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Lisa McInerney: Were Femen's breast-baring protests ever truly credible?

Allegations that Femen is run by a bully-boy svengali who hand-picks pretty girls to carry out topless protests underlines how confused this approach to tackling sexism really is, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

WHENEVER WE SEE models in bikinis smiling through chattering teeth as they hold foodstuffs aloft on Stephen’s Green, we’re reminded that sex sells.

Except it doesn’t. The intent to purchase the advertised product is heightened when sexual images are used in promotional material but, in a cruel twist of fate, brand recall suffers. In fact, a recent survey revealed that less than 10 per cent of men could remember what it was they were supposed to buy after viewing an ad containing sexual imagery. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was really, really distracting.

And so, you might remember Femen from such protests as… well, buggered if I know.

The issue for many with the Ukrainian feminist collective is that their methods quite often overwhelm the issues they wish to publicise. Lots of people can identify the organisation through the images they painstakingly set up and sell to the media: that recent and quite snigger-worthy shot of Vladimir Putin coming over all goo-eyed as a topless young protester leapt out in front of him, for one. But ask your average news junkie what the protester’s chosen cause was and you’ll get a vacant stare for your trouble.

‘Awareness?’ they’ll guess. ‘Some sort of protest against… sexism or… um… Raising awareness?’

Femen, those angry, visually arresting young women whose politics are daubed on their naked flesh, are very good at grabbing attention – their capacity for holding it lags a little.

The man behind the movement

This is why the revelation that the organisation is run by a man is so remarkable. Victor Svyatski, always credited as a “consultant” for the collective, turned out to be its founder and mastermind. Svyatski’s role is revealed by filmmaker Kitty Green in her new documentary ‘Ukraine is not a Brothel’.

She acknowledges Svyatski’s intelligence and success in making the relatively new organisation world-famous, but alleges that he is abusive, that he has little respect for the activists, and that he admits that he may have started the organisation… to meet girls. PUAs take note.

Putting aside the creepiness of Svyatski’s alleged goal of fostering political awareness in docile, attractive exhibitionists, Green’s discovery is so close to the bone as to be virtually satirical. A radical feminist organisation run by a man is hardly worthy of commentary – people who believe in gender equality come in more than one gender, as do those who identify as radical feminists (even the anti-feminists’ favourite bogeywoman, Andrea Dworkin, had John Stoltenberg as her closest ally).

But the idea that the string-puller is a bully-boy svengali who hand-picked the prettiest girls to carry out the topless protests – and then complained that the protesters lacked the qualities needed for political activism – is bubbling over with black comedy. As the saying goes, you couldn’t make it up.

(It’s worth bearing that in mind. Femen are good at publicity stunts. Could this revelation be another?)

Femen are as reviled as they are lauded

And so the issues identified with Femen’s methods are re-examined in this blinding new light, and what was once given the benefit of the doubt has been dismissed as a long ream of transparent and regressive stunts for the benefit of one leering chap with his hands down his pants.

It can’t even be said that Svyatski had us all fooled, for Femen are as reviled as they are lauded. Some commenters have pointed out that their anti-religious protests amount to little more than Islamophobia, or that their version of feminism is too erotic, too homogenous, or too knowingly photogenic to be taken seriously.

Others say that weaponised nudity makes a powerful statement in a world in which a woman’s worth ties into how good she looks naked and how good she is at hiding it. Such is the problem with any social or political movement – nuances drawn and appropriated so that internal definitions take on as much importance as any common goal. Democracy, Christianity, Capitalism… Feminism is no different. What Femen do fades into the background; how they do it becomes the focus of debate.

Now we have ‘why they do it’ as another factor, and re-examined with Svyatski’s involvement accepted as fact, that ‘why’ is twisted into some pretty grotesque shapes. You may think nudity is a powerful tool in feminist protest, but is it still a feminist act if it’s orchestrated by a conceited cynic purely in terms of how aesthetically appealing it is? Can you smash the patriarchy by using the weapons of the patriarchy to appeal to patriarchal norms under the direction of a patriarch? Is the Pope a Buddhist?

This isn’t feminism. It’s the appropriation of feminism.

On a personal level, I can’t see how getting gorgeous young women to strip off in the name of radical feminism raises anything but unsightly bulges in young men’s undergarments, but only because perky bosoms are the least threatening thing since extremist bronies abandoned the patent for a fluffy kitten cannon.

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That, and it’s kind of perplexing to fight sexual objectification by demanding conventionally beautiful college students take their tops off, and it’s hard to examine social prejudice when the subjects fit so well into the established, supposedly contemptible, sexist landscape.

That said, if it doesn’t hurt anyone but Wonderbra, it’s got to be worth a shot, and one can’t very well fight for equality by telling your teammates they’re doing it wrong (another thing Femen were criticised for).

It’s interesting how different the same political statement looks through the lens of some unexpected, unfortunate intel. The biggest question about Femen’s methods up to this point was whether the end justified the means, and until Green outed Svyatski, it was debateable. The revelation about Svyatski’s role has opened our eyes almost as wide as Putin’s in that famous image. Having your political protests organised by a man doesn’t make your statement any less feminist – having them organised by an abusive ass does.

This isn’t feminism. It’s the appropriation of feminism, and unlike the selected protesters, it isn’t very pretty.

Incidentally, if you want to see a young feminist in pop culture successfully using nudity as a form of protest, check out Amanda Palmer’s brilliant ‘Dear Daily Mail’, performed earlier this year in the Roundhouse in London as a response to a story the paper ran about one of her breasts popping out at Glasto. Now those are some truly magnificent boobs.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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