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
Transnational Feminist Vocabularies: Limitations and Opportunities

The political and social fissures around Femen in Ukrainian society have manifested dissent over more deeply embedded local discourses on gender. My ongoing interviews with feminist scholars and activists in Ukraine over time have revealed shifting opinions on the group after their move abroad. The consensus among feminist scholars on Femen has moved in the direction of viewing the group as performance-based and unmoored from local valences of the political spectrum (Tchermalykh 2012).10 Considering the notion of “the political” in Femen’s subversive media stunts, the group’s performances conflate the idea of feminism in the realm of realpolitik, where the very idea of “good” and “bad” feminism gets folded into other economic and social development agendas. Their foibles in promoting and/or undermining any consistent gender ideology are symptomatic of deeper conflicts in society. They have provided points of contention for transnational dialogue about gender in Ukraine, where local terminologies differ from Western notions of equality and difference. Where scholars have pointed out that neoliberal discourses have overlooked women in the shift to a market economy, it is exigent that transnational feminisms continue to take into account the full range of possible meanings of alternatives that do not fit familiar, linear narratives of progress (Phillips 2008). It may be less useful to categorize Femen as feminist or not, than to critique their strategies as calibrated for the spheres of media and pop.

Critiquing Femen in this way involves shifting conversation away from the state as representational entity, toward media technologies, globalization, and the roles that these factors play in advancing and manipulating messages about rights and freedoms. One starting point is to return to prior assessments of the public transformations brought on by mass-media in the shift to postcommunism outlined in the early nineties, if only to remain ever vigilant as the speed and quantity of information increases online that “the apparent plurality and openness of mass media veil the fact that certain issues remain undiscussed, some perspectives suppressed” (Gail & Kligman 2000, p. 3). Initial debates about Femen by Ukrainian feminist scholars in Krytyka in late 2011 and early 2012 took account of some of these issues by contextualizing the group within the etymology of feminism in the shift from Soviet to Post-Soviet regimes (Gapova & Soroka 2011; Dmitreyevna 2011; Lisyutkina 2011). Some underlined Femen’s value in bringing visibility to important concerns about sex tourism, but pointed out the group’s rhetorical limits as a political coalition alien to other feminist projects in Ukraine (Rubchak 2011; Rubchak 2012). Others classified the group as spectacle without any practical social application, but at the same time were ambivalent about the group’s puns on local stereotypes as a way of airing the very idea of feminism in the post-Soviet context (Mayerchyk & Plakhotnik, 2012).

Since these early assessments of Femen, the group’s global symbolic capital has developed as a site in which the invisible antagonism between official, versus popular voices in the media within and about the post-Soviet context has become more apparent. Interviews conducted over the following years with Ukrainian social activists of the younger generation concerned with a range of civil rights issues, not all immediately tied to gender and feminism, reveal a stated concern with a lack of critical attention to social causes within the region (Tchermalykh July 2013). In our information paradigm, in which the accrual of capital through the economy of images and text online rapidly transverses national borders, Femen’s reverting attention to themselves in a controversial, and especially in terms of their appropriation of a mainstream body image, particularly unorthodox “feminist” manner synthesizes local protest experiences, mass publicity, and irony in an illusion of their own popularity. This would seem, in and of itself, the core structure of their performance. Staging appearances of massive proportion, throughout their existence, the group has been reported on as being larger than life. It has been estimated Femen has 5,000 members, 300 of them active, across 10 countries (Tayler 2013). The outright disavowal of Femen by international critics has served another role: regardless of the group’s actual size or stated intentions, the anger in the wake of their acts has radicalized networks of skeptics and activists, many of whom have taken to task the meaning of the terms feminism and gender on their own terms.11 

Agata Pyzik contextualizes Femen’s inappropriate linking of Islam with oppressive patriarchy as an instance of misrecognition and miscommunication in a much longer story of complex East-West cultural relations (2013, p. 141).12 She locates Femen within a much broader, overarching analysis of the extremity of the post-Soviet context and, in her view, its relegation to unimportance by the West. Pyzik’s intervention into the debate is informed by her own position as a Polish immigrant living in the UK. Femen’s (mis)identification of women’s own agency within Islam mistakenly reproduces an impoverished message of suspicion of Western hegemony and its mythologized divisions between East and West. A powerful critique can be unfolded out from this particular observation when thinking about Femen in terms of media activism. If Femen performs as “rescuing” Muslim women, it is because the West, for its missionizing attitudes about democratizing the Arab world throughout the 2000s, when Femen formed, has created the conditions for this critique. The affinities Femen assumes by overidentifying with the subject-position of Muslim women has produced images that resemble similar photos circulated at the time of the Iraq war. This is not to lend Femen a free pass for their social offenses, but only to sound a note of empathy and irony in light of the deeper discourses of which their shock tactics are symptomatic.

Activists I have spoken with in Ukraine concerned with gender issues are ambivalent as to whether Femen has contributed to ameliorating Ukrainian women’s actual daily lives, though many agree the group has made a lasting impression in world news. Some have found that social tolerance toward gender minorities has decreased in Ukraine, with an increase in visible LGBT and feminist activism in the period since the Orange Revolution (Martsenyuk 2013). The situation is also likely due to the effects of Yanukovych’s repressive regime and the marriage and reproductive policy debates that had taken place as target issues in the lead-up to the next election cycle. In 2013, protests erupted on both the left and right around the legislation of an anti-gay propaganda law. Artists and intellectuals have come under fire in Ukraine as well, with increasing shutdowns and targeting of museum exhibits featuring LGBT and feminist themes by activists and officials associated with the far right.13Some women’s initiatives are less concerned with specific policies, and are more focused on generating forums for professional development. In 2009 feminist Oksana Kis’ drafted a letter to reduce the stigmatization of women’s hiring and employment practices in the professional, business, education and government sectors. Mobilizations around International Women’s Day by the Kyiv-based feminist group Ofenzywa have also continually put pressure on fair labor practices. In the city of Kharkiv the Museum of Women’s History and Gender Movements has pioneered efforts to create new archival databases in the historiography of women’s experiences in the 20th century and regularly partners with researchers, activists, and social workers (Isaieva 2011).

Transnational dialogue about Femen could help to instantiate more intersectional critiques of media representations across cultural and national contexts. In July 2013, I met with former Femen member Angelina Diash in Kyiv. Diash is a university student, a theatre performer, an actress, and university student originally from Khmelnytsky, the same city as Anna Hutsol, where she was recruited to join Femen by members Inna and Sasha Shevchenko in 2009. Diash is African-Ukrainian and informed me that she experiences constant harassment by local police and passersby for the color of her skin, stating that, “the situation is especially difficult because Ukrainian is my native language, I was born here” (Pers.comm 2013). When I asked her why she decided to join Femen, she replied, “I saw a chance to fight racism, to find justice for women because they should be equal to men, and a community I could belong to.” While Femen gave her a sheltered space for engaging politics, that space was limited: “Everyone would sit around trying to decide what an action would look like and then Anna Hutsol would create it her way with Zviazsky.” In late 2011 Diash left Femen, narrating her choice to do so by expressing that Femen filled a time and a place in her life in which she needed to escape the “constant psychological pressure” she faces as a racial minority in Ukraine. Her personal narrative is a powerful testament to her own agency: she was able to successfully maneuver her life opportunities by joining Femen, but strengthened her individual convictions by eventually choosing to leave the group in order to apply the skills she gained there to new experiences in other venues.

Since their formation in 2009, Femen’s pop underpinnings have come under increased scrutiny, even as the national symbolism in their image has receded. Feminist scholars have vocalized concerns about Femen’s topless images being poised for the male gaze, noting where the transmission of a social message through female nudity risks being lost on consumers. An important exchange of information is being channeled through the Femen “brand” as a platform for debate about the meanings of feminism within the venue of the mass media. In one example, several months after Femen’s foray in Warsaw, a Polish art-activist group named The Krasnals! posed as actual prostitutes disgruntled with Femen for stealing their business (The Krasnals 2013). Activists created Femen-style photographs featuring a large phallus, dressed in revealing workers’ overalls, and held signs with slogans such as “Poland Welcomes You!” The photos were circulated online and news outlets reported on the event as a protest by actual prostitutes. The dissonance, or “slippage” between image and word in The Krasnals! copycat protest played upon the language of Femen’s brand and its limited applicability to actual sociopolitical struggles. Nevertheless, public receptions of Femen, of which The Krasnals! hoax is but one example, evidence two critical outcomes of the former’s overall experiment: increased discussion around the asymmetrical branding and transmission of protest by the mass media for consumption; and second, awareness of the subsumption of minority issues into sleek mainstream campaigning that Femen’s “feminist brand” makes visible.14 It remains to be seen how Femen’s symbolic capital might evolve future backdrops for more critical commentary on media representations of women by participants, audiences, and critics ambivalent about the group.

Conclusion

Femen employs camp and simulacrum within satires cast in the mass media and its internal logics of erotic identification, alienation, and consumption. Formulaic to the culture markets in which the group first arose, Femen simultaneously adopts and parodies the folk-inflected rhetoric inherited from Ukrainian pop performances dating prior to the Orange Revolution. Their deferral of signs plays upon conventional pop culture by airing audiences’ fantasies and fears around protest, state authority, and national belonging. Symbolically, Femen’s performances unfold on two intersecting planes: as a wry retrospective of the pitfalls of the Orange Revolution, and as a pun on feminism that, in the group’s controversial displays of the female body, exposes the underlying cultural mythologies that differentiate women from men, and East from West, in competing discourses which signify progress differently. The group’s more recent shift to a “sextremist” image and their internationalization in virtual space has extended Femen’s politics from commentary on Ukrainian women’s rights, to global contestations over the meaning of the term feminism. The group’s protest aesthetic may be observed across feedback loops in which audiences contest what feminist protest “should” or “could” look like by replicating, rejecting, and mocking Femen’s aesthetic in word and image. Thus, the group’s format and aesthetic vocabulary contains problematic aspects when considered as an actual social movement. As a feminist brand, however, Femen manifests how dissidence itself has become a commodity in the contemporary sociopolitical environment driven by images, icons, and mass information.

Femen’s false sense of universalism certainly deserves critique, and yet it would be a grave mistake for critics to completely overlook the deeper cultural divides within Femen’s story. Dismissing the group’s members entirely outright as naïve, or their experiences as silly happenstance, reinforces the subjugating categories that replicate patterns of condescension by Western and antifeminist critics, and thus only perpetuates the traps that are so antithetical to transnational dialogue about gender. The colonial gaze that falls upon those regions that were once, not so long ago, referred to as “the second world” is still pervasive within the stories circulated through consumer media and the scripting and production of dissidence in narratives that serve to justify Western hegemony. Perhaps the lesson to be gained from the Femen phenomenon is what it can offer us as a litmus for debate about citizenship as a function of media. Looking past Femen’s smoke and mirrors as a broad political organization in order to see them for what they are offstage, a handful of young women with sharp marketing technology skills, begs further critique. Are the twin risks to the free flow of information and creative debate greater than Femen’s offensive jabs, their dark humor, reactionary sloganeering, and their twisted overtures to human rights? To be critical of gender and feminist issues in the face of growing corporate media, perhaps we need to think twice when Femen conveys to their audiences, even while alienating them, that no one is listening. Paying close attention to Femen’s branding can help parse out the rhetorical limits of Femen’s problematic commodification of their own bodies, while still avoiding replicating the pervasive condescension toward “non-Western” societies so pervasive in the marketing and production of protest for mass media. There is no easy route for the kind of double-edged analysis I am suggesting. For now, I believe it worthwhile to begin to consider Femen as symptomatic of the Orange revolutionary moment in which they arose, a moment whose effects may no longer be unfolding as silence around pressing issues, but as too much noise. An information war is now taking place alongside the violent battles in East Ukraine. For global scholars and activists concerned with civic and human rights infringements of all sorts, we will need to work even harder to nuance the terms of public debate by and about women if we are to transcend divisive categories of identity—if we are to insist on peace.

Jessica Zychowicz, PhD, University of Michigan, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is the 2015-2016 Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto, Munk School of Global Affairs. She can be reached at zychowic@umich.edu.  

 

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  • 1.The author thanks the following University of Michigan units for providing funding support to develop this project: Rackham Graduate School, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She also would like to express her gratitude to the Association for Women in Slavic Studies for additional research support and members of the U-M Slavic Department, U-M History Department, IRWG, Univ. of Western Michigan Sociology, Ohio State University, University of Toronto and two anonymous reviewers for their feedback.
  • 2.Slutwalks began in April 2011 in Toronto, Canada as a street demonstration in which participants dress in revealing clothing to protest against explaining rape through a woman’s appearance (Slutwalks 2011). The idea has since spread to several countries. Co-founder Sonya JF Barnett from Toronto designed the calendar in which Femen activist Alena Magelat posed alongside activists from a range of other groups in response to the controversy over Aliaa Magda Elmahdy (Namazie 2012).
  • 3.Safea Lebdi is a founding member of the French women’s rights organization Ni Putes, Ni Soumises.
  • 4.For example, Nancy Fraser’s (2013) reevaluation of neoliberal discourses and Second-Wave feminism in which she examines the role economics has played in suspending cultural specificities within “the political” in contemporary feminist conditionings of global solidarities that transcend national borders.
  • 5.Claire Bishop gives a detailed overview of the art commodity in European visual culture post-1989, examining the search for artistic equivalents for political positions and the collective creative process in light of different imaginings of citizenship (2012). Russian critic Alek D. Epstein places Pussy Riot in a similar vein of critique, asking how action, agency, and audience function in emerging performances that aim to collapse conventional frames for public speech.
  • 6.CANVAS has since come under scrutiny as having provided consulting and branding in the Arab Spring and for receiving financial support from private multinational corporations invested in by Western governments (Rosenberg, 2011).
  • 7.Ruslana, Grynholy, Okean Elzy, Mandre and others contributed to a common aesthetic of Ukrainian independence based upon a diverse blend of 19th century folkways, European jazz, myths and legends from Kyivan Rus’, Orthodox liturgical music, and other genres that remain distinct from, or ardisassociated from the Soviet period.
  • 8.Yekelchyk claims political elites' campaigns in the lead-up to the Orange Revolution adopted ethnic models when beneficial to solidifying their power bases. By contrast, he argues, nation-builders in Parliament and voters on the left and right wanted democratic reforms which embraced civic models over ethnic ones. In late 2000 a set of private tapes brought to light Kuchma’s fraudulent and criminal behavior. In February 2001, protestors formed a small movement called “Ukraine Without Kuchma!” After Tymoshenko joined the anti-Kuchma movement, other oligarchs in parliament soon engineered her dismissal, however, she later emerged as a charismatic populist leader and went on to establish her party, BYuT. Yushchenko remained Prime Minister until April 2001 due to a coalition of oligarchs and communists in Parliament working in his favor. Both of these two leaders would go on to unite the Orange opposition (Yekelchyk 2007).
  • 9.Tymoshenko remained imprisoned under Ukrainian jurisdiction from 2011-2014, despite large-scale Western governmental and NGOs’ grievances over her sentence. Ongoing domestic protests by Ukrainian citizens achieved little in changing the course of her internment. In autumn of 2013, Tymoshenko issued a public statement that she would be willing to accede her Ukrainian citizenship if this would lift the obstacle that her jail term then posed for Ukraine-E.U. integration. She was eventually released as part of a broader set of negotiations in the wake of the events of the Euromaidan. This move became part of a larger process of creating an interm government over which Poroshenko would be elected to reside.
  • 10.In summer of 2013 a far-right radical group calling themselves Hommen adopted Femen’s aesthetic to stage an anti-same-sex marriage rally in the streets of Paris, evidencing further how Femen’s aesthetic circulates distinct from the actual political demands and platforms that usually accompany the divisions between right-leaning and left-leaning policies directly concerning gender issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and fair hiring practices.
  • 11.The most well known example is Pussy Riot’s punk prayer performance inside Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21, 2012. The location and the lyrics of Pussy Riot’s song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” mirrored Femen’s earlier protest in front of Christ the Saviour on December 9, 2011, in which they dressed in burlap peasant costume pants and held posters reading “God Chase Away the King” and “God Get Rid of the Tsar.”
  • 12.Pyzik writes, “it seems a typical case of mutual misunderstanding, with each side blind to each other’s concerns: Femen doesn’t see racism behind their calling patriarchy ‘Arab,’ and the Western pro-underprivileged women of color feminists see in Femen only the distasteful theatre of naked boobs, which overlooks their needs, not seeing how they remain blind to the postcommunist reality Femen represent” (p.141). I would add that for the misunderstanding to become clear on all sides, Femen’s members would need to open dialogue, which would thus break the “fourth wall” of their media spectacle. 
  • 13.The first step in a wave of artistic censorship occurred with the banning of the Visual Cultures Research Center (VCRC) from Kyiv-Mohilya Academy in 2011 by University President Sergiy Kvit for the contemporary local art exhibit Ukrainian Body. This act of censorship sparked street protests and international petitions for intellectual freedom. The VCRC temporarily relocated to the historical Kino Zhovten’ (October Cinema), but lost their residency there in summer of 2013. The future of the group remains unknown.  
  • 14.The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Kyiv Post, The Moscow Times, Pravda and many other Western and Russian media outlets reported on Femen in 2009-2011 as the piedmont of feminism in Ukraine. Subsequent reports on the group overturned this notion; many instantiated debates on whether or not Femen is able to transmit a feminist message through their displays of the female body in mainstream media.

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