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
Pop Culture Contexts—Chervona Ruta, Ruslana, Serduchka

Femen’s early humorous street theatre capitalized on a particular, folk-inflected rhetoric that has shaped Ukraine’s pop industry over the past decade. The Chervona Ruta music festival that took place in 1989 upon the founding of the youth pro-independence movement Rukh, and again in 1991, eight days before the dissolution of the Soviet regime, set a precedent for popular displays of the nation. The festival took place in Zaporizhzhia, the historic location of the Cossack host. Performers appropriated the freedom-loving figure of the Cossack and his anachronistic qualities in drafting a myth about independence and survival to legitimize Ukraine’s newly won independence as a modern nation-state (Wanner 1998). Western-style rock music, already established as a language of dissent in the Soviet Union, became the lingua franca of the festival. Religion also played a role as Orthodox priests dressed in black robes opened the night with a ceremony in the center of the stadium. Throughout these performative recoveries of a “lost” identity, participants placed preeminence on the Cossack’s anachronistic qualities in reorientations of Kyiv Rus’ as a western-leaning frontier to mollify present troubles by airing the Soviet past. The alternative cultural memories that festival organizers attempted to achieve provided a lasting conceptualization of national autonomy. The liminal national rhetoric they instantiated through pop, based in nostalgic images of folk culture, eventually fused with the official language of the state (Wanner, p. 140).

The different ways in which Ukrainian pop music celebrities projected national identity later on, during the Orange Revolution, pivoted on a similarly ambiguous, ethnic symbology contrasted against an undesirable Soviet past. Where Chervona Ruta’s Cossacks had once “uncovered” Ukraine’s lost history beyond its Soviet one, during the Orange Revolution, pop stars preached a “true Ukraine” founded in tribal history, whose democratic potentials had been suppressed over time. These performances complemented political elites’ accommodating signals to the E.U. at the time, as pop artists depicted individualism, progress, and freedom differently for domestic versus Western audiences. The indigenous Carpathian styles adopted by the pop singer Ruslana in her song “Wild Dances!” for which she won the Eurovision contest in 2004 was, for the general listener, according to Marko Pavlyshyn, “a proclamation of solidarity with the prevailing values, beliefs, and practices of the civilizationally dominant West” (2006, p. 14). For domestic audiences, Pavlyshyn notes, the song approvingly distanced folk culture from “sharovaryshchyna,” an ossified notion of folk life once common in socialist depictions of national culture. Ruslana’s images of the Carpathians rested on a fusion of Hutsul instruments, leather costumes, and live wolves in an eroticized rendering of a “wild” frontier. Among domestic audiences, this glamorized portrayal of Western Ukrainian folkways passed muster, in part, as a familiar tale about overcoming hardship rooted in 19th c. Romantic depictions of peasant life. Ruslana’s blending of 19th c. Carpathian folk culture with the Amazon myth predates Femen’s combination of these two archetypes. The Amazon woman, like the Cossack, emerged within a constellation of folk inflected pop performance in Ukraine that Femen has since adopted as a liminal protest site within which they experiment with political iconicity as a commodity itself. Ruslana’s caricature of folk life differs from Femen, however, in that hers is devoid of any specific references to actual events or contemporary political figures. Where pop stars associated with the Orange Revolution once reflected the heightened euphoria of that moment, seeking to merge Ukraine “with others in the culturally heterogeneous contemporary world,” by contrast, Femen’s protests later on are far more cynical.

Blending glamour with the grotesque, Femen’s style turns on parody, and the not-quite-deliberate faux pas. The absurdism and camp in Femen’s performances also have antecedents in the singer Verkha Serduchka’s experimental stage identities. Part of a broader fascination with transgender performance as a mainstream genre in Ukraine, Serduchka rose to fame quickly during the late-1990s and early 2000s. What set Serduchka apart from other stars’ gender crossings was his creative use of “surzhyk,” a mix of Ukrainian and Russian spoken in villages. Serduchka’s usage of the vernacular in audacious skits about daily life in post-Soviet Ukraine expressed a freedom to be oneself completely in public, in contrast to the Ukrainian state’s fixation on official language. Serduchka’s irreverent humor purged the fetishization of an “authentic” Ukraine in the mid-2000s by presenting audiences with “a carnivalesque, liberating take on the very real cultural and political tensions caused by the imposition of political correctness” (Yekelchyk 2010, p. 219).

Added to Serduchka’s liminal linguistic and gender identities is also the fact that the neoliberal nation-building projects dominating the periods leading up to and during the Orange Revolution often equated modernization with Europeanization. The polarization of Russia and Europe often features in Serduchka’s humor as a superficial posturing by political elites, which indeed reflects the way many Ukrainians whom identify with both of these cultures experience the situation. Not unlike Femen, Serduchka often presupposes a wide gap between the popular voices of his characters, and the officialdom of post-Soviet statehood. However, an important difference between the public receptions of Serduchka, and Femen, is the controversy that never arose around the formers’ stage persona as a transgendered citizen. The former’s gender identity was less important than his national hybridity. Serduchka completely sanitized his image after protests erupted in Ukraine following his 2007 performance at Eurovision in which he sang, “I want to see . . . Russia goodbye!” lyrics that are relatively mild compared with Femen’s overtly anti-Putin sentiments. The widespread acceptance, even fetishization, of Serduchka’s blending of genders and languages spun around his bodily hybridity mapped onto a national hybridity that many mainstream consumers could identify with (Yekelchyk 2010). By contrast, Femen’s dystopian performances of female nudity are a more radical counter-image to the optimism of the Orange Revolution.

The notion of becoming European in Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s joint campaign during the Orange Revolution argued for a “return” to Europe as a cure-all for Ukraine’s domestic ills. Similar notions were reflected in Ukraine’s hosting of the 2012 Euro Cup soccer championship. Femen’s media stunts in 2011 during the preparations to host the Cup disrupted the utopian scripting of an equal partnership that elites signaled to Europe at the time. Femen’s shows achieved another means of attention by desacralizing the branded symbols associated with the event. On tour, the group spotlighted the Euro Cup as a forerunner for sex tourism by hyperbolizing the dark undercurrents of the sex industry. While every Femen performance on their Euro Tour included symbols specific to each country they visited, each of their “shows” pitted stereotypes of the nationalism displayed by European soccer fans against a cynical caricature of Ukraine as a dangerous sexual playground. In Warsaw, two members parodied the cartoon logo of the championship, the Polish and Ukrainian hooligan twins “Vladek” and “Vladko” in a live performance of the mascots screwing, fighting, and drinking beer. The branding of Ukraine and Poland as cartoon “twins” thus provided a point of departure from which to critique the asymmetries in Ukraine’s relationship with the E.U. Acting out these asymmetries as sexual conquest, Femen increased their visibility online by attaching their own brand to the marketing of the soccer championship.

Going abroad, Femen adopted a system of operations resembling a franchise by streamlining their social media presence and merchandising. The Ukrainian folk flower garlands, red boots, and blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag defining their brand architecture came to serve as templates for rotating colors and images from other national contexts in their logo and slogans. As Femen’s European caper catapulted the group into world presses, the group continued to manage the status and shape of that popularity. Olga Plakhotnik and Mariya Mayerchyk have remarked on their interviews with Anna Hutsol that, “the measure of a successful Femen action is a popular action” (2012). As celebrity activists, Femen extends and plays upon individual fantasies and anxieties about collective identities; and thus, perhaps expectedly so, critical receptions of the group have remained highly unstable.

Feedback Loops—Femen’s Internationalization and Contested Feminism

The internationalization of Femen’s campaign has proceeded in three main phases since the group’s activities connected with the Euro Cup. The first phase occurred after the women’s protest performance group Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” against Putin’s regime in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on February 21, 2012. The following October, the day of Pussy Riot’s verdict, Femen activist Inna Shevchenko cut down a large wooden cross in central Kyiv constructed by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on public land to memorialize victims of Stalin’s policies. Femen claimed theirs was an act of solidarity with Pussy Riot in protesting the Russian Federation’s sentencing of the female collective to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina replied by pointing to key differences between her group and Femen, “we may share the same immediate appearances and general stance against authoritarianism, but we look at feminism differently, especially in our actions. We have never stripped and never will. The recent action in cutting down the cross, unfortunately, does not create any feeling of solidarity” (Masyuk 2012). Where Pussy Riot’s action aimed to symbolically unravel the unification of church and state in Russia, Femen’s material desecration of the cross as a civic symbol discursively diffused the act across three signifiers: the nation, an abstract female body performed by Shevchenko standing in the position of the cross she destroyed, and the missing persecuted Soviet bodies that the original cross apparently represented.

By contrast, the sacrificial bodies represented by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich in the Pussy Riot case have manifested in the live violence inscribed upon them by the ongoing state and public rituals around their punishment. The systematic purging and affirmation of authority in the Pussy Riot trial, as opposed to Femen’s act, signified the three women’s bodies as both objects of violence and sites of resistance. Anya Bernstein has argued these points within the context of Russian public discourse on the body and its sanctity/profanation as an extension of the church-state nexus:

“the sovereign power sacrifices Pussy Riot to the narod, the opposition sacrifices them to the government, and the narod performs an apotropaic sacrifice while longing for a sublime sovereign power” (2013).

The untranslatability of “narod,” meaning both nation and people, but also containing the mythic quality of both of these concepts, functioned on the level of collective sacrifice in the Pussy Riot case. Where Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” concentrated general anger at a defective regime, Shevchenko’s act generalized that anger to an individual instance of transgression against the Ukrainian state as surrogate for “all religion and patriarchy” (Femen 2013). The ontological difference between these two acts renders the second less threatening to any actual political hierarchy in its performative overtures to authority. Far lighter punishment has been leveraged on Femen than on Pussy Riot. After the cross incident, Inna Shevchenko was forced to emigrate to Paris, though the group was able to continue their operations abroad with intermittent activity in Ukraine.

The second major phase of Femen’s global push began in Paris, where they set up a “feminist training camp” and reframed their ideological positioning in a campaign they termed “sextremism.” Their initial activities in Paris involved a partnership with Iranian-born activist Maryam Namazie and Safea Lebdi, though both split with the group later on. In late 2012 fierce public backlash erupted in response to Femen’s anti-Islamic stance and their targeting of the mandatory wearing of the veil and the inclusion of nations practicing sharia law in the lineup for the Sochi Olympic Games. As their image grew ever more radical, anonymous participants began joining in their photographed activities. Their growing number of followers on social media expanded their rhetorical ability to enter global news media streams on any number of topics. In May 2013 a trial was held in Tunisia involving a young woman associated with Femen named Amina Tyler for posting nude photos of herself on Twitter. Femen activists protested topless outside the central courthouse in Tunis. The event went nearly unnoticed. By this point, it became clear that Femen’s “sextremism” had severed them from their original Ukrainian context and gained them many opponents. A Facebook group entitled Muslim Women Against Femen formed in response to Femen’s controversial imagery equating patriarchial systems across cultural contexts. Many argued that the group’s “sextremism” played into imperialist ideologies about “rescuing” Muslim women by glossing over specifics in actual debates about banning the veil. The group’s depictions of Muslim women’s struggles lost them credibility in the eyes of journalists who reported on all aspects of their triangulation by women-of-color feminists, whose voices were not represented in the anti-Islamic rhetoric Femen proffered. The situation proved that the language of the Femen brand was not calibrated or expressive enough to capture a symbolic backlash. Femen came to an impasse in their purchase on the media.

The third chapter of Femen’s saga began in summer of 2013. In late August, Femen’s Paris headquarters were burned by an unidentified source. The group posted online that the Ukrainian secret services (SBU) had increased monitoring around their activities. A few weeks later, Anna Hutsol, Alexandra Shevchenko, and Roman Zviazsky were physically assaulted and beaten on the streets of Kyiv by unknown men they claimed were connected with state security services. The assaulted members were taken into custody and promptly released. Soon thereafter, the group publicized that Roman Zviazsky had been masterminding their activities in an abusive exercise of power. They then announced plans to cease all activity in Ukraine (Interfax-Ukraine 2013). The high level of violence directed at Femen, coupled with the group’s maintaining a very ambiguous relationship to domestic politics in their native Ukraine, only served to further position the group within the global mass media at a pivotal juncture in Ukraine’s history. Yanukovych’s decision to begin the process of E.U. accession in November 2013 had long coincided with an overall increase in the domestic monitoring and targeting of protest activity in Ukraine. Based on the present analysis one of two outcomes seems likely in Femen’s case: either the group will continue to maintain their toehold in the media as a radical performance based group within the entertainment industry abroad; or, they will make a concerted effort to politically legitimize their image, possibly by working with other social activists on Ukrainian focused projects. The second outcome would entail greater transparency to a wider constituency and the group’s openly coming to terms with their feminist critics. This second route might mean risking the group’s publicity as a brand name, potentially dissolving their spectacle of protest and its circulation, both resting upon the feedback loops in the marketing of politics within the mechanisms of the mass-media.

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