Friday, 6 September 2013

Why femen should probably just stop. now.

Did I say update last Sunday? I did. Back to the old habits so soon!

This will be up on Femusings tomorrow but here's a sneaky preview for blog readers. I love you guys! I mean, go to Femusings too. But also keep coming here.

Boobies in this post!

It’s always quite inconvenient when feminist things get ruined by manipulative men. Just ask anybody involved with the dismal Hugo Schwyzer, who set himself up as a paragon of reformed male feminism only to have a lengthy meltdown involving twitter marathons, manipulative semi-apologies, a (hopefully!) career-ending confession about sleeping with students and perhaps the most obtuse Jezebel article ever written. Of course, plenty of people were already well aware of how sleazy Schwyzer has always been, not a difficult conclusion to come to given that his main man-feminist tactic was to tell sob stories about awful things he used to do but now virtuously refrains from. The discovery that the virtuous refraining was in fact compulsive lying therefore came more as a depressing confirmation rather than a stunning revelation. A manipulative man ruining a thing? Not really so surprising to most of us, unfortunately.

So it goes with Femen, who this week are sending their activists into damage control mode with a new documentary, “Ukraine is not a brothel”, which reveals that the entire movement was masterminded by their “advisor” Victor Svyatski. On camera, Svyatski claims that “on some deep unconscious level” he probably started the group to meet girls, which is pretentious manipulative man speak for “I am very clever and self-aware and am going to tell you nasty truths in a really clever way so the intelligence and honesty will cancel out my utter moral bankruptcy”. He also makes a long statement about how his presence was necessary because on their own the women of Femen are weak and directionless and need a strong male hand. Clearly these are not the words of a man who expects to endear himself to a wider audience, so it’s probably not surprising that “leading member” Inna Shevchenko has come out to say that Svyatski has been out of Femen for a year, they all knew how awful he was most of the time, and anyway they came up with topless protests on their own and didn’t need him. Except they sort of did. But they don’t any more! All is well and feminine in the land of Femen.

The damage has been done, however. In March, Tunisian Amina Sboui’s topless protest and subsequent arrest provoked a range of Islamophobic responses from Femen members in various cities: prompting Sboui herself to publically leave Femen at the end of August, suggesting that a more specific anarchist movement might be more her thing. She and others have pointed out the lack of transparency in the group’s finances, with most members apparently completely unaware of how the group funds itself. And it’s long been an open secret that the group selects its members based on their conventional attractiveness. Scouring both press photographs and the pictures the group takes of themselves reveals very few muffin tops or stretch marks, and racial diversity is limited to a couple of shots of light-skinned black women. Sometimes these perfect-bodied women paint “breast feeding army” onto themselves, to demonstrate how great breasts are even though most mothers could tell you that post-natal perfect bodies look a bit different to the pornographic ideal.

Could I find this scene recreated in any number of demeaning videos on RedTube? Absolutely.

Because the thing about Femen, really, is that they are trying to “smash the patriarchy” by upholding the pornographic ideal of women. While writing this article, I spent a very long time refreshing the Femen website to check out the different banners they have. My favourite is a beautifully-dishevelled slim naked women glaring sensually at the camera with white semen-like liquid oozing out of her mouth. This is made feminist by the fact she is flipping the audience off and “Fickt die Sexindustrie” (fuck the sex industry) is written over the top of the picture. The “X” in sex is a swastika, for that extra edgy touch! When they’re not taking these sorts of subversive selfies, Femen are out on street protests which are designed to attract media attention by setting up one of two kinds of shots: either straight-up male gaze objectification shots of hot naked bodies, or images of nearly-naked women being dominated and controlled by fully-clothed men. Now, where else have I seen nearly-naked women being dominated and controlled by fully-clothed men this summer? Oh, that’s right, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. That feminist classic.

Nudity and objectification are regularly used as tools to degrade women, and that makes a movement to reclaim the female body an incredibly important part of the feminist movement. It also makes it a very difficult thing to get right. The difference between pictures of nude activists in newspapers about men with their clothes on, and pictures of nude glamour models in newspapers about men with their clothes on, is a quite nuanced set of concepts about intent and power and ownership that make it enormously important that the work of groups like Femen is done right. If, as the latest allegations suggest, this work is being done as a result of male desire to manipulate women into being naked, this all becomes a lot less nuanced and a lot more straightforwardly awful. That there are women like Sevchenko who do appear to passionately believe in their organisation’s goals is a step in the right direction, but if Femen aren’t constantly considering how topless protests fit in to a wider feminist dialogue involving more than just hardy nubile white girls, and particularly into the massive grey area that is female nudity and pornography, then they are failing in their job as anti-patriarchy provocateurs. And if they have been producing male gaze pornography and images of women being dominated on the directive of a man who believes that his own presence is necessary to make the movement happen at all, then the group’s use of nudity becomes effectively indistinguishable from any other male-mandated use of women’s bodies. Femen’s message turns from women smashing patriarchy to patriarchy having a bigoted, self absorbed conversation with itself, using women’s bodies as notepaper.

When Robin Thicke turned around and said Blurred Lines was a feminist manifesto, nobody gave him the time of day- rightfully so, both because he was already on record saying “what a pleasure it is to degrade a woman” and because you can’t just add feminist meaning to any random act that involves women. When people who are in favour of Page 3 suggest it’s a tool of empowerment because Censorship Is Wrong, we laugh at them or facepalm, or maybe both if we are feeling particularly co-ordinated on that day, because that is missing the fundamental point about what the intention of Page 3 is. If the Stunning Revelations about Victor Svyatski came at the end of a stunningly successful year for Femen, in which they challenged pornographic ideals and promoted an inclusive movement and designed strong, clever protests which made for rallying symbols and furthered the feminist cause, the information in “Ukraine is not a brothel” would be shocking and sad but also not insurmountable. But, as with Hugo Schwyzer, the fact that Femen are not who they say they are is frankly old news. Pessimists win, the world gets a little sadder, but it’s time to close the door on this particular group. The movement to reclaim the female body is going to need some new and better champions.