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Pussy Riot: Sexual Language and the Power of a Small Band of Women

28 August 2012 No Comment

Seven members of the band Pussy Riot. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Patricia Smith Melton
Peace X Peace Founder

Update: Two members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot escaped Russia on Sunday to prevent their arrests and organize protests following the conviction and imprisonment on charge of hooliganism of three of their members by the Putin-led government.

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What turned me around were the photographs of the clean cut young woman with the off-center part whose hair remained meticulously in place even when she was on trial or holding her fist in the air just as the Black Panthers did when I was her age. I expected tattoos and pierced body parts and spiky hair. What else could a member of a women’s punk rock group named Pussy Riot look like?

And then I got it. I was old, and she and Pussy Riot had the power to change the Russian government. I was prissy. Their name went (just) over the line even for this card- carrying member of the sexual revolution. But she is the face of power of the people and the courage of a small band of women—a small punk band, literally, that has come to the attention of the world. Sign the Amnesty International “Tell Russia To Release Pussy Riot!” petition, then check where the petitioners are signing in from. Everywhere, at the rate of several per second!

I had no trouble with the word vagina. I filmed Eve Ensler’s Vagina Dialogues  in Sarajevo ten years ago. But vagina is a clinical word, a medical word; doctors use it with respect. Maybe ten years ago it was a bit of a shocker to hear it publicly repeated over and over on stage, but it became acceptable quickly and elevated the level of conversation around female sexuality.

The name Pussy Riot has whole other connotations. One is ownership. It is like taking the word “n-word” and making it yours and turning it around. It is saying, “You gave this word to me and now I’ll claim it and make it powerful, because I am way more than what you realized.

So . . . there were 12 or so young women in Russia who measured the ethos of today’s world, looked at the repression in their nation, and decided to take it all on by writing and playing punk music. And in the process to claim and celebrate the juicy stuff of womanhood, retrieve it from male definitions and pontifications about women’s bodies, and to claim it not just as female but as riot! As RIOT against corruption, cronyism, and repression of rights and art.

Which word in the two-word name  they chose is more loaded? Possibly Riot. And these brave young women tickle up impulses of riot in many of the rest of us while looking so good, and so clean, and so courageous, and so playful with the concept of a word that also means your friendly little kitty.

These women stand up to repression, saying of their jailers, “I am free and you are not.” My nearly 70-year-old self says, “Lead, girls, lead.”

The uptick of the fight against women’s rights, women’s bodies, women’s leadership is nearly universal. It is appalling and sometimes discouraging. What exactly is the response to the concept of “legitimate rape”? As those of us who have been raped can testify: Rape is rape whether you are overpowered by guns, knives, drugs, threat of losing your job or military status, or being physically weaker than the force that violates your body, your psyche, your sense of self, and your sense of safety. The varieties are endless, the shame deep, and the terror stark.

Rape is rape, misogyny is misogyny, ignorance is ignorance, and repression is repression wherever they occur. In Russia young women are looking their government, and us, in the eye and saying “We are free, get used to it.” It’s time we did.

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