Performing the trauma in public: being an active and responsible feminist

It has been argued in feminist research that a focus on gendered violence tends to victimise feminists and deprive them of agency by rendering them as passive objects (see, for example, Cloud, 1998; Gilson, 2016; see also Freigang in this book). However, the feminist activism I observed, even when it stemmed from traumatic memories, was connected to a new publicly active subjectivity. This was notwithstanding the fact that many of the activists did not believe they would be able to bring about social change any time soon as they felt the political situation to be too suppressive. Sonia, for example, took part in activist missions by night to highlight the problematics of gendered violence. Her group would choose a public place, take provocative pictures commenting on the thematics of violence, and publish them online the next day in hopes that the shocking stunt would attract wide attention on the Internet.

As was typical for many of the activists, Sonia discussed her activism as a moral obligation that she could not evade, even if - because she always ran the risk of being caught by the police - she did not particularly enjoy the actions themselves.

At the same time, though, Sonia discussed her public activism in tandem with dealing with her personal trauma:

I tried to defeat my traumatic experience, sought help from books and articles. And little by little I understood... I decided to do anything [I could] to ensure that there is less of this in the society. I decided to do all that I can, so that fewer girls would have an experience similar to mine.

Sonia thus highlighted that, while aiming to aid others and ultimately help initiate social change, she also received something herself in the process. This points towards the therapeutic dimensions of public action.

Anna added her own brushstrokes to the picture. Discussing the feminist virtue of being active in relation to the growing political apathy in Russia, she pointed out that fewer and fewer activists were ready to take to the streets after the crackdowns and mass detentions following the anti-government protests of 2012. She explained that, in continuing to take part in feminist public performances and events, she now was acting ‘on autopilot’ in trying to do at least something in order not to surrender to political apathy. Here, feminist active subjectivity was contrasted against a passive subjectivity figuratively looming constantly behind one’s back. It was also portrayed in opposition to passive acceptance of a conservative lifestyle with its normative ideas of gender and family, which she suggested that most people were leading. One had to be active so as not to surrender to passivity (i.e., the conservative, conventional life). The way Anna discussed being active not only paints a vivid picture of narrowing political prospects for all political opposition in Russia but depicts those prospects as being especially narrow for non-male activists. In the case of both Pussy Riot and the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, the group’s protest was depoliticised in the government responses, with attention being paid to their gender and ‘improper’ public behaviour rather than to the issues they had sought to highlight, such as homophobic policies, despotism, and problematics of prostitution (Bernstein, 2013; Thomas & Stehling, 2016). In this context, Sonia and Anna appeared to be publicly ‘making noise’ to resist constant silencing and their political subjectivity being denied. It seemed profoundly therapeutic to be publicly active rather than surrender to apathy as others had.

One popular mode of feminist action involves theatre and other performance. An action that made waves online called ‘The Road to the Temple’ is an interesting example of feminists fighting the conservative imperatives of passivity and the ‘culture of violence’ via public performance. Pictures from the action were published in February 2016 to coincide with Defender of the Fatherland Day, which celebrates war heroes and, indirectly, all Russian men. About a dozen activists conducted the performative action, on the steps of a local cathedral. Accordingly, photographs published online portray two men dragging ‘battered’ and bruised-looking female activists up the stairs to the church. As to why feminist actions in Russia often draw in such ways from theatrical strategies such as performance, one of the many reasons is simply that ‘culture’ is still less regulated than open political action. However, these kinds of performances appeared fundamental to feminist politics also from a therapeutic standpoint: theatre provides a venue for articulating traumatic experiences without pathologising the performers; instead, their trauma is transformed into a resource (Cvetkovich, 2003). In dealing with the trauma by performing it, the activists can be interpreted as looking for dignified active agency rather than surrendering to passivity or the ‘illness’ often connected with trauma. Further, my observations indicate that feminist theatre, whether performed on the streets/Internet as in the above-mentioned case or in a theatre hall, was a way to deal with the traumatic memories in a delicate way for activists and audiences alike. Firstly, the mechanism of acting enabled them to create distance from possibly first-hand experiences of violence. The performances had an obvious therapeutic impact on their audiences too, with the ensuing emotions being vividly sensed during plays that dealt with gendered violence - for instance, as members of the audience quietly sobbed in the dark. It was striking how strongly emotions of sorrow could be sensed ‘in the air’ during performances yet were seldom discussed at feminist meetings and other gatherings (see Kolehmainen in this book). Performances thus manifested themselves as a form of dealing with the uncomfortable emotions connected with the traumas, and as a collective forum for healing.

Whereas emotions were performed rather than discussed, being responsible was dealt with at length in many of the interviews. Activists highlighted the community’s task of attracting new individuals and teaching them to take responsibility - that is, to actively organise feminist public actions themselves and spread the feminist word in society. The more people take up the responsibility, the more publicly visible feminist issues such as gendered violence can become. At the same time, however, many of the activists emphasised the movement's shortage of individuals able to carry responsibility. Attention thus was turned from the social to the individual, with questions raised as to whether individual activists were responsible and moral enough to actually take part in feminist public action. Some activists even suggested that the ‘not-responsible ones’ simply had not yet dealt with their trauma.

Indeed, responsibility is a core therapeutic concept and has often been discussed in the neoliberal context as problematic (McRobbie, 2009; Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015) in that it ultimately tends to burden individuals with an exhausting amount of responsibility for issues that can be resolved only socially. As Cloud (1998) points out, the pattern of discourse translating social and political problems into the language of individuals' responsibility is a powerful persuasive force: it positions the individual as both the locus of the problem and responsible for bringing change. This is emphatically problematic in the context of a trauma culture, for it easily turns into blaming the victims and causing them to suffer more instead of looking for social solutions. Just such a tendency to lay the blame at the victims’ feet has been found to exist also at Russia’s public crisis centres, where the discourse frequently casts women as responsible for resolving the domestic violence they themselves have suffered or are at risk of (Jáppinen, 2015: 262). While I do not want to question the importance of taking responsibility in thecontext of activism, I wish to point out how much more complex the issue of responsibility is when traumas of violence are involved simultaneously. The feminist virtue of ‘bearing individual responsibility' that I often encountered in the interviews appeared to flirt at times with the postfeminist ethos domesticated in Russian society alongside neoliberal capitalism (Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015). As Salmenniemi and Adamson (ibid.: 90) have pointed out, this neoliberal self-monitoring produces social hierarchies rather than eliminating them - in the feminist case, it suggests that those who have already suffered should, in addition, cany the responsibility rather than turn to collective efforts for social resolutions or demand that the perpetrators shoulder their responsibility. This pattern was visible during my fieldwork too. However, some of the feminists focusing on violence in their activism openly rejected a push for individual-level responsibility and shifted their gaze towards the perpetrators and structures.

A more recent feminist online action comments on both the trauma culture and who is to ultimately cany the responsibility: timed for 2017’s Defender of the Fatherland Day, it could be viewed as a public invitation for young men to come share the trauma of violence with the women. Instead of themselves performing, female activists had invited a group of male allies to protest with them. Pictures later published on a feminist social media page showed these activist men at a local war memorial with bare backs turned to the camera. Across their backs was a message painted as if with blood: ‘Happy Day of the Fatherland!’ - highlighting the precarious position of young men, who are assigned the role of national ‘protectors’ and may be forced to join the army and go to war. I posit that this action is a manifestation of how the trauma culture is evolving and negotiated among the various activists who are weary of the increasingly militant and conservative national politics. The focus thereby was shifted publicly from women to men, with the latter being portrayed as themselves vulnerable and in need of protection. They do not have to be ‘real men’, always ready to protect others and, if necessary, the nation. This action, I suggest, brought gendered violence into the discussion not only at the level of private day-to-day life but also as something on the level of structures. In fact, it mounted a critique of the state system’s machinery that produces one generation after another of defenders. Whereas 2016’s Road to the Temple action could be seen as addressing the responsibility of the Russian Orthodox Church, because it took place on the steps of a cathedral, the more recent action could be read as a direct commentary on the state’s culpability in maintaining violent structures with the aid of normative and stiff gender roles.

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