In my last post I talked about Ukraine is Not a Brothel, a recent documentary following the members of Femen. Originally based in Ukraine and now based in France, Femen is a feminist group of self-identified “sextremists” who lead protests with their messages written on their breasts. Before seeing the film I didn’t know much about the group, other than their chosen method of protest, since most of what I’ve read about the group seems to be exclusively interested in a) the fact that they protest topless (omg breasts—how scandalous!) and b) dismissing most, if not all, of their credibility as feminists based on that fact. Accordingly, many of the pieces that talk about them err on the side of the sensationalist (in the case of the more formal, “factual” media), or the downright patronizing (in the case of more opinion-based media like blogs).
The way these kinds of pieces talk about Femen makes me uncomfortable in large part because they ignore the complexities of what it means to be feminist in a patriarchal society and they pay little to no attention to the perspectives of the members themselves. Something that really struck a chord with me when I saw Ukraine is Not a Brothel is the fact that its interviews are exclusively of Femen members. Of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the group online since then (and there are actually more of those out there than I thought there might be), “Rise of the naked female warriors” by Kira Cochrane of The Guardian does a particularly good job of incorporating a member of Femen’s voice into its analysis of the group, and “The femen phenomenon” by Reuters blogger Gleb Garanich (which I mentioned in my last post) definitely wins the award for most humanizing portrayal of the group. Jess Eagle’s House of Flout blog also provides a great, nuanced analysis of Femen’s implications for feminism as a whole.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms of the group that go beyond their chosen method of protesting. Not examined in Ukraine is Not a Brothel, for example, is the group’s approach toward Islam-specific feminist issues. When Tunisian woman Amina Tyler was arrested following a topless protest in her country last year, Femen activists protested for her cause in front of the Justice Ministry in Tunis, announcing that they were bringing a “Topless Jihad” to the Middle East. This has drawn backlash in feminist and Muslim spheres from those who see this as a neo-colonialist attempt to “save” oppressed Muslim women (sparking the hashtag #MuslimahPride seen in the picture to the right). For an on-point explanation of why people are (understandably) upset about this, I recommend checking out these pieces by Manar Milbes, an American Muslim, and Italian blogger laglasnost.
At the end of the day, the way the media portrays Femen has the biggest impact on what we pay more attention to–their message or their breasts–and currently it’s not their message that’s winning. That probably isn’t going to change, because, you know, sex sells and all (and apparently breasts = sex), but we as media consumers can certainly do better by recognizing the hype for what it is and acknowledging that whether we agree with it or not, there is more to Femen’s feminism than meets the eye.