Performing the “Just Princess Warrior”: Symbolism and Strategy in FEMEN’s Emancipatory Activism

Authors: Sylvia Maier and Jens Rudbeck, 2018.

Disclaimer: This article contains profanity and images of FEMEN activists protesting topless.

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“”F*** Your Morals”, “Soldier of Freedom”, and “Naked War” are written in large letters across their naked torsos…”

 


Sylvia Maier is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University where she directs the concentration in Global Gender Studies.

Jens Rudbeck is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University where he directs the concentration in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance.


Cover image of FEMEN activists protesting Vladimir Putin at the 2013 Hanover Fair. All images in this article are reproduced with permission from FEMEN and taken from FEMEN.org.

 

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FEMEN: A New Form of Feminist Activism

“Fuck Your Morals”, “Soldier of Freedom”, and “Naked War” are written in large letters across their naked torsos. They wear Doc Martens on their feet and delicate flower wreaths-vinoks- on their heads. They are FEMEN activists, who – strong, unyielding, beautiful – protest against patriarchy, authoritarianism, religious intolerance, and the exploitation, control and subjugation of the female body. FEMEN activists are self-declared “sextremists” who claim a “new interpretation of modern feminism, where the naked body becomes an active instrument in confronting institutions of patriarchy … and use the sexist weapons of patriarchy against itself.” (femen.org/en/about).

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With several hundred members worldwide and branches in France, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Great Britain, Brazil, Canada, and elsewhere, the Paris-based organization has become one of the most successful transnational feminist movements of the past decades (Tayler 2013). Since stepping onto the public scene in 2008, at a time when many commentators had pronounced the feminist movement dead, FEMEN has established a new agenda, which has put feminism back into the streets of Western capitals with a force not seen since the 1980s. To be sure, Western women never stopped protesting – there has been mass mobilization around issues such as the Iraq War, climate change, and animal rights – but rather than a movement of the streets, the promotion of Western women’s rights had largely been taken over by feminist NGOs (Staggenborg and Taylor 2005). To find street protests that challenge patriarchal structures after the 1980s, one had to travel to places such as Palestine during the Intifada (Hiltermann 1991), Argentina during the 2001 economic collapse (Sutton 2010), or to India where women courageously are organizing in vigilante groups such as the Mahila Aghadi (Sen 2007) and the Pink Saris (White and Rastogi 2009) to protect themselves against sexual abuse and domestic violence. It was against a background where Western feminism more or less had resigned the promotion of women’s rights to the quiet backrooms of political lobbying that FEMEN decided to enter the public space and engage in activism that took radical new forms. Claiming that FEMEN was a new ideology based on women’s sexual protest, a protest strategy they later named “sextremism,” FEMEN has made the display of the nude female body their trademark.

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This article explores why FEMEN founders Inna Shevchenko, Anna Hutsol, and Oksana Shachko chose this particular repertoire of contention. It also asks why this form of protest has resonated so powerfully both with their female and male audiences? We argue that beside the undeniable physical attractiveness of the FEMEN fighters, FEMEN’s success among men and women lies, to a large measure, in the activists’ decision to perform the role of “just princess warrior,” in an adaptation of what Snyder (1999) calls “subversive transgender performance” (145). Princess warriors are revered creatures of European myth and legend. References to the Amazons and Valkyries, the historical warrior queens Boudica and Cordelia, military leader Jeanne d’Arc, Marianne as “Liberty Leading the People,” or Tolkien’s Eowyn are ubiquitous. A crucial point for our argument is that these women, like the hegemonic male “just warrior” character, are valiant warriors yet they are valiant warriors who simultaneously are fierce fighters and untouchable virgins, anatomically female yet curiously un-gendered, unyielding in their struggle against evil and injustice, and standing up for what is morally right.

This, however, is only part of the story. FEMEN warriors consciously appropriate and subvert this myth of the male “just warrior” (Elshtain 19995, Snyder 1999) to destroy a patriarchal understanding of “full citizenship” and a deeply gendered, exclusivist and limited public sphere (Fraser 1990; Landes 1988; Habermas 1989). This makes them lethally dangerous both to the existing political and social order as well as to the archetype of the woman as the weak and fragile “beautiful soul” (Elshtain 1982) that needs to be protected by the male and hypermasculine “just warrior,” a binary relationship on which most social and political orders are predicated, and which is used to justify the continual oppression of women and sexual minorities. Additionally, to make what could be a quaint historical imagery resonate effectively with a modern audience, the FEMEN activists anchor themselves to the hugely popular “Grrrrl Power” movement of self-sufficient and self-empowered girls. Put differently, FEMEN women are “power girls” who are fighting patriarchal oppression, dictatorship, and organized religion in all manifestations-Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Islam- the contemporary equivalents to feudal injustice, evil kings and vicious dragons of yore. Hence they become, by virtue of their appearance, their intention, and their objective “just princess warriors.”

 

Feminist Activism and Repertoires of Contention

When FEMEN’s founders in 2008 set out to create a movement in the Ukraine to fight against gender injustice and patriarchy, their protest performances looked significantly different from the aggressive, provocative, and topless Amazons of today. As Alexandra Shevchenko explained in an interview, “we started out protesting wearing brightly colored clothes, carrying flags and banners and balloons”. By tapping into a well-known form of protest, which drew inspiration from the colorfulness of parades and rallies, FEMEN were following a script for protesting that has been proven successful in many other contexts. However, for FEMEN this form of protest failed to generate much public support or media interest. “Journalists weren’t interested”, Shevchenko confessed. It was from the feeling that FEMEN “had to do something more radical” to call attention to their cause that the idea of staging nude protests was born. Though nudity was a controversial way to protest, not least for feminists, it made sense on the symbolic level as the nude body would “…highlight that we are women, that women have rights”. It would also serve a practical purpose by generating attention through the violation of a social taboo. In much the same way that the use of violence draws media attention by disrupting the public order, the nude protest was an attack on the normative order of how women should behave in public. Clearly, the topless protest would be non-violent, but similarly to violent protests, “people can be shocked – they can have very strong reactions” when confronted with the breaking of a social taboo (Shevchenko in Westland 2012).

The interview with Shevchenko about the origin of FEMEN’s nude protests, illustrates that in its early phases FEMEN was experimenting with what Charles Tilly has called the repertoire of contention; they were exploring various forms of protest to determine the kind of collective action that would help promote the goals of the movement. With the concept of repertoire, Tilly meant to capture “the whole set of means [a group] has for making claims of different kind on different individuals or groups” (Tilly 1986, 4). Principally, activists can display their collective dissatisfaction in numerous ways, but in praxis people tend to rely on a relatively narrow set of tactics that cluster into protest forms such as marches, demonstrations, petitions, public meetings, strikes, boycotts, etc. Like actors in a theatre play, protesters follow scripts that make the protest performances recognizable and intelligible to both activists as well as to the audience that the claims-making is targeting (Tilly 2006).

As the concept of repertoire has gained credence among social movement scholars, focus has turned to the question: Why do protesters protest the way they do? Based on the argument that, “the elements of the repertoire are…simultaneously the skills of the population and the cultural forms of the population” (Stinchcombe 1987, 1248), one line of inquiry into this question has explored how protest action is made meaningful and purposeful in a particular context by embracing what broadly could be called culture. When peasants in agrarian societies engaged in rough music, festivals, field invasions, grain seizure, charivari, pulling down houses, and forced illumination, their repertoire drew inspiration from the cultural practices of the rural population at the time, and as ordinary people’s life-world changed with the industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the modern state so too did the repertoire of contention. A new repertoire emerged that relied on marches, demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, consumer boycotts, etc. Like the protests of the agrarian society, these forms of protest reflected ordinary people’s relation to economic, political, and social institutions of power as well as how the people lived their everyday lives (Tarrow 1998, Tilly 2008). The rise of the post-industrial society with its sprawling cultural diversity and many sub-cultures have led scholars to explore a whole range of cultural expressions – myths (Armony and Armony 2005; Ram and Sabar-Friedman 1996), cults (Sweeny 1993), symbolism (Esherik and Wasserstrom 1990, Pfaff and Yang 2001), collective identities (Poletta and Jasper 2005; Taylor & Van Dyke 2004), and rituals (Staggenborg and Lang 2007) – to understand how particular cultural expressions influence the way that specific social groups protest. What has emerged from the study of repertoires of contention across time and space is that culture serves multiple purposes vis-à-vis the target of the protests as well as internally within the movement to generate support for the cause (Taylor, Kimport, van Dyke, and Andersen 2009).

As women’s relationship to institutions of power are defined by their bodies, the incorporation of the body into the repertoire of contention has a long tradition within the feminist movement reaching back at least as far as the Suffragette movement. In her study of the Suffragettes’ performances, Wendy Parkins has argued that, “where the specificities of female embodiment have been grounds for exclusion or diminished participation, deliberately drawing attention to their bodies has been an important strategy for women engaged in dissident citizenship” (2000, 73). From hunger strikes and militant parading, to nude protest, guerilla theatre, and the Amazon warrior, women have engaged in repertoires of contention that revolve around the body to challenge patriarchy. Performing gender in a way that diverges from the standard script of how women are expected to perform their gender in public becomes an act of protest, particularly when the performance is intended to demonstrate that the female body is absent of the deficiencies that patriarchy traditionally has ascribed to the female gender – muscular strength, reason, and discipline.

From a strategic point of view, these observations are particularly important for the success of a movement such as FEMEN with its radical goals of “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations: the sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion” and “complete victory over patriarchy”. (FEMEN.org/en/about). While FEMEN clearly has a transnational message, it is fundamentally a European movement. Thus, FEMEN activists need to make both their message and their choice of repertoire of protest resonate within the cultural context of a European audience.

 

War, Warriors, and Citizenship

FEMEN’s success in putting feminism back into the streets of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, France, Germany, England, Italy, Sweden and elsewhere is in no small part due to the controversial nature of the protest that the group engages in. While the nude female body plays a central role in the protests, the female identity that FEMEN performs is more complex than simply exposing the topless female body to the news cameras. The uncovered torso and the naked war imagery are part of a “princess warrior” identity that taps into European myths and legends about physically powerful and irreproachably moral creatures, such as the Amazons and Valkyries, Boudica and Cordelia, Jeanne d’Arc, “Liberty Leading the People,” or Eowyn, whose profound morality and physical virginity make them objects of reverence. These are women, like the FEMEN warriors, who are fighting for a larger good, against injustice, indignity and immorality, and for “the humanist ideals of civic republicanism, such as freedom, equality, and autonomy of the choosing subject” (Snyder 1999, 142).

“FEMEN – is the new Amazons, capable to undermine the foundations of the patriarchal world…” by mobilizing “every cell of [the] body on (sic) a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women” (FEMEN.org/en/about). The logic behind FEMEN’s use of the Amazon warrior as their role model is clearly a symbolic gesture towards the need to not just resist, but to actively fight patriarchy and modern manifestations of slavery and injustice, such as sex work, sexual slavery, and homophobia. Historically, however – and this is absolutely crucial for an understanding of the FEMEN repertoire of protest – the warrior identity has been closely linked to how war, and the ability to fight in wars, has shaped the idea of citizenship.

Patriarchal society is based, in part, on the notion that women, due to their lack of muscular strength, have sought the (physical) protection of men by relying on cunning, guile, and sex (Kipnis 2007). Consequently, it has been women’s perceived inability to defend themselves and their community that has been used as an argument to exclude them from enjoying the same civil, political, and social rights as men for only “real citizens are soldiers, and, conversely, […] only soldiers are real citizens” (D’Amico 2000, 105). Similarly, Benton (1997) has argued that “[t]he social contract – a myth of foundation – creates citizens. It creates men as citizens” (40) because “[t]he nation belongs to those who make it and protect it, and who most obviously makes it but the military?” (Ibid.) Likewise Elshtain (1995), Snyder (1999), D’Amico (2000), Hooper (2001), and Parpart and Zalewski (2008) have demonstrated how war and fighting in a war function as constitutive elements for an individual’s full civil, political, social and economic citizenship, and, thusly, the “citizen-soldier” becomes a social ideal very much to be aspired to (Enloe 2000). To prevent this exclusivist foundation for full citizenship from collapsing, men as well as women must behave in predictable, socially sanctioned ways because “[m]ilitarization is a gendered process … that won’t work unless men will accept certain norms of masculinity and women will abide by certain strictures of femininity” and that “militaries need women – but they need women to behave as the gender ‘woman.'” (Enloe quoted in Snyder 1999, 145) That means, as Elshtain (1995) has shown, that two conditions need to be present. First, the male warrior must be a “just warrior,” a “man construed as violent, whether eagerly and inevitably or reluctantly and tragically” (Snyder 1999, 146), but still as a fighter for a just cause, such as in defense of his country, of liberty and justice, or to punish “acts that shock the moral conscience of mankind” (Walzer 2006, 107). A truly “just” warrior cannot be a butcher that engages in gratuitous acts of violence, instead he recognizes limits even in war, and does his utmost to protect the weak and defenseless, namely women, children and the aged. A “just warrior” has to be worthy of his privilege and the respect and submission of his helpmate, the “beautiful soul” that waits for his return. Second, women must be construed as physically weak and passive, as “non-combatants,” “non-violent, offering succor and compassion,” (Snyder 1999, 146) as “beings frequently of great individual goodness and purity” (Elshtain 1982, 341) whose socially sanctioned realm of existence is the domestic sphere, the realm of children, home and hearth (Benton 1997).

 

Sextremism in Action

Captured in the slogan “Our Mission is Protest, our Weapons are Bare Breasts”, FEMEN has sought to create a new repertoire for feminist protests that seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms by making the nude female body visible to the world. FEMEN activists use the public display of the topless female body as a symbol of power and aggression — as a weapon – rather than a sign of vulnerability. They infuse meaning into this body by making direct reference to myths and symbols from European history. One example of this is a Delacroix famous painting “Liberty Leading the People”, which depicts the revolutionary overthrow of Absolutism and the beginning of a new era based on popular sovereignty. With the words “Liberté” and “Egalité” – but not “Fraternité”, meaning brotherhood – written on their naked torsos, and carrying the French flag, FEMEN’s repertoire of contention has created similar imagery. It is a reminder of not only the unfulfilled promise of the French Revolution, but also underlines that historically, rights have been brought about by mass uprisings. Incumbent elites have never broadened political, social and economic rights unless they have been forced to do so.

4Delacroix, Liberté Guidant Le Peuple (1830)

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Aside from using the French Revolution as a frame of political reference, FEMEN has continuously used the rhetoric of war and portrayed the group as warriors. By recasting the female body in the role of the naked Amazon/just princess warrior FEMEN seeks to subvert the meaning of the female body in order to claim full and equal citizenship based on the capacities of the Amazon body. It is by becoming Amazons – just warriors – that FEMEN protesters symbolically make themselves eligible for full citizenship and thereby strike at the core of social contract theory. FEMEN’s “just princess warriors” recognize the intersectional nature of disempowerment and engage in a profoundly emancipatory, inclusive effort that goes far beyond “traditional” feminism. By adopting a female identity which is feminine yet capable of rough power, that is exposing the body’s erogenous zones but sexually indifferent to the male gaze, FEMEN’s nude repertoire of contention signifies a deep awareness of how patriarchy in Western culture has argued the submission and exclusion of women.

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What adds to the subversive power of the Amazon/just princess warrior is the challenge that the publicly displayed nude female body poses to the patriarchal state (Lunceford 2012). Nude protest violates the law and hence forces the state to repress the protesters, which underlines the very point that FEMEN seeks to make, namely that the hegemonic power of patriarchy relies on silencing women in the public sphere.

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Having established the Amazon/just princess warrior as the political identity that they wanted to enact, the next step for FEMEN was to define a strategy that symbolically could challenge the patriarchal foundation of the social contract that constitute Western political communities. As the social contract is an instrument to lift humans out of a state of nature and into a political community where the anarchical and violent conditions of the former give way to the pursuit of security and a commonwealth in the latter, the Amazons seek to bring an end to patriarchy by making “disorder, [and] bring neurosis and panic to men’s world” (FEMEN.org/eng/about). Creating disorder and panic strike at the heart of patriarchy by attacking the very purpose of the contract. FEMEN’s protest performances are therefore wild and rebellious. They use profanity – frequently the word “fuck” is written across their torsos – they are loud, they scream, they punch their fists in the air and aggressively occupy public space such as public squares, streets, and symbolically important ground like churches, embassies, or catwalks.

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Stopping short of physical violence, FEMEN activists act as aggressively and provocatively as possible to cause disorder and disruption. It is precisely because of their attempt to create panic and neurosis among men that the macho-man of world politics, Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked by journalists about an encounter with a FEMEN activist in Germany said that, “regarding this performance, I liked it” (The Independent, 2013). If it is FEMEN’s strategy to inflict emotional pain, then men’s counter-strategy becomes to pretend that they “like it”, that they are not only undisturbed by the challenge to their authority, but they appreciate it. It is the strategy of the powerful to taunt and humiliate the excluded and marginalized.

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Conclusion

Since FEMEN was founded a decade ago, it has managed to put women’s rights on the public agenda like few other protest movements. We have argued that the movement’s success, in part, has rested on FEMEN’s ability to engage in a repertoire of contention that resonates powerfully both with their female and male audiences. By performing the “just princess warrior” and by strategically juxtaposing symbols of purity and virginity (the flower wreath, flowing long hair and delicate fair skin) with symbols of power and aggression (the self-determined brandishing of purposely highly eroticized body parts, their breasts, muscular bodies, and bellicose body language), FEMEN activists have tapped deeply into European mythology. Simultaneously, they have placed “just war” against patriarchy for sexual and social equality in the larger historical narrative of the emancipatory struggle against injustice. The success of FEMEN has not gone unchallenged. The group has been forced to leave Ukraine for Paris after several attacks on FEMEN members, and currently eight men in France are standing trial for having violently assaulted FEMEN activists during a pro-same-sex marriage demonstration in 2012 (FEMEN.org). The naked war seems far from over.

 


 

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