Apr 10, 2013

Femen vs. Pussy Riot: Russia and the Ukraine are not in the "West"


I've been interested in the discourse about Femen that's been going on ever since the story of Amina Tyler hit the news. One of the things that strikes me the most about it is how hostile the reaction to them has been compared to Pussy Riot. I've thought about it a lot, and what I think is this:

If as a feminist you have a different reaction to Femen than you did to Pussy Riot, you need to think about that. I know, really helpful.

Pussy Riot are part of a male-headed, heteronormative collective called Voina - "war" - and lead by Oleg Vorotnikov and his wife Natalia Sokol. The collective engages in traditionally male forms of artistic expression such as punk rock, as well as some heavily porn-inflected performance art (in which it is female members who are shown in explicitly sexual contexts).

Femen is a woman-lead, non-hierarchical and quite amorphous group of women appropriating not just the symbolism of female nakedness, but traditional markers of femininity for purely political aims. [In case you don't know: those flower garlands they wear are Ukrainian women's folk headress, which adds an interesting twist to the bare chests.] 

So why the reverence of one and the hostility to the other?

I'm not really interested in how the establishment views Femen or Pussy Riot, but that the left sees them so differently is concerning.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there is an element of puritanism in the reaction to Femen naked breasts. It's the wrong context. In a society like the Ukraine, one that enforces the most shocking extremes of pornified femininity and supports horrific male violence, nakedness takes on a different meaning than in a society in which female bodies are forcibly hidden. Femen tactics are essentially Ukranian, and it is incorrect to compare them to, for example, PETA - who really do explicitly objectify women's bodies in essentially Anglophone cultural contexts. 

As an aside, it's been a surprise and a disappointment to read almost nothing in the coverage of Femen in feminist circles, most notable Bim Adewunmi's otherwise measure piece, about their origins and cultural background. Because they are white, they just get folded into the imperialist, Islamophobic "West". But the Ukraine is not in the "West". Eastern Europe, and especially ex-Soviet states, have their own cultural trajectory and a different engagement with imperialism & post colonial analysis.

And yes that does mean that the transplantation of those tactics to Muslim countries can be problematic and clumsy; that is a valid concern. So I don't necessarily want to critique the #MuslimaPride hashtag on Twitter or the other reactions to Femen by Muslim feminists. That's a conversation that needs to happen inside Muslim feminism (especially given that it was essentially kicked off by a Muslim woman, not Femen or anyone else), and I don't think I've much of a right to comment on it.

But still, I'm kind of curious why most feminists & lefties are so much more lukewarm, if not hostile, to Femen than to Pussy Riot. Not to come over all Nick Cohen, but is it because Pussy Riot only took on the church, whereas Femen branched out into mullah bashing? Or is it because some feminists have imbibed the anti-objectification message to such a degree that the naked female body has become anathema to us? Or is it because the - literally - naked anger and hatred of Femen simply refuses to play by our rules?
  

10 comments:

  1. Femen pays lip service to the idea of overthrowing the patriarchy, but their actions speak louder than their words. Most feminists are not fooled by the old, worn-out "shock" tactics of pandering to the male gaze. It has not escaped our notice that the women getting naked are young and conventionally attractive. Would they get the same media attention if they were old, fat and ugly? Don't think so.

    The supposedly unique political situation in the Ukraine hardly makes analyzing their behavior hopelessly obscure, nor are those who are not from there somehow disqualified from comment. That's just libfem special-snowflaking to the point of absurdity.

    Men aren't worried. They know Femen isn't really a threat to their privilege.

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    1. If they're not worried, why are they beating them up like this? By your analysis, they'd just enjoy the view, no?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqUbPAmFPKg

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  2. This is a really interesting article, thanks (a friend just shared it with me and I've not commented here before, so hi).

    I think it's a thought-provoking parallel. Some feminists I knew were bothered about Pussy Riot, for what it's worth (no surprise, we all know different people).

    I'm really uncomfortable with the characterisation of Femen's tactics as 'essentially Ukranian'. I am aware there is a shedload of misogyny and hatred of women's bodies in modern Ukranian culture, but I'm still not comfortable. This may be a knee-jerk reaction.

    I think perhaps the fact that one, iconographically, Pussy Riot used a female image - the image of the Virgin - as a big part of their statement, might be relevant. And also that a big group of people their approach upset were the women who'd lived under the Soviet state and who'd been forbidden to worship, but who'd felt it important - and patriotic in the anti-Soviet sense - to keep their faith alive.

    I'm not Russian Orthodox and I'm not speaking up to defend the ROC, which I do think is quite deeply misogynistic. But my feeling is that some people find it much easier to celebrate Pussy Riot because they don't recognize elderly Christian women as an important group to stand up for.

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  3. One irritating grammar note: the country in Eastern Europe that claims Kiev as its capitol is "Ukraine." You don't need to put the word "the" in front of it. No one refers to Great Britain as "The Great Britain" or Belgium as "The Belgium" or France as "The France" or Russia as "The Russia." The word "the" goes in front of "The United States of America" because the name of the country is a combination of adjectives and nouns. Sorry, this irritates me to no end.

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  4. Ahh, but Maureen, we English-speakers do love our definte articles.

    It is an odd quirk.

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  5. I'm not a native English speaker, I'm a native Russian speaker, and "the Ukraine" sounds ok to me as a translation. It's more like "the Dordogne" or "the Apls" than "the France" or "the Germany". Still, I'm not so married to it that I have to keep using it if it's wrong. *shrug*

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  6. Ah, sorry, I should then say, the English language loves definite articles!

    I think 'the Ukraine' is what people would say over here (I'm in the UK, not the US, so it might be different there). I've heard people say, as you do, that this is slightly insulting because it implies it's more like a region than a country, but I think the ship has sailed on terminology that doesn't have negative implications when Ukraine itself suggests the place is on the edge of the world!

    I'm really sorry, btw, I feel horribly rude coming up as 'Anonymous' here but I can't work out how to come up with a nice picture that'd let you see who is commenting each time. I'll sign off, so you'll know.

    L.

    PS - do you think this is primarily a feminist problem, or a problem with different cultures (the reception of FEMEN, I mean)?

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  7. I take on board what you said about Pussy Riot and their associates but would add that Femen *are* hierarchically organised, have been backed by corporate sponsors (including a bloke called DJ Hell and a lingerie company), appear to treat the group as little more than a modelling agency, have very worrying right-wing links (the leader of Femen Brasil especially), and have posed for pictures with racist football fans. They don't actually *have* a political message as such (when actually asked their thoughts instead of just being pictured they seem very confused), have intentionally removed attention from other feminist protests (there's been times when there's been fairly large feminist demos and Femen have gone topless in another area of the same city, meaning all the media will rush to them) and a lot of it is highly orchestrated (there's a picture of them rushing a store in Brazil - which had been closed for months).

    So I don't really compare the two, and it's not about the boobs v not-boobs issue. Femen are entitled to dress however they want*. It's their lack of a message, their corporate sponsors, their almost cult-like treatment of members**, their sole desire to get attention for the sake of attention, and their frankly shocking racism.

    So you might have a point about Pussy Riot not being perfect (although I certainly would never claim they are), but I think there's many more reasons to be at least deeply suspicious of - if not outright hostile to - Femen.

    (*as long as it's not hurting anyone, and them dressing up as 'comedy' muslims, I would argue, is.)

    (**they have to apply and meet the criteria, including not being 'fat', dressing a certain way and not having, or planning to have, children. There's stuff from former members saying they were isolated from other friends and family by Femen, and the leader of Femen Brasil even told the media and an ex-member's parents that she'd been 'kidnapped' when the member left etc.)

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  8. As to why leftists in general have more respect for PR than for FEMEN, that part is easy. Because Pussy Riot are hard-left anarchists who challenge the Russian state itself, as well as the Orthodox Church. And intellectually they were rigorous and unwavering during their trial. They were willing to go to jail as a form of protest, and got what they were asking for. Realest punks alive = Respect.

    The other part, regarding feminists, is really quite mysterious. The idea that Pussy Riot is primarily a "feminist" group is incorrect, as you have already pointed out. The extremely disgusting pornographic actions of Voina are degrading to women, and the "Operation Kiss Garbage" would be considered a form of sexual assault on female police officers, under most circumstances. Also during their trial they said nothing at all about "feminism" or "women's rights".

    So the answer I think is that feminists have not looked closely enough at Pussy Riot and take a distorted media image at face value.

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  9. Please cleanse your head of this crap concerning male or female led. Are you for equality or not? Pussy Riot are based on clear ideological principles of freedom and equality.
    This is Femen:
    http://www.egaliteetreconciliation.fr/Les-FEMEN-ni-putes-ni-soumises-15096.html
    Whores financed by foriegn interest. Open your head to disinformation. The truth is never simple and the easiest way to get you off your path is to sway you a bit by bit.

    PR critical off Femen Action:
    http://jezebel.com/5938357/pussy-riot-does-not-approve-of-cutting-down-orthodox-crosses-bare+chested

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