This photo is bound to grab attention, as breasts often do, and FEMEN protesters are clearly playing to that dynamic. However, this photo provides more of a complex presentation of the exposed female torso and one that proves interesting when considering the wider politics of the relentless sexualisation of female bodies whether they be veiled, exposed or neither.
When female breasts are so commonly fetishised in public imagery in ways that seek out the titillation of exposure – in Britain for example, tabloid paper, The Sun, prints a topless woman on page 3 every day- can any one act of protest actually hope to subvert the misogyny and objectification inherent in such an ‘exposure’?
Here’s how Shevchenko and by proxy, Herbaut, attempt to do so:
- The Stance: Shevchenko’s pose, with the raised fist, speaks of her mission to teach women to be more assertive. Shevchenko’s pose, with the raised fist, speaks of her mission to teach women to be more assertive. The figure of the ‘Amazonian’ is a central reference FEMEN utilizes. If the identification is to the “other,” suggesting the marginalization these women feel, it also points to ‘Amazonians,’ in the cultural imagination, as a matriarchal tribe made up of fearsome and fearless women. On the other hand, is it a case of gender politics being careless with racial stereotypes and identification?
- The Tattoo: The garland of roses tattooed onto Shevchenko’s side, which depict the headdress she is wearing, act as the perfect sign for the paradox that this act of nudity as protest embodies. The tattoo is both a sign of bodily harm – being an inked in scar – and of strength, or resistance to pain. It shows the way in which her cause is so essential to her it is mapped onto her body and also the way in which her body is her cause. It’s an act done by someone with a clear idea that the visual presentation of her own body is key to her message.
- The Headdress: Of course the headdress is a reference to the tribal and Amazonian identification. It also hints at the theatrical nature of protest, the way in which the protester takes on a special public identity and performs choreographed acts. This garland of roses, and the brightly coloured ribbons, also suggest femininity, something which the group are keen to use and display rather than deny as some feminist groups in the past have done. It’s the turning around of signs – femininity is seen to equal weakness and vulnerability, but here Shevchenko and FEMEN demand that it equal strength. What could be the crown of a beauty queen is willed to equal the headdress of a tribal warrior.
- The Location: Herbaut’s choice of location does much to illustrate the group’s context. Shevchenko is depicted in open grassland on the edge of what seems to be a cluster of Soviet style apartment blocks. This speaks of marginalisation as well as the groups Ukrainian and urban environment. The grassy field upon which Shevchenko stands is another clever double symbol representing as it does both marginalisation and the open space of pastoral freedom which is also indicated by the flowered headdress. It reveals a dream of an Eden, a renewed innocence directed at and by the female body, which at the same time is drawn out of a full awareness of what that body means to mainstream culture and how it is exploited.
What this portrait tells us is that much of the time image makers and image consumers view the female body as either exposed or hidden and this is a hot topic (I mean, see all the worry over the fact that the woman in the Winning photo is wearing a burkha). Whether veiled or on display, it becomes clear that these two opposites in fact put the female body within the same continuum as something inescapably defined by sexuality in a way that male bodies are not. (It is worth remembering that if a man walked down the street topless he would not get arrested, and neither would he attract much extra attention at a protest). With this doubly innocent and knowing revelation of the female torso, I think Shevchenko is asking us to realise that the female body is also at times neither exposed nor hidden – it is the human form and as such represents identity, physicality and power.
Whether every audience can be sophisticated enough to understand the turning around of signs; the ways in which ‘weak’ is made ‘powerful’, ‘victim’ is made ‘fighter’, is a difficult matter. FEMEN certainly consider it a risk worth taking in order to finally draw attention to the problems women face in their society. This photograph as a photographic object must undergo the same difficult process of interpretation – is it a kind of pornography or a protest item that has raised the awareness of FEMEN’s cause? It is highly reliant on context. But in a world where the female body is so often used by others, especially through visual media, it is a statement that the members of FEMEN demand to be able to use their own bodies as tools of visual representation to further the cause of women’s equality and welfare. A body to protect a body is a courageous act.
This article originally published on BagNews where it was edited and adapted for the site > Here.
Also, regarding this topic it is well worth checking out Karrin Anderson’s piece for BagNews : Photo of Woman Stripped by Egyptian Military: Not Shamed, Not a Victim