I’d love to teach a course on gender and sexuality leaning towards researching and questioning BDSM practices because they, in their turn, are exploring questions of power, violence, and gendered expectations. If I ever have such an opportunity, in this course I’d prompt students to read classical texts, such as Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and Butler’s Gender Trouble; ethnographic or historic accounts, like Chauncey’s Gay New York and Kulick’s Travesti, and some non-nonfictional literature too–memoirs, old and recent, written mainly by women, exploring their sexuality through writing.
this text is an exercise in creative writing further blurring the lines between prose and poetry
if ever those lines existed
I examine the performance of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, 2012, and the immediate political context of this performance. Three members of the group were arrested, accused of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years in prison. One member was released on probation, the others were granted amnesty after they served nearly the full sentence. A relative harmlessness of the crime in comparison to the severity of the punishment was striking. Looking at the feminist activist group Pussy Riot and their most famous performance, I examine how political and civic activism can be read, interpreted, and practiced in the neoliberal context. I suggest that Pussy Riot is a telling story revealing the nature of Putinism as a Russian multicultural neoliberal project. By exercising state power over the female bodies of Pussy Riot protesters, the political imaginary of the Putin Modern strives not only to discipline the bodies of political activists, but also to perpetuate a patriarchal oligarchic regime maintaining a status of the second-class citizenship for women and sanctioning and condoning the genderization of those whom it deems fit. I argue that the reason Pussy Riot’s performance generated a political affect was that they, consciously or not, worked with Russian “cultural memory.” A spiritual practice and a tradition of the Orthodox sanctity called jurodstvo underpinned their actions in the given cultural context. The trial, in turn, evoked a specter of the show trials conducted by the Soviet state. The power dynamics at play during the performance followed by the trial, made many people co-participate by interpreting the events, articulating positions, and changing sides. The “meaning” of the action was, and still is, intensely contested.
A question or remark every once in a while disrupting seamlessness, dropping as if from a ceiling–it might be even said, pleasantly diverting–still, it is difficult to spend time hour after hour in one room with a child being busy with anything but said child.
When he was younger, all my attention was concentrated on keeping him from harm that he was about to inflict on himself every other minute. I remember in London I leaped several meters catching my baby jumping from the journal table, noticing him already in flight from another room. (I am not particularly fast, nor do I have a good reaction generally).
Now it is a talk about Minecraft. Easier on me but still.
A child, as I discovered, is a small but potent generator of chaos.
When I am in my fieldwork, the news reaches me that my child has lost his first tooth and checked himself twice in the mirror that day (which he usually does not).
It was a time of terror in my childhood when I was losing my teeth, and I wish I could offer him support and my presence at this difficult time. I saw nightmares; I am quite certain that everyone suffers through this time, and only later, as an adult, forgets about it. Something happens to your body that you do not control. A metamorphosis transfigures you, and it entails these painful and disturbing little losses.
My mom told me that when she or her brother or her sister lost a tooth, they ran to the room from which there was a ladder to the attic. They threw their teeth to the square entrance of the attic and said:
“Мишка, мишка, на тобi костяний зуб, а менi дай залiзний.”
(“Mouse, mouse, take my bony tooth, and give me back an iron tooth,” Ukrainian.)
“We all have iron teeth now,” She said smiling, referring to either veneered or prosthetic teeth she and her siblings have.
As I already had a chance to mention elsewhere, this summer I am going to do a preliminary fieldwork at my fieldsite, in the village of Anosovo in Siberia. I am packing, and have already collected my books. I decided to take all of the books I initially wanted, despite that “Anosovo has a library!” argument from my worrying parents. Now it is the time to collect clothes, which I delayed for as long as I could because, like all necessary actions, it is boring.
Extracting one by one things out of the depths of my wardrobe full of skeletons, and putting them side by side on a bed, I am trying to decide what to take with me and what to leave. What do they wear now in Moscow, I don’t know, but certainly not pajamas, as is Austinites’ nice habit. But that is not my concern.
What do they wear in Siberia, is more important. If I take my camouflage pants–Russian and NATO-style, for I own both varieties–would it be okay? I was wearing them alright there, but women certainly dress in beautiful skirts and pretty cardigans in Anosovo, not in NATO camouflage (I wonder why). For a woman, fieldwork experience might be different than for men, and perhaps it starts early on. In fact our gender defines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, on which we barely reflect.
Would my clothing affect the way they would perceive me? Most likely, yes. I never thought about it before. I am going to blend in, as much as it is possible for a Muscovite, which means perhaps my uniform should be different. I imagine the anthropologist arriving to a country in Africa clad in sand-dune camouflage and wearing a pith helmet–well, probably, no anthropologist today submits easily to the colonial style of dress, do they?
This might be more important than I thought before, for in my camouflage I would certainly look like a Muscovite tourist. Not that it means I could start wearing skits all of a sudden. That would be too much of an effort: I rarely wear skirts, I simply do not like them, I guess. It is certainly fine for a man to wear camouflage pants there. Ah, anyway. I am throwing them in.
Several photographs out of the archive of my previous visit, summer 2013:
Ded Gosha (“Grandpa” Gosha) drinking his tea. Photo on Nexus phone
One of my favorite pictures of that summer, also taken felicitously on Nexus. I call it “Reading”
A girl in pink in the village of Atalanka, Siberia
Young men sitting near the house
(All pictures are taken on Canon 400D unless otherwise noted)
I met a beautiful woman, L., on Congress Avenue in Austin, in a bright morning hour in 2014. I noticed her from afar: she was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a billowing, long, black and white dress. We stopped on the red light crossing the street concurrently. She noticed that I look at her, and casually started a conversation. She was walking to her favorite cafe and invited me with her. I ordered a cup of coffee, she bought a latte and a doughnut, and in several phrases she told me her story.
“From the early childhood I was into makeup and fashion.” She said. “I never did heroine, that was not my time, but I drank and I did cocaine, that was my time.”
She was a model, and was never married.
“I just did not want to live with a man.”
She was working hard.
“Girls from rich families do not have to, but we, we had to.”
This very morning she picked a number of photographs from her archive to send them to her sister, who asked her about this favor. She showed the pictures to me, extracting them one by one from a huge brown envelope. She kindly permitted me to photograph them.
“Do you like Sex in the City?” She asked. “I look like Carrie Bradshow, and you–you look like Charlotte York. Yes, you will be Charlotte. We already have Miranda and Samantha.” (She was referring to her friends.)
I was looking at her, at her photos, and I caught myself wondering back then as I think about it now: What does it mean for a woman, to age?
I am a woman myself, and over time I am gradually gaining understanding how women age. I encountered men explaining to me that I am about to lose my beauty. One moment was particularly striking. When I was in my twenties, on a plane a man going down the aisle, whom I did not know, twice my age, told me out of the blue that I was beautiful, and added: “But it will soon pass. The corners of your mouths would turn down.”
Once I took a selfie with my child’s toy: a mustache on a stick. Looking at the picture, I was struck by how young my face was looking in this momentary, fleeting, playful assumption of masculinity. In my 36, I am barely a young woman any more, but I am definitely quite a young man.
Am I beautiful? A dreadful question which defines us so profoundly at certain stages of life. The answer to this question is, always, yes of course you are, because beauty is in motion and in the movement of your mind, in thought that your eyes reflect, and in the kindness of your heart.
Am I beautiful? The irony of it, we never know just how beautiful we are, even if we are aware of our beauty, much less when we are unaware–but then we look at our own photographs and remark that we were beautiful.
Am I beautiful? What does it matter if I am not? What does it matter if I am? All too young, one is irreparably made aware that her appearance is favorable (or not, or, more often, both). And it is a highly racialized process, not to mention other complexities.
It so happens that men compliment me a lot these days, far more often than they complimented me a decade ago–although I must say I am in a very privileged position to be, there was never a lack of it. I don’t know what to connect a sudden increase of praise to though, many factors, I guess. A red lipstick is definitely one of them. But perhaps most importantly, I owe these compliments to the very fact that I am older now and paradoxically my kind interlocutors are being somewhat more generous if they tell me how good-looking I am, now that I am older.
And a lot of these compliments, too many, assess my young looks. As if being young should be my desire, and being younger-looking is a thing I need to know about myself, and cherish. As if there is an all-too-evident way of making me happier: just tell me how young I look (if I do not, just say it anyway).
And I am expected to be pleased with these assessments, for which I did not ask, and take pride in looking supposedly younger than my age. Which brings a lot of difficult questions. Is it really a good thing for a person to appear, even if this is by way of a not-fully-sincere compliment, younger than they are? Does not a phrase “you look young(er)” robs you of your experience? Does not it erase who you are, diminishes your wins and losses? Does not it attempt not to notice who you have become and are becoming by this time of your age? Does not it suggest another, better you, in which you are somehow in a competition–and to whom you would lose in a face-to-face confrontation?
I am interested in how women’s magazines address aging, for they do, from time to time. Often in light how nobly age certain beautiful women, and how badly lose their battle with time other women. As a rule, noble aging means successful plastic surgery, and ugly aging means plastic surgery gone awry. Either way, you are fighting a battle, and either way you are about to lose it–if not next year, then soon enough. But you have to be or to appear young, and if magazines are to be believed, in doing so you also have to wear clothes and make up which suit primarily young women.
To age, and to lose brightness of your eyes, to lose tightness, elasticity, and evenness of your skin; to acquire wrinkles; to have a changed, further changing face, on which a sleepless night leaves its inexorable trace; to lose the precision of your vision; to lose agility, is no fun for any gender. But it is a high demand for a woman to be not just successful, not just married, not just a mother in a certain timeline, but also to remain young and pleasing to the eye, attractive, beautiful. Beautiful but beautiful in a specific way. It is not thoughts, nor philosophical studies, nor the sharpness of her mind–which are evident in her face–that matters, but how how closely she is identifiable with a generalized image of a beautiful woman, in other words, how well she conforms to standards. The generalized images of how a beautiful woman looks, in the West are very few, and closely resemble each other. But the list of conditions you have to satisfy to be considered a beautiful woman, is long and wearisome.
For a model, the face and the body are instruments. They are her tools of earning her living, but also they are used as tools by forces greater than her. They are employed and exploited to replicate the standards of beauty by expressing them in a living being’s polished, altered, improved appearance. Women use these standards in their turn to navigate these spaces to their advantage.
The temporality is tragic. Every story of aging is tragic. Aging is a world-altering experience. Is there a way out, towards the universe where appearance in general, and younger looks in particular, do not matter that much? I don’t know.
But when I look at the photographs of my exceptional interlocutor, both in her maturity, in her ripeness, and in her blooming, her blossoming, her nascent, fledgling beauty, I see her story as a film — and a very short film at that, for I do not know many things about her. It is as if her whole lifetime was sped up in a quick video clip, reminding me of those videos which people sometimes create, putting their images of themselves, taken day by day for years, together. The film of a bold, creative exploration of temporality and ephemerality and endurance and inner and outward beauty. Of a manifest beauty piercing years. The film about the world and our brief and aggrieved, and still fascinating, act of living in it.