It is certainly an exciting scoop to discover that the Ukraine-based feminist organisation Femen is run by a man, but that is no excuse for the media (and especially for the Guardian and the Independent) to engage in hysterical sensationalism without actually discussing the implications.
Femen protestors (commons.wikimedia.org)
Fair enough that the Independent article is primarily just reporting the story, but Bim Adewunmi and Suzanne Moore at the Guardian are in the opinion business, and neither have really sung for their supper this week.
The revelation is made in Kitty Green’s film Ukraine is not a Brothel, which has just been screened at the Venice Film Festival. In this documentary following a year in the life of Femen, Victor Svyatski – previously described by Femen as a ‘consultant’ – is outed as the founder and controller of the organisation, who are known for their topless protests.
Suzanne Moore takes this as a (legitimate) opportunity to discuss the role of men in feminism, saying that of course they should be part of it, but not so much running the show. I am not convinced that this is actually a self-evident truth: sure, it makes no sense to have a man running a feminist group dictator-style, as Svyatski is described, since you can’t really challenge the patriarchy using… patriarchy. But feminism and its proponents need to make clear that we don’t assume all men will attempt to take over feminism if we give them a chance to get involved. We need men to get involved, because we are all part of patriarchal structures and can only change things by working in collaboration. I am a great fan of Moore’s writing, but in this case she seems to miss the point, continuing with a lament that any feminist criticism of men or sexism is shouted down with accusations of man-hating. This is a perfectly good debate, but not the one we need to have about Femen.
Bim Adewunmi, on the other hand, says, well, nothing really.
The discussion we need to have is connected to beauty, and its social and political uses. The Independent quotes Kitty Green as saying of Svyatski:
“It’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page… that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand.”
This is standard practice for advertising, but for feminism? If this is true, then Femen’s vaunted campaign – for women’s bodies to be their own, not subject to political or religious oppression, not sexually objectified – is null and void. You wouldn’t run a healthy food campaign by bribing people in with chocolate.
And I’m pretty sure the problem here is not that a man founded Femen, but that he seems to run it based on very anti-feminist principles. This would equally be a problem if a woman ran the organisation in that way, though the issue would not be loaded with quite the same issues.
Svyatski himself seems quite keen to display his total lack of understanding regarding feminism, when he says of the Femen activists in Green’s film:
“They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”
So they, er, need a Man to educate them out of their weak Womanly ways. Would this be so enraging if it had been said by a woman? Imagine if someone formidable like Anna Wintour was pulling the Femen strings and said this: we might call her a dictator but I don’t think it would create a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Femen. It would, however, do so if Ms Wintour was hand-picking pretty girls to strip off for publicity. That would not be OK.
Incidentally, that is exactly what she does at Vogue. That is also exactly what organisations like Femen are supposed to be challenging. Unfortunately that’s a bit long to spell out on my breasts.