Performing Protest: Femen, Nation, and the Marketing of Resistance

From: JUPS #1, 2015 (pp. 79-104).

Logo of FEMEN. Photograph: Aleksandr Sinitsa /UNIAN (2013)
April 2015

In 2008 four young Ukrainians named Anna Hutsol, Inna Shevchenko, Oksana Sashko, and Roman Zviazsky living in the city of Khmelnytskyi formed a feminist protest group. Femen has since gained notoriety worldwide for their controversial topless protests that once featured mostly street theatre, but now primarily consist of flash-mob performances circulated online. Members are mostly women in their twenties and thirties, the group lists twelve active members, and over four hundred non-active members on their website. Femen originally aimed to bring greater awareness to sex-tourism in Ukraine, though their performances now target a broad range of issues they define as patriarchal. Within Ukraine, Femen are arguably the most prominent, and also the least popular, activist group to emerge after the Orange Revolution. While theatrical displays of public dissent are hardly new to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, topless feminist protest there is nearly unprecedented. Other feminist commentators in Ukraine are ambivalent about Femen’s tactics and opinions among activists and scholars’ range from outright rejection, to skepticism, to tentative collaboration.

Early Femen protests often featured iconic references to politicians from the paradigmatic street protests and populist campaigns that the group’s members recall from the Orange Revolution, which took place during many members’ childhood years. Femen activists have staged several parodies of sex work on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where thousands of peaceful demonstrators camped in winter to protest an unfair election in 2004. Members have dressed up as Yulia Tymoshenko during her trial in 2011 and have mocked Putin by stealing the symbolic ballot box that he presented in Moscow before his reelection. In addition to commenting on domestic and regional politics, Femen has also appeared at events of global prominence including the G8 leaders summit, meetings at the Vatican, and court hearings in Quebec regarding the public display of religious symbols. The group’s ambiguous stance “against all dictatorship and religion” (Femen 2013) has provided them with extant rhetorical strategies through which to attach their image to news stories on causes indirectly related to civil rights. For example, they have “protested” commemorations of the Chernobyl disaster, institutional responses to the swine flu epidemic, municipal water shut offs in Kyiv, etc. In 2012 Femen relocated their headquarters from Kyiv to Paris and Berlin. The globalization of Femen’s activities has manifested a global conversation around the group in which their topless performances have become a flashpoint for much deeper anxieties about national independence, gender identity, and sexual liberation.

The debates around Femen’s methods have also instantiated a media fetish for the group that merits closer academic attention as an instance of public discourse on gender and globalization. Femen’s blog alone has manifested an archive of mass-media representations of their feminist brand in which observers and critics may trace a range of nationally significant symbolic systems. Transnational feminist scholars have debated the role of representation in mediating dialogue on gender rights. Especially important have been critical examinations of neoliberal policies and re-entrenchments of East-West divides in the postcommunist context (Gal & Kligman 2000). Femen’s visual language continues to translate, and mistranslate, across national contexts and has unleashed a battle over representation that is airing a range of gendered and racial stereotypes often perpetuated by mainstream media. Emergent conversations on the line between replicating versus overturning mainstream images of women have clustered around the Femen brand in a telling way. My aim in this article is not to propose a defense of Femen’s negative reception or to abet their political intentions, but rather, to present a close analysis of the role of the mass media in their project in order to contextualize them within a broader ethical framework. Femen’s symbolic capital can be developed into a platform for dialogue that is more sensitive to cultural and social differences by critically evaluating the vehicle – the mass media – through which the group stages their protest performances.

The data and analysis in this article is based on three years of ongoing research on feminism in Ukraine.1 My findings are based upon original interviews, analyses of blogs, court documents, news reports, photographs, and firsthand observations of activities by Femen and other feminist and LGBT activist groups in the region. I first conducted interviews with Femen leader Anna Hutsol in Kyiv in 2011 and met with former Femen member Angelina Diash, also in Kyiv, in summer 2013. I have interviewed feminist and lgbt activists from Ofenzywa and the NGOs Krona, Insight, Igliyo, and the Kharkiv Gender Museum, in addition to Ukrainian feminist scholars at Kyiv-Mohilya, Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies, and feminist activists unaffiliated with any of these groups. Major media outlets examined for this article include: The New York Times, BBC, The Atlantic, Radio Free Europe, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Kyiv Post, Kanal 1+1, Ukrainian Pravda, The Moscow Times, Pravda, Izvestia, Correspondent, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Der Spiegel.

In the opening sections of this article I offer a theoretical framework for reading the functionality of the signs and symbols in the design and marketing of the Femen protest brand. In parts three and four, I trace the historic links in Femen’s development to the discursive environment of the Orange Revolution and Anna Hutsol’s background in marketing, leadership, and the ideological design of the color revolutions. Contextualizing Femen’s performance rhetoric within other stagings of Ukrainian nationhood by pop performers of the same time period, I show how the former appropriates these styles for their own mythmaking of themselves as dissidents. Lastly, I provide an analysis of Femen’s impact on local feminist debates, paying attention to a shift in receptions of the group after their move abroad. Reflecting on Femen’s recent marketing of themselves as “sextremists,” I reveal an impasse in their movement in which the exclusion of a plurality of women’s voices from their marketing of protest has challenged their brand’s unique purchase on the media. Offering a close analysis of the formal devices in Femen adapted to digital journalism and network technologies, new directions emerge in which the lived experiences of the group’s members, as well as the symbolic capital they have leveraged, provide insight for transnational feminisms concerned with media stereotypes and the (mis)translation of gender ideologies across cultural paradigms.

Who are Femen?

During the period of September 2008 - 2012 Femen staged approximately fifty-five street protests. The majority of these actions took place in downtown Kyiv on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, but other significant sites in the city included: Parliament (Verkhovna Rada); SBU Headquarters; Pechersk Court; Turkish, Russian, Georgian, Saudi Arabian, and Polish Embassies; Kyiv polling stations; the Cabinet of Ministers; the Ministry of Health; the statue of Lenin on Khreshatyk, the private residence of the Ambassador of India; Olympic Stadium; and Kyiv-Boryspil International Airport. Before acquiring an office in Kyiv in 2011, Femen members met regularly to conduct planning sessions, interviews, and other activities in a privately owned café near Khreshatyk named Café Kupidon. In 2012 the group opened offices in Berlin and Paris. Hutsol has cited that their primary sources of monetary support are from private donors (Hutsol 2011). It has also been noted that the group has been funded by a musician named DJ Hell and the owner of KP Media Holding Company Jed Sunden (Prymachyk 2010). From October 2011 to the present Femen has staged approximately forty street actions outside of Ukraine. Countries where Femen’s core members or women affiliated with the group staged protest-performances linked by method and symbolism include Belarus, Russia, Poland, France, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Tunisia, Brazil, India, and Canada. The themes of Femen’s international protests have included sexual harassment policies at the Euro Cup, freedom of the press and censorship more generally, the Olympic committee’s stance on Islamic law, the wearing of the veil, human trafficking, and the Catholic Church’s stance on gay marriage. The slogans and titles of Femen’s protests are exaggerated, depreciatory, and devoid of any actual discrediting aim. Their debut protest, “Ukraine is not a Brothel!” set the tone for later initiatives such as “Happy Dependence Day Ukraine!” “KGB Euro” and “Sex Bomb.”

Femen’s leader Anna Hutsol, like many of Femen’s members, comes from Ukraine’s middle class and uses Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably. She has worked in marketing and has also received training from a U.S. Department of State leadership program. During the Orange Revolution she was involved with the democratic youth movements PORA and Young Rukh, formed in 1993 in response to an increasingly reactionary government. In 2009 Anna Hutsol reported to newspapers that she would run for office someday and that she would create “the largest all-women party in Europe” (Femen Livejournal 2011). In my interview with Hutsol in 2011 she was less ambitious and concrete in her goals for Femen, commenting that “since topless protest has become more difficult in Ukraine, we need to fight harder to prove that women can protest here” (Hutsol 2011). According to Article 14 Ch. 173 of the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offence, public nudity is listed as a minor hooliganism and is punished accordingly, with a modest fine or a few days of administrative arrest. After Yanukovych entered office, Ukraine’s social and political climate became increasingly conservative. In 2009 the Code was amended to allow for more frequent arrests. At that time Femen activists faced several short jail terms for their public transgressions, though they were usually only held in custody for a few hours or days and maintained a relatively benign relationship with local police. In fact, smiling policemen standing by and then calmly cuffing Femen activists became a consistent backdrop in the photos and videos of the group published online, on television, and in world newspapers. For a time, the multiple arrests and prompt release of Femen activists assisted the group more than posing any real physical threat or state barrier to further street protest. These minor arrests aided Femen’s media output by facilitating their performative framing of themselves resisting various ideological regimes. In making the police appear harmless before the public, Femen mirrors prior movements in the region, such as Poland’s Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, that also used street theatre to push the boundaries of “minor hooliganism” as a criminal charge. Many of these groups humorous tactics served to make police appear harmless before a generalized public, and in the process, were able to air very real public fears around state authority.

In recent years, Femen has faced more serious encounters with police. In early 2011 three Femen members were kidnapped and taken to a forest after a demonstration they held in central Minsk in which members parodied Lukashenka’s repressive policies on the steps of Parliament by wearing his signature moustache and epaulettes. Femen activist Inna Shevchenko describes her thoughts while being covered in gasoline and threatened by Belarusian state secret security agents:

“I suddenly saw the huge potential of this. Maybe it’s strange to say this—I know some people already think we’re kamikaze—but that’s why I now say I’m more of an activist than a person, because I know that tomorrow I could be killed” (Cochrane 2013).

Since that time the group has faced more criminal charges in Ukraine on several counts, including defamation of public property for cutting down a cross allegedly erected in honor of Stalin’s victims. In summer of 2013 the group’s office in Paris was anonymously burned. Shortly thereafter, three members, including Anna Hutsol, were anonymously attacked and beaten on the streets of Kyiv. Femen’s changing relationship with the police has coincided with a radicalization of their image and an overall reduction in the frequency of their protests in real time.

These changes in Femen’s structure have also accorded with the rise of Internet use in Ukraine. An extensive social media profile and several collections of cartoons, glamour ads, leaflets, and other cultural artifacts comprise an impressive archive of the group’s half-decade long history. Since their founding Femen has documented their activities on two blogs. In 2010 Femen streamlined their virtual identity by adding Facebook, Twitter, and a website with an .org address to their online presence. The group has been blocked for nudity on some social media sites. Facebook suspended their account early on, but only temporarily, and their livejournal.com blog in Russian switched to read-only in 2012. Paintings, drawings, and popular graphics by Femen member Oksana Sashko, in concert with outside artists’ works, contributed to the media forums through which Femen continued to perform their movement. Over time, the group’s increasing contact with the media outlets reporting on their street activities melded with the group’s virtual design as they switched nearly all of their operations to five-minute flash mob photo opportunities, professional studio sessions, and extensive blog entries. Many of their “flesh mobs” began to last just long enough to create enough footage for an online campaign. Nonetheless, the length of Femen’s public appearances shrunk in disproportion to their fame. International journalists began to regularly contribute texts and images to Femen’s online networks, as artists and filmmakers created artworks and short documentaries about the group’s activities. In more recent years, the group co-published a book with a French journalist in which they outline a radical ideology for a social movement in popular overtures to past feminist theories without any context or application (Ackerman 2013). The same year, a journalist at The Atlantic published a separate book based on his firsthand accounts of Femen’s headquarters in Paris (Tayler 2013). This latter publication portrays Femen’s core members as media laborers and underwriters; it is reported that they are paid living wages out of a fund with Inna Shevchenko being the primary PR and accounts manager fully invested in maintaining a public image based on highly reproducible media protest imagery. The contradiction between Femen’s internal management, versus the external image of antiauthoritarianism they present to audiences necessitates a closer look at the group’s conceptualization of politics, and their brand architecture as performers calibrated for news media platforms. The group is not registered as an NGO, party, or publicly traded entity and has not made public the sources of their funding. Anna Hutsol reported in a personal interview that the majority of their funding is from Canadian sources, though there is no verification of this; early on Hutsol reported in public interviews that private donors DJ Hell and owner of KP Media Jed Sunden had supported their activities. By no small measure, by design Femen and the mass media maintain a symbiotic relationship. Where are the political stakes in Femen’s experiment as a performative public spectacle? How do they differ from other celebrities in their blending of theatre with protest?

Conversations on the politics of public nudity have expanded since the global protests of 2011. Femen’s aesthetic has become a signifier for dissent that does not signify any clear political demand. In one respect the hyperbole and even amateurish quality to Femen’s slogans resemble the design of reality TV shows, in which audiences are provoked to question how much of the production is staged, versus spontaneous. The centrality of news media rhetoric to the Femen phenomenon has instantiated a larger feminist debate about the possibility of protesting the commodification of the female body through nudity. Within this broader debate, a focus on legitimacy vis-à-vis the meaning of the term feminism reveals deeper anxieties over the translation of ideas tied to gender and sexuality across national contexts.

The anger that Femen’s protests have elicited expose fissures in the public discourses driving media stories that pin progress to civic idealism, and script what is considered appropriate/inappropriate behavior. Earlier feminist interventions into mass-media imagery of women engaged with images of the female body as the origin, not only the symptom, of violence toward women in society. The founders of the 1970s Los Angeles based feminist media performance collective, Ariadne: Social Art Network, claimed that: “It was violence—in the media and in society—that gave birth to feminist media art” (Lacy & Labowicz, 1985, p. 123-33). The main difference between these prior feminist mass-media activist groups, and Femen, besides geopolitical locale, is in the latter’s sarcastic and overt approach to violence in which they amplify through mockery the narratives they claim to undercut. Another important difference is the group’s calibration for a virtual format, which helps to maintain the gap between their populist descriptions of their movement online, versus their generally negative public reception as an actual movement representing a constituency of women.

When nude protest exploded as a global trend during the events of 2011, Femen’s project in Kyiv suddenly gained much wider publicity. The group responded by streamlining their online merchandising, marketing themselves as “New Amazons,” and by networking with feminists beyond Ukraine’s borders. The Iranian feminist activist Maryam Namazie briefly joined Femen and helped them with their initial protest activities in Paris. Her work in the group included helping to organize a calendar featuring feminist activists from several initiatives around the world, bringing together Femen and the Canadian based group Slutwalks in support of Egyptian student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s posting of a nude photo of herself on Twitter.2 Femen’s early use of media networks to spread their name became a key element of their strategy. After Inna Shevchenko cut down a cross in Kyiv in response to Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in the summer of 2012, the group shifted their operational epicenter from Café Kupidon in Kyiv to a former theatre in Paris. At this point, Femen redesigned their media image a second time, changing their campaign from relatively lighthearted political puns, into a militaristic idea of feminism they describe as “sextremism” for which they have been widely criticized. The first protest to feature this image was a demonstration with the Parisian Egyptian activist Safea Lebdi and Maryam Namazie in front of the Eiffel Tower in August 2012 against the inclusion of nations practicing sharia in the Olympic Games.3Slogans painted directly on Femen activists’ bodies in black warpaint featured heavily in this protest and thereafter became a regular feature of their trademark brand. Femen has since been rightly scrutinized for their negative perspective on the wearing of the veil. In late 2012 Lebdi and Namazie publicly split with the group due to difficulties linked to the decision-making processes internal to the group. In my interview with former Femen member Angelina Diash in Kyiv in July 2013, she discussed several related issues in her experiences with Femen as one of their earliest members and, at the time, their only African-Ukrainian member. In Femen’s performances, images of the body are framed within spectacles of mainstream politics through a hybrid of the commodification processes and campaigns that produce politicians and celebrities.

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