FEMEN-ism

Quick! What comes to mind when you think of tall, leggy, topless 20-year-old women? No, not beer commercials. Not car commercials, either. Come on, you know this. FEMINISM!

At least, that’s the goal of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN. (Before you click on anything, be warned: unless you work at La Leche League, it is most definitively not safe for work. NSFW images after the cut.)

FEMEN is a young organization, founded in 2008, with the goal of protesting “sex tourists, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international ills.” A few goals of the organization: “To develop leadership, intellectual and moral qualities of the young women in Ukraine” and “To build up the image of Ukraine, the country with great opportunities for women.”

And how do they do it? Well, their protests are staged by young, thin, conventionally beautiful women with bare breasts. Their motto is: “Our God is woman, our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts!”

There you have it. Picture from http://news.kievukraine.info.

And it’s working! They are getting a ton of media attention, and people are talking about FEMEN. So, it’s working. Case closed. Attention is brought to feminism, equal rights for all, the world is a better place.

It’s a little early in the post for sarcasm. The truth of the matter is, there is a real need for feminism in Ukraine. In Ukraine, as in many places around the world (read: everywhere), feminism is popularly interpreted as a dirty word.

A short exercise in compare and contrast. Do a Google image search of the word feminism in English, Russian, and Ukrainian (Ukraine is highly bilingual between Russian and Ukrainian): feminism, феминизм, and фемiнiзм. I’ll wait.

Even if you aren’t bilingual, the images that come up send a clear message. The old trope of feminists as man-haters is writ large in Russian and Ukrainian language areas. Extremely large.

Feminism certainly needs a boost in Ukraine. Sex trafficking is a huge problem, with hundreds of thousands of people being trafficked since the Soviet Union broke up, and most of them women. Ukraine is one of the top countries for international marriage agencies, and sexism is rampant. FEMEN’s goals are spot on, and without question, their methods get attention.

The text reads "Odessa is not a brothel." Picture from http://www.ukrainebusiness.com.ua.

It can be looked at as a reclaiming of one’s body, giving power to the breast-owners instead of the breast-oglers. It can be seen as a way to turn the system on its head, to use the potential of unwanted attention for good instead of evil.

But I’m not sold on it.

There are several problems with FEMEN that I can’t get past. The first is that the women involved with the protests are almost all tall, slender, conventionally beautiful women, and instead of a “fuck you” to society, it ends up being what you might expect a “fuck you” to society would look like if it were at the start of a porno. There has been one woman involved in the protests that did not fit in this mold, but she was being used for comic effect, playing Belarus president Lukashenko in the performance.

Picture from http://www.epress.am

The attention they garner can be looked at in multiple ways. On one hand, they have certainly raised awareness and presented a side of feminism that contradicts the stereotypes. On the other, even a cursory look at the comments on news stories regarding their performances reveals that the majority of the attention is aimed at their boobs, and not at the issues.

I could possibly get past that, if they claimed that this is performance art, throwing societal standards back at society, creating a parody of beauty standards to make a statement. Maybe.

The real problem is that nobody knows from where they get their funding. The average salary in Ukraine is $319/month, but these women, who are otherwise out of work, have enough money to live in the expensive city of Kyiv and to travel all over the world. It is also quite difficult and expensive to obtain a visa from Ukraine to other countries (especially for young women, and for the unemployed), but the women of FEMEN have visas dripping out of their passports. They are being backed by a person or an organization with money and influence, and they aren’t saying who that is.

Which makes the performance aspect take a chilling note. This is a group to protest the fact that women in Ukraine are commodified and sold to foreigners; meanwhile, the FEMEN women themselves have apparently been purchased for their looks and their willingness to bare their chests, and shipped all over the world to perform what can easily be interpreted as a sex act.  Oy.

The sign says "A woman is not a commodity." Except maybe the women in FEMEN kind of are. Picture from http://niklife.com.ua.

To sum up: FEMEN gets a lot of attention, fights the stereotype that feminists are man-hating hulks of testosterone-y estrogen, and their performances can be seen as a parody on the status quo. BUT, with no understanding of who is funding the group, as well as the use of a very specific type of topless woman in their protests, it is hard to see the group as anything other than a misogynist’s dream of what feminism is supposed to be.

In the end, I don’t know whether I think that this is a kick-ass group of strong women who have reclaimed their bodies for political purposes, or a pawn of the patriarchy. Having written this out, I am leaning towards the latter. I don’t know any smarter, more thoughtful people than our commenters, so I have a plea: How does this group read to you? Is there something that I am missing? Will somebody please tell me how to feel?

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Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

23 thoughts on “FEMEN-ism”

  1. Did some digging around some forums about who funds femen and Jed Sunden owner of KP Media came up.

    Here is the info about the femen website to prove it: http://femen.org.pandastats.net/

    Also this article: http://www.kyivpost.com/news/politics/detail/65379/

    As a man i thought it strange that the protesters all looked like models. As a man i also find it hard to look past the naked breasts. I hope there is genuine protest going on here and not some other hidden adenda.

  2. I have to say most of the points you bring up are new to me as far as my info on FEMEN goes. I’ve liked the group and been supportive of their mission, but I wasnt aware of many of the things you pointed out.

    But-I really find the idea that their nakedness cannot be a political statement without strings attached or that they are just a commodity, simple. I also find it kind of tiresome that its something that has to be pitied as mentioned below. One of the greatest things I have ever heard was this Gloria Steinem statement:

    “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke.

    Steinem was talking about how sexuality is always a trap for women. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, even by those who stand in the name of feminism. We are either shunned by the patriarchy or playing into it-its a similar argument lodged at sex workers, particularly strippers. I suppose since its been lodged at myself by both the larger culture and by feminist who considered any work that wasn’t within a particular context of sanctioned nudity or sexuality, it was playing into the patriarchy and I was just too “dumb” to realize it. So much of this response is coming out of a sore spot, but I just don’t think this situation is that cut and dry.

    One of the things that rubs me a bit wrong about aspects of feminism is the way nakedness and nudity are treated, as well as sexuality on display. Not that we don’t have good reason, but I find its an undercurrent in the predominant thinking. So while I, like you, do not know who sponsors FEMEN and would maybe rest at ease to find out who does,  I’m not willing to say that there nudity is commodified or its a misogynists dream of feminism. I just don’t think its that simple. It also is dangerously close to teetering on the edge of “my feminism is better than your feminism”.

    To say so plays into the dynamic of further sexualizing breasts, which, are just breasts. Almost everyone has seen a pair and the context of sexualization is predominantly different in a country that views toplessness very differently than the US (aka you can go to the park / beach topless  as a woman). Its not like they are pushing them together sexily with bed eyes, rubbing them in men’s faces. They are protesting topless. That doesnt mean people wont sexualize them, but I do think there are serious differences in context.

    I think that breaking sexual expectations/nudity/use of the body/nudity/sexuality is something that we have yet to break through with. A woman’s body is just that loaded. We are just not there yet were we can look at something like this and suspect its not a soft grade porno (because its not and why would it be problematic if it was). The fact that members have been tortured is a bigger deal to me than whether or not they are manipulating the patriarchy. Thats something that needs to be talked about.

    But hey, I mean, I could be so wrong that it will take me days to eat my words. I dont know the entire situation, I really dont. I just think that when you are tortured by the KGB, your probably not playing into the larger powers hands and that you are pissing off the right people. Sounds good to me.

    1. I definitely see your points.  I didn’t get into the recent stuff in Belarus because I wanted to look at the group as a whole, but it should be talked about.

      The thing is – they are sexualizing their breasts.  Ukraine is not a country where people walk around topless, although I have seen one or two topless people at the beach, and they aren’t as prudish as America is.  At the same time, it’s not France.  And they are definitely sexualizing them – some of their performances involve them making out with each other.

      And I hope I didn’t come across as being anti-FEMEN.  I think I lean that way, mostly because I think it’s strange that they won’t say who is funding them, and I feel dark undertones to that.  It is really, really hard to get a visa out of Ukraine, especially for a young beautiful out-of-work woman.  They aren’t having trouble.  There is more to the story here, in my opinion.

      And the fact that only a very specific body type is accepted – it’s not just nudity.  It’s a very, very specific type of nudity.

      Both of these issues are really hard for me to get past.

      But I also think that they are getting attention.  Lots of it.  And they are spreading the word, and they are fighting for equality for women.

      I was hoping for comments like yours because I want badly to be convinced one way or the other.  I am leaning towards being uncomfortable with the group, as is clearly obvious, but I want to believe in them.  Mostly I want to see more body types and I want to find out where their funding is coming from.

    2. One of the comments that I kept seeing on the news stories about them was a comparison between them and topless Occupy protesters, and it was generally along the lines of “now those women know how to protest!” because the Occupy protesters were apparently less conventionally beautiful.

      I think the reception of the message is important, too, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

      1. Definitely not – I just have feelings. Mostly because I deeply ache for women to be able to be free about their sexuality and nudity, expressing it in whatever form it takes,  and it not be a trap. But I think when it is expressed, say with something like this, it still plays into a larger picture and there are things that make it problematic for multiple reasons.

        I didnt know about the make out bit, which, again, is something I’ll have to watch before forming an opinion on, but even then, there is a part of me that thinks, Okay, but whats wrong with doing that? But then another part of me is like…hmmm, barsexual. I agree about the nudity-the majority has stuck to one body type thus far, but I also wonder who finds a movement like this accessible and the women who find it something to become attached to or if its like a try out.

        But you know? Were gonna find out more. And more on that later.

  3. I’m not sure either, and I’m open to having my mind changed on this, but my thoughts mainly coalesce into two points:

    – it’s a pity they feel they have to use nakedness to make their point, and

    – it’s not for me to tell feminist activists in other parts of the world what the ‘correct’ way to protest is.

    I hadn’t considered the funding issue, though, and I find that interesting…

    1. See, I don’t think it’s a pity that they use nakedness – but I am not comfortable with it only being a certain type of very beautiful very sexualized nakedness.  That, to me, is what moves this from the realm of “I am woman hear me roar” to “I am the kind of woman that men want, hear me roar.”  It could just be that all of the women who are interested in the group are exceptionally thin with perky breasts.  It feels – very staged to me.

      And yes.  It’s not my place to decide what is right and what is wrong.  Which is part of the reason why I wanted to write this – I wanted to hear other’s opinions.  So thanks.

      1. It’s definitely something on which reasonable ladymag readers can disagree:)

        I’d also want to know how other women’s groups in the Ukraine feel about them – allies or fakes? Will do a quick search later but though I can sound out Cyrillic I can’t actually read Ukrainian or Russian….

        1. I only have anecdotal evidence for this – when I try to search for feminist groups in Ukraine, FEMEN gets so much attention that a cursory search leaves me with nothing more.  What I do know is how Ukrainian feminists that I know feel about FEMEN, which is to give it major side-eye.

          http://maryxmas.livejournal.com/3071281.html

          I don’t know if you can get a Google translate of this site (maybe it’ll be tough because some of it is in Ukrainian and some in Russian, but Google translate is kind of amazing) – basically, the feminists that I know are raising the same questions.  Where are they getting their money, where are they getting their visas.

          But then it also feels kind of shaming, you know?  Like maybe the real problem is that people are uncomfortable with the female form, and the other stuff is just an excuse.  Which I might be guilty of.  I am trying not to be, but you never know how the subconscious works.

          1. Yea, I agree Susan. It does feel like shaming. But-I understand why other feminist groups are rattled by this. Are we at a point where this gets a message across? Will we ever? Do we care? Can we just do it anyway?

            Again, it comes back to the idea that in feminism, female nudity and sexuality can only be something that fits within the parameters of a certain school of thinking ( a lot of queer authors talk about this conundrum and someone I highly recommend is Susie Bright and the reaction she got from the feminist community, especially Andrea Dworkin, when she released On Our Backs which was about being able to reclaim the public, sexual self).

            I keep looking at these photos of topless women climbing steel fences and getting shoved by police and I cant help but think that people-all people-are terrified of women’s bodies when they take agency. In Libera, during the Charles Taylor years, not only did women go on a sex strike, but women stripped themselves naked and protested in the flesh in a place where public female nudity was extremely taboo.  It works on the idea that womens bodies, when used in their own power, are terrifying for men. You may sit there and enjoy some of the view, but in the end, it isnt for you. Thats what terrifies folks-the idea that womens bodies become something other than enjoyment and represent something deeply, deeply, powerful, even frightening.

            I also wonder if there was a similar group that didn’t protest topless, yet had the same perks of visa’s and money, if the same questions would be asked in the same manner. But for all the things that may be problematic, I just can’t side eye them. Any woman who goes out into the Ukrainian winter topless and climbs a steel fence in the name of equality, gets my support.

             

  4. Hmm, I don’t know how to feel about FEMEN. On one hand, I love to see radical, activist women going out and fighting the good fight. On the other hand, the showcasing of conventionally beautiful, topless women stirs uneasiness in me. It’s the whole master’s tools, master’s house thing. However, I appreciate that these women know they must work within a patriarchy, and they’re using it to their advantage.

  5. I have a Ukr-friend who’s working on her PhD on women’s issues in Ukraine . . I can’t wait to forward this and see what she has to say. On the one hand, you’re so right that Ukraine desperately needs this type of organization to exist. . .but likely not in this form. I’ll be interested to see how this develops over time…  Thanks for sharing!!!

  6. Personally, I LOVE Femen. I love the radical tactics combined with the optimism of youth.

    I first heard about them here, and my interest was piqued. I then heard a little more from a friend who attended a lecture on the group at UW. It seems that they actually do not identify as feminists, and their use of the term Femen could be seen as comparable to the term womanist, who also explicitly do not identify as feminist. When they began protesting, they were opposing human trafficking and sex tourism in Ukraine. They have since branched off into demonstrating about environmental issues, corruption, economic and sexual exploitation, etc.

    Contrary to what media reports would have us believe, they don’t just show up topless and wave signs. They stage choreographed theatrical routines with political messages, often using violent imagery to make their points. They are using traditional symbols of femininity and appropriating them in parody in an attempt to turn patriarchal discourse on its head in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

    According to this report, they’re causing quite a stir and pissing off some important people.

    1. Yes – they definitely do performances.  I just don’t think I can get past the fact that they refuse to say where their funding is coming from.  Annnd, that they don’t have anybody except very, very thin women.

      And I don’t know how effective it is, too.  The attention that they are getting doesn’t seem to be pointed toward the issues.

      I want to believe like you.  But I don’t think I can.  :(.

    1. Hi. We are doing a documentaryfilm about womens situation in the worldpatriarchy. We are going to Ukraine and Kiev to get some material about the situation for women there. We heard that you had some contacts with feminists in Ukraina and want to ask you if you could help us come in contact with them.

      I didn’t found any private mail to you so I hope you get this message.
      All the best and thank u for your help.

      /Anton

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