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!”
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, Ñ„ÐµÐ¼Ð¸Ð½Ð¸Ð·Ð¼, and Ñ„ÐµÐ¼iÐ½iÐ·Ð¼. 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.
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.
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.
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?