I’ve blogged about Femen before because I was utterly gobsmacked that a photo of a topless Femen protestor without any political context managed to win a World Press Photo award (and the total lack of understanding of the irony of this photo being called The New Amazons). Supposedly, Femen protests against sex tourism, the legalisation of prostitution and the selling of “brides” internationally. How they quite expect the Patriarchy to take them seriously when they protest using pretty basic anti-woman signifiers is beyond me and that’s without getting into them selling prints of their breasts as a fundraising tactic. In using women’s bodies as a canvas of protest, Femen are conforming to the norms of Patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies. 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. They are exactly what the Patriarchy wants after all:
Doing what men want is appeasement. Feminism is resistance. Appeasement and resistance are opposing forces; the more you do of one, the less you can do of the other. That’s why these groups are insidious; they divert feminist energy into meaningless acts that only serve male interests. Men don’t care if you write incendiary messages of revolt all over your naked body, as long as they get to see that body.
We all have to appease in one way or another to survive, but let’s not confuse that behavior with feminist activism. It’s not. Let’s do as little of it as we can get away with, and as much resistance as we are capable of.
Femen’s activism is the same old Patriarchal twaddle dressed up as “Fun Feminism”. 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, PETA’s been doing this shit for years and their supporters are a whose who of celebrities with criminal convictions for Violence against Women.
Whilst I’m willing to concede that there might be a reason why using women’s naked bodies as a platform of political protest in the Ukraine is an interesting tactic because I know nothing of the their Feminist movement, it isn’t a new or even interesting tactic in Western Europe. More importantly, I think it’s a tactic deliberately chosen in order to get recognition in the western media because appealing to horny men is really the only way women get any attention. I think Femen are more interested in the attention than they are in achieving specific Feminist goals. They are hopping on far too many bandwagons, such as the Free Pussy Riot movement. Frankly, there are very few attention-seekers who haven’t hopped on the Free Pussy Riot bandwagon. It’s proving to be quite a profitable one for everyone but the two women currently being transported to a penal colony in Russia. 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 also occupied the Louvre to protest the rape of a young woman called Mariam by two Tunisian police officers. This article seems to imply that the Femen protest in Paris was more important than the woman in Tunis who protested outside the courtroom. Maybe I’m over-thinking things here, but I think the women of Tunis taking to the streets despite the crackdown on women in Tunisia is a shitload more important and so much braver than a bunch of topless women running around the Louvre. Thing is, which protest got more coverage? And, which one really deserved the media attention?
Femen’s anti-burkha protests are equally offensive. Regardless of what I, as an individual, think of burkhas, the fact of the matter is that many Muslim wear them. It is utterly arrogant for a group of non-Muslim women to tell Muslim women what they can and can not do. The debate over whether or not the burkha is anti-feminist or whether or not it should be banned is a debate that needs to involve the voices of Muslim women. This does not mean that others can not have opinions. I think the burkhas use as a tool of oppression for all Muslim women in some countries supercedes its use as a tool for freedom for a small number of women in “western” countries. However, Muslim women’s voices need to be central in this discussion. In this case, Femen are attacking an easy target; one which has very little access to mass media. Veiled Muslim women are some of the most frequently silenced of women’s voices. Femen aren’t really doing anything really radical here. They are just doing exactly what western neoliberal men do: attack a visible target with no power. A radical approach would have been for members of Femen to approach Muslim women’s groups and ask them how to support them. Running about in front of the Eiffel Tower stripping off burkhas to reveal young, thin white women in their underwear isn’t radical. It’s not even 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. It’s a reversal of the normal imperialism but, nonetheless, it shows a rather incredible lack of self-awareness.
I would not have bothered to write another blogpost on Femen had I not caught the discussion on Femen live-streamed on AlJazeera called the “Future of Feminism”. I knew from the beginning that the discussion was going to piss me off when the host got herself confused between Radical Feminism, the political theory, and radical forms of protest. Femen are not a Radical Feminist group. Femen’s idea of “sextremism” is not Radical Feminist. This is not to say that they aren’t feminists. Femen clearly defines that way. They just aren’t Radical Feminists. That said, I agree with Chloe Angyal from Feministing that we should be having discussions about the role of women’s bodies in the public sphere but it isn’t Femen starting these conversations. These conversations have been started recently by the Everyday Sexism project, the Turn Your Back on 3 campaigns, the publication of nude photos of Kate Middleton, and the unmasking of violent, predatory internet trolls. Femen are getting media attention for being naked; not for their message. They are just like PETA: equally tedious and utterly incapable of listening to others. And, this is the problem. The issues Femen claims to want to discuss are important. They are so 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 to rather than feminist protestors. Whatever message they had, is obfuscated. Instead, their breasts are what is deemed important.
We won’t destroy the Patriarchy by reinforcing it’s 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 can not 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. Suffragettes marching on Parliament this week was truly beautiful but it would have been a stupid protest in somewhere like Zimbabwe where the symbol of the Suffragette does not have the same political meaning. Femen’s protests lack the imagery that Pussy Riot managed. 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.