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Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Highlights Cultural Divide

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HBO
By C. Townsend Rizzo

It's not news that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects our right to free speech, press, religion and peaceful assembly.

Though reasonable and righteous, it has become a crutch of complacency. Everybody has something to say, but generally, they're only making a weak case about America's cultural impetuses.

Every now and then, someone or something from a distant and more oppressive land than ours surfaces to serve as a reminder that regardless of the literal translation of a word, its cultural context reaps the greatest impact. This week's HBO premiere of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the first in a series of summer documentaries for the network, serves as the most significant and relatable discussion of cultural context and deconstruction in the world today.

While the narrative introduces the audience to a hotbed of philosophical, moral and ethical ideas, the Pussy Riot story begins and ends with punk ideology. This includes notions of anti-establishmentarianism, defiance, and to use a word straight from Pussy Rioter Nadya Tolokonnikova, notions of "uprising." These are all really great tools for change, but for us here in the States, these words do not mean the same thing as they do to the gals of Pussy Riot, or even the more recent Kashmiri punk trio, Pragaash. Wild words might cost us our careers, but not our freedom.

Since the dawn of punk itself, bands like the Sex Pistols influenced American music, but our version of punk slowly morphed into more of an aesthetic force without the drive for revolution. When was the last time a punk band in America reached a broad enough audience with a call for real uprising? We'd more readily be able to list folk singers.

So naturally, the same rules apply for the themes rampant in the story of Pussy Riot, three tough mamas (for those not in the loop), who waged sonic and political war against Vladimir Putin and his left nut, the Orthodox Christian Church -- which has historically oppressive laws for women in particular.

In the United States, "free speech" means something very different than in Putin's Russia. We can easily hop on the internet, bash our country, demand rights and have a fit, a la Pussy Riot's at Christ Our Savior's Cathedral. And while there would surely be an outpouring of those who disagreed with that behavior, persecution to any extent would barely make it off of a social media page.

Meanwhile, in Russia and most of the world, "free speech" is a concept riddled with doublespeak. The court constantly reminds the three women on trial that they are being punished via the revocation of their "freedoms" for two years as a result of their actions, but it is ultimately their actions -- their punk rock ideology -- that afford them their most candid opportunity at expressing their dissatisfaction. Each of the women on trial were given the opportunity to read their closing statements before sentencing, and it is only here, standing behind a glass wall, caged animals in a courtroom, that their real "freedoms" were allocated them.

 

It is hard to deny the "feminism" oozing from this story of cultural affliction. While the intention of Pussy Riot's actions was to bring attention to the issue of freedom of speech, especially in the wake of Putin's reinstatement as president, if Pussy Riot were three dudes, the punishment may not have been as harshly executed.

The name Pussy Riot would hardly be as impactful had the band formed in the United States. The word pussy freely and shamelessly floats off of our tongues around these parts, but the film makes it clear this word is the thing that most affects their opposition. The offended stumble around the word and each time it finally does dribble out of their mouths it is a victory for the women of Pussy Riot and women everywhere, as it not only replicates the lingual stifle many of Russia's citizens experience while expressing themselves on the subject of Putin's reinstatement, but it thoroughly deconstructs the meaning of the word. Once a vagina, pussy becomes vacant in its overuse. A hollow utterance that defies any literal meaning and stands to stain the lips of politicians and believers who would have modestly avoided it at all costs prior to this trio's revolt.

When Katia, Nadia and Masha take to the altar at Christ Our Savior's Church, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the recording didn't catch actual heads exploding on the scene. Women are restricted from stepping foot on the altar, let alone women with something to say, wearing outfits that reveal any amount of skin.

This is the sort of fire that US culture lacks. This may be why in the States, violence is much louder than artistic movements for change. That we can be passively fed an entire social movement in an HBO special is a testament to our inclination toward the aesthetic. We watch as these women read their closing statements (Google it), interrupted and dismissed by a judge they share a gender with, and consider what is being lost when the grizzly cross-bearers speak on the subject.

Ultimately, Pussy Riot doesn't mean much to us as Americans, American women in particular. The Occupy movement proudly identifies with the actions and intentions of Pussy Riot, but in the end, a bunch of hippies and hipsters sleeping in tents didn't amount to much. There were collective runs to Starbucks, and when juice ran out, the result was the biggest collective of squatters New York has ever seen in one place.

We can say we understand, because we share things with Pussy riot: vaginas, a political bent, an affinity for loud music. But it isn't our gender or our politics or our art that separates us from the point of it all, it is our perspective and our privilege.

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