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

April 2015

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

Logo of FEMEN. Photograph: Aleksandr Sinitsa /UNIAN (2013)
Sign and Symbol in the Femen Brand

Femen’s street performances have emerged within and through a virtual economy of image and cultural commodity. Their scripts, costumes, and protest sites are illustrative of media apparatuses that shape the fantasies within which citizens imagine and practice national identity. Within Ukraine, Femen’s performances are a spectacle stemming from a broader phenomenon that Alexandra Hrycak calls “cognitive liberation” in describing the local ideological landscape of women’s activism after the Orange Revolution:

“[the] favorable shift in political opportunities, together with the public’s recent experience of successful civil disobedience, might contribute in Ukraine to a cascading process of ‘cognitive liberation’ that would further open up the political system to new demands by groups that had previously remained politically marginal” (2010, p. 159-160).

During the initial years of Femen’s existence, their parodies carved out picaresque plots from an Orange past in the political foibles, stunts, and facades they staged on the streets of Kyiv. The dissonant codes in Femen’s protests are speech acts in a visual vocabulary that parries with commercialism and its shaping of citizenship. A sign, unlike an icon, which always has a one-to-one relationship with the object it signifies, can have an indirect relationship with the object it represents. Femen manipulates the symbolic contexts within which icons and signs appear. They encode multiple layers of meaning in each sign they incorporate into their work, oftentimes creating new significations by cross-referencing the original referents of two or more distinct signs. In many cases, Femen will accomplish this linguistic play within the bounds of the language of global corporate branding. Oftentimes, Femen activists will paint icons and slogans borrowed from commercial brands on their bodies. For example, in April 2010 Femen responded from censorship from Google by painting the company’s copyrighted logo onto their naked breasts and circulating the resulting image throughout the Internet. By painting Google onto their bare skin, Femen produced dissonance between the sign “Google” and its index. By changing the sign’s context, Femen re-indexed the Google symbol’s original meaning as a copyrighted logo for a search engine into a signifier for the commodification of the female body. The resulting image contains within it a struggle with the representation of resistance itself, with being not-quite, yet still containing residuals of the signified. By painting brand names on bare skin, Femen conflates ownership over the body with ownership over the brand; in effect, they interrogate the ideologies that have accumulated within the brand through its circulation. It is worth noting that Google, unlike automobiles or lipstick, is a neutrally gendered product. In this instance, by painting a gender-neutral icon onto their breasts, Femen produced dissonance between the body and its commodification in social commentary on profit and enterprise. By not naming any viable cause, real platform, or pragmatic aim, Femen’s topless spectacles of feminist resistance put on display the accumulation, value, profit, and exchange of women as symbolic capital in a larger economy of politics and media entertainment.

Underlying Femen’s happenings are deep anxieties about branding as a modern, global language. Writing on art and industry, Teodor Adorno remarked that cultural hegemony claims its field of influence through material shored up in capital flows. Art is illusory. He clarifies the classical opposition between the material and immaterial as the central theme in all cultural production:

“Clearly the immanent semblance character of artworks cannot be freed from some degree of external imitation of reality, however latent, and therefore cannot be freed from illusion either” (1997, p. 103).

Where art always suffers from a degree of both imitation and illusion—that all art involves some element of camouflage—captures the central paradox in Femen’s claiming to transcend the reification of the female body through bodily expression. Their painting of certain brands, usually involving two round “OO” shapes on their breasts displaces advertisement with all sorts of associations ranging from comedy, to erotica, to farcical plays on materialist appropriations of power, to many other frames that gesture toward the duplicity and hidden discourses in the links between advertisement and ideology. In one example, activists employed the word “Facebook” in response to the company’s decision to block nudity on the group’s page. This uneasy relationship between replicating and eluding advertisement can be further traced in the Femen brand itself. Femen’s professionally designed, custom logo is ironic—an image of two breasts cast as a Cyrillic “Ф” (Фемен/ Femen) filled in with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. As a feminist brand, Femen is positioned in a contradictory relationship with earlier feminist theory on women and capitalism where scholars have noted, along the lines of Luce Irigaray, that women are symbolically exchanged within circuits of use value and exchange value, depending on their social status (Irigaray 1985).

Transnational feminism has recently renewed interest in interrogating the critical relationship between politics and the artistic image debated by the Frankfurt School during the cultural turn of the 1970s.4 Scholars have stressed the emerging links between citizenship and electronic media in mediating post-socialist national imaginaries. Some scholars of Europe have noted that digital media has become a generative component of civic culture by liberating minority voices (Aniko Imré 2009). The search for a more critical model of the contemporary public sphere is useful for engaging a flexible notion of “the political” to account for Femen’s formation and ongoing activities as a media performance that complicates assumptions around art/politics. As public performers, Femen’s protest-parodies are unconventional challenges to the affective identifications that drive ideological frameworks.5 Marxist-feminist theorists continue to ask whether artistic practices can play a critical role in advanced capitalist societies. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe critiques Habermas’ public sphere for not taking into account the minority view and the representational conflicts (doxa) within society that can have material effects. She positions art as anterior to the majority view: “critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate” (2013). Mouffe’s definition of critical art aligns with a broader school of thinking on the topic including Jacques Rancière in his claiming symbolic dissensus can provide a challenge to hegemony. Along this line, representational strategies can reveal sociocultural inequalities by estranging audiences from what may be otherwise taken for granted as a norm, revealing where such norms serve to uphold a status quo that not all are privy to. This concept of art-activism raises several additional questions regarding Femen as to the range of representations that critical art is able to foster, and the limitations and wider effects of a feminist protest brand like Femen in discourse about women in mainstream politics.

Beyond Orange—Protest After 2004

Femen activists often reflect on the Orange Revolution when narrating their personal experiences and motivations to protest. Inna Shevchenko waxed nostalgic while looking back on the Orange protests of her childhood: “I was just a girl then, but for the first time in my life I understood that we could have democracy in our country” (Tayler 2012). There are additional practical connections between Femen’s founding and the ideological design of the color revolutions. The Serbian-based political consulting group CANVAS (Center for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies) was instrumental in coordinating the slogans, platforms, and imagery of the many youth movements involved in the rallies and events around the electoral failures that sparked each of the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.6 Georgia’s Velvet Revolution, known abroad as the Rose Revolution, contributed to the aesthetic course of the revolutions that followed. Paul Manning (2007) traces how a popular cartoon series functioned to open up spaces for debate in student-led campaigns and protests. He describes the cartoons as a tactic students used to detach themselves from any formal party affiliation, calling their performative politics a “visual spectacle” of “opposing metarhetorics (and their associated logics of reception), and between rhetorics and the representational economies in which they operate” (p. 175). Though Manning points out how the symbols through which “the Georgia of Roses” came to signify a peaceful rebellion, as opposed to Georgia’s violent protests in 1989, ultimately, there was nothing new to this strategy. Underlying Femen’s parodies of figures, slogans, and other images associated with the Orange Revolution’s more mainstream party politics and even youth movements, is a history of music, humor, street theatrics, and counter-cultural formulations. Their rather cynical, even offensive, pokes at the representational strategies deployed in the pop campaigns of the Orange Revolution are equally tied to the media spectacles that produce politics for consumers and audiences.

Absurdist street theatre has a rich history in the former Eastern Bloc and Post-Soviet regions, where art – as experiment, industry, museology, lifestyle— has often functioned as a haven for reinventing the very idea of a dissident culture. In Poland in the 1980s Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, lead by Major Frydrych, mocked the regime by staging large scale public Soviet-style parades in which participants dressed as orange dwarves. During the economic transition period of the 1990s later on, Ukraine’s avant-garde group Bu-Ba-Bu staged a rock opera spoof called “Chrysler Imperial” in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv in which participants expressed sentiments that were as skeptical of the shock of free market capitalism as they were of state authoritarianism. Both of these prior examples epitomize the development of the East European avant-garde over time and its subjecting the rhetoric of the public sphere to its own doctrines. Femen employs similar rhetorical devices. Polish art critic Piotr Piotrówski (2012) uses the term “agoraphilia,” to capture a certain anxiety, even fetishization, around the borderline between art and politics, action and thought, and the real and the existential in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish contemporary art. In these contexts, he argues, art takes on a recursive function as artists act upon a desire to shape public life in the wake of the repressive regimes of the twentieth century. The publicity and debates around Femen among their audiences and opponents collapses any stable genre in attempting to “read” a critical narrative into their project or account for their intentions as artists or activists (or both). Femen’s ubiquity, at first on Ukraine’s streets and newspapers, then abroad, and online has served to produce the illusion of an actual movement making realistic demands. The contexts, rhetoric, and debates of the illusion reveal shifting ideas around national belonging and transnational feminisms, and thus, the transcripts that circulate and come to constitute legitimate social and political resistance.

In an article for the nation’s industry journal Art Ukraine, Nataliya Tschermalykh (2012-2013) places Femen’s parodies within the context of Ukraine’s repressive anti-homosexual propaganda law and reactionary institutional practices limiting free speech. She explains the group’s aesthetic and their eventual emigration abroad as products of a neoconservative regime. The expressions of popular anger at she sees in Femen’s actions contextualize the group as symptomatic of a much broader system of oppression and censorship, which the Euromaidan demonstrations that would take place in Kyiv later that same year would make painfully apparent to global observers. Had Femen been killed or seriously imprisoned for their stunts, as Pussy Riot was, would public responses to them have changed? By contrast, Femen’s nudity and offensive behavior reveal the “moral precepts” underlying media scripts for dissidence appear hegemonic in and of themselves. Upon closer examination, their nudity makes a caricature out of the operative terms for speaking, writing, and protesting various civic interests where those terms are folded into teleological social narratives that restrict the public sphere.

It is significant that members of Femen often state in interviews that the Orange Revolution was a turning point in their lives, recalling the early 2000s with both inspiration and great disappointment (Hutsol 2011). The Orange Revolution supplied a watershed for protest in Ukraine. What was unique about the dissident culture of the color revolutions was its production: the branding of pop celebrities that stood in for revolutionaries on mainstream stages.7 The playful, cartoonish visual language in Femen’s feminist brand descends from the same political architecture that encompassed the slogans, imagery, songs, and celebrity figures that served to imagine an Orange moment. Femen’s beginnings as a parodic retrospective of the now-faded “ideals of the Maidan,” as the aims of the revolution were then popularly referred to, grew from an Orange iconography popularized during the revolution. For example, their mock reality TV show “PMS: Post-Maidan Syndrome” featured members asking random passerby in the street to undress “for the country” in a talk-show format about future directions the nation could take. The playful tone of Femen’s early activities exposed the rhetorical mechanisms of the Orange moment by putting the places and slogans of those years into sharp relief with the repressive civic conditions for street activism under Yanukovych. Viewing the kitsch in Femen in these critical contexts, audiences are positioned to think about the group’s image as a function of the lived experiences of its members, and in broader terms, the production of politics through media.

Hutsol has described her group’s topless technique as a litmus for civil liberties: “The reaction to a nude protest is a measure of freedom in a country: we were not arrested in Switzerland, but we were almost killed in Belarus” (Neufeld 2012). The political spectrum Hutsol presupposes, with Belarus counterbalanced by Switzerland, circumscribes Femen as a non-national entity poised against a relativist notion of state repression. This reasoning is also ideologically rooted in an Orange past. In the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych’s Russian-leaning party stood in sharp contrast to Yushchenko’s pro-European platform as both leaders formed their bases from a highly bilingual population. Considering this fact in light of Femen’s manifesto and its overstatement to “fight against all forms of oppression,” Hutsol’s comparative notion of civic freedom abets what cultural historian Sergiy Yekelchyk (2007) has noted elsewhere with regard to the social outcomes of the Orange Revolution. In contrast to interpretations that split protesters as being for or against the “civilizations” that these two leaders apparently stood for, in actuality, very few harbored any East/West leanings, most people simply wanted greater egalitarianism.8 When Kuchma declared that Yanukovych had won the elections, Yushchenko swore himself into Parliament inside the Ukrainian Rada. In a textbook example of revolution, Ukraine suddenly had two sovereigns claiming the same territory. Michael McFaul (2006) has pointed out how the peaceful gatherings on the Maidan in 2004, in responding to a falsified election, resembled 1991 by affirming Ukraine’s autonomy through enacting constitutional law. The Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013-14 ultimately testified further to this autonomy. Demands for a referendum on Ukraine’s E.U. Accession Agreement, and then general elections, even after ousted President Yanukovych revealed the limits of his state by violently using police forces against protestors, deserves recognition as a powerful instance of Ukrainian citizens’ perseverance in the democratic process.

What was unique about the Orange Revolution was the consistency and branding of its campaigns. As a relatively new nation-state, the longer-term outcomes of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine for shaping dialogue about civil rights have been arguably more lasting than the Yushchenko’s term in office and the slow dissipation of his promised reforms. Within this context, Femen’s identification of themselves with the legacy of the Orange Revolution is a legitimization of their group’s basic right to peaceful protest. Though Hutsol’s conceptualization of her group and her own self-identification with feminism changes often, her consistently positive associations with the Orange Revolution have remained stable over time. While Femen’s performative stunts have had very little direct impact on policy since their formation, their ongoing public narratives of their experiences vis-à-vis the Orange Revolution lend historical continuity to the broader changes that moment stood for.

Formed in 2008, Femen comes after the “official” story of the Orange Revolution. Many mark 2006 as the Revolution’s official end, when Yushchenko introduced his former rival Yanukovych to the Supreme Rada as Prime Minister. Interviewing Hutsol in the summer of 2011, days after Yulia Tymoshenko had been put on trial for brokering a covert gas deal with Putin, she was ambivalent about the legitimacy of the mounting street protests around the trial.9 Hutsol informed me that Femen would be reenacting a McDonald’s queue near the courthouse. Topless Femen activists would dress in fast food uniforms and yell “Free Cashier!” (“Vilna Kasa!”) from atop one of the many minivans (martshrutkas) parked along the streets as makeshift barricades. The scene echoed the Orange Revolution when the youth group PORA barricaded Yanukovych’s motorcade from being able to access the Parliament building. Observing the protests in downtown Kyiv around the trial for several days over the course of a week, I noted that while hundreds of demonstrators had gathered at the courthouse, nearly everyone was organized into neat camps and rows of rival parties. Except for Femen’s brief interlude, nearly all of the protesters were middle aged and reflected the older Yushchenko vs. Yanukovych split from 2004. One woman I spoke with in the crowd informed me that many demonstrators in front of the courthouse were being paid for their efforts. From the opposite side of the street, where I stood among curious passersby, the scene appeared just as ambivalent as Hutsol’s ironic “Vilna Kasa!” Femen’s early protests, as nude spectacles on Kyiv’s streets, stood in stark contrast to the visibly orchestrated nature of these other protests. Positioned as a media event for online viewers, Femen’s snapshot topless stunt atop one of the parked minivans near the courthouse, and their immediate arrest, remapped in physical space where the public imaginary around what is “possible,” not necessarily legible, as protest, is shaped by what is permissible to think, say, and do in public spaces.



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