independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Topless protesters need tailor-made manifesto

Ukraine feminist group Femen has grabbed the world's attention, but now it's time for some focus, says Julia Molony

The bare-breasted women are revolting! And no, this is not another article about the 'No More Page 3' campaign, even in the light of news that Murdoch may, finally, be considering the concession of taking the tits out of The Sun.

This is about those other controversially topless women in the news, the Ukrainian feminist guerrilla protest group Femen, who recently turned up at the Berlin Film Festival, in their war costume of jeans and naked torsos, stormed the red carpet and had to be wrestled away by security, moments before Jane Fonda showed up decked in fur and diamonds.

I'd like to think Jane wouldn't have been flustered by a few semi-naked protesters with anti-female-circumcision slogans stamped on their bodies. Indeed, with her rocking bod and her activism pedigree, I could almost imagine that she might even have shimmied out of the mink and joined them, had she got there in time.

Certainly, I'm pretty confident she would have appreciated the spectacle of the red-faced burly security men – under the watchful eye of the world's press – trying to remove the protesters, struggling to maintain any decorum in the face of so many renegade nipples.

They started out by protesting against prostitution in Ukraine, and now Femen has expanded its remit. The protesters have been showing up everywhere, tearing off their tops at the World Economic Forum in protest against male-dominated capitalism and, most recently, celebrating the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI by storming the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

You have to admire their style, which is like a flash mob, but angrier – and with real flashing. And without the corporate sponsorship element, obviously. On second thoughts, maybe it's more like streaking with political intent. Whatever. It's ballsy, it's maverick, and it cleverly subverts the expected display of breasts in public, which is mostly limited to the cover of Nuts magazine.

In Nuts, women arch their backs to breaking point, flick their hair and pout for the cameras. Nuts women don't get to paint slogans on their bodies. But if they did, it would probably be "buy me!"

On that note, it's worth mentioning that Femen has been accused of inconsistency for using nudity to protest against, among other things, sexual exploitation. But I think that a large element of this charge stems from a sense of uneasiness about the fact that the women involved in the group are mostly young and, thus, slim and beautiful. They reject objectification on ideological grounds, yet their bodies look like pin-ups.

But the hypocrisy is ours, not theirs. When Lena Dunham proudly takes off her clothes on-screen in Girls, glorying in a physique that doesn't conform to magazine-level standards of beauty, she's hailed as courageous and a visionary. And justifiably so, too. But nudity as a political statement isn't the preserve of a particular body type.

Employing female nakedness as a tool in today's world, outside of the context of pornography, is a highly radical move. It's reductive to make it just about shape. Femen can't be accused of inviting titillation any more than Dunham can, just because they are in possession of tighter abs. Sure, it's a terrible irony that typing in the line www.femen.com, as I did, brings you directly to a page advertising as a way to "meet sexy Ukraine Women", but it's not Femen's fault.

While the protesters can't control the sexualisation of their image, (and nor should they try) they can however, control the power of their message. I'm all for breasts as a tool to get attention, whether they be Dunham's, Femen's or anyone else's. But where Dunham has creative clarity of vision, Femen is floundering in its attempts to built a clear and cogent manifesto.

On the Pope's resignation, the group declared in a rather rambling, melodramatic message via Facebook "FEMEN is congratulating the whole progressive world with the resignation of fascist Benedict XVI from the place of the head of the Catholic mafia". To which the only reasonable response is, "hmmm".

In their rush to characterise themselves as topless guerillas taking on the whole spectrum of anti-feminist bogie men; male-dominated capitalism; violence against women; and organised religion, they end up shadow-boxing at monsters and failing to pack a real punch. They've got the world's attention – now, in order to add credibility to visibility, they need to slim down their remit and focus on making real change.

Irish Independent

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