Last Wednesday I went to see the avant-première of Alain Margot’s documentary Je suis FEMEN at Capitol, which was screened the previous day at the Visions du Réel Nyon Festival and is participating in the category Helvétiques. The documentary follows the group FEMEN for a period of time in 2012, and shows how they prepare their ‘political actions’. It –almost obsessively– focuses on Oksana Shachko, one of the co-founders of the movement, a bright young girl with clear artistic talents, while the other FEMEN are brought in almost as background and/or prompts.
As the event was an avant-première, the director, producer, and three of the core FEMEN members where present, and a short round of questions followed the screening. There they were, these three young women, wearing white T-Shirts that read ‘Fuck the System’, ‘Fuck you Putin’, and ‘Fuck Religion’ and answering to the friendly and flat questions some members of the audience asked. I had myself a few questions I would have loved to throw at them, but after watching the film and seeing the audience’s warm reaction to it, I decided against it and kept them to myself.
My interest in FEMEN dates from a couple of years back. On the one hand, I am interested in politics and culture and in how both are intrinsically connected; on the other, my work concerns feminism, representation, postcolonialism, and the question of the body. The FEMEN are an obvious case study where all these aspects intersect. This is what pushed me to go to the screening of Margot’s film. Although I received detailed information about the film, I was too lazy to read it and I was surprised to find the FEMEN at the Capitol. It was just after I was on my seat that I realised the film was meant as a highly sympathetic –therefore utterly uncritical– coverage of these young women’s movement.
It is not my intention in this blog entry to be bitchy about these women and jump at their throats. One good thing about the film is that I now can recognise three faces and associate those faces with names. I am also now somehow –and to some extent– sympathetic towards them because I learned that these young women, at least Oksana, and also Anna Houtsol, want to do something, and actively engage in finding the means to do it without hesitation. Additionally, they have a lot of courage: they know that through their actions they risk prison –in certain countries at least– and have indeed been arrested by no other than Ukrainian, Bielorussian and Russian police. It would be unfair not to recognise this. However, it is also true that they seem too naive, uninformed, and childish, and consequently, both their tactics and discourse are, firstly, ineffective, and secondly, very problematic. Moreover, they actively contribute to the reification of the ‘We/Other’ binary opposition upon which the justification for western military interventions in the Muslim world rests, particularly after the 9/11 events.
Much has been written and said about the FEMEN, and I do not pretend here to be the first to voice these concerns. I just want to frame the issues in question within the context of this brand new documentary, which I believe will relaunch the debate. Hence, Margot’s Je suis FEMEN will be the only source I will refer to.
I will organise my argument around two points. Firstly, what FEMEN stand for, or rather against; secondly, the female body.
From their words and actions one gets that FEMEN are against the Ukrainian Government, the Ukrainian Opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko, the Bielorussian Government, Putin, the Kiev’s zoo managers, prostitution, patriarchy, and religion (particularly Islam). At some point during the questions round a man asked what is exactly they reclaim (revendiquent), a question coldly welcomed by the woman playing the role of debate moderator, and they said –in Russian and translated by the interpreter– they opposed ‘patriarchy, the sexual exploitation of women, and religion’. (Any eventual vagueness diffused. Thank you) .
What do they do specifically to contest such a colossal and incontestably powerful assemblage of people, practices, and institutions? They bare theirs breasts and shout ‘Fuck’. The word ‘fuck’ is central to FEMEN’s struggle. It is in fact so pervasive in its written and spoken form that one wonders if they believe it to be a performative –in Austin’s sense– rather than an overused expression of anger.
Apart from shouting ‘fuck’ and grapple with police when they are removed from their picketing, the documentary shows them carrying out a few other actions, three of which are worth mentioning.
- A protest staged at the Kiev Zoo against what they claim is the systematic killing of animals in a bid to get rid of them and sell the zoo park (not that I doubt the veracity of the claim). They think those animal’s lives need to be respected. Their strategy is to make animal masks –skilfully crafted by Oksana– climb on top of the Zoo’s entrance and throw meat –I suppose animal meat– onto the street. So they defend animals rights by throwing out animal meat.
- A photo shoot at Chernobyl for which they were wearing ten inch high heels, heavy make-up, had their hear brushed, and of course were bare breasted. The goal of this action is never explained, so one cannot really comment on its effectiveness. Since there is no explicit political goal, one cannot but link the action with a photo shoot for a call-girls catalogue. Which leads me to the third example.
- A series of actions held during the Euro 2012 –jointly held in Poland and Ukraine– where they protested against the, according to them, pervasive perception of Ukrainian women as prostitutes, and the Western assumption of Ukraine as being Europe’s whorehouse. Yet, when you see the Chernobyl action as depicted in Je suis FEMEN, it is difficult to not read it as precisely a sort of publicity about the beauty, slimness, and sexiness of Ukrainian women –which I personally don’t believe will reduce the amount of men interested in paying for sex with Ukrainian sex-workers.
This last example leads me to the second part of my argument: the centrality of a particular type of female body in FEMEN’s struggle. At some point in the documentary, Anna, who is one of the co-founders of the movement and the only core FEMEN member not to be remarkably beautiful and sexy, argues that FEMEN’s essence resides on a paradox: FEMEN activists look like porn actresses, like ‘sexual objects’, but these are ‘sexual objects’ that speak up. And the originality of this strategy, she claims, is that people are not used to see sexual objects speaking up. Although, the hypersexualised ’empowered’ female subject is far from being a new phenomenon –anybody acquainted with postfeminism knows that– she believes this is what makes FEMEN so unique and radical. So, although Anna dismisses ‘intellectual and older’ feminists because, according to her, they refuse to accept ‘simple’ women in their movement –by simple women she means uneducated or non-intellectual women– it seems pretty obvious that looking like a bimbo is crucial for being a FEMEN –which hinders not-bimbo like women from being taken seriously by the movement. It is true that in Je suis FEMEN we see a woman who stands at the opposite end of the postfeminist ideal of femininity –undoubtedly embodied in both Inna and Oskana– staging a protest in Bielorussia. This woman, however, is never given a name, is never introduced to the viewer, does not belong to the core members, and is clearly in none of the photographs or posters promoting FEMEN.
What is more striking is the fact that Anna herself –who in the film implies she is not sufficiently attractive and claims she rather looks like a traditional feminist– does never seem to actively participate in any of FEMEN’s actions. There is clearly no one single picture of her naked upper-body. Yet nudity is the basis of their staged protest. Nudity of the ‘perfect’ female body.
Thus, FEMEN want to invest nudity with the same performative power they assume the expression ‘fuck’ has. Again, one cannot but exult about the force of naked breasts in making Putin’s rule not only wane but outright crumble.
In France, where the movement has been widely embraced and welcomed, FEMEN staged a few protests under what they called at the time the ‘naked jihad’. One of these protests, the film shows, took place at a mosque somewhere in France. The slogan coined by the French participants was ‘nudité liberté’, a slogan quite weighty in the cultural and political context of post-banning-of-the-veil France. Equating ‘nudity’ with ‘liberty’ works towards the consolidation of the Orientalist project that has maintained colonial power well beyond the colonial era. It depicts the ‘other’ –their practices, customs, ways of living– as backwards, in contrast with a supposedly modern and Enlightened ‘we’. Hence, rather than being original and radical in their fight, FEMEN are simply repeating the same old mantra all over, and actively helping to stir up the already charged disputes at the heart of current international conflicts. Moreover, I believe that this makes of FEMEN a useful instrument for far right populism in Europe. This is perhaps the reason why they were warmly welcomed in France, where Islamophobia is indeed an issue.
Thus, while Je suis FEMEN showed to me the human side behind what I had perceived until now as a bunch of silly young women looking for attention, it also confirmed my apprehensions, namely, that they engage in –in the best of cases– useless protest; and –in the worst of cases– counterproductive actions. In both cases they reinforce, on the one hand, postfeminist premises that make female power to be entirely dependant on youth and female beauty –in a very narrow sense of the concept; and on the other, the opposition ‘we’ (the civilised, modern, Enlightened West)/’other’ (the backwards, primitive, irrational Muslim) upon which the thesis of the ‘Clash of civilisations’ rests.