Grrl power

Their aims and methods can be discussed, but the activists of Ukrainian women’s rights organization Femen, which recently opened a “training camp” in Paris, have surely hit on a means of protest – female public nudity – which deserves, and will probably receive, more prominence in the future. This is one of those phenomena which, to me, captures a fundamental shift in the Zeitgeist and may prefigure important and long overdue social changes. For this to happen, however, there is a need for a further shift in feminist self-understanding. Due to recent advances in research into the ontogenesis of patriarchy and its social costs, such a shift, I believe, is at hand; all it needs are sufficiently eloquent advocates.

Femen got started as a means to alert young women in Ukraine to the dangers of the sex industry and to try to get attention from the authorities to this problem. With its move to Paris, a city which once had a global reputation as a cradle of progressive social movements, once wonders if this will change. The group (or incipient movement) has an enviable brand identity, but so far seems lacking in ideological focus.

Femen’s methods are hard to resist because they tap into some deep cultural veins. On the one hand, the patriarchy has, as part of its subversive strategy vis-a-vis female sexuality, offered women a trade-off whereby they have given up their rights to sexual self-expression in return for physical protection and, in recent years, increasing opportunities for personal (of course non-sexual) expression. This protection is far from having been universally effective, but it has entailed inculcating a moral code according to which it is widely considered unmanly to use force against women. Men accordingly, and society as a whole, therefore have difficulties in deflecting these women from their goals, and the more vulnerable they are and the more obvious it is that this is what is going on, the more encumbered is the response of the patriarchy to it, since repression generates greater and greater indignation, even on the part of those who normally tacitly acquiesce in the existing order.

In the past, public nudity might have been enough of a taboo that the fuss around it would have overwhelmed the reaction of solidarity; but it is likely that this is no longer the case. Female public nudity is, in the West, no longer a breach of social contract; violence against women is.

However, aside from this issue of social contract there is also, I believe, a much deeper and far more significant attitude to the naked female body on the part of men which renders this type of protest very powerful in the collective unconscious. This attitude is biologically rather than culturally determined or at least, if culturally determined, draws on archetypes which are much older than agrarian society.

The presence of such a pre-cultural representation of woman in the male imagination underlies Carl Jung’s theory of the anima. This representation portrays women as sexually empowered, strong, intuitive and wise; in many ways the polar opposite of the culturally constructed role – virgin, demure, weak, in need of protection etc – from which almost all seductive power has been eradicated.

Therefore men have created a role for women in which they no longer desire them. This may have seemed to matter little as long as part of the female population was reserved by men to stand outside this stereotype – prostitutes, courtesans, mistresses, priestesses, witches and so on. These women were permitted to don perfectly contrary attributes. And, as time has gone on, men, who have imagined themselves able to get by on images of women quite unlike the culturally manufactured real thing, have had no problem in going on doing so, in art, fiction and pornography. As the man often cares only about the congruence between the image and his anima, projecting this onto the screen of reality through the vehicle of erotic fantasy, this has given birth to a prodigious parallel oeuvre of imaginary social re-engineering.

The imaginary figures to which this oeuvre has given birth are, however, at least as potent a cultural force as their equally imaginary counterpoints. By donning the mantle of the superheroine, Femen rejects the “acceptable” role given to women by society and taps into a powerful erotic script over which the patriarchy is conflicted and to which it therefore has inadequate means to respond. Significantly, this seems almost inevitably to entail an attack on organized religion; consciously or not, the equation between religion, the patriarchy, and the repression of female sexual self-expression seems axiomatic to this new generation of feminist revolutionaries.

In hindsight it seems inevitable that real women would step up to the anima, since in substance it is not a mere projection of the male imagination but an actual, biological representation of innate feminine qualities, albeit (as I understand Jung’s thought) from a male perspective.

Femen make this clear, calling themselves “new Amazons” and adopting a militaristic discourse full of (what is taken to be) characteristically male imagery. But they are equally the symbolic heiresses of historical figures like Joan of Arc, constructed icons like Marianne, and the pantheon of female superheroes so beloved of pubescent boys, from Superwoman through an army of her ever more buxom and unclad avatars: often decried by feminists as sexualized stereotypes and screens for male projection and objectification of women, but in reality not only that: also a hommage to another, indubitably more empowered idea of woman.

The empowered, wild woman is erotically charged for men in a way her tamed sister can never be. This means one simple thing: the male erotic imagination is on the side of this force for social change. And, as women know, this is a very powerful ally.

That they are no longer afraid collectively to appeal to it in defense of their own interests (and of course in reality also of male interests, because humankind has only one set of real interests) represents a sea-change in the balance of power between the sexes. Ultimately, the more authentically we are ourselves, the closer we will come together; this process is naturally self-reinforcing.

What we see at this point of history are social institutions in the eye of a tornado, battered and starting to give way under the accumulated force of our repressed biological nature; they are so weakened that the moment is ripe for something quite new. Beyond their specific social agenda, whatever it may ultimately turn out to be or not to be, Femen points to the coming into being of a fundamentally new space in which conceptions of society will inevitably be reshaped.

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