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.