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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, right, Yekaterina Samutsevich, left, and Maria Alekhina, center, members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot seen behind a glass wall at a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, right, Yekaterina Samutsevich, left, and Maria Alekhina, center, members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot seen behind a glass wall at a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

Why Pussy Riot honours the struggles of women everywhere Add to ...

Maria Vladimirovna Alyokhina, Yekaterina Stanislavovna Samutsevich, Nadezhda Andreyevna Tolokonnikova.

The names lack the chilling starkness of the Manson Family girls, but, after being sentenced to two years in prison last Friday, these three artists – members of Russia’s punk troupe Pussy Riot – displayed the same fearless contempt as the long-ago courtroom superstars.

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And a great deal of their outlandish chic. The Manson girls gravitated to skin carvings and mini-jumpsuits; Pussy Riot prefers bright balaclavas with slashed-in eye holes and multicoloured miniskirts.

“I am not afraid of you,” a defiant Alyokhina told the court. “I am not afraid of you and I am not afraid of the thinly veneered deceit of your verdict at this ‘so-called’ trial.’”

Pussy Riot, however, are not murderers, and are most certainly not in the thrall of a messianic troll. They are self-identified feminists, and they are artists who use their significant education and experience in their music, performance and activism.

They were, now famously, arrested for “hooliganism” after a seemingly impromptu protest/performance at one of Russia’s holiest sites – Christ the Savior Cathedral – wherein they sang one of their six songs, Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away, while straddling the soleas and praying, extravagantly to the mother of God.

Detained in an actual cage before the trial, Pussy Riot received a fair amount of support from such stars as Madonna, Kathleen Hanna, Paul McCartney, Anthony Kiedis and Sting, and have also drawn the attention of Amnesty International.

Their antics are in fact acts of hooliganism (such behaviour at a church is hideous); but are they simply instances of the kind of controversial performance art enacted by certain celebrities of this world, monstresses like Ann Liv Young?

No. Look at one of Young’s most recent performances, Mermaid Show at New York’s La MaMa, a juicy slice of indulgence about women and the grotesque (which was amazingly oblivious to Divine’s near-identical act in Female Trouble.)

Artists like Young or Marina Abramovic (clearly the more impressive of the two, as the former’s scatological, bestial work never, unfortunately, involves self-injury) are trying to articulate contemporary theories about artists and audiences; about the specular and the spectacle; the uncertain lines between watching and participating.

Meanwhile, the hardcore punk troupe Pussy Riot is jammed in the 1990s, venerating Sham 69, the Angelic Upstarts, Bikini Kill and riot grrrls, and is simply trying to draw attention to gender disparity, basic civil rights, a repressive government bound to the church, and “honesty, free-speaking and the thirst for truth,” in Alyokhina’s words.

In other words, they are very far away from the luxury of spitting raw fish at complacent art fans: They are genuinely rioting, as women once did in North America, to make their very female voices heard and registered.

Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna has listened, and has suggested a Pussy Riot Olympia, in which women from everywhere storm churches and scream, in solidarity, “We are all Pussy Riot!”

This will never happen. Our feminist waves landed us on a sandy beach upon which we lament, occasionally, a bit of a bite or burn. Mainly, however, we raise our umbrellas to block out the vigour and blinding fury of the sun.

But two positive cultural events have emerged from the shocking imprisonment and unusually cruel sentencing of the group.

One, the word “pussy” has been on everyone’s lips for weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more simple and more complex way of disseminating the blunt, beautiful nature of the girls’ mission, of perfectly centralizing this wild act of modern Mariology.

At the same time, the spirit of feminism’s third wave has been invoked, and, with it, memories of an exciting time in which roles and choices for women felt, for the first time, infinite.

On Aug. 16, 1991, Hole’s Courtney Love stage-dove into the mosh pit at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow, and was attacked. Love stated, of this incident: “I just dove off the stage, and suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like “pussy-whore-cunt.” When I got back onstage, I was naked. I felt like Karen Finley.”

Love would write Asking for It about what happened, a song filled with questions about being assaulted; being raped, yet possibly “asking for it.” A song about performing, as a powerful, dauntless woman, only to be ravaged and degraded.

Like an animal captured and stuck in a cage.

Like the Pussy Riot heroines, whose names should be written with markers across all of our bodies, if only to remember an era in which we, too, were not afraid. And when we, also, acted out.

 

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