Thinking Femen by Martin Eiermann


During the 1968 Olympics, it was a gloved fist, raised defiantly towards the sky. During the Occupy protests of 2011, it was a smartphone pointed at approaching police officers in riot gear, the “peace symbol of the 21st century” in the words of Laurie Penny. Last month, it was bared breasts. Visible symbols of defiance against injustice and repression.

For some years now, the Ukrainian-born Femen movement has cultivated public nudity as a distinct protest strategy. Eastern Europe has seen its share of protests since 2008, but the international export of a distinctly “Femen” style of protest is a more recent phenomenon. In early April, German Femen activists targeted Russia’s president Putin when he visited Germany. Around the same time, a Tunisian activist caused a fair bit of uproar by posting nude photos of herself (with the slogan “fuck your morals” written across her chest) on Femen’s Tunisian Facebook page. 

Public nudity doesn’t exactly constitute a new form of protest – remember the 1960s? –, and the history of bodily protests is as old as political dissidence. In 195 BC, the women of Rome’s upper class blocked all entrances to the city’s forum and refused to leave unless a law that restricted female property rights and limited the possession of luxury goods was repealed. They eventually succeeded. So what exactly might we say, against this background, about the recent protests, about the controversies they generated, and about their relation to anti-hierarchical and anti-patriarchal struggles?

In proceeding, I want to tread lightly for two reasons. One, the politics of bodily protest are always politics of subjectivity. If the recent spats between Femen activists and Arab feminists have illustrated one point, it is this: There’s no textbook definition of ‘emancipation’. Whether the field for personal and political expression appears wide or narrow, emancipatory or shackling, progressive or conservative, depends as much on the form of protest itself as it depends on the perspective of the protester and on the larger context in which the intervention takes place. Shulamith Firestone, the radical 1960s feminist who died last summer, first broke with the New Left over the lack of concern about female liberation within the larger emancipatory project of the Left. ‘What is the value of liberation if the class structure remains intact?’, SDS organizers would exclaim. To which Firestone responded (in a hurriedly written little book titled “The Dialectic of Sex”): And what good does a classless society if the oppressive patriarchy of the nuclear family survives?

Two, I want to tread lightly because it is always easier to write about protest than it is to put your body on the line. It’s easier to talk about contested bodies – especially as a man – than it is to live in a situation in which your body or your gender are themselves objects of contestation and of struggle. In writing, it is tempting to construct categories, to impose difference or coherence for the sake of the argument from the outside, while losing sight of that which comes from within. It is tempting, with hundreds of years of Kantian baggage strapped to our backs, to prioritize calm over anger, and reason over emotion. Disassociation can be revealing, and it can also obscure. So, in the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “When we seem to have won or lost in terms of certainties, we must […] remember such warnings – let literature teach us that there are no certainties, that the process is open, and that it may be altogether salutary that it is so.” Let this be a warning as I proceed.


But what about attempting to circle halfway around the issue to approach it from the opposite side? What about asking not about the motivations of bodily protest but about its reception, about its interaction with the hegemonies, hierarchies, and patriarchies against which it is aimed?

By way of a detour, let’s begin in 19th century America. In 1850, when Lucy Stone organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention at a farmhouse in Worchester, Massachusetts, and when suffragettes marched down main streets and in front of state houses in subsequent years, their agenda was twofold: One, they had physically moved from the ‘private’ sphere of the household into out into the public. They had made themselves not only heard on paper, but visible, tangible. With their bodily presence, they had physically disrupted the old order of male-dominated political debates. Yet their political project went beyond the affirmation of physical presence. They demanded something much more challenging to the status quo: the radical feminists of the 19th century wanted power. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had enshrined the African-American franchise as a constitutional guarantee but had consciously ignored the disenfranchisement of fifty percent of the American population based on gender. The physical presence in the streets served as a vivid reminder of the absence of women’s legal and political presence. The personal was political; so much that some conservative suffragettes attempted to curb their radical sisters’ fervor and, ultimately unsuccessfully, sought to depoliticize the women’s rights movement by focusing on domestic issues.

What exactly made one approach more “radical” than the other? Militancy might be one distinction – but remember that at least some of the most radical movements of the 20th century embraced non-violence as their strategy (for ideological and practical reasons). Indeed, there is no correlation between the propensity of a group to resort to violence (against their oppressors or against their oppressors’ property) and the radicalism of their demands. So maybe radicalism is determined by the degree to which a movement or an organization refuses to cooperate with representatives and supporters of the status quo: If society is unjust, aren’t its acolytes illegitimate and deserve to be shunned? But this is essentially a negative project – the celebration of marginality – that tells us little about alternative spaces and transformative politics. I believe that a better definition of radicalism might begin with the following principle: The radicalism of dissidents can be measured by the gap between the real and the imagination, by the degree to which movements cast doubt upon entrenched ways of thinking and living and unveil possible alternatives. Sous les pavés la plage. In the mid-19th century, the idea of the female franchise constituted a thoroughly radical project that would transform not only the lives of women but the structure of their society.

Why does this matter in the context of Femen? Because the movement (or, dare I say, the organization?) has charted for itself a course under the distinct banner of radical feminism:

“FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world by their intellect, sex, agility, make disorder, bring neurosis and panic to the men’s world.” 

That’s quite a statement. If you believe the bellicose rhetoric, Femen will not stop until the last vestiges of the patriarchal order have fallen – in the Ukraine, in Tunisia, in Germany, in countries and societies around the world. Radicalism is the new Amazons’ confrontational creed.

Yet Femen’s tremendous aspiration is matched by an equally tremendous challenge: the history of modern society is a history of the remarkable incorporation of radical challenges into mainstream discourses, sometimes by way of cooptation, sometimes by way of divide-and-conquer. Indeed, one of the primary motivations of contemporary radical feminists in the West seems to be a reaction to decades of moderate activism: a rebuttal of liberal formal equality, and an attempt to eradicate gender imbalances that run much deeper than the law and that touch on the very core of our social existence.

But radical dissidents have rarely fared well when their ranks filled up with moderate reformers or when more moderate movements were elevated to the forefront of public discourse. This is the insidious genius of majoritarianism: The longevity of hierarchies and hegemonies does not have to rely on the outright rejection and repression of dissidence, but often survives through mediating messages, and through a careful embrace of the radicals’ more moderate cousin. Look at Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s famed CEO. Her new book has turned her into one of the most internationally celebrated feminists almost overnight – and it’s a feminism that fits rather snugly within the grand narrative of corporatism and just-do-it individualism. Within Sandberg’s writings, the transformative project has been reduced to a piecemeal agenda that merely humanizes – or, in this case, feminizes – the world as it is. Gay pride parades and the problem of “pinkwashing” are yet another example of this trend.

A fault thus runs through the topology of protest movements: One one side are those movements and strategies that expand the range of possible, radical alternatives. On the other side are those who, voluntary or not, gravitate towards the status quo and towards the open arms of more moderate reformers. The tenacity of the former side disturbs the system. The existence of the latter side may render it more resilient. One of the main challenges for self-styled radical movements is thus the protection of utopian visions, and the defense against attempts to compromise or belittle the course they have charted for themselves. But here’s a catch: It only works if claims to radicalism are more than mere rhetoric. This isn’t a screaming contest, where the loudest voices gain victory. It’s a contestation of power, of tradition, and of ideology.


Which brings us back to Femen. Posing naked is probably not the most effective way to fight objectification, especially in countries where nude models can be seen on almost every billboard. As Meghan Murphy wrote in a recent article, “within our pornified culture, women seem to only be able to find power in their sexualized bodies”. And I’m not sure that it’s a good strategy for more patriarchial societies either. Anti-burka protests organized by Femen seem to be predicated on the idea that female liberation can be directly linked to what women wear and how they present themselves in public. Is that a radical project? I’m not sure Marx (or Firestone, for that matter) would agree. If you believe in the importance of radical feminism, shouldn’t you be slightly depressed that the most visible group today relies for its protests on the very stereotypes it critiques? 

‘Sure’, you might say, ‘but Femen is merely holding a mirror to our face and exposing those stereotypes for what they are.’ Point taken, but I can’t see how that allows for the imagination of radical alternatives. As a man, I think I can say this much: Most men look at Femen activists (most of which conform to Western beauty ideals) and think: “Breasts. How nice.” Then we carry on with our days.


Which brings me to a final point. Femen’s approach is tactical rather than strategic. A happening here or there, a few flashed breasts, a spike in newspaper coverage. I’d probably call that actionism rather than activism. It’s a bit like fighting an army with a toothpick. If your concern is the systemic discrimination on the basis of gender, a dissident strategy must involve more than singular and local interventions, regardless of how well-intentioned they may be. Its effects must be felt beyond the quick flurry of articles it generated now and again. To repeat myself: A radical dissident strategy must pry open the gap between the real and the imagination and untie the strings that bind us to the status quo. It must ask hard questions about power, about ideology, and about the basic organizational structure of a society. Or, as Firestone put it: “Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.”

I’m not sure whether radical feminism ought to aim at the destruction of the family, but that’s besides the point. Femen’s problem seems to be not an abundance of radicalism, but a misconception of what it means to struggle against a system of gender relations that has persisted in various forms and in a great many countries for centuries. Decades of liberal formal equality haven’t rendered that struggle irrelevant. As a man, I think I can say this much: the status quo has a lot of staying power.