Pussy Riot media bias raises grrrl hackles

If you spend, as I do, a lot of time perusing the ins and outs of feminist commentary online, you might be pleased to find that the ideals of riot grrrl are alive and well in the current generation of young activists.

That determinedly feminist rock movement, which began in the early '90s, was a large part of my awakening (along with the usual milestones such as reading The Female Eunuch). I still have my bright pink and purple sew-on patch that reads ''If I had a hammer, I'd smash patriarchy'' and then, ''I found one.''

Beyond the blogs, riot grrrl is back in the news in a big way thanks to Pussy Riot. The members of the Russian feminist punk band have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment, found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. It is a monstrous overreaction, particularly as the band were not ''motivated by religious hatred''.

As Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in court, quoting an earlier interview, ''Our attitude towards religion, and towards Orthodoxy in particular, is one of respect, and for this very reason we are distressed that the great and luminous Christian philosophy is being used so shabbily. We are very angry that something beautiful is being spoiled.''

The longer Pussy Riot stay in the headlines, however, the more I wonder whether there's something else at play than a simple and genuine concern for the welfare of three young women.

This is not to say the sentence isn't utterly outrageous, or that we shouldn't care. It is also not about siding with the historian Robert Service, who grumbled to the BBC last week that ''There are really serious critics of Vladimir Putin in Russia who deserve our attention much more than these three misguided young feminist rock musicians who have desecrated a cathedral''.

Thanks, gramps, but feminist protest in Russia does deserve our attention. The question is, however, should Pussy Riot necessarily be at the very top of the global feminist ''things to worry about'' list?

It does a disservice to the work of other riot grrrl revivalists and feminist protesters to suggest, as John Harris did in The Guardian, that Pussy Riot represent a dedication to protest that their counterparts in the Anglo-American world have let slide. In fact, I would suggest that Harris's assertion that ''the legacy represented by Pussy Riot can perhaps only be glimpsed in an abiding strain of female fashion you can buy on any high street'' is sexist claptrap.

Instead, I wonder whether we shouldn't spend more time considering the way the media - and the feminist blogosphere - have approached the Pussy Riot case.

First, it cannot be denied that Tolokonnikova and her bandmates are photogenic. The sight of a beautiful young white woman staring down a prison sentence is, for many, an abject tragedy. Compare that with the media attention given to coloured women or transgender women who have recently faced similar predicaments.

Take, for example, Chrishaun ''Cece'' McDonald. The 23-year-old was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison for second degree manslaughter in the US. When she and her friends were subjected to a tirade of racist and transphobic abuse from a group of white men, a fight broke out and one of her attackers was stabbed and later died. But McDonald, a trans woman of colour, was the only person arrested at the time of the fight and she's now serving her sentence in the men's prison in St Cloud, Minnesota.

McDonald's case received little mainstream media attention, and far fewer outraged blog posts by white western feminists than Pussy Riot have inspired.

Hang out long enough in the feminist blogosphere and you'll probably see the phrase ''side-eye'' employed. It usually means, in a simplified definition, to express criticism and doubt about a particular handling of a topic or situation. (For example, a sex worker may side-eye rhetoric about sex work from someone with no first-hand experience in the industry.)

Now that the dust of the Pussy Riot case has settled a little, it might be time to give some major side-eye to the way it unfolded in the media.

I'm sure Pussy Riot would agree.

Clem Bastow is a columnist with dailylife.com.au and thevine.com.au

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