Femen_Bureau de scrutin de Trump
Femen (Neda Topaloski) Donald Trump’s polling station, Manhattan, November 8, 2016.
Photo : © Darren Ornitz

Naked Demonstrations: Feminism and Visual Culture

Jennifer Griffiths
Despite recent debates on the crisis in the humanities, specialists in art and visual culture are mindful that their expertise is ever more pertinent to the arena of politics. The radical Ukrainian group Femen has used sensationalist nudity to draw considerable media attention to itself since 2009. Some think that the group is a front for Ukrainian businessmen; others, more benignly, see its attempts as either ignorant or dismissive of historical feminist struggles to de-emphasize bodily difference. I view these protests as illustrating that unequal relations of looking underpin public visual dynamics. As political performance art, Femen’s naked protests against a range of issues demonstrate how John Berger’s 1972 assertion that “men act and women appear” extends beyond the canvas.1 1 - John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), 47.

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose motto was “Deeds, not words” and they became known for physical confrontations. Here was a group of women determined to act. When suffragettes Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons or when Sylvia Pankhurst and other suffragettes were subjected to force-feeding during their subsequent prison hunger strikes, newspaper imagery and the accompanying accounts revealed a kind of sadistic glee.2 2 - See James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). The suffragettes’ acts of resistance were quickly reframed within old terms of sexual violence, and their assertive, powerfully political bodies were recast as sublimated in static visual imagery. Jill Lepore has recently argued that the image of the suffragette in chains directly inspired William Moulton Marston’s comic book hero Wonder Woman, who can be stopped only by being gagged and bound, and thus she appears in nearly every one of the original installments.3 3 - Jill Lepore, Secret History of Superwoman (New York: Random House, 2014).

You must have a valid Digital or Premium subscription to access this content

Subscribe to Esse now to read the full text!

Subscribe
This article also appears in the issue 90 - Feminisms
Discover

Suggested Reading