Ukraine-based "sextremist" group FEMEN hit Berlin on May 16, burning a crucified Barbie doll to protest the opening of a Barbie Dreamhouse exhibition. Standing in front of a 25,000-square foot pink mansion built by Mattel, Barbie's manufacturer, a topless FEMEN activist in a ruffled skirt shouted slogans against sexism, commercialization, and idol worship before being removed by security. In photographs replicated by news media across the world, the protester's bared body spoke the loudest; "life in plastic is not fantastic" was written across her chest.
The Berlin action is only FEMEN's latest stop in its ongoing world tour: on May 12, topless protesters interrupted a far-right rally in Paris by displaying an anti-Nazi banner; on April 24, they poured water over Belgian archbishop André-Jozef Léonard; on April 8, they rushed Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel while shouting; "fuck the dictator." FEMEN's launch last month of "topless jihad," the group's movement against Islam, attracted the world's attention. Google searches for "FEMEN" are now nearly twice as much than those for "feminism." Under so much media scrutiny these days, FEMEN has an extraordinary opportunity to define the dialogue surrounding international women's rights. Unfortunately, it's an opportunity that — so far — they've failed to take advantage of.
Only five years old, FEMEN has distinguished itself not by method (naked protest has been used since before the Lady Godiva legend was first told) or principle (its opposition to violent, oppressive patriarchies is shared by feminist groups everywhere) but by media savvy. Though FEMEN totals less than two hundred topless protesters, it maximizes its coverage by encouraging media outlets to film their protests, training members to work in front of cameras, and tipping off journalists to planned protests. Inna Shevchenko, one of the group's leaders, told French reporters, "we know what the media need — sex, scandals and fighting — and that's what we give them. To be in the newspapers is to exist at all." And she's right. The newspapers are getting what they want ... but what do women around the world need? Intelligence, honesty, clarity. Is that what FEMEN gives them? No.
In its bid to attract reporters, FEMEN's lost sight of its own professed politics. Shevchenko has written, "female nudity which is free from the patriarchal system becomes the symbol of women's liberation ... We are naked because we are feminists." But the female nudity they display is increasingly mired in the very patriarchal system they condemn. On International Workers Day, FEMEN's website posted a picture of three heavily made-up models dressed in the group's traditional Ukrainian flower wreaths, leather thigh-high boots, and white panties. "PEACE, LABOR, MAY" was written over the stomach of the woman in the center. Slogans only emphasize the hypocrisy of images like these; you can't damn the patriarchy while covered in its trappings.
Anna Hutsol, FEMEN's founder and director, has said, "no one paid attention to us before we demonstrated topless." So their very young, very attractive representatives are doing just that — and everyone is paying attention (even Putin, after being confronted by FEMEN protesters with "go fuck yourself" written across their backs, announced, "I liked it"). But with so little content so far other than "sex, scandals and fighting," FEMEN has only reinforced international misogyny. More than 16,000 people follow the FEMEN main social networking page, which describes the group this way: "Got tits? We'll teach you the rest!" Okay, FEMEN, the world is listening. We've seen the tits. Now teach us the rest.