Link: “Freakish Fat,” “Wretched Black”

For those interested in Cultural Studies, Judith Butler’s theoretical work on subjection and the performativity of gender, and/or Colombia, here I am providing the link to my article “‘Freakish Fat,’ ‘Wretched Black'” that just appeared in Feminist Media Studies.


This paper explores the construction of female abject beings in Colombian contemporary media and culture comparing a character in the 2010 telenovela Chepe Fortuna named Venezuela, and the cultural representation of Piedad Córdoba. I argue that the construction of these two characters as abject beings is coherent with the dominant discourse of Alvaro Uribe’s national project, which relied on a strong nationalist rhetoric based on binary oppositions of the type “we/other.” In this context both Chepe Fortuna’s Venezuela and Piedad Córdoba are constructed as “other.” While Venezuela’s abjection is partly effected on the basis of her being fat and black, Córdoba’s is on the basis of her being a left-wing politician, and mediated through her being a black female. These two instances evidence an approach to femaleness that goes hand-in-hand with particular understandings of female subjectivity within current post-feminist paradigms.



Je suis FEMEN (2014)

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.


On feminism, human rights, and raising sons

I just read a short article in The Independent on Patti Smith’s refusal to give an opinion about the overwhelming sexualisation of women by the music industry in contemporary (global) culture. Apparently for Smith, engaging critically with something amounts to nothing more than passing judgment, but as anyone concerned with literary/cultural criticism well knows, a ‘critical reading’ is far from being the same as ‘a judgment of value’. Moreover, in order to engage critically with something one needs to leave aside judgments. According to Smith she cannot ‘judge how another person does their work’ and that ‘Everyone has a choice’. Her arguments fall well in line with one of neoliberalism central tenets, namely, its intense emphasis on individualism and the question of choice. The idea of depoliticising culture and reducing it to a matter of choice and/or personal expression or realisation is one of the most cleverly performed neoliberal ruses. It has helped the neoliberal project –in its cultural, economic and political aspects– to get and maintain a worldwide hegemonic position, while brushing aside any potential criticism. In this respect, Smith’s standpoint endorses the dominant discourse that takes the political back to the private sphere: if women want to be hyper-sexualised it is their choice and nobody has any rights whatsoever in challenging anybody’s personal choice. Although I staunchly disagree with her views in this respect, I am not going to discuss this issue here. Rather, what I would like to discuss, is her reported comments about feminism and its apparently incompatibility with raising a boy. This is what she reportedly says:

“I have a son and a daughter, people always talk to me about feminism and women’s rights, but I have a son too – I believe in human rights.”

So she is saying that because she has a son it is her responsibility towards that son not to endorse feminism. Further, she seems to think that being a feminist would mean to put one’s daughter’s interests before one’s son’s interest. Although I have no problems with her disengagement with feminism –I do not believe ‘women’ have the intrinsic responsibility of being feminists– I find very problematic her construing of feminism as being opposed to men’s rights. This is a common misconstruction that keeps feeding antifeminist sentiments with dire consequences for both women and men.

A central premise of feminism is the equality of the sexes. This means, firstly, that one believes discrimination on the basis of people’s gender is problematic; and secondly, that one admits that discrimination on the basis of gender is still rampant, and that women are the most affected by this type of discrimination. I do not think one needs to be a feminist to acknowledge that historically women have been cross-culturally subjected to discrimination in a systematic manner for the only reason of being female. I don’t think either that one needs to be a feminist to admit that most of human beings subjected to rape and different forms of sexual abuse are overwhelmingly female. Accepting these two facts does not mean to put girls’ and women’s interests in front of boys’ and men’s. It does not imply either the hindering of human rights. On the contrary, it implies extending human rights to that part of the world population that are excluded from such rights for the solely reason of having been born female. If we really care about justice and human rights, these issues should not only concern women and parents of girls, but also men and parents of boys.

I do too have son, and no daughter, and central to my –and my son’s father with whom I share custody– educational project is to make our son understand his privileged position as a European, white, middle-class male in a world that is highly hierarchised along the axes of gender, race, class and sexuality. If parents of girls might get anxious about their daughters being exposed to the dangers of falling prey to sexual or domestic abuse –global statistics are terrifying in this respect–, parents of boys –like ourselves– get anxious at the possibility that our son ends playing the culprit. A few weeks ago I received a phone call from the mother of a girl that goes to school with my son. She told me my son –along with his new mate– was bullying her daughter, calling her names, and telling she was ‘ugly’ and ‘silly’. The world beneath my feet trembled and I had to force myself not to cry. Surely being the victim of bullying –or any type of abuse– is terrible, but feeling responsible for abuse is equally dreadful, and I felt pretty much responsible because it was my own son who was behind a girl’s suffering. I spoke to my child and explained to him what he was doing. I made him aware of the fact that he was hurting this girl and making her miserable. Happily my son listens to us, his parents. He felt ashamed of his behaviour and changed it immediately. I didn’t have to punish him or get angry. I just had to explain the problem and I did explain it using all the terms and language of feminism. I realised that my son engaged in bullying this girl as a means to create a bond with the other boy, an old story in this old world. His misbehaviour was clearly configured along the axes of gender, the girl being placed at the bottom end of a hurting practice that had as its goal the bonding between two boys. Although the boys were not aiming at hurting the girl, they hurt her. The fact that I explained to my son why his and his friend’s behaviour was wrong and why it was important for him (them) to stop it didn’t mean I was putting this girl’s rights before my son’s. It meant that I made use of feminist politics to make my child aware of the effects of his actions on the girl’s well-being. As a mother I am using feminist politics to educate my son in hopes that my now-little-boy will grow up to be a socially responsible and sensitive adult. Feminism is not incompatible with human rights, neither with raising sons. Rather, feminism is about being aware of social injustices on the basis of gender –and class, and race, and sexuality– and about knowing how to face such injustices in the quest for a better world.

‘Fucking black cunt’

Ayer 9 de Julio de 2012 John Terry, capitán del Chelsea, compareció por primera vez ante un tribunal acusado de haber lanzado un insulto racista a Anton Ferdinand, jugador del Queens Park Rangers, durante un partido jugado el 23 de Octubre 2011. El affaire ha tenido una importante mediatización en los medios ingleses desde que ocurrió. Los efectos se han sentido hasta justo antes del inicio de la Euro el pasado junio: Terry perdió la capitanía de la selección inglesa; Fabio Capello renunció a su puesto de técnico de la misma selección por enfrentamientos con su federación al defender casi que a capa y espada a Terry al considerar el asunto como una nimiedad; Rio Ferdinand, hermano de Anton y compañero de Terry en el equipo inglés, fue excluido justo antes de que empezara el torneo debido al deterioro completo de su relación con Terry, este último teniendo la prioridad.

El hecho de que un insulto racista no solo haya generado polémica sino que haya tenido consecuencias reales en un dominio como el deporte que siempre se pretende presentar como ‘apólitico’, es noticia suficiente para alegrarse — así las razones sean más económicas que morales. Sin embargo, es terriblemente lamentable y descorazonador que la tercera palabra del insulto, ‘cunt’, sea absolutamente normal. El mismo Anton Ferdinand lo dijo hoy 10 de Julio cuando en la corte, según reporta The Guardian (ver), explica lo que pasó en la cancha el día del altercado:  ‘cuando alguien llama a alguien “cunt” no hay problema, pero cuando alguien trae a colación el color de la piel, el asunto toma otras dimensiones’. Lo inaceptable es ‘black cunt’ por racista; el ‘cunt’, que es profundamente sexista, no tiene nada de ofensivo.

A pesar de la cada vez más ensordecedora polifonía planetaria que se pregunta si el feminismo está muerto (Times June 29, 1998), cuando no afirma que ha llegado demasiado lejos y que por ello los hombres, o son el nuevo sexo débil (The Second Sexism) o párvulos de más de veinte años (Manning Up), en 2012 lo problemático del ‘fucking black cunt’ es el ‘black’ y no el ‘cunt’.

Si es hallado culpable, Terry se enfrenta a una multa que puede ir hasta las £2,500. No sabemos aún cuánto (si algo) habrá de pagar. Lo que sí sabemos, en cambio, es que el mundo sigue siendo sumamente racista (‘white cunt’ no es siquiera una expresión gramatical), aunque ya se pague un precio por serlo, y profundamente sexista, sin que se pague nada por ello.