Pussy Riot and Acceptable Vulgarity | By Andrew Douglas

Earlier this month,  a verdict was handed down in the trial of Russian Feminist punk band Pussy Riot, who held an impromptu concert in a Moscow Orthodox Cathedral in protest of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Although the protest (which lasted less than a minute) was certainly provocative it is most certainly not grounds for the hooliganism charge which gave the band a two year prison sentence term. What is particularly trenchant about this “disproportionate and draconian” charge is what it reveals about the state of gender identity politics in Russia, and the nature of obscenity trials more broadly.

The trial is in some ways significant in terms of the gender dynamic at play. This is not to say that because Pussy Riot is a female group that they are inherently more victimized, but rather that the character both of the Putin regime, and punk music more generally exacerbates the engendered element of this trial. Putin has prided himself on a very macho representation that includes riding a horse shirtless, practicing judo, and hunting tigers with a tranquilizer gun. All of which suggest he either has a secret dream to be Chuck Norris, or that ultramasculine posturing is super cool.

Taking this into consideration, it seems ludicrous that the mighty Putin might fall to the criticisms of three female musicians in colourful masks.  Some credence should also be paid to where Pussy Riot falls in the general gender dynamics of punk music. The punk music cannon is filled with male dominated bands, and a particularly masculine approach to tearing down the establishment. In contrast to this, “girl punk” bands are few and far between. In some ways this makes female punk bands stand out more, as a new discourse outside of the core punk dialogue.

In regards to how the Pussy Riot trial fits within past obscenity trials it is important to note not just the unjust law, but also the point of offending the sensibilities of the public. From the charges brought against comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, to other punk bands like the Dead Kennedys, the accused parties have struggled against laws which unfairly prosecuted them for being offensive. For the most part, media analysis of these trials has focused simply on the nature of these laws, and under what circumstances they infringe upon various sorts of expression rights. However, these critiques are somewhat simplistic and do not give the prosecuted parties the credit which they deserve. In the case of most obscenity trials, the medium is the message. The vast majority of these cases are ones in which offending moral sensibilities was purposeful and direct. In other words “the medium is the message.”

Combined with Pussy Riot’s protest of the Putin regime was a commentary about the correctness of church behavior, and an affirmation of their right to free expression. In this instance obscenity becomes in an of itself a message, that combines itself with the original nature of the protest. Offending other people becomes a sort of enhancement for the existing message, pushing the boundaries of what people believe and moving beyond the realm of “acceptable” discourse. However, obscenity merely for the sake of itself is not enough to make progressive action. In so far as being offensive brings light to a particular issue through the element of spectacle, it is justified. Indeed, as a way of attracting attention to their group, Pussy Riot’s name invokes a sense of vulgarity. Being offensive is therefore not an intrinsic method of protest, but rather a way of enhancing the existing message of an iconoclastic act. So, although the sentencing of Pussy Riot shows much about the nature of the Putin regime and its lack of toleration of dissent, it is much more trenchant when we examine why musicians and other performers seek to expand our notions of what is “acceptable.”

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  • What people should realize is that governments are obscene as well. Seriously, all this “keeping the peace” in reaction to obscenity becomes its own, obscene spectacle.

    It gets to the point where you have to fight obscenity with obscenity to even feel like you’re fighting anymore. The obscene political oppression in Russia, Pussy Riot found out, could only logically be countered with obscenity.

    In this way they exposed just how obscene oppression is in Russia, by the reaction of the government.

    A lot of movements are in reaction to government obscenity. As far as I read, the gay pride movement, for example, which many consider obscene even now, was started when some gays in New York City just couldn’t take the obscene oppression which they were subjected to anymore.

    So, the gay pride parade began; the parade, essentially, is a mockery of the obscene flaunting of dominant, heterosexual society, and, ya, hetero, you do flaunt your shit.

    I’m not gay so obviously I can’t know for sure, but I can imagine that gays feel that heterosexuals flaunt just as much as they are perceived to do so themselves, and, if they do in fact flaunt more, it is an attempt to distinguish themselves from the typical hetero-manner, whose dominance in culture and natural conformist forces are obscene themselves.

    When you’re part of the dominant culture, you don’t notice how distinct your behaviour actually is, because it’s the norm. Much like heterosexuals don’t think of themselves as flamboyant, I’m sure men don’t think their behaviour is as flamboyant as that of women. I’m sure women think it’s just as obvious when you’re pointing your chest out as when they are swaying their hips, man.

    Same thing with the Jews. I guess this is getting a little off topic, but I can’t help myself; you’re going to have to forgive me. Obviously we could be considered of the dominant lot in a few things right now.

    The Euro-Nationalists, and others, (I don’t like to use the term “white,” a lot of people are white but not white, and I’m sure you know what I mean; it’s a stupid term to use really) would say we control the world, and then obviously, the Palestinians would point to their oppression.

    We do kind of control the world; every second Jew is a movie producer, and so much money, political influence, and media in general is in Jewish hands; also, the way the Palestinians are treated is certainly a black mark on Israel, but, to begin with, when, after the French Revolution, Jews could integrate into European society at large, they had no ([positive] which pretty much means no anyway) social status, so, if they didn’t go all the way, and convert to Christianity (ironic), they compensated through, ha, and I hate quoting, but I’m going to have to forgive myself this time, “material achievements and creative work” as Hoffer says.

    Obviously they were in a better position to do so, having a historically virtual monopoly over money lending due to Christian, and Muslim views of usury, but that is secondary. Talmudic law doesn’t necessarily preach the self-sacrifice of Jesus, either, but, again, that is secondary.

    You could say the same thing happened with blacks in America. Once they started coming out of the ghettos their social status was still pretty much limited to “oh,” so they compensated much the same way. The outlandish bling, spinners, gold teeth, mansions, yachts, Caddys, Benzes, etc.. are you material achievements, and profane rap is your creative work.

    It’s interesting to note that there existed for the blacks that same “easy-entry” into dominant culture as existed for the Jews of the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, and that was practising its religion, in both cases, Christianity, and, indeed, many blacks did become Christian simply in order to assimilate, as an attempt at equality.

    It’s true that Christianity has pre-European history in Africa (well, Christianity is pre-European to begin with of course), in East Africa, but black slaves were pretty much exclusively from West Africa, which was largely either Muslim or pagan.

    Now, government is pretty much just a synonym for dominant culture; government, dominant culture need to self-reflect, and see how their dominance is just as obscene as the movements which counter it, and how they themselves play a big part in their obscenity.

    The only reason Punk, Gay, Black, Feminist, Jewish, etc.. culture seems obscene is because it has been obscenely oppressed, to the extent that you don’t see it. When you do see it, it’s so new and out there that it shocks you.

    Good day.