Nadya Tolokno: Pussy Riot’s Fashion Icon or Fashion Victim?

by Eliot Borenstein


It’s not easy being punk. It’s even harder to keep believing in punk (or, by extension, anarchism, activism, and the like).  For a style of life and art that seems hell-bent on offending, punk lays down a surprising number of unwritten rules.  The first commandment: Thou shalt not sell out.

Last week, at the same time that I was trying to defend Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya Tolokno) and Maria Alyokhina from Ksenia Sobchak’s insinuations that they were motivated by celebrity, the Russian social networks went Code Red over Tolokno’s appearance in a fashion shoot.

Yes, a fashion shoot.  And for a company whose name sounds like it was slapped together by a Random Capitalist Epithet Generator : “TrendsBrands .” Rumor has it that the owner is this man:

 

monopoly_man

 

We should recall that Tolokno just spent nearly two years in a prison colony.  If she wants to dress nicely now that she’s out, that’s her business.  Except…

Except that she is an anti-capitalist crusader who has repeatedly expressed only disdain for, well, trends and brands.

On her Facebook page, and in an interview on TV-Rain, Tolokno explains that the people at TrendsBrends helped her when she was imprisoned, sending her clothes, which she wore and passed on to other inmates.  She also insists that she received no money for the session.  In her interview, she calls this an “important story about socially responsible business, which needs to be developed and supported.” This is a perfectly understandable, classically liberal approach to the intersection of commerce and social responsibility.  It’s not what was expected of Tolokno, but she had already dropped a hint about her willingness to sort out “good” capitalists from “bad” capitalists during her press conference: when asked whom she would like to see as the next president of the Russian Federation, she answered “I would like to invite Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] for that role” (an assertion Alyokhina immediately seconded).

The canonization of Khodorkovsky as a liberal/dissident saint is a story for another day, but Tolokno’s and Alyokhina’s offhand comments at the very least suggest that they are willing to temper their punk/anarchist maximalism with progressive pragmatism.  Should we be surprised?  Tolokno and co. are quite adept at performing the different roles demanded by the situations in which they find themselves: anonymous situationists in Pussy Riot, eloquent defenders of due process and free speech during their trial, and crusaders for prison reform upon their release.  All of which makes sense, for two reasons.  First, to demand consistency from punk performers is to misunderstand punk completely. Second, to expect complete consistency from these women at all times is to demand that they turn themselves into their own caricatures.

Having said that, I can’t entirely let the matter go.  While it is entirely unreasonable to expect Tolokno to become an ascetic, the fashion shoot raises questions in a feminist context.  Sobchak’s ridiculous comparisons of Pussy Riot to the Beatles and Destiny Child pointed to one disturbing aspect of the circulation of the PR defendants’ images:  as if they were just members of a “girl band,” Tolokno becomes “the pretty one,” Samutsevich “the tough one,” and Alyokhina…”the smart one”?  Sobchak tries to provoke Tolokno and Alyohkhina into a (pussy)cat fight by drawing attention to Tolokno’s greater beauty and glamor.  Her insinuations are insulting on a number of levels, but the two former prisoners refuse to be provoked.

When Tolokno turns around and poses for a fashion shoot, she seems to be tacitly encouraging the very line of reasoning rejected during their interview.   On a basic, human, level the continual comparison between the two women’s appearance is insulting; I’m reminded of the terrible 1996 movie “The Truth about Cats and Dogs,” which insists on framing Janeane Garofolo as nigh unto hideous just because she isn’t as pretty as Uma Thurman. But no one looks like Uma Thurman (eighteen years later, even Uma Thurman doesn’t look like Uma Thurman), and using one woman’s beauty as an unattainable standard for others is presumably one of the many things that the Pussy Riot balaclavas were supposed to prevent.

More troubling is the prospect that friendly relations with the likes of TrendsBrands (and even Khodorkovsky) could undermine what Tolokno, Alyokhina, and Pussy Riot are trying to do, and merely contribute to the corrosive cynicism of the contemporary political culture. On Facebook (where Tolokno seems to be living half-time nowadays), Nadezhda Tolokonnikova brushes off concerns about being co-opted:  “I’m playing with capitalism, and capitalism is playing with me.” It’s a nice sentiment, and appropriately playful, but it brings to mind a line not from punk, but from classic rock:  “I fought the law and the law won.”  Playing games is wonderful, but some games are rigged from the start.

One response to “Nadya Tolokno: Pussy Riot’s Fashion Icon or Fashion Victim?”

  1. Stephen Dodson says:

    On the other hand, see John Lydon (ex-Rotten). If he’s not punk, I don’t know who is punk. And I for one can’t see myself questioning anything these women choose to do after what they’ve been through. That’s not making plaster saints of them, that’s bowing to the moral courage they’ve displayed. They’ve earned the right to be contradictory, or hell, to sell out if they feel like it. They don’t owe nobody nothin’.

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