Femen are back in the media once again.* This time they are running about Ikea with their breasts bared to protest Ikea’s decision to edit out all the images of women in their catalogue for the market in Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m quite offended by Ikea’s decision but I’m not sure what protesting in the Ikea in Paris two weeks after the story broke is going to change. In using women’s bodies as a canvas of protest, Femen are using some fairly basic signifiers of woman as object. Their message is obscured by the medium of their protest because the medium conforms to the normalised construction of the Patriarchal Fuckability Test. As Exiled Stardust says, getting naked or stripping aren’t acts of Feminist defiance or resistance. They are simply appeasement since “(m)en don’t care if you write incendiary messages of revolt all over your naked body, as long as they get to see that body.” Femen’s activism using the objectification of women’s bodies to make a political point isn’t new. It isn’t clever. It’s just the Patriarchy trying out a new hat. After all, as Megan Murphyhas pointed out, PETA’s been doing this shit for years. Their male supporters include a veritable who’s who of celebrities with criminal convictions for Violence against Women.
Femen’s use of the female body is a tactic deliberately chosen in order to get recognition in the western media and they seem more interested in the attention than any specific feminist goals. They have already joined the Free Pussy Riot movement and, frankly, there are very few attention-seekers who haven’t hopped on that bandwagon. It’s proving to be quite a profitable one for everyone but the two women currently being transported to a penal colony. Inna Shevchenko demonstrated her “support” for Pussy Riot by destroying a crucifix in Kiev with a chainsaw. This stunt coincided exactly with the court in Moscow finding Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism; make of that what you will.
Femen have also occupied the Louvre to protest the rape of a young woman called Mariam by two Tunisian police officers. Personally, I think the women of Tunis taking to the streets is a more important and braver protest than a bunch of topless women running around the Louvre. Equally problematic are Femen’s anti-burkha protests. Femen attacked an easy target; veiled Muslim women are some of the most frequently silenced of women’s voices. But Femen aren’t really doing anything really radical here. Instead, they are just doing exactly what western neo-liberal men do: attack a visible target with little to no power. Running about in front of the Eiffel Tower stripping off burkhas to reveal young, thin white women in their underwear isn’t very interesting. Setting up a “bootcamp” in Paris to teach French feminists how to tackle the Patriarchy using tactics developed in the Ukraine is also not very clever. A reversal of the normal imperialism it may be, but it nonetheless shows a rather incredible lack of self-awareness. Thing is, which protests get more coverage? And, which ones really deserve the media attention?
And, this is the problem. The issues Femen claims to want to discuss are important. They are very, very important, particularly the issue of sex trafficking and prostitution in Eastern Europe. The sexual exploitation of vulnerable and poor women is increasing at astronomical rates. But, this isn’t what the media is discussing. Femen’s insistence on baring their breasts, regardless of what they are actually protesting, just reinforces Patriarchal norms. They have become objects for men to wank over rather than feminist protestors. Whatever message they had is obscured. Instead, their breasts are what are deemed important.
We won’t destroy the Patriarchy by reinforcing its constructions of “acceptable” women. We won’t destroy the Patriarchy by targeting one small group of women and demanding that they remove their veil, without even considering the political and cultural structures in which they are either forced or, in some cases, choose to wear the veil. We cannot demand the government of Tunisia tackle the issue of rape by police officers, by running about art galleries naked. We won’t change the control that the Church has by chopping down crosses half-naked. Protest needs to be vibrant, engaging and culturally specific but we will not smash the Patriarchy by reinforcing its belief that the only women who matter are those who conform to the Patriarchal Fuckability Test.
As many a wise feminist has said: if the penis is keen, it probably demeans. And, that’s the problem with Femen.** Men aren’t listening to the message. They are wanking to the image.
*I submitted this piece to the Huffington Post on Monday; just before their servers went down due to Hurricane Sandy. It hasn’t been published and I’m assuming they are currently swamped as I haven’t had a reply from them. Or, they didn’t like it. Either way.
**Apparently, this originally comes from the I Blame the Patriarchy blog.