“Ere now have I journeyed to the land of Phrygia, rich in vines, and there I saw in multitudes the Phrygian warriors, masters of glancing steeds, even the people of Otreus and godlike Mygdon, that were then encamped along the banks of Sangarius. For I, too, being their ally, was numbered among them on the day when the Amazons came, the peers of men.”
- The Iliad
When looking at photos of the activist group Femen‘s protests anyone with a knowledge of the Greek classics will immediately summon allusions to the warrior Amazons in Homer’s Iliad or the crazed Bacchae of Euripides. The image is one the group actively seeks to conjure: “FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men’s world.”
The group, which began in the Ukraine and has spread across Europe and the world, are famous for their topless and raucous protests. Using their bared breasts and militant protest style–which they term “sextremism”–the group rallies around a spectrum of gender and egalitarian issues, from gay rights to female genital mutilation. As The Atlantic‘s Jeffery Taylor, who has kept consistent reportage on the group, wrote:
“Founded in Kiev [Ukraine] in 2008 to protest the country’s burgeoning sex industry (‘Ukraine is not a brothel!’ was the slogan of their first — and still clothed — demonstration, which aimed to dissuade foreigners from visiting prostitutes in the capital), Femen has since evolved into a vanguard of militant activists who have dubbed themselves the storozhevyye suki demokratii (the ‘watch-bitches of democracy’) [...] Femen has pronounced traditional feminism dead, anointed itself the standard-bearer for “a new wave of third-millennium feminism,’ and pledged to combat ‘patriarchal society in all its manifestations — dictatorship, the church, and the sex industry.’ Its tactics: ‘sextremism’ and ‘sex-diversion’ — which terms basically mean using bare breasts during protest actions to attract media coverage.”
The group, quite obviously, is good at attracting attention–of both governments and the media–with its half-nude protests. The group’s bare style, though based in a feminist philosophy, is also a marketing and public relations dream. Topless women, beautiful and severe, are sure to catch the attention of cameras and very well may be the reason you are reading this.
Femen is finely attuned to the times. Not only does the group adhere to the superfluous idiom, “sex sells” (when hasn’t it?), it also has an eye for social media and the creation of a trending spectacle. From “attacking” the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro to breaking up the Berlin Film Festival, the group performs quick and intense protests that are ideal for photo, video and the quick tweet or Facebook blast. It is sensationalism of the purest form, and easily disseminated on the quick. A woman who has the phrase “Not For Sale” or “Fuck Pimps” painted across her breasts has united the twin pillars of marketing and advertising: catch their eye and deliver your message, preferably as fast as possible.
There are many critics of Femen who say that the group’s tactics only objectify women instead of creating a level platform for gender equality. I myself have a few feminist friends who condemn the group as either being archaic (“that burning bra thing was done in the 60s”) or demeaning in its presentation–falling victim to the patriarchy’s authoritarian vision of women as sex objects which are, essentially, crazed and unreasonable. Joanna Rohozinska, from National Endowment for Democracy, wrote in The Atlantic that the group is having little impact. She states that this is because the group’s approach is falling prey to a certain type of derogatory thinking: “Desensitization to pornography in Western culture, or at minimum its greater acceptability, has led to a bit of warped logic that suggests that pole dancing can, in fact, be empowering…”
Rohozinska seems to have a point. Femen is following a trend towards more openness to nudity and sex (hetero and homo) in western society. However I am not so certain that this is reason enough to condemn and sell-short Femen’s activities. Firstly, it seems reductive to equate Femen’s bare-breasted militant protests with the glamorizing of pole dancing. Besides this, it seems that Rohozinska’s thinking is steeped in the very patriarchy that Femen battles against.
Femen, like most forms of radical feminism, seeks to change the entire equation of gender relations. One of these is the sacredness of the female body–it’s essential mystery and, according to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religions, it’s vileness–which holds that women must remain covered. In Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states, this takes the most extreme form: the burqa–total coverage of the female body (usually in sweltering temperatures). In western society, the U.S. especially, this is clearly represented by the gender bias in the law and its enforcement. A man with his shirt off–say after jogging–turns very few eyes and is subject to few laws. However, if a woman goes about with her shirt off, she is promptly given a ticket for the exposure and thought of by her neighbors as “not a lady” or a “slut.”
A positive of Femen is that they are doing something. Feminism has been largely left to the realms of paper and academia for the past ten years. If you are an average blue-collar American, these venues are virtually invisible to you. Most forms of feminine empowerment that have taken root today are, sadly, a weak form of acclimation to patriarchal standards. Women are expected to “fit in,” to act more like men, just as African-Americans were supposed to “adapt” to white society after Emancipation (which usually meant staying out of it). In addition, many female achievements, such as the right to abortion, at least in the States, are being slowly striped away.
For some critics it is admitted that at least Femen is doing something to counteract these oppressive tendencies. However they see their extremism and nudity as counterproductive to the cause–embodying the very stereotypes that the group wishes to overcome. Yet these critics seem to overlook the group’s origins.
Today inside the Ukraine sex tourism and sex slavery are rampant (as they are in many areas of the world such as Thailand). Originally Femen was established to combat these disgusting practices that, for Americans, seem a world away or only in films such as Taken. Yet as the group began fighting against sex slavery they seemed to have realized that the foundation of such practices go much deeper. Indeed, the most disgusting practices of rape, slavery, and inequality stem from seeds in an overarching patriarchy. From various ingrained sources–such as religion, government, business–an attitude arises that, when taken to its conclusion, results in some of the most repellent actions homo-sapiens are capable of (such as throwing acid on girls who have defaced their “honor”).
The seat, sadly, of most patriarchal attitudes is the family unit. Today in the U.S. 1 out of 4 girls are sexually molested. Most of this abuse is committed by a male family member. (This abuse also effects boys as well, with the number around 1 in 6). This microcosm of abuse spreads out into society where women continue to remain the victims of inequality and often worse. In America this taken-for-granted attitude is so prevalent that when women were recently debarred from entering combat positions in the military, many objectors to the desegregation claimed that it would cause an increase in rape. As if women were at fault for their mere presence instead of the would-be rapists.
Femen’s core purpose is to attack the heart of the patriarchal attitude that leads to these gross inequalities and demeaning treatments. One of these attitudes is, as stated above, the covering of women in public. As Yana Zhdanova, who lives out the contradiction of being a stripper and a member of Femen, stated in The Atlantic article:
“For money it’s okay to strip, but not for an idea? Doing my job, I see the hypocrisy in men’s mentality. Some of my club’s clients learn I’m with Femen and criticize me for showing my breasts during the day, but pay me to do so at night.”
Zhdanova seems to point out that patriarchy is, essentially, about control, specifically the control of the body. Patriarchal men and the society maintained by them want to control when women can be naked. In the club or the bedroom is fine. But when they are nude in the streets screaming blunt slogans denouncing the Orthodox Church or Vladimir Putin, they are “out of control” quite literally.
To sustain control the patriarchy has assigned, over thousands of years of male-domination, specific and well-defined roles for women. These “proper” roles are ingrained deeply in the consciousness of each of us. So when these roles are transgressed or these roles are confused, as they are by Femen’s topless protests, it disturbs not only those in power, but each of us. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler analyzes the basis of gender and through her explanation clarifies to an extent what Femen is enacting:
“Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. [...] In other words, acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality.”
For Butler gender is essentially a performance–an act, a role. Heterosexual men are expected to take on masculine actions to produce their masculine identity and women take on feminine acts to produce their feminine identity. If that’s confusing think of it this way; if a man were to take on feminine acts, such as painting their nails, wearing makeup, dresses–pulling a J. Edgar Hoover basically–they would be considered either a homosexual or would lose their masculinity severely–literally their gender identity would undergo change. They would still biologically be a man, but they wouldn’t be a Man.
Femen’s topless protests are a performance as well. Rather than taking on full masculine roles the group instead confuses and complicates feminine identities for shock effect and to reflect their purpose. Femen takes the role of the “naked woman,” usually relegated to specific areas (strip club, bedroom), and brings it to a different social context. The group confuses this “naked woman” role even further by appropriating a masculine militancy. So the women of Femen become Amazons, “the peers of men,” but at one and the same time they maintain a vivid feminine sexuality. They are Beauty and they are Beast.
The effect of this manifold identity, this exposed identity, is very similar to those of the Civil Rights movement. The “sit ins,” walks and other tactics all were aimed towards producing a certain effect. By sitting where they were socially (and legally) not permitted to sit and then incurring the wrath from the societal reaction, the sitters showed quite clearly what was wrong with the society. Femen, through their performance-laden protest, show the inequalities and injustices of patriarchal thinking. When women are tackled, beat, and arrested for simply taking off their shirts, is there something wrong with the women or does the fault lie with the society?
Being a man and thoroughly encultured in the patriarchy of our society, it is and always will be impossible for me to understand what it means to live as a women (perhaps a social experiment similar to John Howard Griffin’s in Black Like Me is necessary). However that does not mean I should not attempt to educate myself. If suddenly the stigmas, rules and societal expectations that women face were suddenly placed upon me, I wouldn’t know what to do (imagine, men, having to cover your nipples at the swimming pool or suddenly receiving a pay cut because of your gender). Yes, it is true that men face similar pressures in regards to their masculinity, but the pressures men face often bring (if given into) empowerment. For women the result of abiding by societal norms is often subservience.
It seems that Femen, by performing the sexual role of women and appropriating it for their own emancipation, is taking a step in the right direction towards a shift in the thinking about gender. Yes, perhaps their achievements in the immediate are not felt as well as pants-suited women in legislatures fighting for equality. But it seems their boisterous presence is necessary. Not only because they draw attention to serious issues in the world such as sex slavery, but because they show that the problem isn’t solely one of laws and regulations, but is a problem of the mind. As Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains”; Femen shows us that the employees of that office seem to be overwhelmingly male.