I’ve been following the legal trials of Pussy Riot for several months now. I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about the directions the press has taken with this case and with the level of celebrity endorsement, particularly on the issue of free speech. Whilst I do think this issue is fundamentally about the right to free speech, I don’t think it is the right to free speech that the media suggests. I have always felt that the right to free speech only supports those in power or a very small group of those with no access to formal power but who can engage with the media. I don’t think discussions about the right to free speech are ever supportive of marginalised groups; no matter how much left-wing men swear it is. Free speech is the rallying cry of pornographers, neo-Nazis, rape apologists, and racists who assert that their right to be a jackass is more important than the harm they cause. Hearing people defend the tenets of free speech always makes me twitchy. Free speech, like pacifism, is a position only available to people with privilege. After all, the right to free speech is irrelevant if you live in abject poverty in a place with no access to electricity and, subsequently, have no real medium in which to assert that right.
A couple of weeks ago the journalist Miriam Elder, who is the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, tweeted this:
Curious: do you think there would be such a campaign against Pussy Riot if they were men? And such a campaign of support in the west?
I’ve been pondering this since she tweeted it but haven’t quite been able to articulate my concerns about the way the media is constructing Pussy Riot. I’m a big fan of anarcho-feminist punk bands, or any feminist musicians, and feminist performance art but there is something wilfully disingenuous about the uncritical way in which Pussy Riot are being portrayed in the “Western” media. This is not to say that I think Pussy Riot deserve to be convicted for hooliganism in this case. Far from it, I think arresting non-violent protestors is one of the Patriarchy’s favourite power plays. It’s a nasty silencing technique. The three members of Pussy Riot should never have been arrested; never mind convicted. However, I do have concerns about the media’s treatment of Pussy Riot; particularly since Pussy Riot were not protesting the right to free speech. Free speech is somewhat of red herring here. The debate for “free speech” is just the same old “Western” hypocrisy and benevolent sexism pretending to liberate women when all it does is further constrain us.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the only major world artist whose been attacked for their support is Madonna who was labeled a moralising “slut” by Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy minister. Madonna expressed her support at a performance in Russia; as did the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Paul McCartney. I haven’t heard of anyone referring to members of RHCP as sluts. And, let’s be honest here, Anthony Kiedis’ sexual history isn’t exactly that of a man who respects women. I also don’t see a group of celebs lining up to pay for the legal costs of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samustsevich as, apparently, Banksy did when he paid the bail of several members of Voina when they were arrested at a previous demonstration. Nor, do I see anyone really upset about the possibility of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s young children being taken into care. After all, the loss of their children into foster care isn’t about the right to free speech for men.
I also don’t think Pussy Riot were just arrested because they were criticising the Russian government. I think they were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred because they identified as Feminist activists. This case is as much about silencing feminists as it is about the right to “free speech”. It is about patriarchal approval for the right kind of feminists: those who think that prostitution and pornography are valid “career choices” rather than the abuse and torture of vulnerable women. I doubt very much that the male celebs lining up to support Pussy Riot would be doing so if the women were also anti-pornography and anti-prostitution campaigners who refused to use the language of pornography in their campaigns. Similarities to the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, who have support in the “West” are striking.
I have been supporting Pussy Riot because the #waronwomen is destroying women’s lives everywhere.
Some interesting articles on Pussy Riot, “Free Speech”, political protests and constructions of “Art”:
Pussy Riot: Whose Freedom? Whose Riot?
Their Closing Statements
Pussy Riot Trial: “We Are Representatives of Our Generation”
Starting a Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot Trial Worse Than “Soviet Era”
The Pussy Riot Trial Court Documents
Pussy Riot Claims “Victory” in Letter to Supporters
Let’s Start a Pussy Riot
Free Pussy Riot Comes to Ace Hotel
Pussy Riot Supporters being Arrested in New York
Associated Press Guide To Pussy Riot’s Music
And, Viv Albertine, who is just cool: