24 May 2011

FEMEN and Feminism

Ever since I heard about this group, I was intrigued.  No, it was not because they were protesting topless.  My fascination stemmed from the visibility of a Ukrainian feminist group.  It's not like Eastern European feminist groups make many headlines, so FEMEN's prominence is not to be taken for granted.  It must be noted that bare breasts do make great news, though that's not why FEMEN bares them publicly.  This article on the Eastern Perspectives is well written and covers all the bases necessary for discussion, but I have used quotes from the Der Spiegel article linked at the end.

FEMEN has its own take on feminism and feminists from the Western world are rather dismayed that these women look like prostitutes on purpose.  Interestingly, since their stance is "Stop Raping Ukraine" and they have launched many internet-based campaigns against sex tourism, they are both subverting the image of a prostitute as much as they are bolstering disgust against its prominence by displaying it openly.  The use of bare breasts is considered artillery because "men made breasts secret."  It's considered indecent and shameful to show them and FEMEN considers it a right for women to assert the most recognizable female body part.  In America anyway, exposed breasts are restricted on television unless you are paying for certain cable channels that either show porn, Girls Gone Wild, or shows like "Weeds".  They are an integral part of the allure and sexuality of women and essentially fetishized by American men.  Too much cleavage in an every day setting is considered rather low-brow because their allure lies in being mostly hidden.  FEMEN says that this is the power men have over the female body and they are confronting this by stripping away the mystery that shrouds them.

While Western feminists are dismayed that FEMEN is playing with the images of fetishized and pornographic women, I am frankly in awe that feminism has risen to prominence in Ukraine and that their approach is so clever and thought provoking.  I read Slavenka Drakulić's book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed while in Hungary and she writes a poignant reflection on feminism in the Eastern bloc entitled, "A Letter from the United States – The Critical Theory Approach".  The part of the essay that applies is Slavenka's response to a daft question about an analysis of women's public discourses in Yugoslavia using the Critical Theory Approach:

"Dear B…we live surrounded by newly opened porno shops, porno magazines, peepshows, stripteases, unemployment, and galloping poverty.  In the press they call Budapest "the city of love, the Bangkok of Eastern Europe."  Romanian women are prostituting themselves for a single dollar in towns on the Romanian-Yugoslav border.  In the midst of all this, our anti-choice nationalist governments are threatening our right to abortion and telling us to multiply, to give birth to more Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks.  We are unprepared, confused, without organization or movement yet.  Perhaps we are even afraid to call ourselves feminists.  Many women here see the movement as a "world without men", a world of lesbians, that don't understand and cannot accept.  And we definitely don't have answers for you.  A Critical Theory approach?  Maybe in 10 years.  In the meantime, why don't you try something else?"

The stance FEMEN has taken is against exactly what Slavenka spells out in the early 90s.  It's been nearly 20 years since she wrote that letter and a great deal of it still applies.  Pornography is the exploitation of women and FEMEN is using the imagery of pornography to fight the exploitation of women, whatever it may be for.  The roused interest and disgust in their use of skimpy, trashy, or lack of clothing shows the entire hypocrisy: women only get attention for being naked.  FEMEN recognizes that their topless protests are the primary reason for their fame and it's not a surprise because the world dismisses and abuses women in subtle ways, like ignoring them in the media.  What ties Slavenka, feminism, and FEMEN together even more is what Anna Hutsol, head of FEMEN, says in response to old-school feminists' responses:

"Yes," sighs Anna Hutsol…"We're different from classic feminists. In order to gain a voice, they had to become like men. But we want a real women's revolution. Our naked protests are part of the fight for women's liberation. We have the right to use our bodies as weapons. It was men who made breasts into a secret."  "I think men like women's breasts," says activist Inna Shevchenko, "but they don't like it when a woman has something to say as well."

This article in Der Spiegel (no fears, it's in English) comes with a slideshow replete with uncensored photos of their protests.  Part of the exposed breast logic is that it will bring attention to these issues.  It's like they're torching gasoline to bring attention to gas prices and I find this method riveting.  It speaks so much more about the world's view of nudity and propriety and how women are marginalized and driven about in the modern world.  They also are declaring their femininity by embracing what makes them female.  Instead of wearing shoulder pads in the workplace to look like men, they are clearly stating that they wish to be women and treated equally for it.

I have gripes similar to FEMEN's because I do think that, at least in America, women have been taught to embrace the values of masculinity to become equal instead of embracing what makes them women and demanding equal respect.  Maybe it's because handicrafts (sewing, knitting, etc.) have been demeaned as the labor of oppressed women instead of embraced as displays of women's creativity and prowess in these areas of skill.  Maybe it's because being a stay at home mother is seldom considered a choice and women judge them as weak and oppressed.  Maybe it's because hijabs are considered oppressive even when women choose to wear them.  Or perhaps it's because any choice a women makes is considered either too masculine or too old-school/oppressed feminine.  Let us embrace women's choices in this mixed up world and impart them with the intelligence to make informed decisions.  Abuse and misogyny still happens, as well as the deliberate oppression of women, but feminists need to embrace the variety of choices women make and not pass judgment.  I often feel that feminism fails because the various schools of thought are antagonistic instead of cooperative.  I hope the fact that women tend to be cooperative spills some light on this irony.  Feminism seems to be modeled after a classic authoritative, masculine model.

Feminism's fight is not yet over and since classical feminism has still not ironed out all the wrinkles in the West, let alone even touched the East's problems, FEMEN is renewing the fight with pronounced vigor and intellectual aplomb.  They have their new school of feminist thought and it's creating a stir.  I don't think FEMEN is crazy; I think they're on to something.

*UPDATE* I found a very compelling article on the blog Sociological Images that discusses the issue of breasts to this effect.