FEMEN: a political act?

Marina Fuser is a social scientist and doctoral researcher in Gender & Film Studies at the University of Sussex. Marina is part of the RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM editorial team and this week explores the protest group FEMEN‘s actions.

In the 1970’s, Berkeley was bursting in fire. It was the midst of the boom of the social movements that took place in different parts of the world. Flames of the French in May 1968 had a wide repercussion in the new world, addressing both economic and cultural change. In the United States, the Black Panthers and the Black Power became symbols of the struggle for racial equality. Echoes of New York’s Stonewall riots put into question homophobic violence and sexual diversity. The Vietnam War encountered much resistance among the United States civilians. Pacifism was embraced by some of the most popular artists of the decade. In this context, Feminism was one among other powerful voices that demanded change.

In June 1970, Berkeley was the epicenter of an episode that became the icon of “sexual revolution”: women burned their bras in a wastebasket as a means of protesting against male oppression. They put into check media’s imposition of artificial beauty patterns, women’s reproductive rights, and the imperatives of conservative morality. The act was repeated in several places and occasions. Burning a bra became a political act. Feminists literally ripped out the vests knitted by Patriarchal society.

In June 2012, the Ukrainian Feminist group FEMEN became popular after a topless protest against prostitution in front of Warsaw’s National Stadium, during Euro 2012. In fact, these mega events have an impact upon sexual tourism, although the whole issue of prostitution is more complex than this. I find their critique against prostitutes rather moralist, they target the sex workers without regards to the social and historic context in which they are grounded. Although the tactic was not original by all means, it worked as a way of getting the media’s attention. Despite the fact that most of the attention they got focused on their naked breasts, decontextualizing the motives of the demonstration, many feminist groups throughout the world started to pay attention to them as well.

After this event, FEMEN became known to the general public. They were at the headlights of some of the most famous newspapers and magazines in the world, such as Le Figaro, Opera Mundi, AlJazeera, and BBC News. However, does the general public know what they stand for? If you take the time to visit their website, you’ll see many pictures of their topless protests, but only two paragraphs filled with shallow slogans to define who they are and what they aim for. The fact is that they have no political project. The only thing about them that is known to the general public is that attractive Ukrainian feminists are protesting topless. The attention they get focuses on their nudity, and no further message comes across.

According to FEMEN’s international leader, Inna Shevchenko, they are playing with the objectification of women’s bodies. This could have been interpreted as something nearly radical if only it would have been done two decades ago. The super-exposition of women’s bodies has long ago become a trend in the medias. The circulation of porn, soft porn, pictures and video clips exposing naked women’s bodies have been rapidly and widely disseminated, especially with the advent of the internet. It’s accessible upon a click. In fact, sex sells. This is no magical formula. And no news. It is symptomatic that the leader of the Brazilian branch of FEMEN in Brazil, Sara Winter, has posed and been interviewed by the Playboy exposing the Nazi cross tattooed on her shoulder.

In a recent interview to Opera Mundi, the member number 2 of FEMEN Brazil, Bruna Themis, pointed out that Ukrainians criticized the Brazilian branch for putting overweight girls in the protests. In the same interview she accused the group of having no social project, and no dialogue with other Feminist groups. The American journalist Meghan Murphy, also highlighted FEMEN’s lack of dialogue: “Shevchenko is completely condescending, disrespectful and outright rude when it comes to addressing feminists and the feminist movement”.

Too bad for them, they could learn much from other feminist groups about the history of Feminism, and historical subversive tactics to fight women’s oppression. Like, for instance, Guerrilla Girls, who struggle against women’s exclusion in art galleries and the film industry with their creative urban interventions and performances. They claim that the only way women can find visibility in the art exhibits is if they are naked. Their most remarkable poster recently exposed at the Pompidou Centre and Tate Modern, says: “Do women have to get naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artist in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”


I still wonder how FEMEN’s nakedness differs from the nakedness that contemporary media is saturated with. What makes their nakedness more special than other naked women we see on TV? Are their naked bodies really desexualized? Can nudity be desexualized?

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