Over the past few days I’ve been deciding what I think of Femen (this has involved a lot bra unfastening and re-fastening while I make my mind up). On the one hand I’m quite drawn to the idea of knocking down great oligarchs with a rebellious, well-aimed tit swing. And on the other I don’t want to impose boob-centric values on others. Argh! Will it be okay if I expose just one breast? Come to think of it, should I just dig out one of my old nursing bras for ease of selective flashing? Finally, I’ve come down on the side of covering up (even though I’m writing this in the bath, so I’m not actually wearing anything. Just saying). What others choose to do with their bodies is their business – or rather it isn’t, but self-aggrandising, racist rhetoric isn’t going to change this.
Amina Tyler should not be facing death threats for writing her own words on her own body. Neverthess, to revel in Femen’s broader message — as the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones does, portraying it as a “gloriously crude” antidote to “tight-lipped liberal relativism” — is to miss the many female voices raised passionately against Femen, voices with no hint of “mealy mouthed” reticence. If Femen’s activism appears too simplistic, that’s because it is. As Bim Adewunmi notes “like much of the feminisms that have been exported from the West, it does not seem to take into account the obstacles to carrying out this form of protest”
It rides roughshod over grassroots organisations and the work they may have been quietly and steadfastly engaged in over years, and stipulates that this feminism, the one where you bare your breasts and sloganise your skin, is the feminism. It does not take into account community mores, and […] incorporates more than a little Islamophobia.
I think all this is true. Beyond that, I wonder what it means for Western feminism itself. It might shine a light on imperialistic impulses, but at the same time it fails to acknowledge the personhood of the women it privileges, every one of whom remains more than the sum of her breasts (that’s assuming she has breasts at all).
Femen capture the arrogance and racism of many branches of Western feminism but they don’t capture what it means to have a female body, even if it’s the body of a Western woman who shares their blinkered cultural assumptions. Bodies are threatened and denied recognition in a variety of ways and yes, a reduction of female transgression to the display of cis female breasts (primarily pert, young, white ones) just happens to be one of them. Femen might provide a shining example of Western feminism’s colonialist urges but they don’t present a coherent opposing culture (on this score even UKIP can be said to do better). Instead, they caricature every woman’s relationship with her body and its surrounding environment, regardless of whether she meets their exacting standards for rebellion or not.
There’s a deep conservatism underpinning the idea that any woman who exposes her breasts in a non-sexual context is necessarily transgressing social boundaries in a way that’s never been done before. Have Femen ever seen a woman breastfeeding in public? A cancer survivor exposing her scars? Have they ever watched the film Calendar Girls, for god’s sake? (by the way, that’s not meant to be a call for a Femen calendar, although it would not surprise me if one is already being planned, nor, that being the case, if my uncle were then to buy it for my dad as a semi-jokey Christmas present). If, like me, you are a woman who has frequently whacked your breasts out in public for purely practical reasons (to comfort a screaming baby, for instance), it’s hard not to feel a little patronized by these brave warriors of truth. Believe it or not, the whole world does not quake at the sheer power of a blood-red nipple (many’s the time I got ‘em out in Starbucks, part feeding session, part No Logo stand-off, but alas, globalisation’s still happening).
Different women – trans women, cis women, younger women, older women, rape survivors, ED sufferers, cis women who’ve undergone hysterectomies or mastectomies, women for whom many of these categories apply simultaneously – have to be enabled to reclaim ownership of their bodies in different ways. To reduce this to “get your anarchic tits out” – anarchic tits which you might not even have – is crushingly simplistic. There ought to be a better language available to those like Amina Tyler, one that translates across cultures and recognises the different pressures felt by the broad mix of women within each. To merely announce, as Inna Shevchenko does, that one’s nakedness “attacks the raw nerve of the historic conflict between women and the ‘system’”, shows a profound lack of engagement with the variety of women’s experiences. If anything, it reinforces a taboo by insisting that observers feel shock, regardless of whether or not that’s really the case. To be honest, when you look at it that way, I’m still way more impressed by L7’s Donita Sparks playing the guitar with no pants on during the closing credits of The Word in 1992 (17 at the time, I’d just returned from my regular Friday night youth orchestra session. It convinced me there was more to life, although I continue to play the cello fully clothed).
When you are alone, your body is just flesh. It’s outside that the meanings are applied and they’re not remotely consistent (which is a challenge for any woman seeking to negotiate the world as a sexual – or non-sexual – being). The visual impact of forbidden flesh can be so powerful it can change assumptions – or it can make your enemies want to kill you. But baring flesh for the sake of it does neither (I mean, do it if you want to, but ideally with sunscreen and an emergency cardigan close at hand). And now I’m off to write F-you slogans on my breasts with the bath crayons. I don’t hold out much hope but I’ll let you know if it brings Mr Matey to his knees.
PS I am hoping I am not the only one who looks at this photograph of a Femen protest and instantly feels the urge to start tit proof-reading. I tell you, misplaced apostrophes, that’s definitely the way forward next time you’re looking to shake fragile lefties like me to the core.