Sunday, 23 June 2013

We Need To Talk About FEMEN

I've been asked a lot recently what I think about FEMEN, the Topless Ukrainian Feminist Sextremists who, if you spend a lot of time on the internet, you may be forgiven for thinking are the sole feminist activists operating at the moment. If you don't know who they are, and you would like to, you could watch this short (8 minutes-ish) film. HERE .

When people ask you what you think about FEMEN they usually mean one, or both, of two things: What do you think about FEMEN and their apparent raging Islamaphobia?; or 2) what do you think of FEMEN and their fantastic and very visible breasts. Of course you can't really talk about one without the other, but I'm going to have a go, due to the fact that I know rock all about Islam and I haven't done anywhere near enough research to be able to say anything sensible or valuable on the matter and it's far too important to throw a lot of stoopid platitudes at. I might come back to the religion thing when I know a bit more and when I'm a bit more confident with the blogging, but for now, I'm going to talk about something I have plenty of first hand experience of (Oooh Matron!) – boobs.


Boobs occupy an appropriately prominent position on the body of feminist discourse, as central to debates about women's autonomy as the issue of reproductive rights, with which they are of course deeply entwined. The politicized, feminist breast is there, or not there, in the protests against Miss America and Miss World pageants in the late 1960s; in burned bras; in the folded pink ribbons that encircle millions of women in sisterhood and solidarity against breast cancer every year; in binding; in Primark padded bras for 4 year old girls; in the current Ban Page 3 campaign; it goes on...
In recent years, I have never felt my own, personal need for feminism more acutely than when I've been asked by a man to breastfeed more discreetly; or, conversely, when I have been feeding at night: shattered, touched out and totally desiccated by a clingy, insatiable baby, staring jealously and resentfully through the darkness at John's flat, breastless chest rising and falling slowly in deep, snoring breaths beside me.

My own feminism was suckled not on the fabulously bra-less breasts swinging loose within the pages of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, but rather on the lager-soaked 'tits' of sexy 'ladettes' like Denise van Outen and Geri Halliwell, squished together in a vice-like Wonderbra, screaming “Hello Boys!!!!” through padded lace on the cover of FHM. In the years before, I'd been a huge fan of L7, Hole and Bikini Kill, but the actively feminist element of Riot Grrl had, until now, somehow passed me by (I'd been too busy planning my wedding to Kurt Cobain). This felt different.

Twitching with the dream of emancipation, feeling the spirit of Emmeline Pankhurst tingling in my nipples, I quickly got rid of all my baggy t-shirts, saved up for a bright pink, skin tight, v-necked top from Morgan and, with the help of Gossard's finest, Girl Powered UP! My boobs looked fantastic: Feminism was ace! I worked hard on developing my feminist persona – I hosted Anne Summers parties (surely just like Consciousness Raising sessions?); I drank alcopops til I was unconscious to showcase my liberation; I planned my wedding to Kurt Cobain....

But crucially, I felt empowered and, most importantly, I started identifying as a Feminist. What that means to me changes with the tides – some days I'm reaching for the shears with Valerie Solanis, other days I'm fighting for my right to make a cupcake. But that founding, empowering identification – I Am A Feminist - however bizarre its provenance might seem in retrospect, stayed with me and continuously informs how I choose to live my life.

So when I first saw FEMEN - tits out, slender white bodies scrawled with FUCK YOUR MORALS in black marker, flowers in their hair and looking more like 'super-groupie' Pamela des Barres' merry band of GTOs than the likes of Dworkin, Firestone or hooks – I felt, perhaps, differently from many Feminists of my generation. My overwhelming feeling wasn't one of disappointment at how their nakedness courts the desiring, objectifying male gaze; or frustration at their unwillingness to challenge the age old reduction of 'woman' to 'body'; or anger at their wholesale subscription to the dominant (patriarchal) model of ideal (white) femininity. Of course I get all that. Of course I feel all that, I'm older now and there's a lot of books, conversations and experience between me and The Girlie Show feminism of my youth. But just as much as all that, in fact MORE than all that, I felt a huge wave of pure bloody excitement for all the teenage girls (and women) who were about to fall in love with, and be empowered by, FEMEN. Because if girls feel like they need to talk about FEMEN, then they are still talking about Feminism. And we need to talk about Feminism.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Call Me Maybe?

So I met a lovely young anarchist on the way to Venice. I don't actually know if he was an anarchist but it's a fabulous first line for my first blog post, eh? But yes, lovely, young, and if not an anarchist then at the very least an activist; he had the tattoos to prove it and his eyes still shone with visions of mischief. But that was later...

I had arrived in Venice without a map. I thought I had an app for a map but my apps weren't working, in fact neither was my phone. I was completely in-apperable and it suddenly struck me that I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying, or how to get there, or how to find out where there was. Of course over the course of the journey I had developed a relationship with the young anarchist already. The sort you have with someone you've never spoken to but who has happened to be sitting nowhere near you, reading a good book, at the same time as you, in several disparate locations – from The Bus Stop at Derby train station to the Piazella Roma in Venice - over the past 5 hours. The three mini bottles of wine I had drunk on the way to Venice assured me that we were basically best friends, we had a history, we were fatally entwined together by a shared love of precocious holiday reading and budget airlines. Brazened by the booze and with a nod (or perhaps a staggering Kate Bush hair toss) to the spirit of Venetian serendipity, I decided to ask him if he had a map.

Of course, being an anarchist, he didn't have a map either. So I proposed we go to a bar for Spritz and, in between desperate texts and emails to Kathy and his girlfriend, through which I managed to establish a vague sort of plan to meet Kathy 'at the Rialto Bridge in a bit', we – Lewis and I - got to know one another, liked what we found out, and pledged to meet again on the last day and travel home together.

The next night I met a lovely young artist called Ed on the balcony of a beautiful Palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. What?! I'm only saying this shit cos it's true. No doubt my next 2 years worth of blog posts will be stuff like 'one of the kids headbutted me and then poured cereal milk all over the carpet and then I cried', or 'I went out to look at the woman in the moon and it felt like she was giving me dead eyes and I couldn't work out what I'd done wrong and then I cried'; or 'I went into the garden and this one flower had produced so much pollen that it had overburdened itself and drooped over and I realised that all of nature was a metaphor for the inevitable destruction implicit within fecundity itself and then I cried'. So indulge me...

So I was on a balcony, drinking prosecco and watching the setting sun bleach out the domed roof of the Santa Maria della Salute (ahem) and I met this artist Ed, and his lovely boyfriend Simon, and another wonderful man called Simon. And they were ace. And over the next few days I massively gegged in on their scene. It was incredible and we had so much fun and it felt like I'd made friends for ever.

On the last day Ed and I were sitting on some steps (I'd love to tell you where but I didn't have a map), waiting for Simon while he went to some exhibition that I couldn't get into, and who walked along but Lewis, the lovely young anarchist! Venice is like that. We decided to all go for some food and some Spritz and then we spent the next few hours wandering around, eating gelatos, looking for coral and being gently educated by the infinitely knowledgeable Simon. It was ever so dérive and utterly wonderful.

At some point, conversation got around to the US Military 'Call Me Maybe' youtube video, which I had never heard of nor seen. A discussion ensued about whether it was a consciously gay parody (Team Lewis) or whether it was unknowingly uber camp (Team Ed). Being a massive perv, upon hearing all this talk of semi naked men prancing in front of a camera my interest was, as you might expect, piqued. So when I got home, I mentioned it to John and we watched it. It is amazing and if you haven't seen it then you should go and watch it now. It turns out it is actually a response, 'a tribute', to a version by Miami Dolphin's Cheerleaders, which you should also watch and which, as a point of reference, goes some way in 'heterosexualising' it for those that want it, but far from clears up the whole 'is it massively gay?' issue.

(Video shows Dolphin Cheerleaders & US Military simultaneously but watch them separately if you're interested)

So after watching the videos with John I was so hyped that I decided I needed to start a blog just so that I could write about it. And look! I'm doing it! I spent the last hour before I began writing this blog watching the videos one after the other after the other after the other after the other. I decided I would write a serious art history blog about it, on.... the homosocial continuum: Walt Whitman's Guide To War?... the contemporary omniscience of male gaze: the 'feminization' of (any and all) sexual display?... the weird racial pairings going on between the respective actors in the two versions (unless it's a really gay bit – White Men Can't Grind?)... But then....

But then... Watching the US Military version second time around, things started to get a bit sad. I got distracted by a sort of weird, tugging melancholia; a low, insistent hum droning along behind the sashays and lip-synching, the butt shots and pec flexing. It was there in the bulky, unfathomable weaponry around the soldier's waists; it was in the endless sand; in the tanks; in the pitiful row of too-narrow camp beds; in a gun run up a leg. It was the persistent, insistent signifiers of real life war. And I started to think about how fucked things were for these guys, so far, far away from their loved ones and so dissociated, so expatriated from their 'real lives' (and yes, so, so subjugated to a male, male gaze). I started to think how terribly, horribly sad it was that they were out there, fighting for fuck knows what. Bored, missing their loved ones (male and female), desperate to make contact, to stake a claim for existence in the real(er) world of the internetz. Dying for someone to Call Me Maybe. And then I cried.