Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who knew women's undies would play a role in social protest!?

There needs to be a social history of female breasts. That social history took a turn for the worst in the last 100 years when patriarchy took a beautiful feature of women’s biology & maternity & turned it into a misogynist political weapon. Women’s bodies became ideologically dismembered, breasts fetishized, female erogenous zones reduced to “tits & ass,” & female exhibitionism encouraged.

In an appropriate reaction to the pin-up caricatures, infantile breast fixation, & Barbie doll images we were bred on throughout the 1950s, a group of feminists protested the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, NJ by throwing mops, pots & pans, Playboy & other porno magazines, hairspray, stilettos, bras, makeup, girdles, false eyelashes, & curlers into a “freedom trash can”--which media twisted to create the stereotype of feminists as “bra-burners.” Miss America pageants are still livestock shows which now provide scholarships to render them legitimate rather than just puerile & exploitative.

Who knew that women’s underwear would play a role in social protest!? The slut walk phenomenon which many still herald as the vanguard of a new feminist movement was a peculiar political development even though many women identified with its apparent thrust against misogynist violence. In several cities the organizers were men, in most cities they were led by strippers & prostitute groups. There’s no question the leadership of the women’s movement has become ossified & ineffectual or that feminism needs a new orientation but is getting naked in the public streets the best way to do that!?

FEMEN, the Ukrainian women’s group formed in 2008, has become internationally famous for topless protests against the sex industry. "Ukraine is not a brothel!" was the slogan of their first clothed protest. Although it now claims a worldwide membership of 150,000, it is mainly a very small group of young Ukrainian women who use iconoclastic & “sextremist” tactics to garner media attention--& they are entirely candid in admitting that.  According to Alexandra Shevchenko, a founder of FEMEN,  “We quickly realized that if we took our tops off & screamed loudly it was a good way to get attention.” Of course the problems with that are manifold: it substitutes grandstanding for movement building (some of them specifically reject mass protests); it’s elitist & excludes the majority of women who are uncomfortable disrobing in public, especially religious & senior women. But worst of all, it panders to the lascivious sexuality of patriarchy in order to get their pictures in the newspaper! What kind of politics is that!?

FEMEN has specifically distanced itself from classical feminism, comparing it to “an old sick lady that doesn't work any more” & anointing itself the standard-bearer of "a new wave of third-millennium feminism.” Good for them. But they are making a fatal mistake that classical feminism did not make: instead of directing their protests to the state they are going after religious institutions like the Vatican, Islam, & the Greek Orthodox church--& getting caught in the crosshairs of racism & Islamophobia. Anna Hutsol, the central figure in FEMEN says, "As a society we haven't been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women.” FEMEN recently moved its headquarters to Paris & is now planning topless marches through Muslim parts of the city. This is provocation, not transformative politics.

FEMEN made big news last August when it demonstrated against the sentencing in Moscow of three members of Pussy Riot by stripping for cameras & using a chainsaw to demolish a religious cross erected in Kiev. They called on others to cut down crosses across Russia & Ukraine. Despite FEMEN’s attempts to associate themselves with Pussy Riot’s political stature, the latter have distanced themselves from FEMEN’s iconoclasm & nudity. From her prison cell one of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members denounced the desecration of the cross. Pussy Riot focuses its demands on the Russian state & although it has torched images of Putin, they reject physical destruction of cultural objects or symbols, including symbols of the Orthodox religion. Iconoclasm has a short political shelf life because it focuses on symbols & not power.

There is certainly a place for a critique of religion in the subjugation of women & there’s no need to be shy about saying so. But that critique does not include racism, provocation, & iconoclastic destruction. A new feminism is needed--not one that panders to the twisted mores & sexuality of patriarchy or that needs to flaunt naked to get a hearing but one where women’s sexuality & political voice are all of a piece & not dismembered.

Photo is of 2013 Miss America pageant, not a FEMEN protest. Imagine that they wear more clothes at female livestock shows than FEMEN rallies!   (Photo by Isaac Brekken/AP)

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