I’m tired of reading about Femen. I’m tired of talking about Femen. I’m tired of writing about Femen. Ukraine’s naked protestors were once a topic of conversation and debate among friends, colleagues and fellow activists; the “topless warriors” then became—to many of us—a running joke. But now even the comic value has grown stale. The most recent response to Femen’s stunts, at least in my circle, has been a tepid eye-roll or a yawn, the strongest reaction a sluggish wave of the hand: “They’ll go away eventually.”
Femen has been soundly critiqued for a long list of thorny issues raised by the organization’s chosen tactics, membership, targets, and motivational aims. In addition to widespread objections over the group’s cultural obscenity and moral offensiveness (which, to my mind, constitutes the least of its problems), Femen’s imperialist feminism, financial mismanagement, counter-productive methods of recruitment and protest, and authoritarian male founder are but a few of the arguments against it.
Although I generally decline invitations to write about the organization, I do so here in the interests of demonstrating how Femen’s protest strategies are inherently limited, working as they do within dominant power structures. I also want to draw attention to the utility of the group’s selected symbols and methods—and to suggest that sustainable, viable mechanisms for galvanizing change must go beyond the “shock value” approach all-too-common in a political culture immersed in methods borrowed from the entertainment industry.
In positive news for critics of Femen, the group will, indeed, go away—eventually, and if for no other reason than that the shelf life of “sextremism” is well past its expiration date. But now for the bad news: Femen will not fade from public view because of a widespread embrace of nuanced postcolonial feminism or acceptance of the complex nature of agency. Neither will Femen disappear due to the unexpected, instant eradication of patriarchal control over women’s bodies, however badly many of us might want this. The sad truth is that Femen’s time in the spotlight is limited and its fifteen minutes of fame is ticking down rapidly—quite simply—because the organization is now boring.
Femen’s Latest Stunt
Femen promised the world that this Christmas in Bethlehem would be unforgettable. As part of this “Naked War on Christmas” (Bill O’Reilly, I’m sure you’re paying close attention to this one), Femen planned topless attacks against the city of Christ’s birth, as well as the Catholic Church’s seat in Vatican City and churches in France and Germany.
On December 19 in Saint Peter’s Square, Inna Shevchenko, the group’s infamous public face, ran through the crowds screaming, “Christmas is cancelled.” For those who failed to grasp the message, Shevchenko clarified with a phrase written across her chest: “Jesus is aborted.”
Unlike the well-publicized “Topless Jihad” campaign launched by FEMEN earlier this year in support of Tunisia’s Amina Tyler (a.k.a. Sboui), the Christmas stunt was accompanied by a declaration of political goals (I use this phrase loosely) only after the fact – and it still made little sense.
After Shevchenko’s display, Femen announced its intention: Vatican City constituted part of its broader strategy to protest the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance. Perhaps it is just me, but inviting pilgrims and worshippers to contemplate a world (and, by implication, a better world) in which the Virgin Mary aborted Jesus Christ does not seem to be a particularly effective tactic for challenging the stranglehold of patriarchal religion on women’s reproductive rights.
As for its 2013 holiday extravaganza in Bethlehem, Femen chickened out and never staged a demonstration. But, in a church in Cologne, Germany, a Femen activist replaced the “Topless Jihad” campaign slogan “Fuck your morals,” with the simpler, more elegant statement: “I am God.”
Readers with a grasp of Middle Eastern and Islamic history may be reminded of al Hallaj, the ninth-century Persian mystic publically executed in Baghdad after spending a decade in prison. His crime? Uttering “I am the Truth” in the midst of spiritual ecstasy and thus, in the eyes of literalist Muslims, heretically laying claim to divine attributes. Yet—somehow—I suspect this reference is not what Femen had in mind.
After all, what could Femen protesters really do to top “Topless Jihad?” The April 2013 anti-Islam demonstrations around the world proved a publicity bonanza for the organization, one difficult to eclipse.
The central figure of the “Topless Jihad” campaign, Amina Tyler broke with the group in August 2013. Following a storm of controversy unleashed by Amina’s nude self-portrait, Femen adopted the young Tunisian woman as a rallying cry for freedom of expression and as a condemnation of not only Islamic fundamentalism, but by extension, Islam itself. The Europe-focused “Topless Jihad” demonstrations garnered much media attention as did Tyler’s eventual renunciation of Femen as financially opaque and Islamophobic in orientation.
These developments, combined with allegations that Femen’s members were being manipulated by a misogynistic male founder, caused the activists to fall fairly quiet for a while. After a period of delegitimizing attention (which focused not only on the founder’s misogynistic control, and a troubling lack of funding transparency—but also allegations that the “feminist” group weeded out unattractive members for publicity stunts), the opportunity to commit the ultimate sacrilege for Christians, a renunciation of divinity on the most holy day in the most sacred of spaces, could not have been more tempting.
The “sextremism” of Femen fits within a broader social phenomenon of radicalization, as
familiar as it is widespread across diverse sectors of contemporary globalized culture.
From spectacularly brutal terrorist atrocities to increasingly absurd “reality” television programs, outrageous stunts progressively lose shock value and become trite parodies no longer capable of garnering public attention. The stakes must, therefore, be ratcheted up to catch, and hold, headlines. Worldwide, we have become enthralled with an entertainment industry approach to political expression and activities.
This larger problem with Femen unmasks a troubling lack of logic with this supposedly radical organization, and explains a strategy more aptly characterized as gimmick than concerted political action or performance art. “Sextremism,” the (largely incoherent) ideology articulated by Femen as both fundamental aim and method of social protest, implies a purposeful self-marginalization from the dominant structures of power the group purports to oppose. Stated differently, by embracing a supposedly extreme approach to sexuality, Femen allegedly challenges the patriarchy.
But, the most cursory look at the now-defunct “Girls Gone Wild” series of amateur, soft-core pornography videos reveals problematic similarities with Femen’s purportedly anti-patriarchal methods. The adult entertainment company’s strategy of seeking out college-age women palatable to prevailing Western standards of beauty mirrors that of the supposedly radical feminist organization.
Beyond the surface of beautiful topless women, however, is another similarity that defeats the ostensibly radical nature of “sextremism.” “Girls Gone Wild” and Femen’s topless wars focus on the female breasts—body parts heavily sexualized in the West as a primary site for the male gaze. What might a truly sextremist social protest look like if nudity and the commodified female body constitute a fundamental tool? Would writing “fuck your morals” across one’s labia gain the same level of media attention? It certainly would not sell as well—a fact of which Femen is well aware.
Provocation has a pragmatic utility—forcing into the public sphere previously taboo issues. But that is not what Femen does; rather, its members act and react well within the framework of the dominant patriarchal system. I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed men respond to commentary about Femen with a leering: “I’d love to see them in action ;).” Rather than a solid attack against a deeply entrenched patriarchal society, this common response reveals precisely how useful Femen’s bare breasted strategy is for fighting female objectification—in an emoticon, not really ;).
“Sextremism” is an unsustainable form of social protest. No matter the organization’s goals, its divisive methods and reliance on shock-value performance ultimately lock the activists into a mode of “dissent” where only increasing self-sexualization can gain—and keep—the eye of the media. Simply put, Femen has nothing we have not seen before.
To reference the incomparable Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So: go home, Femen. You’re drunk boring.