#MeToo and the Estrangement of Beauty-and-the-Beast Narratives
How might the #MeToo movement be understood as estranging? The essay explores several possibilities related to the Beauty and the Beast myth, involving estranging male privilege (the right to pursue women for sex) and female privilege (the traditional helplessness that makes a woman depend on a man for protection), before examining an art project launched by Russian artist Khasan Bakhayev estranging both modern fashion canons of beauty and the bestiality of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. The essay explores the tensions between Bakhayev's quest for "beauty" (aesthetics as analgesia) and the empathic power of art to disrupt and disturb (estrangement).
the #metoo movement, now in its second decade, is starting to have a significant political impact. The phrase "#MeToo" was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke in response to her experience with a 13-year-old girl who had told her that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke reported on MySpace that she had not known what to say to the girl, but later realized that she should have said simply "me too." Now senior director at Girls for Gender Equity, Burke is working on a documentary titled Me Too; her original intention in creating the phrase, she said, was to give underprivileged women of color who have experienced sexual abuse a tool for "empowerment through empathy" and group solidarity (see Guerra 2017 and Khomami 2017).
The year 2006 was long before hashtags, however. The phrase went viral as a Twitter hashtag when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it on October 15, 2017, encouraging women to retweet it along with personal stories of sexual harassment or assault; since then it has been tweeted and otherwise posted online millions of times, trending in nearly a hundred languages, and has begun to generate spinoff movements as well, including some launched by men confessing their past actions and seeking to inspire personal reflection and behavioral change in themselves and other men, such as #IDidThat, #IHave, #IWill, and #HowWillIChange. [End Page 375]
The various movements as they are typically discussed involve the tensions between silence and speaking up, and, beneath that surface tension, between various social interdictions on speaking up (shaming and blaming the victim, disbelief, ridicule, retaliation, etc.) and the empowering group solidarity that emerges from sharing. According to Burke, #MeToo is "a bold declarative statement that 'I'm not ashamed' and 'I'm not alone.' On the other side, it's a statement from survivor to survivor that says 'I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I'm here for you or I get it'" (Santiago and Criss 2017). Alyssa Milano specifically hoped that #MeToo would help people realize the "magnitude of the problem" (Petit 2017)—and indeed a common reaction to it, especially but not exclusively among men, has been astonishment at how widespread sexual harassment and assault are. As awareness has gone viral, dozens of industries have exploded with it; not only Hollywood's film industry, where allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein were the trigger that prompted Milano to create the hashtag, but also the music industry, politics, academia, and the sciences. After the hashtag prompted allegations of sexual abuse in the European Parliament and the EU's Brussels offices, European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström convened a session devoted to the problem.
Not surprisingly, #MeToo has also spawned a vigorous backlash that calls it an "attack on men." The assumptions undergirding this backlash are that (1) sexual misconduct is extremely uncommon (it's just a few bad apples), (2) women are blowing all kinds of minor offenses out of proportion (#MeToo is reverse sexism), and (3) violence is inherently human and will never be eradicated (so stop whining). The facts—such as the World Health Organization's report that globally one woman in three has experienced sexual assault—have little impact on this kind of thinking.
By way of getting started, we suggest that the #MeToo movement draws on the mythical power of the story of Beauty and the Beast, originally written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and based partly on earlier stories, such as the [End Page 376] tale of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius's Metamorphoses of Lucius. In that story, of course, the Beast is physically frightening due to a curse, which is removed when the Beauty falls in love with him; beginning with Jean Cocteau's 1946 film version, La Belle et la Bête, the Beauty's jealous rejected suitor (Avenant in Cocteau) seeks to "save" her from the Beast, violently, but the Beauty's love restores the Beast both to life and to his handsome prince self.
The story has two beasts, in other words: one hideous but kind, the other handsome but violent and vicious. This chivalric fairy tale has a double twist: men are rich and powerful and scary, women are young and poor and beautiful and vulnerable, but things are not what they seem.
Our reading is that #MeToo estranges that chivalric narrative. Let's see how that works.
ONE TRIGGERING QUESTION: WHY WAS TARANA BURKE NOT THE FACE OF #METOO?
Alyssa Milano created the #MeToo hashtag in October 2017, and it went viral—11 years after Tarana Burke pioneered the phrase on MySpace. This fact has generated a certain amount of controversy: why did the movement have to wait for a glamorous white movie star to champion it before it would go viral? Why was a black woman's intervention not good enough, powerful enough, to launch the movement? Why, when on December 18, 2017, TIME magazine featured the #MeToo "Silence Breakers" on its cover as Person of the Year, was Tarana Burke not included in the photo? When TIME announced the cover, naming the five women to be pictured there—Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, Adama Iwu, Isabel Pascual, and Susan Fowler—the outrage was instantaneous. Hari Ziyad (2017), for example, wrote on Afropunk: "A Black woman creates something, and white people credit themselves for it, after ignoring it for as long as possible. Where have we heard this before?" [End Page 377]
Was it the fact that Burke is black? Was that the problem? Not necessarily: Adama Iwu is black. Was the problem that she is "ordinary"—not as glamorous as the others? Perhaps; much of the outrage was focused on the perception that #MeToo was about stars—movie stars, pop stars, and so on.
A few days later, on December 11, 2017, the Russian artist Khasan Bakhayev posted this Facebook and Instagram meme poking fun at Burke: [End Page 378]
What exactly is going on there? Bakhayev has superimposed Burke's face onto the face of Yevgeny Leonov, a popular Russian male actor, in a cross-dressing scene from an old Soviet comedy titled Gentlemen of Fortune (1971):
[End Page 379]
The obvious estrangement effect of Bakhayev's collage image is to portray Burke as comically mannish and unattractive—and thus, perhaps, to imply that the #MeToo movement is silly, because who would harass or molest an unattractive mannish woman? By estranging Burke, Bakhayev estranges the entire movement.
This estrangement did not seem to have much effect on Bakhayev's subscribers. Only two of them displayed any discomfort with his humor. One of them wrote that it was "too much"; and the other noted that it was "sinful to make fun of other people's innate deficiencies." Bakhayev's responses to both of them were rather dismissive: "funny is rarely too much," he retorted, and added that if there is anything too much about the situation it is the fact that "she became the face of the movement"—adding that the movement itself was not too much. To the second reprimand he responded: "She would dispute 'deficiencies' with you! One should make fun only of what seems funny to oneself personally, otherwise it is hard to laugh. I, for example, do not make fun of her, pointing my finger at her, in the street; I would have never laughed at her, if she hadn't 'positioned' herself in this silly role in relation to her appearance."
This seems an obvious and indeed blatant denigration: Tarana Burke, Bakhayev seems to be implying, is not beautiful enough to be the face of #MeToo. This isn't just a movement of stars; it's a movement of beautiful women. Alyssa Milano is its perfect face: not only white, but also a beautiful and glamorous movie star. Tarana Burke just looks—well, silly.
What we want to suggest here, however, is that things are more complicated than this juxtaposition of denigration and defense might suggest. Yes, in some ways Bakhayev is right: #MeToo is, in an important sense, about youth, beauty, and celebrity, as it is preyed upon by rich, powerful, ugly men, as in the Beauty and the Beast mythology. What Bakhayev doesn't realize, however, is that it also powerfully estranges that mythology. What is so profoundly disturbing about #MeToo is that it undermines and derails the mythic stories we love to tell. [End Page 380]
It is also important to remember, here at the outset, that Viktor Shklovsky's theory of the estrangement device, and the theory of the estrangement effect that Bertolt Brecht developed from it, are theories of art. Is #MeToo art? One of the issues we want to address in examining the movement is the aestheticization of politics, the term Walter Benjamin ( 2008) coined in "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" for the lure of fascism: "The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life," and "All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war" (41; see Jay 1992). Is any of that at work in #MeToo? We will answer that question in the negative—but our route to that answer is somewhat convoluted.
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 1: THE SHOCK OF SEEING-AS-FEELING
But let's start slowly. It should be obvious, at the most superficial level, that the "shock value" of #MeToo is an estrangement effect. If "normality," and thus the normativity of social expectations, is that "men are chivalrous gentlemen (except for a few bad apples)," the verbal manifestations of the ubiquity of sexual misconduct estrange that normality/normativity. As Shklovsky famously writes in "Iskusstvo kak priyom" ("Art as Device"  1925, 11):
And so, in order to restore the sensation of life, to feel things, to make the stone stony, there exists what we call art. Art's purpose is to give us the sensation of a thing as seeing rather than as recognizing; art's device is a device for the "estrangement" of things, a device of belabored form that increases the laboriousness and duration of perception, because in art the perceptual process is self-purposive and should be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the making of a thing, but the thing made in art is not important.(Translated in Robinson 2008, 89) [End Page 381]
First, obviously the "art" (iskusstvo) in the #MeToo movement is the hashtag itself—or perhaps, more broadly, the phrase coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 and converted by Alyssa Milano into a hashtag in 2017—and the "habitualization" or "algebraization" of life that Shklovsky identifies as the problem to which art is the solution is the "normative" invisibility of sexual misconduct: Sure, there are a few crazies out there, but men are basically respectful creatures who treat women well. We do not, therefore, need to think about sexual misconduct. We do not need to out powerful men as sexual offenders. We do not need to convene task forces to address the problem. There is no problem—or if there is, it's a tiny one, localized and therefore ultimately harmless. Nothing to see here, folks.
Indeed, Shklovsky's distinction between "seeing" (videnie) and "recognizing" (uznavanie) is crucial here. We all recognize that sexual misconduct exists, but we don't see it as a problem. Recognition is abstract, "algebraic": we glimpse the outlines of the thing and recognize it, but so quickly and so superficially that we feel no pressure to give it any more thought. In Shklovsky's example, we walk past the same stone every day and no longer see it—even if we recognize it as "that stone we walk past every day," we don't see it—until one day we stub our toe on it, and, feeling the pain personally, truly see the stone. For Shklovsky the purpose of art is to have the same effect on us as stubbing our toe on that stone: "to make the stone stony" (delat' kamen' kamennym). Until we ourselves are subjected to sexual assault, or someone we love is subjected to sexual assault, it's just that stone we walk past every day.
And, of course, the "artistic" equivalent of that toe-stubbing in #MeToo is not seeing the hashtag once, or 10 times; it's the experience of being bombarded by it, blasted by it, inundated by it. It's seeing the hashtag so many times that one begins to see it, and feel it. [End Page 382]
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 2: DEHABITUALIZING CHIVALROUS NARRATIVES AND MALE PRIVILEGE
In what way, however, is the hashtag an example of "zatrudnyonnaya forma," or "belabored form"? Shklovsky's idea is that estrangement is a literary device designed to "increase the laboriousness and duration of perception" (uvelichit' trudnost' i dolgotu vospriyatiya). The artist does something to form in order to make it more difficult to parse, to impede easy recognition, and thus to enkindle true experiential seeing. Where, then, is the "belaborment" of #MeToo? Isn't its power precisely its ordinariness? Someone says "I've been sexually assaulted," and you reply "me too"—precisely in the same way someone says "I'm hopeless at remembering names," or something equally mundane, and you answer "me too." (And isn't that why Tarana Burke should be the face of #MeToo?)
Clearly the estrangement effect in #MeToo is a different kind of psychosocial trigger than the one Shklovsky theorized for art. For Shklovsky, the problem is that certain human experiences are so common and so ordinary that we become inured to them. In the example he borrows from Leo Tolstoy, the Count is staying with his friends, the Olsuf'yevs, and out of solidarity with the peasants is wiping dust off the furniture in his bedroom with a rag, but then can't remember whether he wiped a certain chair—and because he can't remember the experience of doing it, even if he did, it's gone, as if it never happened. Certain routinized actions are typically performed so unconsciously that they become vulnerable to habitualization, and habit devours life.
The sexual assault problem that Burke was addressing, by contrast, was that it is habitualized not by its victims but by those who are not its victims—including, in many cases, its perpetrators. A woman who has never been sexually assaulted is more likely to "recognize" its existence in an abstract way than to "see" it viscer-ally; a male serial sexual harasser is more likely to "recognize" that "some men" harass women than he is to viscerally see his own habits of touching and addressing women in inappropriate and unwanted [End Page 383] ways as harassment. In his own mind, he may be acting out a mental drama borrowed from chivalry: being nice to women; telling them how beautiful and wonderful they are; making them feel loved and appreciated. (He is Belle's unwanted suitor: Cocteau's Avenant, Gaston in the 1991 Disney animation.) This kind of normative "drama" or "narrative" feeds the backlash against #MeToo, obviously: a woman who protests this kind of inappropriate and unwanted touching or physical closeness or attention as sexual harassment is perceived as perversely/hostilely criminalizing "normal" chivalrous attentions.
The unconscious assumption of the normativity of chivalrous attentions is obviously one powerful channel taken by male privilege. As Philips and Philips write, "Male privilege is blatant, subtle, and pervasive. The seeming naturalness and invisibility of male privilege is challenging and difficult to confront" (2009, 683). They cite Peggy McIntosh (1988, 1), who was one of the first to theorize male privilege:
Through work to bring materials and perspectives from Women's Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men's unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged in the curriculum, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women's disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully recognized, acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
But McIntosh then went beyond that critique to write about her own "white privilege" as an important correlative to male privilege in men:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of [End Page 384] special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks. Since I have had trouble facing white privilege, and describing its results in my life, I saw parallels here with men's reluctance to acknowledge male privilege. Only rarely will a man go beyond acknowledging that women are disadvantaged to acknowledging that men have unearned advantage, or that unearned privilege has not been good for men's development as human beings, or for society's development, or that privilege systems might ever be challenged and changed.(1)
Noting that "in proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated," and therefore that "whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color" (7), McIntosh expresses her concerns about the term "privilege":
For this reason, the word "privilege" now seems to me misleading. Its connotations are too positive to fit the conditions and behaviors which "privilege systems" produce. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned, or conferred by birth or luck. School graduates are reminded they are privileged and urged to use their (enviable) assets well. The word "privilege" carries the connotation of being something everyone must want. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systemically over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one's race or sex. The kind of privilege that gives license to some people to be, at best, thoughtless and, at worst, murderous should not continue to be referred to as a desirable [End Page 385] attribute. Such "privilege" may be widely desired without being in any way beneficial to the whole society.(7)
The normativity of chivalrous male privilege likewise "simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one's [male] sex." Chivalry in medieval romances was often a form of male abasement before the impossible purity and perfection of the angelic (upper-class) woman. That self-perception frequently organizes privileged male understandings of relations between the sexes today—"I give her everything, I do everything for her, I worship the ground she walks on, and she treats me like scum"—while often hiding not only the "dominance" and the "permission to control" that this privileging narrative confers but also the specific practices by which control is achieved and maintained.
At the very least, then, the estranging purpose of #MeToo is to heighten awareness of an experience that has become habitualized, just as in Shklovsky's theorization—but the process of habitualization is fueled by different forces. In Shklovsky, it is fueled by mindless repetition; in #MeToo, it is fueled by ideological normativity. There are chivalrous norms (narratives) in patriarchal society that mandate the sexual pursuit of women by men. Historically, of course, those same norms mandate respect for a woman's wishes, and a willingness to cease and desist at the tiniest hint of reluctance on the woman's part; and a significant portion of men's self-congratulatory conviction—that while some men are predators, we are the good guys—stems from the belief that while those other men fail to respect women's boundaries, we do respect them. We adhere to the normative chivalrous narrative; when women say stop, step back, go away, we do exactly that.
One part of the problem, of course, is that all too often the men who believe they are in compliance with chivalrous norms are not. Why? Because the nuances of sexual attraction and consent are often subtle; because women have been socialized to be "nice," or "polite," and so not to be "rude" to an intrusive man by being firm; because ideological normativity (a.k.a. "male privilege") tends to render men [End Page 386] sexually autistic, unable to read even unsubtle body language like turning and walking away, or explicit verbal instructions like "Go away! Stop pestering me!"
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 3: THE BACKLASH AS AN ESTRANGEMENT OF FEMALE PRIVILEGE
On a deeper level, of course, the problem is the normativity of chivalry itself: the ideological normativization/narrativization of men pursuing women for sex. Implicit in that normative narrative is the assumption that men are strong and women are weak, men are dominant and women are submissive, men are active and women are passive. The polar relationality of those norms also means that male privilege implies and imposes female privilege as well: the "privilege" to be weak and helpless, to be vulnerable to predation and therefore in need of male protection. This "female privilege" has been the target of several centuries of feminist deconstruction, of course: it is the historical "cult of domesticity" or "cult of true womanhood," according to which the (mostly upper- and middle-class white) woman was the "angel of the house"; it is the "separate spheres" ideology of the Industrial Revolution; it is Betty Friedan's "feminine mystique"; and, as women enter the work force in increasing numbers and with increasing levels of success, it is the "glass ceiling" that keeps them from the top positions.
Significantly, the polar relationality of gender norms also means that #MeToo, in estranging male privilege as the unconscious justification for sexual predation and other forms of domination, also estranges female privilege. In order to say #MeToo in public, obviously, women must overcome normative pressures to be weak, submissive, and passive, and by polar logic, this is an implicit attack on normativized male strength, domination, and pursuit. A woman who refuses to be weak, submissive, and passive implicitly criminalizes male strength, domination, and pursuit: you're pursuing me when I don't want to be pursued, dominating me when I don't want to be dominated. [End Page 387]
Just as Peggy McIntosh recognizes the bitter ironies in calling male and white domination and control "privilege," of course, there is a similar clutch of bitter ironies in calling weakness, vulnerability, and incapacitation female "privilege." Newborn infants are "privileged" to lie there without being able to do anything for themselves; that same state, imposed normatively on adult women, is anything but a privilege.
What is estranged in "female privilege" through #MeToo, however, is not actual situational helplessness, when a woman is in trouble and needs help or protection, but mandated normative helplessness—especially, perhaps, the assumption that a woman is incapable of initiating sexual relations when she wants them and refusing when she doesn't, and therefore needs a man to impose his will on her.
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 4: THE MORTALITY OF HEAVENLY BEAUTY
But now let's delve deeper, by means of a longish digression through the backstory, to Khasan Bakhayev's denigratory superimposition of Tarana Burke's face on a male actor's body. A few years ago, on the eve of the day of remembrance dedicated to the victims of political repressions, Bakhayev (2017a) posted a series of collages on his personal Facebook account. Using only images available in the public domain, he pasted the faces of those executed during Stalin's purges onto the bodies of modern-day people. It never occurred to him that this personal post might grow, as it did, into a project of national magnitude and attract the attention of the mass media and thousands of people on social media.
Bakhayev, some of whose relatives were deported or disappeared in the Gulag system, had a sudden vision while looking at the pictures posted by Bessmertny Barrak1 that appeared in his Facebook timeline one day. As he repeated in several of his interviews and comments on Facebook later, he found himself completely smitten by the youth and "heavenly" (nebesnaya) beauty of Tamara Litsinskaya, who was accused of anti-Stalin conspiracy and executed in 1937. Another [End Page 388] Beauty-and-the-Beast story: Tamara Litsinskaya as the young beauty destroyed by Stalin the beast. Stalin personally signed the kill order, which listed dozens of other people as well.
Bakhayev said he did not have a clear purpose in mind when he grabbed his iPad and spent two hours working on his first collage. He said he wanted to "revive her," and it felt as if his hand was guided by the "All High" (vsevyshnim) (Mirmaksumova 2017).
The realization that his personal post should become a public project with its own name and hashtag (#revivedmemory) came later, when it became clear that it had reached far more people than it had originally been intended for and had generated a much greater response than expected. Bakhayev, overwhelmed by the number of comments, reposts, and personal messages on Facebook, as well as requests for interviews, started looking for words that could explain what he had accidentally created: "I have accomplished something that made everybody recollect these very people" (Kozyrev 2017). What was that "something" that stirred so much attention? How did it make his audience experience the collages? [End Page 389]
Roland Barthes (2000) writes in Camera Lucida that for him photography as art is more closely related to theater than painting in one particular way: death as its "singular intermediary" (31). He compares the relationship between the cult of the dead and theater—where, through their makeup and performance, actors depict simultaneously the living and the dead—to what photography produces. He states that "photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead" (32). The moment of being photographed catches the state of our vacillation between being a subject and an object—"total image" or "Death in person" (14). The signs of (future) death, "a defeat of time" (96), are present in every photograph, but even more so, Barthes believes, in the old (historical) ones. What we see in black-and-white images from the past century, for example, is that particular moment of death when the subject turned into an object, but we also see their future death as well. Describing a portrait of Lewis Payne, which was taken in his prison cell before his hanging, Barthes comments on this doubled sense of death: "He is dead and he is going to die" (95).
Overwhelmed by the responses to his work, Bakhayev writes: "I feel a great responsibility before the people who recognized me as Charon." Of course, he is not ferrying dead people to the underworld but attempting to smuggle them into the world of the living. Bakhayev confesses that what makes his work emotionally hard for him is not so much the criticism he has been receiving as it is the state of being aware of his subjects' situations. He feels as if they were being photographed in critical moments of their lives: caught in "a meat grinder" and "the beginning of hell" (Mirmaksumova 2017). Knowing his subjects' fate, he says, burdens his soul: "Imagine what kind of energy emanates from these photos. This is hard work for the soul. It imprints [nakladyvayet opredelyonnyi otpechatok] the psyche, but I dare not quit" (Mirmaksumova 2017). According to Barthes, it is precisely this kind of knowledge of "the absolute past" that grabs our [End Page 390] attention, wounds us, creates what he defines as punctum (a Latin term derived from the Greek for "trauma").
The hundreds of comments under Bakhayev's original post reveal a very similar punctum in his audience as well. They describe the photos' subjects as beautiful and young, real, close, and alive; and their own emotions range from discomfort, pain, and fear to anger and disgust. People mention tears (eyes welling up, or crying or sobbing) and goose bumps or even shivering (do drozhi).
Comment 1: Irina Vel'kova: "I do not understand yet why it is so touching … Maybe you begin … No, not to realize, I already realized long ago, but feel with even deeper parts of the soul the pain for these people, understanding a colossal loss for Russia. If these people had remained alive, it would have been a different country today. Thank you, Khasan."
Comment 2: Irina Burtovaya: "… The soul's scream …"
Bakhayev (2017c) writes in his Facebook post: "a huge number of people were shaken up and they remembered (awakened?) the souls of these people so consciously and repeatedly as they have never remembered (awakened) them before."
Comment 3: Bakhayev's explanation of the tears: "People cry not only over the killed ones but over themselves as well, trying that fate on for themselves and worrying about the present and future."
Comment 4: One of the Facebook users analyzes the project as something that brings the viewers and the subjects closer. She writes, "It makes them not people from old official photos, but more alive and real," which she believes produces a sinister effect and makes one try these fates on and find oneself among them. [End Page 391]
The comments above indicate that the collages impact the viewers directly, as if without the artist's mediation. The images wound them as direct encounters with death—they are dead, they are going to die, it could be me, I could die, I am going to die. Those who experience a negative reaction to the collages also feel hurt, but in a different way. Their pain often emerges as anger and disgust, and is accompanied by some kind of violence (direct verbal or promised physical). These people seem to feel upset as observers who are very aware of Bakhayev's frames and therefore wounded not as direct subjects but witnesses: "Like a vandal on graves"; "they desecrate and call it art. Those who support it, imagine your relatives."
Comment 5: "For the sake of popularity the author of this project is ready for anything, it seems. I have only one request: do not touch the head of my slaughtered great-grandfather and attach it to other photos. First of all, this will kill my mother, if she sees it; and second of all, I will perhaps kill for it, if I am able of course."
Comment 6: "To my mind, Khasan Bakhayev's actions can qualify as desecration of dead bodies. Article 244 Criminal Codex of Russian Federation: Citing one of the comments to the article: 1. Direct object—public morality in the sphere of respectable attitude towards the memory of the dead. If I personally found out that someone has cut off a head of one of my repressed ancestors and attached it to the torso of some contemporary/modern-day teddy-boy (pizhon), I would be very upset. To the point of physical assault…"
What makes Bakhayev's subjects feel real, close, and alive? What makes his audience (using Shklovsky's terminology) not only recognize them as victims of Stalin's purges but actually see them? What is it that triggers these strong emotional responses and "create(s) a special way of experiencing an object" (Shklovsky  2015, 167)? [End Page 392]
In all these responses, even the angry and indignant ones, people are effectively saying #MeToo.
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 5: IDENTIFICATION AS SEEING RATHER THAN RECOGNIZING
After a while, Bakhayev did manage to articulate the purpose of his collages, which in his initial descriptions appeared as his personal feelings and visions. He responded in one of his interviews that the main idea was to show the similarity between today's young people and those who were executed in the 1930s (Bakhayev 2017c).
Comment 7: Khasan Khasan "I wanted to show the living ones that these are the same kind of people as they are and that this was taking place not in a dream but in reality, and that we should not overlook this happening again."
In other words, Bakhayev wanted those alive today to begin seeing rather than simply recognizing the victims of purges. And because what touched him personally were their youth, beauty, and what he described as their "contemporaneity," he decided to assist others in seeing what he himself saw in black-and-white mug shots. He immersed his subjects (their faces) in the scenes of today's world. However, unlike in a traditional theater, where actors follow the Stanislavsky Method of complete conversion, Bakhayev's drama bears vivid signs of the artist's interference. One of the most serious professional critiques Bakhayev received in response to his collages was about the low level of his Photoshop skills: the boundaries are too visible, the proportions are sometimes off, and the juxtaposition of black-and-white images with colored ones immediately gives his work away as a somewhat amateurish and clearly artificial construct. Bakhayev, although upset at this critique, insisted that a seamless conversion would have hurt his purpose. One might argue that he wants his subjects to produce a Brechtian effect of theatrical estrangement, where "the artist's object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience" (Brecht  1992, 92; [End Page 393] for discussion see Robinson 2008, 196–205). The obvious roughness of his collages does seem strange and surprising. It grabs our attention, makes us ask questions rather than move on quickly to another image. What we see here at work is also Shklovsky's idea of art as a device of estrangement: "deautomatizing perception" and "transferring an object from its usual sphere of experience to a new one, a kind of semantic change" ( 2015, 171). "The goal of art," he said, "is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things" (162).
As we can see in the comments below, what some have criticized as Bakhayev's weak artistic skills might have, in fact, destroyed the "fourth wall" and made the audience see rather than recognize, obtain a new experience and understanding, feel integrated.
Comment 8: "The author does not try to deceive his spectator (by Photoshopping perfectly), on the contrary the spectator sees these blots and the contrast between the faces and the surroundings." "The author is right that the majority of his readers did not ponder upon this horrific side of our history and definitely did not see these faces before this post." (emphasis added)
Understood through Shklovskyan and Brechtian estrangement, the technical "mistakes" that so many people pointed out imply much more than the artist's improficiency with digital visual tools. The aesthetician Boris Groys (2016, chap. 3), in arguing that the goal of modern art is to make frames visible, is specifically invoking estrangement. The traces Bakhayev left behind create what we see as a chronotopic estrangement. Chronotopes, defined by Mikhail Bakhtin ( 2008) as "the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships" (84), are foundational for any narrative. "The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic" (85). As Groys seems to suggest, what Shklovsky called estrangement and Barthes recognized as punctum most likely occurs at the points of temporal and spatial [End Page 394] collisions in these images—the disturbing highlighting of frames. We are disturbed by the instability and duality of how time and space are performed in them. The subjects in these collages do not appear stable; they vacillate between these two poles of two very different worlds. But instead of a linear movement, what we see is a pulsation, similar to the flickering of a faulty TV.
Although there are still some of us whose youth was captured predominantly in black and white, most today live their lives in color. Black-and-white photography is still around, but it lacks the feel of ordinariness now. Lack of color is now primarily seen as a reference to historic reality or as an artistic device. Professional photographers often insist that even though black-and-white photography may seem more abstract and less real to us, it nonetheless "clarifies, and in some cases galvanizes content" (Zakia 2013, 341). It often helps to accentuate the seriousness and even mysteriousness of the atmosphere in the scene and create "a factual presence," which we may not feel in a colored photo. Bakhayev, who was dealing with old mug shots in low resolution, was not consciously trying to engage with the possible meanings of black and white. As he admits in one of his interviews, he simply did not know how to convert black-and-white images into colored ones. All he could do was to smudge and desatu-rate color in certain areas (primarily around the black-and-white faces of his subjects), which he believed allowed him to erase the boundary between color and black-and-white, "between past and present" (Sevrinovsky 2017). He is convinced that complete conversion—the Stanislavsky Method—would only destroy the connection between the times (Mirmaksumova 2017).
The only background photos to which Bakhayev had access were those available in the public domain online. He was careful not to choose the blatantly commercial ads of big brands that could potentially [End Page 395] steal the show. As he points out, what we see are just "looks" (Kozyrev 2017). Young viewers especially are led to believe that what they see are their peers, who dress and look like them. However, instead of a casual recognition of contemporaneity, what often happens is seeing. The discomfort of combining documentary and fashion photography is manifested in the conflation of emotions we may have about execution and leisure, fear and desire, politics and life. On the one hand, the Instagram generation recognizes its own style of posing; on the other, they struggle to reconcile that style with the presence of future violent death. And once again, those who sob imagine themselves or their close ones perishing; those who respond with anger attempt to deal with what they perceive as inappropriate artistic intervention. For them, fashion works not as a sign of contemporaneity, but as an indication of cheap, twisted, and completely unserious narrative, which demeans the tragic frames of death.
Comment 9: "People are in their last photos, and this fool slaps cheap clothes on them.…"
Comment 10: In response to one user complaining about the lack of her grandfather's photo, the other responds "and that is good, because they could have put his head on the body of some pederastic young man."
Spatial Body Dynamics
In one of his first interviews, Bakhayev addressed the issue of placing his subjects in an "ordinary urban space": a street, he said, was an absolute must in his search for the proper background (Kozyrev 2017). Outdoors is often perceived as more "alive" (Barthes 2000, 14), a perception that in this case becomes even more pronounced. A prison space maintained with taxpayer money does not really qualify as "public" in the traditional sense. It is not open either to those who are confined there or to those who are not. Even those who work in or [End Page 396] enter incarceration facilities voluntarily are restricted in their movements by strict regimens. Bakhayev attempts to disrupt this suppression of subjectivity by releasing his subjects from what he describes as "the meat grinder" and "the beginning of Hell." If all his subjects are depicted in the same static (frozen) position in the original mug shots, in his collages their "borrowed" bodies display a very different kind of energy, even if they are depicted in a seated position. It is the energy of a free person who can get up, lie down, turn around, do a headstand, at their own whim. No longer confined to the straitjacket of a mug shot, they are portrayed as occupying the space around them with confidence. Thus we can say he attempted to convert the negative energy of the mug shots that burdened him personally into the casual kind of everyday life energy that most of us take for granted.
However, as we know, the conversion is not complete. What we see is a conflation of two energies, two body postures. It is once again this conflation that estranges us as viewers, when we feel Bakhayev's subjects simultaneously giving in to and defying their spatial restrictions. It is important to note that this tension exists not only between the original mug shot and the colorful collage, but also between the website where Bakhayev found the originals and his art. Immortal Barrack, dedicated to documenting the memory of the repressed individuals, replicates—most likely not intentionally—the confinement of the incarceration facilities.
Bakhayev carefully considered not only body proportions that could potentially fit his subjects, but also body postures. He stated that it was important for him to find photos that were not "suggestive": not playing any games or holding cigarettes, for example (Kozyrev 2017). These precautions did not save him from the accusations of those who felt that the narrative of death was belittled by the narratives of ordinary lives.
Comment 11: "I understand your goal and do not see it as sacrilege, but … These faces do not go with contemporary clothes and carefree poses … Their faces bear the imprint of the coming fate … You cannot hide it." [End Page 397]
And to our mind, that last is the key to the estrangement: "You cannot hide it." Mariya Morskaya, the commentator in that post, seems to believe that Bakhayev wants to hide it—and, well, perhaps he does. The estrangement effect, however, survives any such possible intentions.
#METOO AS ESTRANGEMENT 6: THE DELEGITIMATION OF THE YOUTH-AND-BEAUTY CURRENCY
In one of his interviews, Bakhayev declares himself an artist who always begins with beauty (Sevrinovsky 2017). He explains that he did not have a global goal to represent the pain of the whole world. He wanted to use young and beautiful faces for two reasons: (1) he was personally attracted to them (Tamara Litsinskaya in particular), and (2) he believed that people were conditioned to feel the most pity for beautiful young people: "beautiful young faces are more intelligible" (Sevrinovsky 2017).
Comment 12: Yury Ammosov: "And old and ugly?" Bakhayev: "People, unfortunately, are conditioned to feel most sorry about something beautiful, everybody gets it faster that way … and yes, I will try to add anybody who will fit stylistically."
Describing his selective practices, Bakhayev uses such adjectives for the faces he chooses as "suitable" (podkhodyaschiye) (Mirmak-sumova 2017) or "charismatic" (Sevrinovsky 2017). Is his project one of fetishizing beauty? Or rather, is he simply perpetuating the mythic fetish status of beauty? As we began to suggest in the introductory paragraphs, his insistence on the beautification of an ultimately political statement poses the same question Walter Benjamin was trying to resolve in "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," where the aestheticization of politics was linked to "the seductive fascination of fascism" (Jay 1992, 42). This association, needless to say, could not help but doom it to be invested with a negative connotation. [End Page 398]
Although it is possible to describe Bakhayev's actions as the aestheticization of politics, the mechanism of his construction does not work the same way it did in Benjamin's analysis. If Benjamin attacked what he saw as "nothing other than an uninhibited translation of the principles of l'art pour l'art to war itself" (Jay 1992, 41), which ultimately was directed at romanticizing "the technology of death and the total mobilization of the masses" (41), Bakhayev disrupts this romantic narrativization of death by visualizing the absurd and mundane nature of arbitrary violence. In his revival of the young and beautiful victims of Stalin's purges, he does not create heroes or martyrs who sacrificed their lives for grand ideas; he does not glamorize their deeds or their deaths in order to mobilize us to follow their example; he certainly does not present youth and beauty as proof against mortality and time. Instead, he destroys our habitualized narratives of success or sacrifice, where we hold youth and beauty up as the currency of coherent social transactions. What we end up seeing in Bakhayev's collages is the display of youth and beauty as devalued and completely irrelevant tokens in the game of arbitrary violence, which renders all humans helpless, regardless of their looks, ages, or talents.
What estranges our assumptions about death even more is the fact that these people were not perishing in the attacks of terrorists or foreign invaders; they were systematically being murdered by their own people, their police and their government. It is precisely this estrangement and ultimate subversion of the expected (or should we say promised?) that wounds us, makes us cry, and even makes many Russian commentators refuse to believe in the victims' innocence. It galvanizes the viewers as participants rather than passive observers, because they no longer can hide in the comfort of the belief that "this cannot happen to me." Rendering youth and beauty as meaningless, Bakhayev shifts the accent of his work to something else. In one of his comments (see above) he writes: "I wanted to show the living ones that these are the same kind of people as they are and that this was taking place not in a dream but in reality, and that [End Page 399] we should not overlook this happening again." How exactly they should not overlook it he does not say, but he clearly spells out that being apolitically carefree will not exclude them from what they have called political repressions.
And now, let us return to the estrangement that Bakhayev personally experienced upon finding out that Tarana Burke was to become the face of the #MeToo movement:
Comment 13: In his response to one of the comments Bakhayev writes: "I myself saw her the other day, almost gagged)))"
What is estranged here would appear to be Bakhayev's own habitualized and internalized narrative of romanticized female victimhood, the Beauty-and-the-Beast ideology, in which a beautiful female protagonist is oppressed by an ugly villain and a heroic male has to interfere in order to save her. In fact, he spells this out very clearly in his interview with Russkii Pioner (2017b), trying to explain what attracted him to Tamara Litsinskaya's mug shot and why he chose it for his very first collage. He tells a story of sexual harassment:
Some thought she looked like Angelina Jolie, but in reality, there is no Angelina Jolie there, this is just a young woman of heavenly beauty. When you look in her sad, tired eyes, which nonetheless stare straight into the executioners' camera, which was used to photograph her for their record, you see that her soul belongs to her, you see her unbroken spirit. I supposed that most likely she suffered because of her beauty: it is possible that she was repressed because of her gender by some party bastard (villain?). Having received a categorical "no," he reported her when he understood that he would not get her. Because this kind of young woman is a dream of many men. Having embraced her fate, I felt very sorry for her. To be honest, I even had tears in my eyes when I was looking at the photo. [End Page 400]
In this sense Bakhayev acts as the chivalrous hero who liberates the poor victim from her tower into a street—he tries to give her another life, forgetting that it is his own mythologizing narrative into which he inserts her. Immortal Barrack, the site where Bakhayev discovered Litsinskaya's mug shot, has an excerpt from her son's memoirs. He was too young to remember much himself, but he shares the stories of his other surviving relatives, who strongly believed that Tamara indeed had a relationship with one of the party bosses. They name Avel Yenukidze, one of Stalin's closest comrades, not only as her lover but also as her son's possible father. Litsinskaya was indeed investigated and later executed in connection with the "Kremlin case," the case which brought Yenukidze down as well.
We suggest that this case of Bakhayev's #revivedmemory collages has two implications for the #MeToo movement:
First, yes, it is possible that the initial spike of popularity was due to the estrangement of the celebrity narrative—suddenly their perfectly gorgeous lives on red carpets were thrown down into the shameful pit of the sexual violence that glamorous and respectable people do not talk about (at least not openly)—and thus the resonances of the Beauty-and-the-Beast myth.
But second, because they are initiated by the victims themselves, the narratives emerge out of their own points of view, and so begin to estrange the lurking Beauty-and-the-Beast myths of the alienness of the Beast (in the majority of cases the sexual aggressor was someone from their inner circles, someone they trusted), the power of beauty and talent (the targets of sexual violence were assaulted not because the perpetrator appreciated their beauty, but because he craved domination: power and revenge), the power of social class and success (the targets were often huge stars, rich and powerful women, not members of the underclasses traditionally thought to be the standard victims of sexual aggression), and the power of consent (the Beast in the fairytale waits patiently for Belle to agree to marry him; the Beasts in the #MeToo stories demand, threaten, "grab 'em by the pussy," and so on). [End Page 401]
svetlana ilinskaya is a doctoral student in cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
douglas robinson, chair professor of English at HKBU, is a critical theorist interested in human communication as grounded in human social interaction, specifically as circulated pragmatically through literature, rhetoric, and translation.
1. Bessmertny Barrak (literally Immortal Barrack) is a nonprofit grassroots project that appeared in 2015, not only as a memorial project dedicated to preserving memories of the purge victims, but also as a response to another noncommercial movement titled Bessmertny Polk (literally Immortal Battalion). If Immortal Battalion aimed to create a less official and more popular celebration and commemoration of Victory Day with the focus on the everyday ordinariness of heroism, Immortal Barrack wanted to show the dark side of most Soviet achievements, with a focus on the arbitrary violence of purges and the mobilization of massive free labor in the Gulag system.