Putin with a gun juxtaposed in front of activists in colorful balaclavas.

Image: Putin Meets Pussy Riot by Punk Toad / Flickr

The love affair with Pussy Riot shows no sign of slowing down since the trio of punk women were sentenced to 2 years in prison. Neither has the legal system’s attack on their actions, with Russia Today reporting two more members of the group now under fire:

A new criminal case was launched into two Pussy Riot members who escaped police after participating in an infamous ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s main cathedral. The announcement comes days after their co-participants were sentenced to two years in jail. “We have launched a separate criminal case against the unknown members of the ‘Pussy Riot’ band, and are seeking to establish their identities,” a police spokesperson told the Interfax news agency.

As an aside, what does it say about the American mainstream media that a Russian news agency sometimes accused of pro-Putin bias has become a major source of news for myself and many others I know?

Getting back to the Pussy Riot, the sentence was met with worldwide protests that featured rallies in many countries and several United States cities. Six were arrested in NYC for obstructing a sidewalk during a Pussy Riot solidarity march. Four Germans protested inside Cologne Cathedral in support of the group and may themselves face up to 3 years in prison. Most flamboyantly, a member of Ukrainian women’s movement Femen protested Pussy Riot’s sentences by taking a chainsaw to a cross while topless.

The fate of these women has struck a chord, but why? Writing in The Atlantic, Joshua Foust compares the outcry to Kony 2012 while a fellow Atlantic scribe, anthropologist Sarah Kendzior, questions how gender affects the media presentation and popular response to Pussy Riot:

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.

You don’t call your group Pussy Riot without trying to construct a gender identity. 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 Michael Idov, the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, in the Guardian. Yet it is precisely this sense of agency missing from much of Pussy Riot coverage.

Free Pussy Riot Graffiti in French & English

Pussy Riot Protest Graffiti in Paris (Photo: cyberien 94 / Flickr)

The article questions whether a similar male-based group would receive the same treatment, both in terms of the language used to the describe them and the degree of public outcry. Yet even while examining Western portrayal of the group, it also highlights the difficulties even Kendzior faces in sorting out the situation, as she incorrectly states that none of the protesters around the world face arrest and, at least according to commenter MyFreeWeb, still hasn’t successfully sorted out who belongs to which group:

[T]he dick on the bridge and other epic performances were performed by the art group Voina (War), which isn’t Pussy Riot, it’s more like, the mother of Pussy Riot. … I really don’t like it when Moscow and the whole European part of Russia is called “non-Western”. Really. Life in Moscow is the same as in any Western city. Hipsters with iPhones drinking Starbucks coffee, traffic jams everywhere, Wi-Fi everywhere… lies on TV …

While I think Kendzior makes cogent points about gender and the perils of understanding activists from afar, I can’t help but wonder if Americans and Europeans are merely responding to a perception of Pussy Riot as damsels in distress or whether this case has struck at a deeper chord. Women and men already involved in the Occupy movement or other forms of activism seem to respond to Pussy Riot’s plight as much as those who have never been active (a sharp contrast from Kony), with the formation of groups like @PussyRiotChi and plans for a solidarity concert underway by Occupy Austin. Some see this as a way to attract freshly mobilized newcomers to the movement; others I’ve spoken to feel a deep sense of comraderie with these women who they see as political prisoners of a Church/State double-team that’s working hard at suppressing their rights worldwide.

For more, see A Prayer for Punks on myFDL and Pussy Riot and Religion on Approximately 8,000 Words, Kit O’Connell’s homepage.