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?

Apr 3, 2013

Vile Product: Mick Philpott & our cosy acceptance of male violence

The Daily Mail is doing what the Daily Mail does: taking a human tragedy & obscenely distorting it to score a cheap political point, in the process shedding or neglecting every semblance of decency or tact. Small things like the fact that children are born, not "bred" like piglets; or that if you plaster an enormous headline screaming "VILE" above a photo of six dead kids, people will assume that's what you're calling them.

The Daily Mail is, of course, interested in twisting this awful, incomprehensible event to have a dig at people on benefits. All of them, it implies, are morally bankrupt scroungers who would murder their own children to do the taxpayer out of a buck. Who's more morally bankrupt is of course a debatable point, but the debate wouldn't be very long or very interesting (hint: it's the Mail).

But almost as interesting is what the Mail is almost equally interested in eliding, turning away from, hiding. Reaching back into some unspecified past, the Daily Mail news team implicitly posit a scrounging attitude, engendered by reliance on benefits, that developed over an unspecified length of time to a murderous approach to benefit fraud. That's the implication of "product" - first there was the benefits system, then there was this murderous monster, so clearly the two are connected.

But we don't really need to engage in hand-waving and insinuation to offer an opening bracket to the kind of mindset that leads a man to set this own children on fire: we can go back to when Michael Philpott was 21, and broke in to the home of a 17 yer old woman who dared to leave him. He stabbed her 17 times, attacked her mother, and was sentenced to 7 (!) years imprisonment for attempted murder. When he was 21, he thought that the penalty for daring to rebuff his violent, controlling advances was death, whereas the penalty for trying to kill a woman was a few years bread & board at Her Majesty's pleasure. If he really is such a determined scrounger as the Mail makes him out to be, he must have been in heaven.

Is it any wonder, then, that a man who was allowed to go back out into society and inveigh vulnerable young women with a history of abuse or violence to give themselves over to his control would have drawn the conclusion that leaving him was a crime that should -and could - be severely punished? When Lisa Willis decided to leave him, is it really such a stretch that a man who'd been breezily getting away with abusing and nearly enslaving one teenage future wife after another would decide that she should be punished?

This man killed six children trying to get back at a girlfriend who dumped him. That's all there is to it. He didn't do it because he was on benefits (in any case, both of the women he'd been controlling worked, not that the Mail would care for such a detail of fact) or because he was particularly evil or twisted. He did it because that's what men get away with in society all the time.

Two women a week die at the hands of their abusers; the majority, while trying to leave or just after having left. The Philpott children are just another such statistics. You'd almost think that this unusual circumstance would lead us to ask: why? Why do we let men like Mick Philpott get away with decades of violence, abuse and exploitation? You'd almost hope we'd ask those questions instead of the inevitable "why did she stay with him" (look at happens when "she" does!).

But nope. Our leading daily newspaper uses this opportunity not to start a conversation that will possibly safeguard the lives of other children, other women, but to ram home a mendacious, rancid piece of propaganda that will probably endanger their lives even more.

I don't know whether the national conversation about the Philpott case can ever rise above the sexual prurience of it all and really get into the mechanics of how men such as him find, target, groom and control vulnerable women with our collective support and connivance. Certainly the Fred and Rosemary West case never gave rise to anything other than polite but ultimately ineffectual horror. But we can and should try; we can and should tell people when the topic comes up: no, he wasn't especially or uniquely evil. He was a common or garden variety abuser who had gotten away with it for a very long time, and thought he could get away with it yet again. We never gave him a  reason to believe otherwise.

ETA: Apparently Philpott only served just over 3 years for the attempted murder & GBH of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. If I were given to making up hysterical screamy outraged headlines for tabloids, that's what I'd be shouting about.

ETA II: Women's Aid have released an excellent statement highlighting the mechanics of "decades of domestic abuse".