers. They are “punkettes,” diminutive variations on a 1990s indie-rock prototype that has little resemblance to Pussy Riot’s own trajectory as independent artists and activists. “Why is Vladimir Putin afraid of three little girls?” asked a Huffington Post blogger who is not prominent but whose narrative frame, a question intended as a compliment, is an extreme but not atypical example of the West’s reaction to and misunderstanding of Pussy Riot.
As far as Pussy Riot’s problems go, being characterized as “girls” by the press ranks pretty low. So does the lack of vegan food in Russian prisons (the object of a clueless campaign by fellow 1990s throwback Alicia Silverstone). Both are trivial compared to the two years of hard time they face. But Pussy Riot tells us a lot about how we see non-Western political dissent in the new media age, and could suggest a habit of mischaracterizing their grave mission in terms that feel more familiar but ultimately sell the dissidents short: youthful rebellion, rock and roll, damsels in distress. The fanfare surrounding the trial has been compared to Kony2012, and while that may be true in terms of public attention, it is not in substance — unlike the Africans depicted in Kony2012 by American activists, Pussy Riot are the directors of their own campaign. But looking at their Western supporters, one wonders how well their message is getting across.
You don’t call your group Pussy Riot without trying to construct a gender identity.