On Popular Representations of Radical Women and Girls

There's been so much on my mind lately as I am constantly torn between excitement and discomfort.  It is a constant unease -- a fantasy-based (but very real) suspicion that cultural identity is heavily abbreviated before making it into popular culture. It's been on my mind lately because I've been teaching a course on popular culture for a few months now, and with each course, it is consistently challenging to get a good conversation going. I experience ups and downs when I see any sign of critical thinking or closer examination of our ready-made subjects.

Deep down this worries me. What do we see?  Is it worth getting emotional about? Is it an overreaction, which will pass eventually in light of much more important -- and less self-centered -- communal goals?

In short, can't we get over ourselves? Is everything really okay? UH, NO. Here's two examples, which pose distinct problems -- the media coverage and overwhelming support for a fair trial in the Pussy Riot case, and the deceptively positive reviews of the recent film, Beast of the Southern Wild.  

How are these two examples connected? It's because they both stirred the same succession of emotions, and I knew later that was a sign of real danger.

When I first heard news of Pussy Riot's trial, a nostalgic admiration seeped into my readings of the various articles -- punk rock in Russia!?!?  As Melena Ryzik astutely noted in a recent NY Times article that examined Pussy Riot's "successful" protest appeal as follows:
It’s been a long time since music had the whiff of danger, and longer still since it carried the beat of political change, at least in democracies. Hardly anyone would’ve expected that to come out of Russia, where both the songcraft and the messaging seem outdated, vestiges of retro power-pop and a barely concealed propaganda machine.
She's right -- it's an underdog tale made for America. Popular culture is based on the cult of the individual -- the hero who sticks to his or her ideals. They beckoned and we answered -- even the Guerrilla Girls (many young artists' first dose of anti-establishment outing of the art world) spoke back. According to Ryzik's article in the NY Times, the revered art banditas expressed solidarity from a perceived safe distance.  Kathe Kollowitz, a member of the Guerrilla Girls, expressed her solidarity:
"Pussy Riot are our kind of girls: feminist activists in masks making trouble," Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo, pseudonymous Guerrilla Girls, wrote in an e-mail.  "But, they added, "we live in a very different culture where art is not as dangerous, and we can pretty much do what we want"
Kathe is right to an extent -- but this is the part where I feel a little crazy myself -- why don't I feel safe then?  As an artist, an educator, and a woman -- why can't I trust that whatever happens in the States is relatively lighter in fare? Is our popular culture more understanding about these revolutionary musings that possess us (sorry, bad hysteria joke!) ladies every once in awhile?

August 17 sentencing for Pussy Riot members.  Photograph courtesy of Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images.
This question introduces the much quieter moments of rebellion that occur; they happen when everything seems fine and there seems to be no discernible struggle.  I felt this when I watched (and cried during) Beasts of the Southern Wild

When asked what I thought about the film, I want to say that it seemed terribly archaic and that it worried me.  But, I held back for a moment, carefully breathing in and searching for a reason why I might not be accepting this popular film that is widely considered to be progressive. Is it that the main character, Hushpuppy, isn't even given a name beyond a (removed) fatherly nickname? Or is it this weirdly racialized description of her in The New Yorker? Am I crazy or does this sound a bit too concerned with her hair and lips?
The six-year-old heroine, Hushpuppy, played by an astonishing local schoolchild, Quvenzhané Wallis, has an exuberant, vertical thatch of hair and a small mouth that expresses both amusement and the fiercest determination.
Never mind that the review goes on to declare that, "The young director, Benh Zeitlin, launches the fantastic from a mode of crowded poetic realism; from the middle of the movie to the end, reality and fantasy flow into each other seamlessly. The moods hang together, and much of the picture is savagely happy and wild."

The word "savage" makes me uncomfortable in most cases. End of story. Thank goodness that bell hooks wrote about this because I really thought I was on the verge of being too weary, too distrusting of something that just wanted to be beautiful apparently.  

I read her review, and felt relieved. As I read it, the ending that made me cry became clearly a mournful-- not joyous or celebratory-- conclusion that is tiresome to watch. hooks wrote, 
While she is portrayed as continuously resisting and refusing to be a victim, she is victimized. ubject to both romanticization as a modern primitive and eroticization, her plight is presented as comically farcical.  Some audiences laugh as Hushpuppy, when enraged at the antics of her disappearing alcoholic oftentimes abusive wild man dad Wink, burns her shanty house.
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Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.  2012.

She's right. The audience also nervously laughed (myself included) as Hushpuppy used a small blowtorch to light her meal, composed of dog food.  Later, as she encountered her long-lost mother in a brothel, I felt sadness that this was a popular film, and that many were already deeming it a genius and triumphant depiction of culture.

But hey, throw some magical realism in there and it's too lovely to turn down. Nature has always been a popular veil to add when presenting new and outdated subject matter alike. It is the visual equivalent to honest and a heart of gold. But it is also a mask placed upon older and less admirable stereotypes, which frequently get passed off as amusing, wild, and rebellious. 

In order to sum up this complex tug-of-war for whom to rally for, I want to end with an additional portion of what the Guerrilla Girls said regarding Pussy Riot's intentions:
“One really inspiring thing about Pussy Riot is that they always make it clear that their actions are political and feminist,” the Guerrilla Girls wrote. “The world needs more feminist masked avengers. We urge everyone to make trouble, each in her own way.”
They're absolutely right as well, and the beauty is in the word, "masked." Anonymity can be a struggle that many face, and I send thoughts out to whomever feels it -- Pussy Riot and Hushpuppy included. What I love most about hook's reaction is this peaceful reminder, which grants popular culture the true impact that it possesses but also explains these moments of cultural unease:
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tells students that putting images inside our heads is just like eating. And if “you are what you eat” it is equally true that to a grave extent we are what we see.