Manic Pixie Dream Dissidents

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by Sarah Kendzior on 8/18/2012 · 9 comments

Imagine this: The three men sit in court, awaiting their verdict. The youngest, a experienced dissident described by the 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 only because I changed the 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 twenties and two of them 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 Huffington Post columnist Ron Galloway, intending it as a compliment.

As far as Pussy Riot’s problems go, being characterized as “girls” by the press ranks pretty low — a plight  more noteworthy than the lack of vegan food in Russian prisons (the object of a clueless campaign by fellow 1990s throwback Alicia Silverstone) but trivial compared to the two years of hard time they face. But Pussy Riot tells us a lot about gender and dissent in the new media age. 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, 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. Though the description of the women as a punk band is inaccurate, the claim that they take cues from Riot Grrl culture is correct, and Pussy Riot seems to be designed with Western reception in mind.  In Russian, Pussy Riot’s name is the English words “Pussy Riot” written in Cyrllic, where they carry the same connotation. Sex was always part of their shock repertoire, from the band name to the penises drawn on bridges to the public orgies to the creative use of frozen chicken by one of the group’s members. They courted controversy and were aware of the repercussions. “These women, and they alone in this mess, know exactly what they are doing,” wrote the Guardian. Yet it is precisely this sense of agency missing from much of Pussy Riot coverage.

In 2005, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe a woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. Pussy Riot are Manic Pixie Dream Dissidents, blank revolutionary slates onto which Westerners are projecting their hipster fantasies.

At a protest rally in New York, celebrities like Chloe Sevigny pretended to be Pussy Riot members (a tribute yet to be paid to Kasparov or Khodorovsky) while fans proclaimed to feel their pain. “Pussy Riot makes me feel like, I can imagine being thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing,” said one attendee. Well, no, actually, she won’t, but it is not about reality, it is about a Western fantasy of relevance and dissent. “Punk matters”, claim legions of articles on Pussy Riot, with the subtext:  “I matter, too.”  And so around the world, we have Pussy Riot reenactments, Pussy Riot sublimations – protests free from arrest or anxiety, isolated from historical and political context.

Media outlets that regularly cover Russian politics have noted how male Russian dissidents have been ignored as Pussy Riot draws world sympathy. (“I wonder if #PussyRiot would get so much attention if they were a male band called #DickMob”, wrote one commenter on Twitter.) Removing Pussy Riot from the broader problem of political persecution in Russia is a mistake, but the case also raises specific questions about gender, media and politics.

In the same week that Pussy Riot was profiled in the New York Times style section, the Boston Review republished a 2010 interview with Hillary Clinton, in which she was asked who her favorite designer was. “Would you ever ask a man that question?” she snapped. “Probably not, probably not,” the reporter replied. The American media embraced Clinton’s riposte, reprinting it widely. But when it comes to foreign female dissidents, they promote the values Clinton rejects.

Russian state media has sexualized and infantilized the women of Pussy Riot in order to marginalize their critiques. “We are here only as decorations, inanimate elements, mere bodies that have been delivered into the courtroom,” defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova complained. But by focusing excessively on physical appearance and nostalgic notions of “punk” purity, the Western press is doing the same. It is as if to be innocent in the court of public opinion the women of Pussy Riot must be made “innocent” in some more basic sense – “girls” who fuel fantasies, never on their own terms.

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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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AJK August 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Registan ate my first comment attempt, so I’m going to keep this short.

Voina ( deserves to be mentioned some where: they’re the ones with the penises, the frozen chickens, and the fake-lynching of Central Asians. Pussy Riot is part of Voina, but Voina – like Wu Ming in Italy or K Foundation in the UK – has the punk/prankster mantle.

There is a Russian audience to this. Voina is a rejection of the oligarchy/kleptocracy of the Russian 90s, much the same way that Riot Grrl was a rejection of the American 90s. Read Pelevin (who’s not attached to Voina, but does think the same) talk about LeVe and you get that Voina isn’t trying to reach out to Americans.

I think that, as you said, American journalists just don’t know how to frame this narrative. The failure of American journalistic framing is, of course, a theme of Registan and for good reason.

catherine brogan August 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

great’1 well put, here’s my free pussy riot poem

Tricia Ryan August 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I was a but worried by the headline, Sarah, as it seems to imply that Pussy Riot are themselves nothing but MDPGs, when, as you write, they have a long history of performance art/riot grrl acts. I absolutely agree that this is the narrative the media has picked up on, I think at least in part because it is easy: young women and mothers, in general conventionally appealing to the male gaze, fight the man. I wonder (and wonder if you have any thoughts on) how much the particularly gendered story is being controlled by Pussy Riot members themselves, especially in the light of worldwide attention, and how much is being created free form by the press? What roles do differing gender norms in Russia vs US and other countries this has earned a lot of media play?

Sarah Kendzior August 19, 2012 at 6:42 am

Thanks, Tricia. Like I said in the article, Pussy Riot cultivates a specific gender identity. However, their often aggressive play on female sexuality is not what is being portrayed in the media. This morning I woke up to articles describing them as “sassy, “bright young things”, “lovely”, “adorable” and “skinny” as well as articles telling me where I could buy my own balaclava in “slimming black”. It’s interesting that the articles which, as Heidi N. Moore put it on Twitter, “cuteify” Pussy Riot the most are written by women.

Pussy Riot at this point has little control over their media image – as celebrities, they will become what people want to see in them, but they also have no means to manage their reputation from jail. It’s disturbing to me that so few people in the Western media have linked to the English translations of their closing statements, which capture their philosophy well and stand in marked contrast to the cutsey image of them portrayed in the press.

Most Russians are more familiar with Pussy Riot’s background, particularly their activities in Voina, than the Western press. Russians appear to hate Pussy Riot for actual reasons, whether it’s their shock tactics or their feminism or their refusal to conform to both political and gender norms, whereas the West is in love with a fantasy.

whatnot August 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Interesting. There was an interview with fellow bandmates in Novaya Gazeta following the verdict [], where they talk about being against sexism (which Putin embodies), about women having a voice, about opening a dialogue in the society, and how everyone needs to grow up.

A quote from Michael Idov []:
“Of course, if the defendants decided to convey over-the-top remorse (by falling to their knees, crying, etc.), then public opinion and even their legal fortunes would almost certainly turn. But Ms. Alyokhina, Ms. Samutsevich and Ms. Tolokonnikova remain cool, smiling and remote — a “Western” and “unfeminine” attitude. When you’re a woman in Russia, nothing but tears will do.”

As for hipsters having a quasi-punk wank, I don’t think the case should be guily by association with some clueless groupies. There are plethora of cases that get unreported every minute, which doens’t mean that they should be advocated by ‘girls’ of ‘pre-Raphaelite looks’, but that obviously helps. shooting the messenger should not become more important than listening to the message’. Anyhow, talking of groupies …. []

Quentin August 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm

The media mainly reflect how the public see them, as innocent girls, and that is precisely why it gets talked about.
The job of activists is to get the media/world attention, and, as long as it doesn’t hurt the cause, by any means necessary. And everyone that is against Puttin should jump on it to make it even bigger, that’s how media work, get used to it.
You can make a feminist revolution once we get rid of the dictators.

Bakhrom August 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

It seems the topic of Pussy Riot and court decision is widely discussed by majority of bloggers and media. Few minutes ago was reading a post written by Mark Galeotti, In Moscow’s Shadow blog. He was discussing how different media were presenting and interpreting the event. So far except current post and the other one, I have read about the response of Russian Committee of Muslims to this event. They gave some what ambiguous response, one person was stating that the girls should be forgiven and let go, while official committee indicated that law should present judgement on girls. the post is interesting, thank you 🙂

JJ August 25, 2012 at 1:40 am

The real deal on Pussy Riot:
The main reason they’re going to the prison colony is not Putin, it’s because of Kirill (Patriarch of the Orthodox Church). They challenged him on his own turf, and that Cathedral is big, big business. So, independent of the genuine affront to the faithful, there is no way Kirill could allow this to go unpunished. It’s not a fiendish plot by Putin, he for the most part doesn’t care. PR had performed 4 times previously and were ignored. Then consider the fact that PR are actually a project of Voina, and are managed by the leader of the Moscow faction of Voina. These people have been living outside the law for many years, and had already done many, many things for which they could have been arrested previously. Squatters, shoplifting thieves, professional irritants to the State, whose art is defined by illegality. One of them released 3,000 giant cockroaches into the same courthouse where she was prosecuted, do you think that makes a favorable impression on the judge? Then, add the fact that their entire oeuvre is an obscene attack on Putin, that makes him disinclined to do anything to help them. Also the majority of Russians have never heard of PR, and the majority of those who have heard of PR, hate them. So it’s in his interests to shore up his conservative base. Nevertheless, Putin actually did do them a favor, by saying “I hope they are not judged too harshly based on where this took place”, which was a signal to the judge, that got their sentence reduced from 3 years to 2 years. That is still quite excessive by Western standards, but the fact is that representation in the Western media ignores the context of PR’s actions over a period of many years.

Steve August 26, 2012 at 11:14 pm

excellent analysis

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