FEMEN define themselves as militant feminists who use nudism (specifically toplessness) as a form of political and social protest. According to the FEMEN website, their beliefs rest squarely on the platform of “sextremism, atheism, and feminism.” While their message is of liberation and equality, it is unabashedly anti-religion and seems to focus primarily on empowering women through “courage and personal example” of their own protest.
Sextremism is the foundational belief of FEMEN. It is their strategy of resistance, in which they interrupt highly mediated events and create a spectacle through their nudity in the public sphere, and to a lesser extent, through the completely unexpected nature of these confrontations (they are very secretive about their plans prior). FEMEN members running out into the spotlight bare-chested, with political slogans works to attract attention to issues surrounding feminism and established social structures/institution, thus creating public discourse around concerns that may have previously been neglected. “Discourse, rather than just language” is a “system of representation” (that can include language, but also images, social norms, personal narratives, etc.) that produces knowledge and “provides a language for talking about…a particular historical moment” (Hall 44).
In addition to simply bringing attention to specific issues and institutions, sextremism can be seen as an act of resistance in and of itself. Through partial nudity, FEMEN members declare a reclamation of the female body. As founding member Inna Shevchenko proclaims in the documentary “FEMEN: Sextremism in Paris,” the very act of being nude in public with a political objective or an angry voice disrupts the hegemonic constructions–particularly the characterization of women as objects. It gives women agency and provides a prototype for subverting the “regimes of perception,” which reinforce the subject/object relations that dictate “active/male and passive/female” social relations (Barcan 305). The nudism as protest exhibited by FEMEN brings into question the construction of meaning surrounding the female body as a signifier within the public sphere. For instance, while female bodies are often used in hypersexualized ways in media texts to sell products, in a way equating the female body with commodities. (Women are shown as complacent and sensual, for example.) FEMEN claim that their nudism is transgressive as it shows the active, politically radical and angry woman. On the one hand, she is militant (not passive) in relation to her place in terms of her status as a citizen within a given society, on the other, she is sexualized (topless), yet in charge of her own sexuality.
Furthermore, FEMEN’s form of protest is quite dissimilar to the more traditional approaches of “the march, the rally, the chants;” sextremism correlates with the notion of protest as performance, where “everything is theatrical” (Reed 255). Significantly, FEMEN started out with four women who simply engaged in public performances (in clothes) and eventually escalated to topless militancy.
Subculture or Social Movement?
In some respects, FEMEN share more than a few characteristics of a subculture, especially as defined by Ken Gelder in Subcultures. FEMEN provide an alternative to what they deem a sexually repressive society through association with nudism. The way the group is organized is somewhat tribal, since there are leaders (who may not even undress) and relatively anonymous protesters. FEMEN have developed their own stylistic image or “uniform”: the topless woman with writing on her body and flowers in her hair. They even coined the term “sextremism” and use it as a basis for their argot (or manner of speaking), like political puns (“dicterrorship”).
However, FEMEN is undoubtedly linked to the politics of social movements–most obviously feminism. They organize political protests against certain leaders (Putin, the Pope) and hate groups, while also taking mediated action to promote solidarity among women (Inna Shevchenko sawed a crucifix in half in support of Pussy Riot, and staged protests to free Amina). Therefore, they do attempt to achieve social change. One may question the extent to which FEMEN’s political goals are sound, particularly since the group holds little ties with other feminist organizations, while also so heavily relying on the spectacle of breasts and political slogans as to largely elude meaningful discussion of the issues they claim to tackle. (They also tend to alienate a large portion of women through their vehement atheism, use of stereotypes, and physical qualifications.)
Media Representations: Positive, Negative, Negotiable?
FEMEN have been receiving a great deal of media attention since their founding in 2008. Since the group’s creation, they have gotten both glaring praise and the harshest criticism. Initially, some of their most strident critics were those with conservative leanings both politically and in terms FEMEN’s protest strategy–namely nudism in the public sphere. A lot of this criticism manifested as dismissal of their politics and the decrying of their toplessness.
One of the most positive depictions of FEMEN can be seen in Vice Magazine’s documentary short, “FEMEN: Sextremism in Paris”. The eighteen minute video is in the format of a news report. It frames FEMEN as a group of radical activists fighting for social equality through non-traditional means. The reporter, Milene Larsson describes them as “topless warrior women,” a force of “naked revolution” that counter hate and violence–as well as a powerful force worldwide, with “up to 300 members worldwide.”
The report can be classified as journalistic or expository, and to some extent interactive, in accordance to Bill Nichols’s seminal work Representing Reality. The report uses the “voice-of-god” style of narration, in which the viewer may hear the host talking while the subjects of the documentary appear on screen (Nichols 34). This undoubtedly gives a level of authority to Vice’s ideological representation of FEMEN. However, the narrator’s commentary is also reflexive, providing historical/political context and personal commentary. At one point, the camera pans to Larsson as she reflects on the “pretty heated” training session she had just witnessed. Moreover, the report can also be considered interactive in its approach, utilizing not just interview tactics, but actually videotaping the narrator sitting down to talk with one of the founders, Inna Shevchenko, in their headquarters.
Larsson is able to interact with Shevchenko, who in turn, helps explain and define FEMEN as a founder of and leader in the organization. Shevchenko is able to rebut some of the critiques the group has faced, especially from other feminists. She explains the controversial place of FEMEN within the feminist movement and community, since the group uses the spectacle of nudity as a form of protest. This criticism stems largely from a more traditional, perhaps even conservative form of feminism that can be linked to largely Western 1960s movements and illustrates the fragmentation of the feminist movement, as illustrated in Sara Evans’ “Personal Politics.” Feminism’s manifestation on a global level undoubtedly leads to countless interpretations in different cultures. In this case, “Sextremism in Paris” sheds a positive light on the multi-faceted nature of feminism–especially as a means of embracing sexuality in order to reclaim the female body–and shows the movement as less of a monolithic, exclusionary entity.
The report, in its journalistic format, tends to show the intensity of FEMEN’s protests. The training session has military overtones, with Shevchenko shouting commands at the other women. Half of them are also shown half-naked, screaming passionately and grappling to stand up as the other half tackle them. Moreover, we see the actual violence the group endures in their protests, which result in being dragged away, arrested, and beaten. There is a sense of danger that frames the FEMEN movement, especially in the mention of (now ex-) member Amina, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in Tunisia for posting topless photos of herself on the Internet as a form of protest.
It might be fruitful to approach the Vice documentary short in the context of the magazine’s overarching tendency to blend entertainment and news as well as its stance on nudity and sexuality. As John Corner explains in “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions,” the growing mediation of social and cultural processes has changed the documentary format and by extension, its representational politics. We can see this in Vice’s blending of documentary techniques, use of music, and spectacular imagery in the FEMEN report. In addition, the magazine’s ideology is rooted in progressive and largely liberal politics, especially in respect to sexuality. Moreover, it maintains strong links to urban living and youth culture (they cater to mostly a younger readership and distribute their magazines in larger cities).
Documentaries no longer just promote “dominant versions of citizenship,” “emphasize experience of witness,” or offer a radical or alternative perspective, which they still do; they can also serve to entertain (Corner 259). The newsworthiness and entertainment value of a documentary tends to inform how its subjects are framed. Given the demographic of its readership, this is particularly relevant to how Vice chose to represent FEMEN. They don’t seem particularly critical of the group, despite countless allegations of ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and questionable financial practices.
For example, much scandal arose when the “icon” of the movement, Amina Sboui Tyler, quit FEMEN. In an interview in The Huffington Post she cited Islamophobic practices, like referring to the movement as a “topless jihad” or burning the caliphate flag (Hamadi). At times, FEMEN even use incredibly insensitive Islamic stereotypes in their topless protests, like wearing a fake long beard and turban (Grove). In addition, scandal arose when documentarian Kitty Green revealed that a man named Victor Svyatsky had a powerful role in the organization, and that it was anti-feminist to have a man command women to take off their tops–especially since the group was making money from their endeavors (Braun). Curiously, “FEMEN: Sextremism in Paris” does not acknowledge or account for these problematic practices.
Conversely, the twenty-five minute long documentary by Russia Today (RT), entitled “FEMEN: Exposed” does take a more critical stance toward the group. For instance, filmmaker interviews Amina Tyler, asking her why she quit the group. For several minutes, she speaks about FEMEN concealing its financial goings-on. Interestingly, she is only shown mentioning Islamophobia as a passing matter, whereas in the aforementioned interview, it is a much stronger point. In RT’s documentary, there is greater focus on the questionable finances. This is perhaps because RT, as their website claims, “brings the Russian view on global news,” and for Russian audiences, Islamophobia is generally a non-issue, especially due to the prevalence of racism and the dominant views of Islam already being negative.
The format of this documentary is quite different from that of Vice. The filmmakers tends to shy away from the camera, only appearing accidentally or partially on screen. While utilizing interviewing strategies, we rarely hear him ask the questions. Instead, the handful of leaders (founders) of the group are the ones answering and explaining themselves. This creates a sort of power dynamic that seems to give voice and agency to the FEMEN members, while in reality it is the filmmaker guiding the conversation and framing the answers.
For instance, at one point, the man interviewing asks one of the FEMEN members why they fight against religion, to which she responds: “can I answer the question later? I don’t want to answer.” This scene depicts the women of FEMEN as girlish, inarticulate, politically and historically uninformed, and generally clueless, thus painting the movement as rather ludicrous or illegitimate. Furthermore, it makes one wonder whether the interview subject later addressed this questioned, but her answer was never included in the film. This type of somewhat underhanded criticism is prevalent throughout “FEMEN: Exposed.” FEMEN members are constantly shown putting on make-up, doing their hair, or throwing parties. They complain about their living conditions, but they live in a spacious loft space in Paris with plenty of food to eat (there are numerous shots of jams and chips) and clothes to wear. This generally creates a sense that these women have “nothing to complain about,” and their activism is thinly veiled exhibitionism. This sense is exacerbated when we see shots of middle-aged men sitting in at some of FEMEN’s training sessions, which acts to infantilize the members of the organization (they appear naive) and also sexualize them, while giving little credit to their ideas.
In addition, the documentarian juxtaposes FEMEN with another feminist group, the more conservative Paris-based Les Antigones. Unlike the former, the latter propose to fight for equality not through feminism, but through femininity. Les Antigones are more “conventional” in appearance (for example, none have tattoos, whereas many members of FEMEN do) and they all wear white dresses. The image of this virginal femininity is completely at odds with the topless images of FEMEN. While the inclusion of Les Antigones provides another branch of modern feminism, it also seems to present a sense of “what feminism ought to look like” in view of FEMEN’s apparently “exhibitionist” radicalism. It is worth mentioning that Les Antigones receive only a fraction of the media attention that FEMEN do.
Notably, one provocative choice made by the makers of “FEMEN: Exposed” was the inclusion of comments from a Youtube video of one of their protests. The comments are your typical plethora of sexist drivel, calling the activists “bitches” or making lewd, objectifying remarks about their bodies. For example, one comment read: “AWESOME! CUTE GIRLS…BUT I SAW MEN WITH BIGGER BOOBS,” another said “Kill those Bitch!” This is a curious editing choice. On one hand, it speaks to the place of spectacle and mediation within how a movement defines itself, since with mass exposure comes greater mobilization, but the movement tends to lose the ability to define itself; the way it is portrayed in the media can lead to justification or to condemnation of its tactics (Gitlin 244). On the other hand, the comments stand as proof of sexist discourse as well as FEMEN’s success in bringing issues of sexuality, feminism, and religion into the public sphere.
Interviewing the bystanders at FEMEN’s protests is another means of documenting public reaction. Both Vice’s “FEMEN: Sextremism in Paris” and Russia Today’s “FEMEN: Exposed” use this technique. Due to the relative shortness of the Vice documentary, only one instance of protest and one reaction is filmed, in which a French man explains that FEMEN has betrayed feminism, as well as nationalism. The RT documentary more abundantly includes public reactions, from middle-aged women and men trying to cover up the protesters breasts with jackets to a leader of a conservative, “family-oriented” (homophobic) group (who disparages FEMEN’s immoral actions and beliefs) to a Muslim man trying to stop the protesters from burning the caliphate flag. “FEMEN: Exposed” seems to show a wider range of public reaction, but also frame FEMEN as antagonistic and counter to public needs.
Lastly, the role of censorship is quite different in the Russia Today documentary versus the lack thereof in Vice. “FEMEN: Exposed” blurs or pixilates breasts and curse words in the footage. Some of the slogans shouted at protests–like “Fuck your morals!”–are bleeped out. This seems to demonstrate the conservative nature of Russia Today. Vice, on the other hand, does not censor the breasts or the slogans, which attests to the ideological stance of this media source.
Media Artifact: Filming FEMEN
Given the visual nature of FEMEN protests and the profound importance of the image to the group, it seems the best media artifact to represent this particular social movement is a feature documentary film. Footage of topless protests would be essential in depicting the radical/militant aspects of FEMEN ideology as well as their use of spectacle as protest strategy. The format should in some ways, mimic that used in the Vice documentary, “Sextremism in Paris” by blending a reflexive journalistic measures, like interviews and filmmaker commentary, as well as stylistic and editing techniques like “disruption and distancing,” especially in order to comment on the often fragmentary nature of feminist thought in a global public sphere (Corner 260).
Interviews would be essential to representing FEMEN. Leaders and so-called faces of this movement, like Inna Shevchenko, may be important to interview since they are self-defining the group. However, interviews with lower-ranking members of FEMEN would provide a more provocative look into the movement, particularly since the organization has been criticized for indoctrinating impressionable young women. FEMEN chapters across the globe should also be approached because it would help represent different cultural landscapes for nudist and/or feminist ideologies. For instance, in Turkey, topless feminism may not be the most effective means of achieving social change; women may be too modest or afraid to participate, whereas men might be too excited by the nudity to care about the issues presented by FEMEN, as Barin Kayagaolu explains in “Can Nude Feminism Succeed in Turkey?” As a globalizing movement, it would be necessary to look at how the “sexually explicit” forms of resistance might at times be problematic in mobilizing a fight for equality.
Subsequently, how other feminist organizations, movements, and branches perceive or relate to FEMEN is incredibly significant. “FEMEN: Exposed” briefly touches on Les Antigones, but this group is so small and localized, as well as quite conservative (not to mention reactionary, since they came into existence as a response to FEMEN), that it hardly bears significance to feminism in a larger sense. However, there has also been a backlash against FEMEN amongst other feminist groups, particularly those with religious leanings and those with broader goals for social equality (religion, race, class). Allegations of Islamophobia have been a strong point of criticism aimed at FEMEN, but the two documentaries I have analyzed barely touched on the subject. Feminists in the Middle East have been especially critical of the FEMEN, not only for the group’s religious insensitivity, but also for attempting to be the “white savior” (Schemm, Hadid).
It would be relevant to include reactions to topless protests, not just from journalists, bloggers, activists, and intellectuals, but from bystanders and those who may come in contact with FEMEN for the first time. “FEMEN: Exposed” provocatively included the comments section to one of the protest videos on Youtube. It can serve as a powerful framing mechanism, as well as a reminder of how public discourse operates around social change/movement in a non-institutional setting.
In conclusion, my documentary would include a broader range of interviews than the two documentaries I analyzed. Specifically, I would speak with lower ranking members of the FEMEN movement–not just the “faces” that represent it like Inna Shevchenko–as well as other feminist organizations, particularly those that strongly oppose the group both from a personal perspective and in terms of feminism at large. Unlike the two documentaries, I would try to frame the answers, arguments, and criticisms in a constructive and respectful way, so the interviewees are not portrayed as infantile or ludicrous.
This can be achieved through thoughtful editing as well as including myself in the narrative of the documentary (in front of the camera during interviews or protests that would be filmed, for example). In editing, I would be careful in how I treated scenes of the FEMEN members’ social lives, or personal/intimate moments perhaps not including them at all and simply focusing on the political side of their cause. However, at times this might be necessary in order to personalize or humanize this group. In addition, by putting myself in front of the camera I would also associate myself closer to the subject I intend to represent and put more emphasis on my own place within the feminist movement or political activism in general.
Lastly, in speaking with those present at FEMEN’s protests, I can gauge the type of discourse surrounding their movement or their tactics, especially depending on who I interview. On one hand, it may show FEMEN in an unfavorable light. On the other hand, it can give voice to “the public” and demonstrate the level of success/failure on FEMEN’s part.
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