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Mixed messages from the frontline

WHEN it was suggested last week that a man could be behind topless activist group Femen, almost no-one seemed surprised.

The women who represent Ukrainian group Femen are exclusively thin and beautiful
The women who represent Ukrainian group Femen are exclusively thin and beautiful

Once the claim had been made, by the maker of a new documentary about the Ukraine-based feminists, it seemed like almost everyone, including myself, was falling over themselves to say we should have seen it coming. Oh right, thought many of us, that's why it always seemed so much like a sort of Russ Meyer soft-porn film about sexy, angry Amazon women, but with smaller breasts.

Like many, I had been giving Femen the benefit of the doubt. The group, whose protests are staged topless and with political slogans scrawled across their chests, caused controversy earlier this year with their "topless jihad" - an assault on Islamic culture that some branded racist and colonial.

Until now, I haven't written about the group because, quite simply, I was perplexed by their belief that an assault of half-naked beautiful, slender girls with perfect breasts could do anything to puncture patriarchal culture. But I also thought: strange things happen, and maybe this is what you resort to when you live in a sex-industry-addled country with a rigidly and proudly patriarchal society. I thought: give them their self-declared mission of "transforming female sexual subordination into aggression" and fighting with "bare breasts alone". Boobs may be among the things that delight their native patriarchy most, but let them experiment.

The facts about Femen and the man said to be its Svengali-like mastermind are rather confused. Victor Svyatski is known as the group's "consultant" but documentary-maker Kitty Green has said "it's his movement. 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". According to Green, "he is Femen".

However, members have denied Svyatski was the founder, or that he came up with their key stunt (breast-baring, according to Femen activist Inna Shevchenko, was a woman's idea). Nevertheless it's fairly clear he infiltrated the group, and masterminded some of the campaigning.

He has also revealed himself in an interview with Green to be a rather unpleasant, misogynistic bloke, who confesses that in his "deep subconscious" he may well have been just in it "to get girls". "These girls are weak," he says in the film. "They don't have the strength of character. They don't even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show sub-missiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors that prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities it was essential to teach them."

Meanwhile, in spite of all this ugliness, women from the movement turned out at last week's Venice Film Festival launch of the documentary, Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, to pose for cameras as if it were just another opportunity for a bit more bare-chested publicity, this time in the form of a movie-world style publicity shot. The movement, they say, long ago distanced itself from Svyatski. They also seem to view the film as a story of victory over the patriarchy within, and their ousting of this former patriarch as symbolic.

But for me, the problem with Femen was not really that there may have been a man at the centre of it. It was the style of the protest, the particular weapons: those perfect young breasts. Though they may bear all the hallmarks of design by some lecherous guy who wants to see a bunch of pretty women in nothing but their pants, these stunts were performed and are being continued by women. Of course, the reason they are continued is because on one level they are successful. They get newspaper coverage.

This is the tragicomedy of Femen. I am in sympathy with its choice of targets even if they are vague: dictatorships, the church, the sex industry, homophobia. But, in the end, all they seem to have done is played into the hands of a market that revolves around women as consumables. And even as the movement gets publicity, the patriarchy it fights against has mostly just laughed, or smiled, or as Vladimir Putin once did when confronted by a Femen protestor, put their thumbs up and looked goggle-eyed.

Of course, we might have been more convinced had Femen come in all different shapes and sizes. But then few would have published the pictures. Femen's body-fascism has been deliberate. Leader of the one-time Brazilian branch of the movement, Sara Winter, complained that Femen "always want beautiful activists in the frontline for marketing strategy. The attitude is extremely chauvinist and reinforces patriarchal society".

Whenever I think of Femen, I want to contrast it with Slutwalk, the global movement that created a wave of marches against victim-blaming. Slutwalk was created by women (though it also embraced men) in response to their horror at a police officer suggesting they should protect themselves from rape by not dressing provocatively - and it had a very clear message.

With Slutwalk what we saw in the newspapers was generally the most attractive, skimpily-dressed woman, but we knew there were others, of all shapes, sizes and types of dress, out there. With Femen there was no such feeling. Footage and trailers from Kitty Green's film do nothing to dispel that notion.

But the real problem with Femen is one of results. While it gets coverage, it struggles to get its messages across. The public tends to see the breasts and not the words. This is what Femen should consider now, as they get their fresh new wave of publicity and see the images across the media of themselves parading like stars. The world is still looking, but is it yet listening? Did anyone really read the messages on their chests saying, "Naked war" or "I am free". And if they did, did they even pause to think?

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