Recently, I observed some women prancing through downtown Vancouver to invoke International Topless Day. They beamed for the eager tourists and leering male spectators who mobbed them. Traffic halted. iPhones shuttered, capturing the nubile chests. Every major paper and television station in Canada covered those breasts.
It was a happy-hippie interpretation of Femen, the current sensation in flashy feminism. The Ukraine-based group has a simple raison d’être: “Our mission is protest. Our weapons are bare breasts.”
The Femen – tall, svelte, often blonde, with perky B- and C-cups, weave flowers through their tendrils, scrawl vague bits like, “Fuck Your Morals” and “Breast Feed Revolution” with Sharpies on their chests, appear at VIP affairs, strip, and get arrested. One woman wielded a chainsaw and cut down a prominent crucifix in Kiev. The “No Pope” demo at the Vatican had probably the clearest call to action.
The global media is infatuated. Jeffrey Taylor of The Atlantic profiled 22-year-old Inna Shevchenko, the grande dame. “Atop the six-inch high heels of her black felt boots, her wavy, strawberry blonde hair spilling out from beneath a black baseball cap, her eyes mint-green and penetrating, she cut an impressive figure,” Taylor coos. They met in a Parisian café, where he ordered a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, and they chatted for some five hours.
Like the American Apparel employees who have endured sexual harassment from sleazy CEO Dov Charney, Femen has its own perv, Victor Svyatski. The Independent reported that Svyatski hand-picked the hottest women, and members are afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. Femen’s allure is now going sour like a bad bottle of wine.
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society,” Mark Twain said. Perhaps. But these women have received death threats and fled their homes. Give them credit.
This controversy is as old as the Amazons. Can we involve the body in politics without undermining the goal? If a woman undresses, must it be to attract the male gaze, or worse, to submit to Svengalian Sades? But if you’ve ever worked in the movement, you know that the ascetics, the Bill McKibbens of the world, love getting cuffed in front of the camera, perhaps in a more Christ-like position.
Meanwhile, in the United States, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. In August, The New York Times Opinionator blog posted an op-ed by Alissa Quart of the outstanding Economic Hardship Reporting Project. The piece leads with a photo of a young professor watching her toddler draw. The woman looks exhausted and resigned. She wears no crown of flowers, brandishes no perfectly brazen breasts, but inhabits plain, black-and-white business casual, with a low-knotted ponytail fraying. She’s the American everywoman – she who scrapes and sacrifices for work and family.
Quart finds that almost all parents can’t afford day care. Women are quitting their jobs because it doesn’t make sense to spend a whole paycheck on paying someone to watch your children. Why moms? Because men are paid more. Only nine percent of women make more than $75,000 in a country where it’s taking six-figures to add up to a middle-class family. When a woman leaves the work force for more than two years, it’s almost guaranteed that her wages and job position will be lower when she returns. The longer you’re out, that harder it is to get back in. The glass ceiling is now the glass barricade.
U.S. Census data show that women make 77 cents per dollar made by men. (A Huffington Post piece about this study included a sidebar: “10 Bra Mistakes You’re Making (and how to fix them).”)
Democrats are pushing a fix for the wage gap called the Paycheck Fairness Act, which closes some legal loopholes and mandates a “negotiation skills” training for women. But Congress has chucked this bill eight consecutive times.
What’s up with mainstream feminism? Michelle Obama is recording a hip-hop album about broccoli. NOW is a has-been. The EMILY’s List top-funded candidate last year was Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, one of the two most conservative Democrats in the Senate, who shamelessly embraces all Enbridge pipelines.
These are desperate times for American women.
Perhaps it’s time for an army of Lady Godivas to stampede the Senate floor and blind the Peeping Tom Coburns with their bodies, demanding universal child and health care, and penalties for pay gaps. No, Hillary will save the day. We just need a woman in the White House. Then we’ll get the raises and villages it takes.
A Godiva Brigade sounds ridiculous. But it’s not as ridiculous or revolting as the inequality and greed in America, our government’s corporate-sponsored dog and pony show, and collecting campaign war chests for politicians who ignore the depression in which we’re quagmired.
Women, we might as well use what we’ve got because we don’t have much. And if we don’t, our children will have even less. So hand me a Sharpie, for starters.
Published in the September 2013 issue of CounterPunch magazine.