From Pussy Riot to Todd Akin: The Claiming—and Silencing—of Language and Speech


There is so much to potentially write about the phenomenon that is Pussy Riot. So much to dig into, about feminism that values women’s voices, minds, creativity, and bravery to put bodies on the line to end injustice.

Within all of the important and meaningful things to be said and written about this political collection of women, there’s the starting fact of their name. That writing about them requires writing about a group named Pussy Riot. A group that has made enough news that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, have had to wrestle with how to report news about the group, and dance around editorial standards that don’t want to report the word “Pussy,” even if it’s a self-selected term by a group of women.

Pussy Riot is a collection of women, three of whom are now spending years in jail for enacting their art protest inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. And so what is radical about their being obviously goes so far beyond their name.

But I am writing this commentary from America in 2012. An America where, just a few months ago, a female legislator in Michigan was banned from the legislative floor due to using the word “vagina” during a debate about abortion.

Pussy Riot refuses such censorship. And given the international coverage of the story, they’re forcing not only a serious consideration of social injustice in Russia, but also a linguistic conundrum in America.

I wrote awhile ago about an organization that addresses women’s menstruation in Rwanda, and how talking loudly about such things as periods, menstruation, and bleeding is required in order to create necessary change for the women of Rwanda. And how, in part because open discussion of women’s bodies is still taboo, development planning was able to overlook the important needs around menstruation until it was raised by women.

And then Michigan happened, and the word “vagina” was also entered, once again, into the taboo space. We now have had to fight over the fact that ‘rape is rape,’ no matter what, thanks to Republican Senate Candidate Todd Akin, and his ridiculous, baffling and offensive statement that “legitimate rape” cannot possibly result in pregnancy.

The question we keep seeing revolves around who gets to say what, and who gets to define what those words mean.

The members of Pussy Riot have given the world a lot through their actions. We are talking about freedom of speech and protest. We are talking about the separation of church and state. We are talking about young women activists, and the role of art, and how a frightened government responds to three smart, passionate, and opinionated voices of opposition.

But Pussy Riot also has us all saying the word “pussy,” buttoned up mainstream news organizations included. This additional reverberation of their actions would not be so notable were women in America free to speak about our own lives and bodies in whatever terms we find appropriate. Having the word “pussy” broadcast as a description of fierce female action wouldn’t be groundbreaking, were women in America able to talk about our health, our vaginas, and what it means to be raped, without the domestic powers that be trying to control the language and definitions of those things. But we are in this place. And so having mainstream cause to write and say the word pussy becomes an exciting rebellion in the face of those attempts at linguistic and policy control.

Pussy Riot matters in a large number of ways. And having cause to write and openly speak about a group named Pussy Riot, it turns out, matters as well.

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