An Uprising of the Uterus: Pussy Riot, Politics, and Performance

By Rachael Nuckles

Performance art or protest collective? Punk rockers or political activists? However you label them, Pussy Riot has become a well known name outside of their home city of Moscow in Russia. Based on their wide range of performances and media appearances, it’s hard to define this group under one neat label. Right now, I like international punk scholar Kevin Dunn’s choice to use the translation “an uprising in my uterus.” Pussy Riot’s English-language name is not fully translatable into Russian, so this phrase represents an admirable attempt. First gaining international notoriety with their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pussy Riot has remained a global phenomenon due to their guerrilla-style performance activism and brightly-colored-balaclava brand. Their displays have resulted in many arrests, including the 2011 charges of “hooliganism” for their Punk Prayer performance. On-site demonstrations are central to Pussy Riot’s activist brand; from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the World Cup Final in 2018, they rely on media coverage and social media-savvy citizens to spread their imagery and messages. They utilize music to reach a broad audience in a renewal of Riot Grrrl era punk ideology about the gendered body and political space. Most recently, they released “Hangerz,” released December 6, 2019 tackles abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy.

The Punk Prayer can be read in a variety of ways, but the role domesticity in this performance have not been acknowledged at length. At its core, this protest dismantled Russian gender tradition in a physical, visual way. To understand how radical this protest actually was, it must be contextualized in terms of cultural domesticity. There are a couple of ways we can accomplish this. First, the role of Putin-era (beginning in 2000-present day) politics on gendered ideology and expectations must be considered. Second, the Russian Orthodox Christian church’s views on “morality” have also helped to construct the landscape in which Pussy Riot is operating. 

Part of the reason Pussy Riot is such a threatening force in Russia is due to the ways they challenge traditional gender expectations. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget note that in the post-communist state of Russia, “gendered citizenship…was entirely determined by the state.” Women’s roles in the Stalin-era (approximately 1922-1953) were guided by motherhood and work only if it helped to stabilize the patriarchal social structure. Therefore, this work was mostly domestic and located in the private sphere. This mode of understanding gender privileges cisgendered and heterosexual experience. Queer identities are outliers according to this ideology, and therefore have significantly less visibility in Russian culture. Also of note is the role of the Orthodox Church in constructing widely-held beliefs about gender roles and morality. A conservative organization, the Orthodox Church in Russia privileges the traditional heterosexual family unit alongside the Russian Family Code which holds the family accountable for a child’s “moral upbringing.” Currently, the Orthodox Church is concerned with designating acceptable standards of appearance for “true” Christians. The Cathedral now has dress requirements, with “security officers…ready to check the appropriateness of the attire of those entering.” 

Political Science scholar Janet Elise Johnson and Psychology researcher Aino Saarinen suggest that Vladmir Putin brought “a more restrictive regime” which limited both women’s freedoms and ability to participate in feminist activism. In post-communist Russia, some feminist scholars conclude that Putin’s rule ushered in a “neotraditional gender ideology in which women were reassigned to the private sphere and men to the newly empowered public.” Motherhood and domesticity have become central to women’s social role under Putin’s reforms. This neotraditional gender ideology makes sexist policies and institutions possible. Sexist language is normalized by Putin, who brings private male “locker room talk” into the public sphere and, to some, make it a legitimate expression of Russian masculine identity. Derogatory language about women, paired with masculine empowerment, forces Russian women further into the domestic, private sphere which limits their ability to be public activists.

Though public activism isn’t always achievable, women activists working within countries ruled by authoritarian governments tend to use domestic traditions in their protesting. Using cultural norms and appearances helps women to “avoid being seen as political and threatening.” Thus, utilizing the traditions associated with motherly domesticity, such as appearance, can be a significant tool for remaining invisible while organizing. In the case of Pussy Riot, utilizing the acceptable clothing of the Orthodox Church helped them to gain access to the Cathedral for their Punk Prayer performance:

Appropriate attire allowed them to smuggle in both their brightly colored costumes and a guitar unnoticed. Because they achieved this invisibility, their performance was arguably even more shocking to churchgoers. In this way, Pussy Riot “made visible the Church’s nested frames of exclusion by violating them.” Performing such bold dancing in attire deemed too revealing for the church was doubly problematic for “tradition.” While not all members of Pussy Riot are cisgendered and heterosexual, (membership is often fluid and anonymous) the women involved in the Punk Prayer were. So, these participants were working from their privilege to call attention to flaws within Russia’s strict systems of understanding. Their protest challenges the cultural belief that women’s place is at home, in the domestic sphere only as mothers, and the Church’s belief about feminine modesty and self-discipline which directly opposed feminist thought.

Interestingly, two of the members of Pussy Riot arrested for the Cathedral performance are also mothers. This further complicates their critique of roles and spaces available to women in Russia. Being a mother and feminist activist simply does not align within the close-knit social structures of Putin’s rule and Orthodox Christianity. A woman’s “function” is to be a mother in Russian society, and her motherhood should be inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. How could one be a “good” mother under the patriarchal system if she does not submit to the domestic sphere as expected? How could women so brash and outspoken also be mothers? Why would a mother choose such bright, attention-seeking clothing? How could these women be connected in any way to the ideals embodied by the Virgin Mary?

Because Pussy Riot challenges deeply-held beliefs regarding women’s social position, they are no longer able to be read as non-threatening domestic beings. Ultimately, this disconnect between gender, motherhood, and the public sphere seems to be the major motivation for arresting the group on charges of “hooliganism.” By infiltrating an infamous location to critique both the church and state, Pussy Riot dismantled two of the most prominent institutions enforcing traditional domesticity in Russian culture. In the west, we might laugh at such a charge as “hooliganism.” Though, when considering it through the lens of domesticity, it makes a bit more sense. To control gender expression, imprisoning outliers might help to keep them silent. In the case of Pussy Riot, it seems to have only sparked international attention and discussion regarding topics such as gender inequality, separation of church and state, and corruption in government institutions. As the collective has proven, even imprisonment cannot silence the oppressed. 


Bibliography

Dunn, Kevin C. “Pussy Rioting.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 2 (2014): 317-34. doi:10.1080/14616742.2014.919103.

Isupova, O. G. “The Social Meaning of Motherhood in Russia Today “Only You Need Your Child”.” Russian Education and Society 44 (2002): 61-80.

Johnson, Janet Elise, and Aino Saarinen. “Twenty-First-Century Feminisms under Repression: Gender Regime Change and the Women’s Crisis Center Movement in Russia.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 543-67. 

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234-60. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.974644.

Link to “Hangerz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZymIIAUJk

Link to Punk Prayer Performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Dances with Disney: Disrupting Indigenous Stereotypes in Children’s Media

By Rachael Nuckles

As Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about media representation and how various stereotypes have been perpetuated in television throughout history. This month also marked the release of the new streaming platform, Disney Plus. The media powerhouse, while most often associated with children’s programming, is responsible for much of the media we consume. Most recently, Disney acquired Fox in a multi-billion dollar deal, meaning that the conglomerate now owns approximately 35% of movie production alone. Disney has a long history of problematic racial stereotypes in children’s media, so it seems relevant to consider both Disney and its representation of Indigenous people to honor this month’s theme. I want to look at one of the times I think Disney got it right: Pepper Ann. This series was Disney’s first animated series created by a (white) woman, running from 1997-2000, remaining the only one until 2015. Pepper Ann‘s creator, Sue Rose, originally wrote the character as a comic strip for a teen magazine. It was purchased by Disney TV Animation in 1996 in a push for more female characters.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month and my rediscovery of Pepper Ann, let’s consider the episode “Dances with Ignorance.”  Despite Disney’s long history of racist representations, this ten-minute episode is an outlier which challenges problematic media stereotypes through its title character. In the episode, Pepper Ann, a seventh-grade white girl, is thrilled to learn that she has Navajo ancestors, thinking that she will get to present something more “exotic” than her peers for a family genealogy project. It’s an all-too-common story of a white person appropriating an identity that is largely not hers to claim, othering the group in the process. As she researches, her friends express concerns that she is focusing too much on stereotypes and not enough on actual history. While Pepper Ann makes generalized assumptions about all Indigenous people, her friends focus on specificity to learn about the traditions of the Navajo people. Instead of taking her friends’ advice to look deeper than surface level, she invites some of her relatives over for dinner to show them just how much she thinks she knows about their culture. It is clearly a cringeworthy display. Consider this still of Pepper Ann and her relative, Dave, for a visual of her problematic behavior:

Screenshot of Pepper Ann in “Dances with Ignorance” (Source: YouTube)

As the dinner progresses, it becomes clear that Pepper Ann is less focused on actually learning about her heritage and more concerned about showing off. When her relative Carol points out that the braid she’s wearing is a Lakota tradition, not Navajo, Pepper Ann interrupts to explain she was going for a “Pocahontas thing.” This is worth highlighting as it refers to another animated Disney feature which has helped to construct the very stereotypes Pepper Ann has accepted as factual throughout the episode. Nearly every time her Navajo relatives try to correct her incorrect assumptions, she is unwilling to listen or acknowledge her behavior. They leave offended, which leads to the following exchange between Pepper Ann her immediate family:

Pepper Ann: What happened? I thought I was just learning about my background!

Moose: That’s just it, Peppy. You weren’t interested in learning anything. They barely got to talk.

Pepper Ann: All I wanted to do was show them how much I knew about our culture from stuff I picked up on TV, and in the movies, and in comic books…

Mom: Yes, but that’s what stereotyping is, Peppy. Even when it’s done with the best of intentions. You can’t believe things about any group of people without getting to know them first!

Indeed, while Pepper Ann might have had good intentions, she failed to acknowledge the way her actions might harm others. In fact, her actions have privileged her own voice while silencing those she supposedly wanted to learn about. So, she pays an apologetic visit to her Navajo relatives and spends the evening eating Chinese takeout and learning the real history of her ancestors, no stereotypes attached. In the end, they even come to support her giving the presentation to the class. 

What’s so important about this ten-minute episode is its ability to condense a critique of problematic media representation into cartoon format; it is accessible to the young people watching without diminishing the problem’s real-world importance. Pepper Ann’s behaviors throughout are inexcusable; everyone from her friends to her family visibly react with discomfort and verbally respond with disapproval. However, they also take the time to correct her behavior. Her family teaches her how to think more critically about media representations and her personal othering.

Pepper Ann, as a whole, is a revolutionary show that has been largely forgotten. While I’ve only been able to rewatch a few episodes so far, I love its accessible messaging and unapologetically feminist undertones. If you haven’t been introduced to this quirky, red-headed seventh grader, I would recommend viewing an episode or two to draw your own conclusions about its messaging. Cartoons are often dismissed as unimportant artifacts of popular culture, but the role they have in shaping ideology is undeniable. So, next time you’re watching a “kid’s” show, pay attention to its messaging and ask . . . what is this programming really communicating? While stereotypes about Indigenous people typically involve generalization, “Dances With Ignorance” is careful to reject this strategy and uses specificity in its representation of Pepper Ann’s Navajo relatives. Moving forward, we can look to this episode as a positive example of representation that works to break down, rather than reinforce, stereotypes.


Resources


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.