Femen’s misplaced belief in the power of breasts

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.


9 thoughts on “Femen’s misplaced belief in the power of breasts

  1. Oh, gloss. I respect your opinion here, but…*sigh*. Let’s just link to a comment I wrote on FEMEN a while back:

    A few other quick thoughts: I completely fail to see how FEMEN is racist. Unless, contrary to my own knowledge, they are denying women from joining them on the basis of their skin color or perceived race/ethnicity, then I fail to see why it’s harmful that they all apparently happen to be white.

    If a feminist movement sprang up in China, I wouldn’t be offended if all the women were Asian.

    FEMEN is springing out of Eastern Europe. Why is anyone surprised that these protesters look white? In fact, perhaps it is the detached observation of us foreigners that qualifies for racism in calling them all white, because in Eastern Europe there is a long history of distinguishing between various “white” ethnicities that all “look the same” to Western Europeans and Americans. I’m guessing that FEMEN protesters actually represent a number of different Eastern European ethnicities, and that in their area they are probably considered relatively diverse.

    As far as physical shape, we again have to remember that this movement is springing forth from a specific geographic and cultural background. In the U.S., it’s literally impossible to go to a grocery store in any decent sized town without seeing more than a share of obese people. That’s not the same world-wide, and I’m guessing that Eastern Europeans probably tend to be thinner and perhaps more fit than Americans (I can’t speak for Western Europe). This fat-acceptance thing we have here I believe to be culturally significant within the social realm of the U.S. with its addiction to cholesterol and artificial sugars on one hand and its obsession with artificial glamor on the other (Read: beauty pageants, Cosmopolitan, Cover Girl, etc.), but I doubt it’s that relevant in many other places.

    But suppose I’m wrong, and there are obese women, and disabled women, and transwomen, and women of color, and all these other women who
    are just dying to join FEMEN. Again, has the group denied them membership? Unless someone can show me that FEMEN protesters are refusing to allow people to join, then I just don’t get the alarm.

    Finally, even in the worst case scenario that FEMEN *gasp* doesn’t represent every women in the entire world – guess what? No group does. Feminism is a movement of multiplicities. It’s a movement of diverse activisms, each related to its own cultural and social background, each struggling against its own gender paradigm. And the beauty is that all these fighters around the world are forming a world-wide movement – just by all advocating for the dignity, respect, and equality of women in their own way.

    I stand by FEMEN’s brand of feminism, and I stand by your brand of feminism, and and I stand by all the other feminist movements, even the ones with which I intellectually disagree, because at the end of the day feminism is not about thinking but acting. Every moment we spend opposing the details of each others’ tactics and principles leads only to divisiveness among women, and I think that we can all agree we don’t need divisiveness but sisterhood. I feel we should support each other, even when your sisters are odd, because we’re all in this together, and we all have a world to change 🙂

    1. I think Glosswitch’s observation of ‘racist’ comes from Femen’s attitude to Asian and Arabic women. They seem to think these women are only oppressed because they can’t walk around without their tits out.

      It’s the age old conundrum of whether you have the right to march in and tell women from a completely different culture to you that they are either oppressed or doing feminism wrong. Femen also ignores the work women in these areas are doing because it doesn’t fit their idea of feminist activism. That’s what the Adewumni piece Glosswitch linked to discusses.

      Femen may not explicitly state that they would bar a non-Western, non-European or non-white woman from joining, but would they be prepared to accept her reasons for not wanting to ‘get her tits out’?

      1. I agree (well obviously I agree because you’re agreeing with me! But I, um, might have agreed if you’d disagreed and … well, anyhow). I do think this is a really hard area. I don’t think it’s okay to say “well, covering up’s a choice” if it’s not actually a choice for many women – but what’s the most effective way of offering support if it’s not your life and your risk to take? I worried a little at the end of the Adewunmi piece that it was veering towards suggesting we take no moral stance on women being denied choice (I don’t imagine that’s what she thinks, but the fact that some women choose to wear the hijab has always struck me as a ridiculous argument in defence of other women not having any choice in the matter). But it is a question of how to be an effective activist, not just one who gets the most attention.

    2. I think what you are saying works well as a defence of a movement such as Slutwalk (which I would support), since it has a specific, defined cultural context and a clear message about the meaning of exposure within it. That seems to me a positive thing, regardless of whether it includes all women and all cultures – as you point out, how can it be possible to include everyone? I don’t think Femen work in the same way. They do claim to represent all – Shevchenko explicitly states in her Guardian piece that they are “rethinking the history of feminism in its entirety”. If anyone is dismissive of a variety of feminisms here and the need for support between groups, I don’t believe it’s me.

      1. Points well taken, and I’m glad we have opened up a discussion! Thank you for bringing it up in the first place and for always writing such outstanding posts.

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