The Ukrainian activist group Femen — slogan: "Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts" — has been in the international headlines frequently in the past few years, drawing snickers and cameras with topless protests all over Europe.
The women haven't focused on any single feminist issue. They bared their chests at the 2012 London Olympics [careful, these links are NSFW] to protest Islamist regimes, at Pope Benedict XVI to protest Catholic oppression of women, and at Russian President Vladimir Putin because they don't like him. (One Femen protestor ambushed him last spring at a trade fair in Germany, stripping off her clothes and yelling, "Fuck the dictator!")
But are Ukraine's most famous feminists mere puppets of a man? Australian filmmaker Kitty Green says they are. In her documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, screening now at the Venice Film Festival, Green reveals one Victor Syvatski as the mastermind behind the group. "He is Femen," she says in the film.
"It's his movement and he handpicked the girls," she told The Independent. "He handpicked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers."
He's "quite horrible with the girls," Green adds. "He would scream at them and call them bitches." One scene in the film has Svyatski displaying utter contempt for his activists. "These girls are weak," he says. "They don't have the strength of character… 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."
When asked if he joined the group just to get girls, Syvatski admits, "Perhaps yes, somewhere in my deep subconscious."
So what does this say about the state of feminist activism? Bim Adewunmi at The Guardian finds the news "plain depressing."
If it is true, there emerges an overarching Charlie's Angels narrative of the male impresario and the young women who need a guiding hand. It is a potent trope — we respond to it even as we rail against it. It persists in hip-hop, for example, where women rappers are routinely accused of being ghost written by men, and also in pop: From Phil Spector and the Ronettes to Simon Cowell and his X Factor empire. [The Guardian]
But Inna Shevchenko, Femen's founder, says she has reclaimed Femen from its Svengali. Calling her former boss "sexism, male domination, and oppression against women personified," she says he managed to come in and take over the group, which she and other young women founded because Ukraine has "a culture...in which men dominate and women accept that domination."
But that's over now, she says. Femen has relocated to France and is run by women. Shevchenko hopes the documentary of how the women briefly lost control of their own movement can serve as a cautionary tale. She says:
"Criticizing us for our fight against men's domination in our own lives is like criticizing the fight against all patriarchy in the world. Today we tell our story hoping that we can inspire women suffering the same oppression in their fight against it tomorrow." [The Guardian]