I was grateful to have been invited to join a conversation about the future of feminism that looked specifically at the tactics of Ukrainian protest group, FEMEN on Al Jazeera English‘s show The Stream last week.
Inna Shevchenko, the leader of Femen International and Chloe Angyal of Feministing.com were guests on the show and the producers invited feminist bloggers Chrissy D, Ariana Tobin, Sara Yasin, (who are all the best, fyi), and myself to bring in critical perspectives and questions.
You can watch the show in it’s entirety here:
The show was pretty packed, discussion-wise, and the producers did a great job of trying to include a wide variety of perspectives on FEMEN’s tactics. That said, there is A LOT more that could be said around some of the issues that came up and comments that made on the show. I personally spent much of my time on the show silently fuming over the, frankly, crazy things Shevchenko was saying.
I’ve written about Femen before, noting that the group seems generally clueless about feminism, past and present, based on statements such as: “We’re the new face of feminism…Classical feminism is dead.” Shevchenko seems to think that FEMEN invented both feminism in the Ukraine as well as the incredibly original, never-been-done-before tactic of women using their naked bodies in order to get people to look at them. They call it ‘sextremism’, I call it the same old shit. What I’ve noted elsewhere is that nude protest, when it comes to women, is a great tactic if your priority is to get media attention, but can be problematic because, often, that is the only way the media will pay attention to women — i.e. if we are performing for the male gaze.
Contrary to popular belief, I am not opposed to boobs. Rather, I am opposed to women’s bodies constantly being objectified and sexualized. I am also opposed to the fact that nobody gives a shit about women or feminism unless women and feminism look like a beer commercial or a burlesque show.
Though Shevchenko claimed that FEMEN’s topless protests are about taking back power over their own bodies, she contradicts her point by saying that which is true — when it comes to women the focus is almost always on the body.
She also believes that the reason people paid attention to them when they took off their tops was because “society was shocked” — but really? Is that why? Or were they just stoked to see boobs? Naked breasts aren’t ‘taboo’ (in the West, in any case) because people think breasts are wrong and bad, but because breasts are sexualized — meaning that we think that breasts should only exist as sexualized objects for male pleasure (which is also why people get all bent out of shape over women who breastfeed in public — BUT THOSE ARE FOR BONERS, NOT BABIES). Feeding your baby is a practical thing to do. Taking off your shirt in order to get the sexist media to take photos of you plays on the sexualization and objectification of female bodies and reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are to-be-looked-at. FEMEN’s tactics aren’t about women controlling their own bodies, they’re about letting the media control women’s bodies – the media says: “we won’t pay attention to you unless you’re hot and naked” and FEMEN obeys. So who’s in control here, again?
Angyal responded to my comment pointing to some of these issues by saying: “I’ve been on the receiving end of the ‘feminism: you’re doing it wrong’ conversation and I don’t find it to be… a productive conversation. Everyone has their own way of doing feminism…” And I get that and would otherwise agree. There are different ways to ‘do feminism’ and there is certainly more than one strategy when it comes to activism. That said, after following FEMEN’s ‘activism’ and particularly after witnessing and hearing Shevchenko’s responses on the show, I am convinced that FEMEN is, in fact, not only ‘doing feminism wrong’ but not ‘doing feminism’ at all.
Shevchenko is completely condescending, disrespectful, and outright rude when it comes to addressing feminists and the feminist movement and uses the same old tired “we’re playing with objectification” crap that the third wave/burlesque/stripping-is-empowering-if-I-choose-to-do-it has been trying to push on us through a veil of postmodernist jargon as of late.
Quoting her is a little crazy-making because her statements either contradict the very points she seems to be trying to make, or are just meaningless smoke and boob-mirrors (and yes, I think we do need to take into account that English isn’t her first language and that it was likely difficult for her to communicate her points as clearly as she would have liked to. That said, her points are still wack), but I still think they’re worth addressing.
To be honest, I’m not sure that even she believes her own words.
Shevchenko claims that “once [men] see us on the protest naked, they realize that it’s not naked woman and they’re bad*, it’s not naked woman in [a] strip club — this naked woman is still looking nice, this naked woman is sexy (because she’s naked, of course) — she can attract, for a second, but once they see us moving, when we are screaming, and when we are showing that we are against them… honestly.”
But honestly, Inna, do you really believe that men think naked women are ‘bad’? Do you think that the media is suddenly covering the feminist movement because they are realizing that they should no longer oppress and objectify women? Or do you think that they’re just enjoying the show and, as she clearly knows — it is a show. The women involved in these ‘protests’ are to-be-looked-at — to attract. The only message is: “look at me”. It isn’t ‘using your body for your own reason[s]’ if you are only using it in order to get male attention and publicity. Call a spade a spade.
Sara Yasin, who blogs at Muslimah Media Watch, made an excellent point to this regard:
“I have absolutely no problem with nudity… The issue with FEMEN is that they have no point. Apart from taking off their tops, I actually have no idea what they’re trying to question… It’s very interesting to call them radical, because they’re actually not radical. They’re just going out and pushing the exact same norms that have been thrown at us for centuries. It’s pretty much like looking at a billboard and having maybe the word feminism cut across it. This leads me to believe that FEMEN is just the PETA of feminism.”
The fact that the toplessness that is central to FEMEN’s ‘protests’ is merely a way to derail feminist discourse and the feminist movement was made all too obvious when Shevchenko was pressed to address her comments around the burqa: “better naked than burqa”. She responds vaguely, saying “women’s bodies are [an] indicator of women’s freedom” right before taking off her top.
Riiiight. So the fact that women are only paid attention to when naked and sexualized, as women’s bodies routinely are in a porn culture, has no bearing on the status of women in this world?
And guess what the media got out of this conversation — one that was meant to be about “the future of feminism”? This headline says it all: FEMEN activist takes tops off on live Al Jazeera program. Not, “Hey you guys! Women are being oppressed! Let’s do something about it!” Nope. It’s “Hey look! Boobs!” Which was esesntially Shevchenko’s response when questioned about her comments on the burqa — “What? I don’t know! Hey! Look over there! Boobs!”
If her top came off ‘for her own reasons’, as she claims, one would think that Shevchenko wouldn’t have chosen to do it on live TV. What was she protesting? Feminism?
Not only are Shevchenko’s arguments convoluted, but the animosity and disrespect she conveys about feminists and the feminist movement shows, undeniably, FEMEN’s lack of connection to this movement. She uses every classic, sexist stereotype that’s been used for eons in order to discredit feminists, calling them spoiled, ugly, and ‘unsatisfied’ women; going on to say that “classical feminism looks like [an] old, sick lady.” I’m sorry, who’s ‘spoiled’ again?
She seems to have zero understanding of or interest in the history of feminism or the feminist work that’s being done all around the world and actually seems intent on erasing all of that work, as I point out near the end of the show (at which point I am practically livid).
Chrissy D sums this up nicely in the post she wrote about the show:
The number of objections I have to women walking around with no shirt on is nil, breasts or no breasts, but there’s a sense that radicalising the action of removing clothing for attention detracts from the greater global issue of women’s oppression.
Really. C’mon girls.
*11/15/2012 — My very astute friend, Baba, has pointed out to me that, while I quoted Shevchenko as saying: “once [men] see us on the protest naked, they realize that it’s not naked woman and they’re bad,” what she actually said was: “they realize that it’s not naked women in their bed…” This doesn’t much change my argument as Shevchenko makes other points to this effect (that men/society views women’s naked bodies as shocking and dangerous and ‘taboo’ and that, as such, FEMEN is somehow subverting dominant representations of the female body as sexualized object), but is, of course, worth correcting for accuracy’s sake. What she was implying, in this particular quote, was that the topless women in the protest had been removed from a sexualized context. Of course, in the next breath she points out that they are sexualized. Because they’re naked. And men like looking at naked ladies.