What should a modern-day feminist look like? How should she – or he – stand up to a patriarchal society? In a recent Guardian article and subsequent interviews, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko set out to address the outpouring of public attacks against the group’s work, merit, and even its origins.
The new documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, about Femen’s evolution, revealed that the Ukrainian feminist coalition included a man named Victor Svyatski, who publicly declared: “Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts.” No one paid much mind to Femen’s anti-prostitution and male oppression protests until they adopted this “sextremist” tactic, appearing topless and in heels, painting slogans on their breasts and torsos, such as “THIS IS NOT A SEX TOY” and “FUCK YOUR MORALS”, and screaming as loud and for as long as their vocal chords will allow. The anti-Femens spoke out and the media began reporting that Femen is actually the brainchild of Svyatski who called his critics weak, submissive and lacking the “strength of character” required to be true political activists.
But according to Shevchenko, Svyatski was first a friend of the female founders who began attending group meetings, offering suggestions as to how the group should operate – such as indoctrinating women resembling Barbie dolls – and somehow bullying his way into a leadership role. Shevchenko says he gained control simply because he is a man. He was finally ousted after showing increasing aggression against group members.
Yet, even without Svyatsky’s leadership, Femen is still comprised of women who are fair and statuesque. In an interview with The Guardian Shevchenko argued it’s “an instrument of patriarchy and now we’re using it against [them]. Barbie [is] fighting against everything that is making her plastic.”
While this reasoning is not entirely without merit, the army of the blonde, the beautiful and the half-naked inherently sexualizes the female gender at the same time that it rails against the objectification of women. The danger is that the focus becomes not on the issues, but on the group of hot girls running around without their shirts on.
It’s hard to know if the sextremist strategy, whether facilitated by Svyatski or Shevchenko, does more harm than good. Which is not only why Femen has fallen under such harsh criticism but also why we should be grateful that there’s more than one type of feminist in the world.