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Objecting Bodies

is theatre still a relevant medium for feminists protest?

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
21 October 2015

Ferne Taylor-Law
dissertation submitted to London College of Fashion


This is a comparison between how The Suffragettes & Pussy Riot use theatre to express themselves...

The feminist in theatre can create the laboratory in which the single most effective mode of repression – gender – can be exposed, dismantled and removed; the same laboratory may produce the representation of a subject who is liberated from the repressions of the past and capable of signaling a new age for both women and men (Case 2008)  

As society has developed so has the role and meaning of theatre.  For centuries it was uniquely the place where religious and political views could be aired and debated.  Therefore analysis of theatre performance is of great importance to society, enabling us to see ourselves and our values reflected on stage.  But in this dialogue between theatre and society, it is important also to understand the role of spectator.

Key theorists note that each viewer comes with a different combination of experiences and different expectations.  Some people come for escapism, others for being intellectually involved and for their imagination to be inspired, leading the way for... 

Brechtian theatrical strategies that encourage actors and spectators alike to imagine themselves as an agent of change (Aston in Case 2008)

For others it provides a guide for living.  So it is important not only to analyse the plays themselves, but also to consider the audience, and to contextualise them in the society they live in.

In this dissertation I will explore an example of such dialogue in action: the relationship between women's role in society and their representation on the stage, looking at how they influence each other, and how women have used theatre to express themselves and their views.  Although over the last century there have been times of revolutionary change, women are represented as a gender and as objects.  This has been particularly the case on stage and in popular culture, and it remains a problematic and difficult issue.  This is despite the fact that, since the rise of feminism at beginning of the twentieth century, women have appropriated theatre and performance space as a place for protest against stereotyped representations by male playwrights and directors.

To illustrate this I will be seeking to establish a link between suffragette theatre of the early twentieth century and the recent - and on-going - Pussy-Riot performances. 


A History of Women in Theatre

In Ancient Greece, men and women both participated in theatrical performances associated with festivals.  Yet...

The 'Classics' of Athenian, Roman and Elizabethan drama were all produced by cultures that denied women access to the stage and allowed them few legal and economic rights. These values of a patriarchal society are embedded in the texts of these periods. 

a re-emergence of the Athenian compound of politics, myth and culture as assimilated by the Christian tradition (Case 2008)

But as Greek society began to associate its wealth and citizenship with male lines of descent, females were increasingly withdrawn from public life and performance (Case 2008).  Baker (1968) also suggests that, since performance is derived from religion and the church, women - excluded from office in the church - could not participate. 

There are also many debates around the playwriting of this period.  Did people such as Shakespeare adapt roles he was writing to suit the fact they were to be played by young boys?  Was he playing to the humour of the situation?  Or are the roles written as accurate depictions of women in this period?  Since, as in ancient Greece, these plays were written and played by men it’s unlikely that women would have felt themselves well represented on stage.  Case suggests that young boys were used to play female roles because of their social comparability to women... 

Boys, by virtue of their age, were cast in a social role similar to that of women – dependent on and inferior to the adult male.  Women could be represented by boys on stage because they shared their social attributes (Case 2008)

Using plays to re-enforce these social inequalities, and to maintain the status quo, seems more probable.  Whatever was the case then, in modern performances of these plays men or boys playing female roles would carry significantly different meanings to an audience than the author intended.  Women aren't oppressed in the same way as they were in the Elizabethan era...

A modern audience's mental approach can never be altered.  To us, a man (or boy) playing a serious female role on the stage is going to be either distasteful or ridiculous (Baker 1968) 

This illustrates how important it is to consider what the audience understands and associates characters with, within their own world and social context.

As later feminists studying the history of theatre discovered, there were no major female playwrights until the seventeenth century (Case 2008).  But after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 things began to change.

During the period from 1660-1720, over sixty plays by women were produced on the London stage – more than from 1920 to 1980.  Twenty of these plays were written by Susanna Centlivre. (Case: 2008) 

Living as a cross dresser Centlivre sought to bring a new authentic representation of women to the stage.  During the 17th Century, life in drag wasn't uncommon for women - it allowed them access to a wider variety of social life.  Centlivre wrote roles for female cross-dressers in her plays, but instead of using them for witty scenes, as in Shakespeare's plays, they were...

dark, desperate scenes in which women cross-dress to gain the power or freedom to express their wills (Case 2008)

Wearing drag in her social life appeared to give Centlivre insight into a degree of independence normally denied to women.  She was not restrained by society, which inspired the development of her characters.  Centlivre’s was, therefore, an early example of feminist protest.

After the re-opening of theatres in 1660 females were able to act on stage, as well as write for the stage,   Roles for female impersonators were drastically reduced (Baker 1968, 99-105).  But although women were now allowed to perform, it certainly didn't mark the emancipation of women within society.  Feminism in theatre was neither reflecting nor influencing feminism in society.

Finding the mainstream theatre an uncomfortable space, some women redefined the performance space.  An example of this is Salon Theatre whereby...

The audience was composed not of consumers who paid for admittance, of strangers who came to listen to the removed dialogue of the traditional theatre, but of personal friends and interesting acquaintances, who came specifically to engage in social dialogue with one another. (Case 2008)

In Salon Theatre actors speak with their own voice, with no interference from a male playwright.  Ironically, In the original era of the first salon performances, during the 1790’s, women would have needed men to support such a luxury (Case 2008).

Women had protested their roles in theatre, and by breaking away from the mainstream, had found their own pathway to expressing themselves.  But they may not have significantly influenced society at large.  What followed was a feminism which deliberately sought to effect political change in ways which may have inspired modern performances.


The Rise of Feminism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

It would not be until the late nineteenth century that any real progress would be made in women’s equality.  What is now known as 'First-Wave Feminism' began in the nineteenth century and ran into the twentieth.  It was largely developed by the suffragettes, a group of British, middle-class, educated women who fought for women's political rights.  Specifically they were concerned with political representation, the right to vote for women, and legal rights concerning marriage and property.  Concerns regarding the plight of single women, who were not aligned with a man’s social standing and wealth, are evident in fictional writing over that period and the period preceding it.  A notable example is Jane Austen (Lewis 2008).

The suffragettes did not find their calls for equality and legal status well received, however, and they faced a severe backlash.  They were driven to find drastic means to get noticed, and were arrested for activities designed only to bring their cause to public attention.  They continued to protest, but became more radical. 

As part of being politically active, the suffragettes used their bodies as a battleground.  They were often criticised in the male-dominated press for either being too masculine, or - conversely - for their meetings being an opportunity to show off their latest dresses.  That was thought completely to undermine any serious nature of their mission.  Aware of the scrutiny of their physicality and choice of clothing, suffragettes involved themselves in a form of performance.  For example, whilst imprisoned they often went on hunger strikes and refused to wear prison uniforms, claiming the status of political prisoners.  Outside prison they often chose to wear practical clothing rather than frivolous fashions.  The Women's Social and Political Union devised a costume code of purple and green to counter concern about the appearance of its members.  The union resisted any assumption that suffragettes were masculine in manner and appearance. 

In 1907, as part of Granville Barker's final Royal Court season, Elizabeth Robins created a character called Vida Levering...

the English stage's first sympathetically drawn 'smart' suffragette

As a character, she is elegant, accepted within social circles, is beautifully dressed, and her hand in marriage is actively sought.  But she is also a radical feminist who supports union extremists...

herself aware of the power of clothes, and the protection offered by fashionable dress, Levering speaks pointedly of the predatory gaze men direct at women whose costume declares them social inferiors... she is a model of Edwardian deportment - well groomed and handsomely outfitted (Kaplan & Stowell, 1994)

This challenged other male-generated representations of suffragettes who had appeared on stage previously, and demonstrated that women activists could be beautiful and intellectual as well as politically driven.  It ran counter to the common criticism of feminist women - which suggested that if they were more beautiful they would be better able to influence their men.

In June 1908 Cicely Hamilton and Bessie Hatton founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League which vowed to...

Use the pen

Elizabeth Robins was its first president, and later the Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) was formed, with the intention to put...

the speeches and pamphlets of the earlier Suffrage societies in dramatic form (Suffrage Annual, cited in Kaplan & Stowell, 1994)

Plays challenged the roles of women within society and attacked restrictive dress...

Assured without being masculine, committed without being hysterical, well dressed without being seductive, these are models for feminist action, their virtues underscored by juxtaposition with the dubious antics of a stage coquette

By using theatre they managed to capture an audience that would not have naturally gone to a suffragette rally... 

Without underestimating the difficulties involved, suffrage feminists worked to educate their observers.  And for the most part they used the vocabulary of fashionable dress, the assumption being that whatever was modish would, by virtue of its modishness, be accepted as both feminine and womanly (Kaplan & Stowell, 1994)

As the nation went to war, the suffragette's campaign was put on hold.  Men were required to go and serve the nation as soldiers.  Women were required to hold the fort at home, as well as work in factories and adopt traditionally male roles.  Women demanded recognition for their participation in the war.  In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women aged over thirty, provided they or their husbands were property owners.

The new law drastically and permanently changed women’s role in society.  It could be argued that from this point women had achieved what they set out to do – they had achieved the right to vote and were therefore emancipated.  However, whilst the law might have given women freedom of a sort – and it certainly gave women ground which they would never surrender – it didn’t really challenge the male chauvinistic nature of British society.

Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1971) argued that the period 1930–1960 saw the reversal of the sexual liberation of the previous century.  The Second World War had provided another context where women needed to do men’s work as well as continue to uphold the domestic front.  But, once again, when the men returned, women were pushed firmly back into feminine roles and feminine attire, ready to become mothers to a new generation.

Women were now represented as natural, sexual, maternal, emotional and obedient to the desires and power of men - an 'ideal femininity'.  The hard work of the suffragettes was being undone as a new form of exploitation arose.  It was based on mass consumption, communication and the representation of the female body.  Writers, such as Virginia Woolf, encouraged women to liberate themselves, for women to debate and fight for their freedom, against representations of them peddled through the media (Lewis, 2008). 

As a result, by the 1960’s, a major political and cultural reawakening was underway...

Undoubtedly, the ferment of artistic, cultural and intellectual activities of the 1960's was a response to the suffocating conditions of the previous decade (Lewis, 2008)  

For example, since the 1960's a slimmer androgynous frame has been more desired by women.  This representation of the female gender was, arguably, a rejection of the female roles as...

maternal and reproductive figures

However, it brought its own problems...

the history of western cultural representation... has granted women only squatters' rights to their own bodies (Macdonald 1995)  

Women found themselves fighting to reclaim their bodies.  The contraceptive pill  meant, for the first time in history, women could freely enjoy sex and choose whether or not to have babies.  A new movement grew and became known as the Women's Liberation Movement – now known as second-wave feminism.  The aim was, like first-wave feminism, to prevent specific legislative and social processes excluding women from full and equal participation in public life.  Women's labour was still being exploited because they were typically underpaid.

During the 1970s women began to use their personal and domestic lives as inspiration for feminist performance.  They began to explore the possibilities of life freed from reproduction as a primary function, and redefining characteristics for femininity...

Performing the 'personal as political', which was core to second-wave feminism, women performance artists began to stage a coming-to-political - consciousness of domestic, reproductive and gender oppressions. (Aston, in Case 2008 pxxi)

This illustrates women using the stage to express themselves, rather than letting the theatre-media preach at them - women were taking control of their own representations.

Historically the theatre is an important place for people to learn appropriate social behaviours.  Since the 1960s this function has moved from being the prerogative of the theatre, to a function of the popular press, television, film and - most recently - the digital media.  We need not travel to theatres, galleries or even cinemas to view representations of women.  They come to us, 'pushed', through personal media devices (Berger, 1972).  It has formed a new stage, or performance space, wherein women can freely express themselves and their political stances.  This is also where their work can be easily accessed and viewed across the world - via the internet.  Being more widely accessible, these new media have had a much larger and more immediate effect on society.  However, one undesirable effect has been that women now allow themselves to be used to target each other, to break down their sisterhood and attack one other's visual representation.  This is still the cultural context today where the focus for femininity is firmly located around sexual desirability, availability and youth.

To summarise: feminism in the twentieth century has highlighted many issues associated with gender representations, and illustrates how complex an issue this is, both for society and for individuals.  We have seen how the fight for female emancipation, begun by the suffragettes, has ebbed and flowed across dramatic social change over the early part of the twentieth century.  Whilst women have been able to represent their cause on stage, and undoubtedly were able to communicate their concerns to many more people through theatre than they would have done otherwise.  But there is no longer a direct link for success in achieving emancipation through representations on stage.  Women artists have begun to claim the stage, the performance space and the screen, but there was, and still is, a long way to go before representations of women can be considered in their own right, rather than in juxtaposition to men.

Feminism and Psychoanalysis in Theatre

Some of these issues overlap with other important early twentieth-century movements - psychoanalysis, together with psycho-dynamic theories of personality and sexual identity.  They provide insight into the role of audience and the viewer.

The foregoing analysis of media and representations of gender also show the importance of the intended audience.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey published Visual Pleasure and a Narrative Cinema.  It discussed 'the male gaze', whereby she attempted to combine feminist thoughts with Freud and Lacan's work on psychoanalysis.  Mulvey investigates the power relationships which impact on representations of women in what she regards as socially idealised roles.  In particular she develops an understanding of the role of the male gaze, and how images of women are both created by it, and subjected to scrutiny from it.  Her work studies classical Hollywood cinema and how gender has been presented to the audience.  She argues that the use of camera techniques leads the audience to view the subject from the male protagonist point of view, reinforcing the controlling power males over the female form.  Her work claims that cinema promotes... 

voyeuristic fantasy (Mulvey, cited Lewis 2008)

In an account of narcissism Mulvey expands Jacques Lacan's theory of a child's 'mirror phase'.  She argues that viewers see perfected images, and identify with them.  This creates a false sense of completeness, as well as immersing viewers in a state of unconsciousness where they forget time, place and own self.

The concept of ‘male gaze’ draws attention to the intention of audience and spectator for whom the media event is designed, so that...

the female experience of sex and sexuality is fundamentally constrained by the need to satisfy male's material and ideological interests (Millet, cited Lewis, 2008)

John Berger expands on Mulvey's theory in Ways of Seeing, arguing...

Men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of, men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at, women constantly meet glances, which act like mirrors, reminding them of how they look, or how they should look, behind every glance is a judgment, sometimes the glances that they meet is their own, reflected back from a real mirror (Berger, 1972 in Ways of Seeing, episode 2, 4min)

Berger discusses a critical point about the importance of where and when the representation meets its audience...

The camera, by making the work of art transmittable has multiplied its possible meanings, and destroyed its unique original meaning (episode 1, 11min)

Film-makers manipulate meaning by careful selection of what they show audiences so that sound, setting and visuals effect the audience's reception of an image.  The impact  is modified by audience experiences before and after the performance, and this will be different for each person.  The representation can have a multitude of meanings.

Mulvey's theories apply equally well in theatrical performance, where such techniques cannot be tightly controlled.  The work of Keir Elam's The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (2002) explores how theatre communicates in semiotic terms.  The basic operatives in the production of meaning in a theatrical production are the signifier and the signified.  The signifier is the ensemble of elements that comprise its meaning - the text, the actor and so on - and is known as the ‘diegesis’.  The signified is the meaning derived from this signifier by the ‘collective consciousness of the audience’ (Case 2008).  This leaves power within the audience, as with a film.   There may be multiple interpretations of what is presented to them.  Different elements, not just what is written, make up the performance text.

Feminist semiotics also develop the idea that a woman standing on the stage is...

woman as a 'sign' not just a biological or natural reality (Case 2008) 

But also...

a fictional construct, a distillate from diverse but congruent discourses dominant in Western cultures (Lauretis 1984) 

The woman is an archetypal 'sign' that will elicit different reactions from the audience, depending on individuals’ culture and experiences with the female gender.

It is also suggested that...

the concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘femininity’ are symbiotically linked, each defined in terms of the other, each becoming what the other is not (Kaplan & Stowell, 1994 note 2)

Whilst this is true at one level, feminist semiotics illustrate that a simple polarisation of masculinity and femininity is an inadequate way of understanding the female in performance.  We must recognise the part the audience plays in receiving the performance.

Therefore I suggest that in theatre the ‘gaze’ is a predominantly a male one, because most playwrights, directors and producers are men... 

with culturally determined components of male sexual desire (Case 2008)

Women, represented from male perspectives, are inevitably encoded.  They are objects to be looked on and they do not control the looking.


Feminism in Progress

Historians suggest that second-wave feminism ended in the 1980's...

Women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role (Wolf, 1991) 

In the 1990's so-called third-wave feminism emerged, and is still on going today.  The biggest criticism of second-wave feminism was its focus on white, middle class, heterosexual women.  Third-wave feminism emphasises identity and personal empowerment.  However the third wave has been criticised because it isn’t political enough and doesn’t encourage women to be activists.  

More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers (Wolf, 1991) 

Furthermore, to have the space to explore one's identity is a privilege denied to women globally.  So the fight for female liberation and equality is still in progress.  However, now the issue appears as much for women to decide what they want, as it is put in place and to be achieved.  In the past the confrontation was with male domination and a united sisterhood.  But more recently women have attacked each other as they assert the right to their own individuality, without reference to any ‘party line’.

In this complex social situation, it is clear that theatre, film and performance have played a part in...

  1.   situating the female role firmly within a male-dominated context
  2.   providing space for women to make protests
  3.   catalysing analysis of the ways that women are denied freedom by male perspective

A case study follows, it illustrates a modern example of women making feminist use of theatre and performance.  It is an investigation into whether theatre is still a relevant medium of protest for women.


Pussy Riot: Feminism, Theatre & Protest

Female performance art is where women choose their own performance space.  it often takes place inside a community rather than in front of an audience:

Since women have generally been confined to the domestic domain and denied admittance to the public arena, their performance space has often been within their houses (Case 2008)

Performance artists have challenged women about the social views held of them. They have dealt with issues of rape, eating disorders, abortion, menstruation, child bearing, abuse and gender (Case 2008).  A modern example of that performance art is Pussy Riot, a female Russian feminist punk band.

A Pussy-Riot documentary provides a balanced account by including interviews and evidence from people who disapprove of its performances as well as band members.  Other sources are wider media reports and commentaries together with relevant newspaper reports and sources.

  •             Pussy Riot activities

On the 21st of February 2012 several members of Pussy Riot were arrested for performing in Moscow's cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  The band had forced entry to the altar wearing brightly coloured knee-length sleeveless dresses and balaclavas.  They performed their own song Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.  The inspiration came six months earlier with the re-election of Putin into power for six more years.  The group's objections are...

The excessive nationalism he promotes.  We have an authoritarian regime, and we're not happy about it, it deprives us of the basic right to influence our country's fate, we are not going to kill anyone, we use peaceful methods, metaphor and art. (A Punk Prayer, 2012, 9min)

They recorded themselves performing, and uploaded the video to the internet, where it instantly went viral.  The group were arrested and charged with...

wearing provocative masks, disrupting social order by an act of hooliganism,  showing disrespect for society... motivated by religious hatred or enmity,  trespassing into the zone saved for holy ceremonies and for wearing inappropriate clothing (A Punk Prayer', 2012, 42min)

They were detained for six weeks.  In the initial trial their arguments were rejected, so they were detained further, facing a possible seven-year imprisonment.

International sympathy may be due to the viral nature of their video.  But they did not attract public sympathy in Russia, since they seemed to challenge too many socially accepted norms.  Members of the public helped to remove them from the church, and handed them over to the police.  Across Russia their activity led to anti-Pussy-Riot rallies.  Tens of thousands came to a mass prayer called by the church, staging a national uprising against the group.  TV talk-shows in Russia called them 'evil' and 'demons'.  They have been described by The Carriers of the Cross as women who...

attack against the holy altar and the throne.  In the sixteenth century they would have hanged them.  The main one, she is a demon with a brain...  there have always been witches who wouldn’t repent...  society should realise this is blasphemy...  they are fighting against a male view of the world, if they want to live without men, they should move to an island or the Amazon or something (A Punk Prayer, 2012, 29min)

Vladimir Putin’s reaction was...

The government must protect the feelings of believers.  The punishment should be in proportion to the act (The Independent, 2013)

The establishment media, by distorting their political messages, sought to undermine the credibility of the group’s work, and the significance of their views...

The simplest example is the idea that there’s a [male] producer behind us, or that we must be being paid by foreign governments - nobody can imagine that women themselves are expressing their opinions! (Schumacher, from Pussy-Riot member Penny, 2013)

There was world-wide publicity and disapproval of their treatment.  Through, using social media, and going on hunger strike, and getting close to the 2014 Winter Olympics, the young women were released.

Since leaving prison, the group have re-focused their attention on prisoner rights in Russia.  They claim that their political message and standing hasn’t changed, but their responsibility - as a consequence of their experiences - now concerns prisoner rights.  ‘Nadia’ claimed that she now considers performing in a church a mistake - though not of her own making.  The state-controlled media distorted their political message, it was not properly explained.  There is now an element of misfiring in Pussy-Riot activity.

  •             Influences on Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot claim inspiration for their work in second- and third-wave feminism.  Though they had focused on attacking Putin, a wider context for their activity is to reject social norms for what constitutes 'a woman’ in Russian society.

In the Russian mass media they're saying we're stupid girls, not able to think. Among the orthodox believers, in the media, they tell us to stay at home, do cooking, give birth to children, and Masha and Nadya are attacked for not fulfilling their roles as mothers. (Schumacher from Pussy-Riot member Penny, 2013)

In common with many female protests in second-wave feminism, Pussy Riot identifies lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as significant themes - together with the problems of male conformity with convention...

because any living person can become Pussy Riot, if they support the ideas.  We support third-wave feminism, and we want to bring that wave to a finish ... we are open-source-extremists, the feminist virus infecting your thoughts. (Anon from Pussy Riot member Penny, 2013)

Pussy Riot
also challenge socially accepted norms of behaviour for females - often referring to masturbation, using swear words and referring to sexual encounters in a typically masculine way.  This is also consistent with being a punk band, a scene normally dominated by males.  By being aggressive in their singing style they subvert the stereotypes of 'woman as a sign'.  The group also shows distain for...

the absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse (Serafima from Pussy Riot member Langston, 2012)

Although they are a band, they nevertheless see themselves as performance artists, who aim to change people's consciousness.  This is a more radical stance in Russia than it might be perceived in the West...

Punk has never really existed in Russia, neither has performance art, nobody understands it... the West is more tolerant of it, in Russia people just don’t get it (Mark, Pussy Riot lawyer, in A Punk Prayer: 2012, 26min)

Russia, however, does have a historical background of politically motivated theatre, such as ‘Agit-prop’.  It creates performances in non-designated theatrical places, making the political content more accessible for the audience.  The difference for Pussy Riot is that its messages are anti-establishment and perceived as extremely radical. 

Pussy Riot acknowledge other modern-band influences..

A lot of credit certainly goes to Bikini Kill and the bands in the Riot Grrrl act – we somehow develop what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance, which leads to all of our performances being illegal – we'll never give a gig in a club or in any special musical space.  That's an important principal for us. (Garadzha from Pussy Riot Member Langston, 2012)

Whilst the group may not openly acknowledge the connection, there are also clear links with many of the left-wing British and US punk bands of the late 1970's-1980's.  These band names often referenced sex, for example the Sex Pistols.  The group's use of the slang ‘Pussy’ implies that it’s intention is to gain attention from the West.  It created confusion in Russia, as people did not understand the sexual reference.  When asked ‘why Pussy Riot?’ group members responded...

A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place.  Sexists have certain ideas on how a woman should behave and Putin, by the way, also has got a couple thoughts on how Russians should live.  Fighting against all that - that's Pussy Riot. (Garadzha from Pussy Riot Member Langston, 2012)

The idea of women liberating themselves, speaking out and acting out against Putin and other forms of power is something that appears strange...  It’s an attempt to transform the role of women, who are seen from the conservative viewpoint as people who have to behave, have to be subservient, have to be as soft as possible, as giving as possible...   It upsets people.  The name upsets people.   Broadcasters have trouble pronouncing it; parents purse their lips.  And that’s the point, too...  People ask us all the time, which is more important, politics or feminism, and for us politics and feminism are one and the same thing. (Anon from Pussy Riot Penny, 2013)  


  •             comparing The Suffragettes and Pussy Riot

The comparisons are between preferred media, wider contexts, commitments to education, views of roles and costumes, movement structures and leadership roles, and means of protest.

The most obvious difference is the role of the media of the day, and in particular the existence of the internet.  While the internet allows protestors to communicate directly with millions across the globe, the only way - apart from theatres - that people could hear about the Suffragist Manifesto was through newspapers and rallies.  The news media's editorial voices have distorted the message for both.  However,  lacking any editorial voice, the internet can also attract considerable negative backlash.  Nonetheless it allows protestors to make their own point in their own way, and directly to anyone who cares to hear it.  Indeed, and as governments around the world are only too aware, it can facilitate political revolt.  It also enables a new form of street theatre...

Invoking a tradition of performance art that links today’s political activists back to the suffragettes, the ‘Locator’ invites activists worldwide to make spectacles of themselves and to map their work on site.  The advantage of the web is that it provides a relatively inexpensive ‘place’ in which to make a political performance intervention into ‘homes’ across the globe (or to those parts of the globe that are privileged by technology).  This activist appropriation of technology suggests the web as a new, electronic kind of (global) street theatre (Case 2008 pxx)  

But both movements existed not only in different eras, with different media, but also different cultures; and that complicates comparison.  Whilst modern western women are more liberated than in the suffragette period - having the right to vote and to protest - in Russian culture lives are very different where women do not have the same freedoms.  Gays are still badly persecuted - the anti-gay propaganda law means that citizens can be prosecuted for simply promoting or supporting gays.  ‘Masha’, a Pussy Riot member, faced having her children taken away from her because of this.  Until the early twentieth century it would have been of little use to suffragettes to appeal outside Britain for support, since all western women were as oppressed as each other.  But the east-west cultural gap creates an interesting political environment for Pussy Riot to operate - and on a global scale.  

The use of video on the internet voyeuristically engages Pussy Riot with its audience, enabling people to relate to them more directly (Mulvey,1975 in Lewis 2008).  The abuse they are seen to receive from law enforcement creates a powerful emotional response in that audience.  Arguably it is a biased view.  For example, Pussy Riot knows that the video of its church performance will be incredibly offensive to Russians who can recall the communist banning of religion.

However, when footage of Pussy Riot’s performance reached west, its people were shocked and horrified by the actions taken against the group, since the actual performance seemed trivial.  The West has no strong link between church and state.  The culture shock of police manhandling the girls allowed westerners to overlook a real sensitivity among many Russians.

Suffragettes, in using theatre performance, necessarily engaged audiences in a different way.  It was more reflective of society at the time.  Their message was highly articulated, clearly stated and tightly focused.  Performances were traditionally planned, rather than spontaneous street performances.  And, as we've seen, careful consideration was given to characterisation and costume.  Suffragettes were concerned for the plight of women, and - unlike Pussy Riot - didn’t extend their political agendas to other oppressed minorities.

However, the theatre was useful to The Suffragettes in the same way that internet coverage is useful to the Pussy Riot.  Both can...

get hold of nice frivolous people who would rather die sooner than go in cold blood to meetings (Votes for Women, 15th April 1910, in Kaplan & Stowell, 1994, p445)

Both groups see themselves using their selected media as educating their audiences. 

Pussy Riot’s original performances took place in salons, like many other female performance artists' in the past.  However these performances didn’t reach a wide variety of women, only those who could afford the luxury.  Many of The Suffragettes were well off educated women with the luxury of time to protest.  This isn’t necessarily true for Pussy Riot, though all have a university-level education and see education as important.  They are therefore part of an élite structure, that other third-wave feminists reject.


  •                             roles for women in society

The Suffragettes tended to accept their family roles, speaking of that ‘woman’s voice’ as a potential balancing influence in political life...

For while they fought for equal legal and political rights, a major tenet of the suffrage campaign was the belief that society as a whole needed woman’s distinctive (often it was argued, morally superior) voice...

the main thrust of their argument remained women’s right as women to occupy space previously occupied by men alone (Votes for Women, 15th April 1910, in Kaplan & Stowell, 1994, p153-4)

To a certain extent, this is what the Pussy Riot also seem to be doing.  The extreme point of their protest is against the patriarchal regime, and what they perceive as macho-masculinity.  So both The Suffragettes and Pussy Riot believed there should be roles for women in politics, church and state - but without needing to ape males.

However suffragettes adopted a more masculine style of dress, largely becoming more functional and less frivolous.  In contrast the rioters embrace femininity by wearing dresses and using make-up.  As a punk band they could be a great deal more extreme.

An interesting difference between the two groups is the role of leadership within each movement.  Reflecting their society and times, The Suffragettes had very distinctive leaders, regular meetings and a full organisational structure.  However, reflecting their times, Pussy Riot does not...

There are two reasons why we frighten people, the first thing is that we’re a feminist, female group with no men connected to it, and the second is that we don’t have leaders (Schumacher from Pussy Riot Penny, 2013)

First-wave feminism attempted, as a collective, to gain rights for all females.  The lack of such leadership is typical of third-wave feminism, which focuses on the individual.  This becomes a problem where, on the internet, people join a movement without fully understanding what it represents.

The leadership structure may also have a bearing on the breadth of political agendas.  The Suffragettes were exclusively female, and supported only female rights.  They were not concerned to bring about revolution, or to provoke anarchy.  They strongly focused on achieving legislation that would enable equality for women, and to do that they recognised the need to take on the establishment in a substantial way, even though they resorted to radical means to achieve it.  Pussy Riot have a broader agenda, not just for women, but any suffering under a patriarchal jackboot.  Its shift to the plight of prisoners is indicative of a much looser framing of human rights.

Like The Suffragettes Pussy Riot is prepared, and proud, to be imprisoned for protesting.  Hunger strikes are a means of protest and publicity for both.  Not all suffragettes were violent, but many were prepared to destroy property.  Pussy Riot is wholly non-violent and, rather than in public situations, it performs solely on illegal sites.

There are clear similarities: the use of performance, the challenge to accepted views of women, the use of radical methods such as hunger strikes, and the manipulation of physical appearance.  The biggest difference relates to the media available to each.  The Suffragettes were limited to stage performance and newspaper media.  Pussy Riot has mobilised social media and can speak to a global audience. 



This examination of the role of theatre in protest has circumvented complex arguments developed by academic feminists.  The result is a selective literature review of how two groups of women have used theatre and performance as a protest.  It illustrates each group as differently effective.  Separated by almost a century, The Suffragettes and Pussy Riot superficially have little in common, but both would recognise each other's use of performance space or radical action on female rights.  The remaining question is

how successful have they been?

Despite all the efforts of past and present feminists, women continue to struggle against being defined by the dominant male perspective.  To capture the point...

Women's dispersal in history is always measured against the primary definer of masculinity; this dispersal has prevented women from developing a collective identity, as is the case with other oppressed groups  (Simone de Beauvoir, in Lewis, 2008)  

The issue lies in the lack of any universal biological or cultural representation for that which is 'woman’.  Women need to question whether 'male' and 'female' are social constructs or genetically determined biological facts.  It is not sex that is the important issue but gender...

There is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women

when the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and a woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one (Butler, 2008)

Theatres and performances are the only places where the full impact of the ‘free-floating artifice’ of gender can be made to challenge audiences.  If it is to progress this agenda beyond a third wave, Pussy Riot might need to up its game... 

one is not born a woman but, rather, becomes one (Simone de Beauvoir, in Butler, 2008)

But if no agreed definition defines woman, what is it that we are becoming?  Every society and every person has a different preconception of what is ‘female’ and or ‘male’, creating a paradox where...

the elements of a tradition may be identified; illustrating that women in theatre may have established an alternative tradition to the standard history of men in theatre (Case, 2008)

Women’s history will always mean that female and male theatre will be different.  Arguably female theatre has more depth as it reflects the struggle of expression in other mediums, and in different forms of theatre - away from the mainstream.  That unique female perspective will not be lost where theatre remains a valid place of protest, which women appropriate for themselves, controlling the elements of performance.

Theatre has not been a driving force for change for either The Suffragettes or Pussy Riot.  But it has been a tool to raise awareness, and to draw attention to issues.  However, theatre is not simply a mirror reflecting back what we are, it is a dynamic force.  So theatre can be a mechanism both to enforce the status quo, and to protest and reject socially-accepted norms.  Both suffragettes and rioters challenge females as ‘sign’ and ‘signified’.  It is not easy to draw direct lines between theatrical performance, and social progress.  There are many factors that bear on the situation, theatre being only one of them.  

But theatre clearly is a  potent way of influencing people into considering important issues.  Pussy Riot doesn't necessarily contribute much to society through its musical performances: the girls are not particularly talented musicians or lyricists.  But by attracting attention they allow people to explore the manifesto, and to learn about the culture and why they formed it.

The issues have been addressed over a number of decades, and the political agenda for equality has become more focused.  So suffragist movements have achieved more substantial progress in terms of legislation for women’s equality - more than the more anarchic Pussy Riot.  However movements of this kind have only just begun.  We can’t yet know what lasting impact their strategies can have.



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