The Celebrification of Pussy Riot

how celebrity culture is destroying activism

The place was starting to get crowded; Young minds, smartphones in hands, each eagerly anticipating her arrival. The moment where they could snap a picture and say ”I was there” was approaching swiftly. One more for their collection, no one would dare call them uncultivated. Through the hubbub of frivolous political discussions, she arrived. This was it, the interview was about to start.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Russian artist and political activist, came to Maastricht University for a small lecture; Interviewed by Ferenc Laczó, Assistant Professor of History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, it had all the ingredients for a fruitful evening.

Nadezha, nicknamed Nadya, has a long history of political activism. Most people know her through her anarcho-punk feminist band Pussy Riot and Voina, the art collective she was part of.

What really put her on the map was her arrest in 2012, alongside Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, following a performance in a Russian Orthodox Church, protesting its support for President Vladimir Putin. Now, Nadya was invited to talk about various topics such as the situation of women in Russia and Russia’s prison systems.

So what exactly made Pussy Riot so attractive to the West? How is it that they gained so much attention next to countless other activists that suffered the same fate? The answer seems simple. They had the x factor. They had exactly what the West strives for; Three young beautiful women fighting a good cause, criticizing Putin’s government was right on the spot (him (still) being the antagonist the West loves to hate.).

To top it all off, whilst still incarcerated, Nadya and philosopher superstar Slavoj Žižek exchanged a series of letters which catapulted Pussy Riot to the realm of intellectual activists.

Being rather ill-informed on past interviews she has given, I did not know whether it was lack of broader knowledge on her part or the feeble attempt of the interviewer to dig deeper into these previously mentioned issues that made this lecture seemed tantamount to a (non) conversation with a young teenager rather than with a serious political activist. Then came the investigating and after hours of research and numerous failed attempts of finding one good interview, I was forced to accept the fact that all the craze surrounding her was — drum roll please — just that, a hype, a delusion.

The Janus-faced nature of our society has given us false idols, ones that we blindly worship. As sociologist Frank Furedi boldly stated:

”The ascendancy of the celebrity has been fueled by society’s uneasy relationship with the question of authority. Often celebrity provides an alternative source of validation. The tendency to outsource authority to the celebrity represents an attempt to bypass the problem of legitimacy by politicians and other figures.”.

It was disappointing to witness how the celebrification of (in this case) activists negated the true cause they are supposedly fighting for. Parallel to how we deal with charities, so do these celebrity activists fulfill our narcissistic, self-serving needs to be seen as fundamentally good. 
Judging by the Q&A session that followed, it is highly doubtful that more than a third of the audience came out of political/activist interest. With questions ranging from “what’s your biggest regret?” to “how was it meeting Madonna?”, it was all too reminiscent of a Comic Con panel than a legitimate politically infused lecture. We live in a celebrity culture and as such we have elevated these women to that status, commercialized them, turned them into a brand despite the fact that, ironically, part of their philosophy is anti-capitalism.

For the Grand Finale, the masses rushed to the bottom of the lecture hall, eager to get their selfie as if it were a rat race. What filter should they use ?

References:

Driessens, O. (2012). The celebritization of society and culture: Understanding the structural dynamics of celebrity culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(6), 641–657. doi:10.1177/1367877912459140

Furedi, F. (2010). Celebrity Culture. Society, 47(6), 493–497. doi:10.1007/s12115–010–9367–6

Žižek, S. (2013, November 15). Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot’s prison letters to Slavoj Žižek. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/15/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-slavoj-zizek