In Edmonton, as singer Avril Lavigne, clad in all-black, read various plaudits in near monotone by way of introduction of the next musical act to perform at the Junos, an intruder appeared upon the stage.
Topless, dressed only in pink pants and a matching head scarf, with “Land Back” and “Save the Greenbelt” written on her body, the protester posed behind the singer as she attempted to finish her spiel.
Lavigne, unable to cope with a protester that had the temerity to interrupt the Canadian music industry’s perennial back-patting event with messages from the world outside interrupted her introduction.
“Get the f — k off. Get the f — k off, b—,” she told the intruder, as security moved in.
In the aftermath, reactions were mixed. Some saw no humour in the event and would contend that entertainment awards shows are not the place or time for such a protest. Others — many of whom found the humour — would argue, with cause, that it is exactly the right sort of place and proffer for proof this: it works.
Even across the Atlantic, people were talking more Tuesday about Ontario’s Greenbelt — a decidedly unsexy topic of conversation — than they were about Nickelback’s enshrinement in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, which is only slightly less so.
The pink-panted protester joins a long tradition of others — in various states of nudity — disrupting events where a glut of cameras and attention means their message will be carried far and wide.
Think World Cups, Olympics, American football games. Think the antifur protester at George Bush’s inauguration in 2001, think PETA, think about the Ukrainian group Femen, whose topless protests supporting the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot drew the western world’s attention to Vladimir Putin’s policies and LGBTQ rights abuses in that country.
But there’s a nuance here. Even though most headlines about the Juno incident identified the topless woman as a streaker, human behaviour and body language expert Mark Bowden maintains there’s a difference between “classic” streaking and modern protest nudity.
To his mind streaking, in its barest form, is an indomitable celebration of freedom of the mind, epitomized by freedom of the body.
Bowden, it should be noted, knows whereof he speaks. He can be seen, preserved for all eternity, baring his Indomitable Will on a soccer field, at the request of Nike, wearing nothing but a football scarf and running shoes, in an award-winning 2003 advert.
“It’s kind of symbolic,” he said of streaking. “You can break free of the bonds. You can do whatever you like. You can think in whatever way you want to think. Well, that message in and of itself is quite a dangerous message.”
“The classic streak is meant to be shut down. Otherwise, there’s no jeopardy there. And the crowd love the jeopardy. The crowd love the person running around and watching the police try and stop them now.
“Which means you have to streak in a place of authority.”
That line of reasoning sets the Junos up as the “place of authority” and by extension, the people on that stage as agents of The Man.
Though Lavigne had her supporters, there was significant pushback online over her reaction to the protester.
For a singer who built her career on outsider hits such as “Sk8r Boi,” being considered enough a part of the establishment that her time on stage becomes a protest platform to be disrupted might well rankle her, said Bowden.
And there’s nuance here too, he goes on. Lavigne was preparing to introduce AP Dhillon, who was about to become the first Punjabi singer to perform at the Junos.
Lavigne, to her mind, had a landmark introduction to make, Bowden reasons, and when a protester invaded her stage a “conflict of cause” was created.
“I can see how it annoys Avril Lavigne on all kinds of levels because, number one: she’s trying to go, ‘Look, we’ve got this underdog music in Canada, and we’re giving it (the stage).
“‘And two: I’m meant to be seen as an anti-authoritarian kind of female spirit. And with you standing next to me, it makes me look like The Man. Get off the stage. Like, you’re ruining the whole look.’”
What happened on stage at the Junos is a departure from what Bowden terms the “classic streak.”
Whereas original streaking — which may have reached its peak in 1974 with an Oscars streaker and a University of Georgia world record of 1,543 simultaneous streakers — was a celebration of self, the modern-day streak seems to largely come with a message attached.
Sometimes that message was implicit, said Lesley Wood, associate professor of Sociology at York University.
In the midst of apartheid, games played in the late 70s and 80s by the touring South African rugby team were regularly disrupted by streakers, she notes. The on-field invaders had no overt signs on their bodies, proclaiming their cause, but the fact that the event was being disrupted, the fact that spectators were asking, ‘Why?’ was enough to spread their anti-apartheid message.
If the role of protests is to disrupt the status quo, then being naked at a large-scale event with plenty of media attention is a very good place and time and method for protest, Wood said. You get attention. People are talking about it. You often make people uncomfortable, and thereby examine why they are uncomfortable.
The Junos incident was different in that it was the platform for a protest, rather than the object of one. But eyes were upon that stage and it’s difficult to argue against the fact that nudity sells messages, she said.
“It’s a very smart technique, because you get a lot of attention and you also are not seen as threatening,” said Wood. “They clearly don’t have any weapons on them.”
“But of course, you risk being seen as trivial or sexualizing the issue.”
It’s a tradeoff: you get attention, people get interested in the issue, they want to know more. But on the other hand, she said, that attention could all be focused on the nudity and not the issue. And, “they might think you’re a bunch of nutjobs.”
That being said, if Rolling Stone and the BBC are talking about Ontario’s Greenbelt, it’s reasonably safe to say not only that the protester’s message got out, but the stage on which all eyes rest — both traditional and social media — was an ideal platform for that message.
“Wherever you are, you use the materials you have at hand … movements do,” said Wood.
“And so, using the very visual, social media, it makes sense that spectacle is currency and nudity is spectacle.”