This Halloweekend, I dressed as a member of the currently imprisoned Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot. For those unfamiliar, Pussy Riot looks like this when they perform:
Though it’s not Miley Cyrus-level recognizable, Pussy Riot has been a pretty popular costume this year, even being featured as a costume suggestion in numerous listicles on an assortment of socially-conscious web magazines. Even just scrolling my Facebook feed, I saw a handful of fellow colorful balaclavas and sundresses. And what’s not to like about such an easy-to-put-together, comfortable, and kick-ass homage? I bought a neon green beanie from the Army/Navy Store and cut holes in it. It was useful against the almost-winter chill, visible at night, and cost a pittance, and I felt confident with my costume—but soon, it was clear that the mask is more complicated than I’d understood when I put it on.
Boston at night became a different place. On the way to a costume party, I received shouts and jeers from passerby and passed-by like I never have before. Not all of them were bad—I received a handful of supportive “Free Pussy Riot!” shouts, and more than a couple of “Spring Break forever!”s (an easy mistake to make, I grant), but it became very clear to me that for the very first time in my life, I could really scare people. And, further, people liked to tell me so. I was called the following names in abundance: freak, bitch, asshole, creep. Two people screamed “rapist” at me.
Of course, it’s absolutely understandable why the mask is scary. It’s a skeleton-like menace, conjuring up violent images of crime, violence, and invasion—images heightened in an ongoing epoch of gun-toting psychopaths and faceless monsters. It’s a visual assault in many ways; in removing a face, a boundary is created that makes the unmasked vulnerable and the masked unknowable and therefore dehumanized. On Halloween, masks are not uncommon, but the illusion there is generally fantastical, whimsical—far removed from life, and from the rules, assuming a temporary new identity or species but not touching reality.
There’s a term known as “The Carnivalesque,” coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, that describes how people behave in and with masks (whether literal or symbolic). Its origins lie in the medieval tradition of Carnival, a masked festival famously celebrated in Venice that coincides with Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, immediately before Lent. In the socially stratified environment of the city, a masked Carnival allows for interaction between classes and vocations and, consequently, for the relaxation or even abandonment of cultural and social inhibitions. The ‘anyone can be anyone, so anything can happen’ model. When intimate personal communication is removed from the equation, one might feel good shouting out a compliment or, more often, an insult, to a total stranger. I was still me under the mask as I passed angels, plushie bananas, and Grumpy Cats on the street, but to the world around me, I was dangerous, murderous, in need of a putting-in-my-place.
At times I felt the need to take it off, and did once or twice, suddenly just a girl in a purple dress and combat boots, comparatively lame and weak next to the costumed heroes around me, but when I put it back on, the reaction was always the same: “You look so scary,” or “I had no idea who you were.”
Rolled up, the holes don’t show, and my Pussy Riot mask could be any every day beanie. I plan to wear it as such with some regularity as the months get colder. No one will know what it is until I decide to deploy it. It’s strange, having this new defense that will make me into something else whenever I want it to—and all I have to do is cover my face.