A young Laurie Anderson with her revolutionary instrument, the tape-bow violin
Who doesn’t love Laurie Anderson? She creates brilliant experimental music and multi-media performances, but manages to remain intelligible to folks outside the avant-garde scene. One has to be completely lacking in pretension to perform a concert entirely for dogs (a project with her other half, Lou Reed), and somehow not come across as insufferable. I think it has something to do with her general humanity. She’s engaged with her audience, she has a sense of humor about herself, and her work has always been about observation and listening, as opposed to the narcissistic naval-gazing stereotypically (though not necessarily factually) ascribed to highly experimental artists.
In the video below, (an excerpt from her performance piece, “Empty Spaces”), Anderson tells a great story about a feminist demonstration early in her career. Like many young activists, she had perceived “the economic exploitation of women” as a fairly cut and dry issue, easily targeted and abolished. When a Playboy Bunny complicates her notion of exploitation, Anderson’s humility is piqued, and she’s forced to rethink what it means to work on behalf of women.
Efforts to create a new, post-capitalist artistic culture are fraught with peril. First of all, the tendency to dismiss pre-socialist traditions (artistic or otherwise) as “bourgeois” inevitably leads to a backlash. The impulse to preserve the past and retain one’s history will always prevail (science fiction Christmas cards in state atheist Soviet Russia immediately come to mind). Secondly, the artistic genres of “communist” states can sway overwhelmingly nationalistic, often at the expense of the art itself; propaganda can be art, but when you live in a totalitarian state, stuff can get stale real quick (then again, certain American gaffs remind me totalitarianism isn’t a prerequisite for banal propaganda). And then there’s that rare example of artistic achievement that falls victim to both of the aforementioned pitfalls—fails at relinquishing ties to capitalist culture and politically problematic in its nationalism—but still reaches the height of brilliance and beauty.
Enter Maoist ballet. As an avid ballet fan and former dancer, I’m slightly offended at the notion that I must reassure readers, “this is no ordinary ballet,” but it is an exceptional interpretation, and those who might otherwise be averse to ballet can take heart that this the style is uniquely dynamic and athletic. China’s Cultural Revolution dictated that the bourgeois culture of capitalism just be replaced with a new proletarian culture- hence the radical choreography and patriotic imagery. Of course, it’s still recognizable as ballet, and while a few Chinese instruments pepper the score, it’s primarily performed by a European-style orchestra.
Below is my favorite, “The Red Detachment of Women,” one of the so-called “Eight Model Operas,” (which were actually five operas, two ballets, and a symphony) all designed and organized by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, intended as the ambitious forefront of China’s new revolutionary culture. Though I tend to watch it in pieces, isolating different acts and numbers for their stand-alone value, the libretto is epic and elaborate. The ballet is actually based on a famous novel that pulled true stories from the all-women Special Company of the 2nd Independent Division of Chinese Red Army, who had over 100 members. When Nixon visited China in 1972 to repair diplomatic relations, this is the ballet they took him to see—there’s no way that wasn’t a backhanded gesture.
In many ways, “The Red Detachment of Women” was a total failure. Even if we ignore the fact that the terrible politics of Communist China were being extolled en pointe, it’s intellectually difficult to argue that anything engineered by Mao’s wife could even be populist. And of course it’s a failure as all cultural revolutions are a failure; art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and no amount of communist shellac could purge the fingerprints of the Western progenitors of ballet. Still, the beauty and the innovation of the project are undeniable, and while “The Red Detachment of Women” wasn’t the dawn of a proletarian artistic movement, it was most certainly, well… revolutionary.
Vidiot was a really cool project. In the early 1980’s, as video games moved from niche interest into legitimate subculture, the publishers of Creem had the cutting edge idea to start a really well-rounded gamer mag. In addition to more technical articles about the latest games, systems, and technology, Vidiot published topical personal essays by gamers, and covered video game history, in addition to a lot of general audiovisual topics. They reviewed movies and television that tended to appeal to the gamer crowd (think Monty Python, Tron, and Krull), and peppered each issue with relevant music articles, including an interesting review of a Beatles’ documentary from the perspective of a fan and AV enthusiast.
In an effort to appeal to the diverse interests of serious gamers as well as your average arcade rat, they used their Creem connections to get pictures of rock stars playing games. Everyone from Debbie Harry to Mick Ronson to Ted Nugent (they can’t all be winners) graced their pages, posing in front of their favorite consoles. Below you can see a picture of The New York Dolls’ David Johansen, who appeared in a retrospective article on pinball machines, the original arcade game.
Even though only five issues were published between September of 1982 and September of 1983, Vidiot was a really insightful look at an emerging generation of pre-Internet nerd culture. Nowadays, it could be argued that there’s really no such thing as an esoteric interest, since a quick Google search is all it takes to find peers. Back then? Probably harder to sniff out fellow enthusiasts.
Of course, this being a magazine primarily consumed by young, most likely nerdy dudes, there were also sexy pin-ups of girls playing Centipede. Vidiot was quite aware that its readership was not primarily comprised of “alpha” males, but instead of shying away from the topic, it cannily took the piss out of the virile macho man archetype with satire.
Check out that charming caption!
Below is the transcript from the hilarious article, “Arcade Macho: Pick Up or Shut Up.” The tone is angsty and snide, but the rejection of macho bullshit is a really intelligent, mature, feminist critique. Plus, who can’t relate to a little mockery of meatheads?
Ever got into a fight over a girl? Sure you have! As a red-blooded American guy, would you stoop to wimpdom by allowing some geek to steal your girl without a bloodletting fight? Of course not! Whether on the dance floor, football field, street or arcade we are fighting for but one thing: Women!
Women are the only motivational factor in a Man’s life. Next to videogaming, cars, whiskey, football, fishing, soldiering, hunting and sailing, that is. And, pray tell, if there were no women to show off to, then what’s the point?
Therefore you won’t want to set foot in an arcade without a few lessons in manly comportment of the videogaming kind. Obviously, the breed of woman you’ll find common in these garbage disposals for quarters play for keeps. And obviously, there ore other “men” who claim our sex as theirs. Despite their prowess at these interesting and undoubtedly manly games, many fit the definition of “wimp”—which is to be avoided at any cost, no matter how ridiculous. Would you do bottle with the L.A. Raiders in a punk rock hair-do (not cut) and a pocket calculator strapped to you imitation leather belt that holds up you spandex pants? Of course not! Take your pick: Manhood or wimpdom.
Read Sylvia Plath, Judith Krantz or W.H. Auden? Over Robert Mitchum’s dead body! Drink pina coladas? Seek the Duke’s stomach and burp it! Cry over a dead rock star? To quote Josie Cotton, “Johnny Are You Queer?” As far as Men are concerned. Charles Olson is a lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, right?
Fact.- all women love the smell of success. The more money you’ve got—or the higher the score—the better. Wonder never again why you see ugly old men with ungodly beautiful, sexy, voluptuous women. The deck is stacked—and if you’re on the winning side, so are the women.
The only reason to go to the arcade, of course, is to meet girls. Can you honestly admit you enjoy spending every cent you’ve got at the arcade when, by applying a few rules of business horsesense, you can own your fave game for home use? No, you can’t. Say it loud, say it proud: Girls Are Great!!
All right, men, the first lesson commences… let’s discuss what Real Men Do Not Wear To Arcades . Real men do not wear:
1) Pink Lacoste shirts. If you’re a preppie, that’s entirely your own problem. Remember pink = Wimp. Any other color’s acceptable. But if you really want to be a sex symbol—and what Man doesn’t?—buy a VIDIOT t-shirt.
2) Designer jeans. Would John Wayne wear ‘em? Naw, the Duke’d don nuthin’ fancier than Levi’s. And his word’s law, right?
3) Top siders. Hey, you can’t even run in the damn things. Any sort of tennis, basketball, jogging, all-around athletic shoe is In, Converse All-Stars being the coolest. All boots are manly (except the kind that feature the bags-at-the-ankle look which is strictly new wave/punk rock jerk-like), and cowboy boots are obviously the best way to get your point across. Or up.
Before heading out for an afternoon of hopeful arcade fun, take a gander in front of the mirror. Any of your lunch still between your teeth? Scrub ‘em again, sailor. There’s nothing on earth that’ll turn off all the little women quicker than mungmouth. Take a quick whiff o’ the pits to make sure they’re just so. Also, remove any gold chains, punk rock t-shirts and scarves. They aren’t manly.
When entering the arcade, strut around the joint with your hands thrust deep m your pockets with an impervious scowl on your face. No, you don’t own the place, but remember the law of Supply and Demand: I demand that you supply me with as many women as I desire! You gotta let the girls know who’s boss, plain and direct.
Before playing your first round of, say, Robotron, you might want to buy a soft drink. How you drink the soda is far more important than what brand. Grasp the can firmly in the palm of your hand, fingers wrapped completely around it. Before taking the first swig, catch the eye of the hottest babe. As you lift the can to your lips (elbow bent 90°) propose a toast in her honor- Here’s lookin’ “at” you! Eyes locked in, throw your head back and empty half the contents down your gullet. Lowering the can, smile at her, then burp loudly. This is essential for your initial introduction. She’ll feel that inner glow of security knowing that a Real Man is present. Then…
Walk away. There’s plenty o’ fish in the video sea. Besides, it’ll be at least an hour before that girl will be coherent enough to start worshiping you . Always remember it’s your moral obligation as an American Man to hit on as many females as possible.
One popular method of picking up girls at the arcade is by zeroing in on a filly having difficulty on your favorite game. Stride over after she’s blown the game a few times and say “Havin’ a rough go at it, dollface? Lemme show ya the ropes.” Proceed to explain the intricacies and finer points of the game. Be polite but firm. After explaining, drop a token into the slot, and then “coach” her. After she triples her original score, you can bet it’ll be Suckface City from there on in!
Let’s reiterate a fact: good women are worth fighting for. If you spot some Elmo employing the aforementioned method, sidle up next to the non-couple, tap the jerk on the shoulder and say “Excuse me, cupcake, your mother says it’s time for your Ovaltine and beddie-bye!” The idea, manly reader, is to simply embarrass the worm enough so he’ll be forced to crawl back under the rock from whence he come. Use your lurid imagination Occasionally, however, the breezebrain will miss the point: stronger medicine must be administered. This doctor prescribes (delivered in the loudest voice possible): “When did they let YOU out of the TERMINAL HERPES WARD!?!” Once he’s on all fours, headed for the door, it’s a mere skate to the desired goal. It’s not really all that fair, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
In some instances, you may even be able to play fair. Let’s assume there’s a lustful lovely gazing on some dope racking up points on a game you know you can stomp the snot out of him on. Walk over, tap Percy on the shoulder and challenge him to a duel, winner (nod toward the babe) take all . The girl will be flattered that two men are going to duel over her — it’s an old trick that works every time. The only trick here’s not only do you have to beat the sap, ya gotta beat him bad. Show what a worthless sleazebag he really is.
If you’re really smart, before even challenging the bozo, hip your buddies to what you’re gonna do. Tell them that after you demolish the sucker at the game, you want one guy to approach the Big Loser and say, “Let meeee be the first to kick you when you’re down: maybe you need a pair o’ granny glasses!” Have your second pal say, “Don’t worry — I hear they’re making a braille version of that game!” Your third and final friend should say something like, “Please don’t cry out here — go in the little girls’ room!” And you, the Cool Winner, should turn to your new prize and ask, “Wanna hop in my van and listen to the new Rush album?”
They were tired of their rights being stripped away. Tired of their government not representing them any more. Tired of ultra right-wing policies that seemed to be driven by oligarchs and secret concentrations of wealth divorced from the needs of everyday citizens and oppressive to those with less political power in the current plutocracy that seems and acts more and more intimidatingly, more authoritarian every day.
So they sing. In public. They raise their voices as a way to express the basic human right to be heard by those would purport to govern them. And for that they are arrested. Sounds familiar.
Free speech? Free press? The right to peaceably assemble? Not so much in Russia, not so much in Wisconsin, not so much in a lot of places these days.
Welcome to the modern world, welcome to modern America. Bit by bit we’ve lost the things we held dear. We’ve slowly let the freedoms we were so proud of, that were associated with our dream of this country, be disappeared like an extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo. No trial, no explanation, just a black bag over the head. Habeas corpus is just a thing we once had, or we thought we had. An effective free press, well, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert remind us every weeknight where that’s gone (and they help us laugh to keep us from sinking into a national depression).
We’re surveilled like something out of the pages of Orwell, propagandized like scenes from V for Vendetta with fear campaigns like The War on Terror, beaten and pepper sprayed for peaceful protests, resigned to our running jokes about how Congress seems to have now abandoned even the facade of representing the people in favor of the supranational corporations and the 1% who finance their campaigns and their lives.
And the poor, well, forget about them. At least that seems to be the hope anyway. How much have you personally heard about one in four kids in this country being on food stamps now? Pensions being stripped away from those who worked and saved for them, just like George Carlin predicted they would be? It happens now through “strategic municipal bankruptcies” and other financial and legal maneuvers. It starts with carefully planned campaigns hatched by conservative think-tanks that talk endlessly about “entitlements.” Isn’t that clever?
We are now a shadow of our former selves. The “Greatest Generation” are dying. My dad was one. There are a few left, but they must not be impressed by what they see, what we are doing with what they fought for. Some of them certainly know that in no universe of realistic thought does Scott Walker’s Wisconsin or our modern America respect the sentiments they held dear enough to defend. They’re codified in Wisconsin’s State Constitution as:
“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right, and no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”
“The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
No wonder the dystopian-future fantasies are so popular at the box office, they must ring true, or maybe they let us think it’s not quite so bad right now in comparison. But make no mistake, we’re there, welcome to Dystopia. You’re soaking in it. Sometimes I think we’ll wake up from it all—take the red pill. It does seem to be happening in other places around the world, like Gezi Park and the streets of São Paulo, even if the dissent suppression machines seem stronger than ever.
Here in America though, I often think we’re just like slow boiling frogs, nodding off to sleep while the heat is steadily turned up, too late realizing what happened as things fade to black. Hopeless and specious tropes about how protest songs don’t matter anymore appear to have even some musicians convinced, and seem to signal our giving up. And that’s when I give thanks for Pussy Riot, for the Solidarity Singers, for the Raging Grannies. Let the armchair quarterbacks debate their musical quality or performance characteristics or predict the demise of protest singing. While they’re at it perhaps spoken and written words, literature, ideas and the rest of the humanities should be thrown in there too.
Of course there are ideas and words and performances that matter, like “I Have a Dream” or “We Shall Overcome” or “Redemption Song” or yes, “Punk Prayer” that will speak truth to power, that will inspire, that provide aid and succor to those who will resist. The Solidarity Sing-Alongs are to me without a doubt among the most important performances taking place today. Same with the 40-second performance that landed Pussy Riot in labor camps for two years.
Content matters. Ideas matter. So Pussy Riot is my band. The Raging Grannies are my band and the Solidarity Singers, too. They’ve inspired me to write this, and I’m going to go check and see if some friends want to join me in supporting these singers and what’s going on in Wisconsin.
When members of Pussy Riot were here in New York this past spring, they stayed over and we had some long talks. “Shaiba” said, “It feels like we’re building this great mafia around the world, friends everywhere.” I hope so. I think this is the way it’s going to need to work if we’re ever going to stage a comeback here. We’re going to need to look out for each other, work with each other in the face of great concentrations of power. Some say the key will be localism, a renewed reliance on our geographically proximate communities, but I sometimes worry an overzealous application of these ideas as a solution may lead to isolationism. I believe we’ll need to help each other, even across great distances and divides.
“Helotism” is a word I learned from Pussy Riot. Worth checking out the etymology on that one. One of the many things I learned from the girls. These are the kinds of things I’m remembering today, that I’m thinking about on this anniversary. That we can learn from each other, help each other, that we can stick together, we can make songs matter and turn ideas into action, that we can inspire each other, and we can decide to lay down and take it… or not. Hunter Heaney is executive director of The Voice Project, a US based NGO that has raised over $100,000 for support and safety monitoring efforts for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot.
Can you imagine if this actually happened to you? If you’re one of millions of American women, it has. It is happening not in an exam room, but in a room with marbled floors, expensive pens and numerous symbols of “freedom,” populated by men and women in crisp suits whose ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are rooted in illogical double-standards and hypocrisies that boggle the mind. These people are making decisions about you, for you, but not by you. They are passing wildly unpopular laws everyday that dictate the choices you can or cannot make, the health care you may or may not be afforded, the rights you can or cannot enjoy in regards to your very own body. Tell Gynoticians like Rick Perry, Trent Franks, Pat McCrory and the Pat McCrorys of women like representative Jodie Laubenberg and Marsha Blackburn that enough is enough: We aren’t just coming for their laws, we’re coming for their JOBS
Of course, most Sonic Youth fans are aware that the 1990 song, “Tunic (Song for Karen),” is a not exactly transparent reference to Karen Carpenter, the honey-voiced chanteuse and easy-listening icon. Kim Gordon’s trademark disaffected delivery feels almost sardonic, as she pleas, “I feel like I’m disappearing - getting smaller every day, but I look in the mirror - I’m bigger in every way” a reference to Carpenter’s tragic 1983 death from complications related to anorexia nervosa.
In fact, Gordon was a giant Carpenters fan, and the song is completely earnest. Explaining the lyrics 20 years later, Gordon professed,
I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller. And there have been times when I feel I’ve lost mine. When people come and ask me about being famous or whatever and I don’t feel that, it’s not me. But it makes me think about it. The music is definitely about the darker side. But I also wanted to liberate Karen into heaven
Below is an open letter written by Gordon to Karen (date unknown), reprinted from the Sonic Youth biography, Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix:
Thru the years of The Carpenters TV specials I saw you change from the Innocent Oreo-cookie-and-milk-eyed girl next door to hollowed eyes and a lank body adrift on a candy-colored stage set. You and Richard, by the end, looked drugged—there’s so little energy. The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, “Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong. I wanted to make myself disappear from their control. My parents, Richard, the writers who call me ‘hippie, fat.’ Since I was, like most girls, brought up to be polite and considerate, I figured no one would notice anything wrong—as long as, outwardly, I continued to do what was expected of me. Maybe they could control all the outward aspects of my life, but my body is all in my control. I can make myself smaller. I can disappear. I can starve myself to death and they won’t know it. My voice will never give me away. They’re not my words. No one will guess my pain. But I will make the words my own because I have to express myself somehow. Pain is not perfect so there is no place in Richard’s life for it. I have to be perfect too. I must be thin so I’m perfect. Was I a teenager once?... I forget. Now I look middle-aged, with a bad perm and country-western clothes.”
I must ask you, Karen, who were your role models? Was it yr mother? What kind of books did you like to read? Did anyone ever ask you that question—what’s it like being a girl in music? What were yr dreams? Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs? Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?
From 1976 to the mid-1980’s, Linder Sterling (born Linda Mulvey) was the matriarch and muse of the Manchester, England punk and post-punk music and art scenes. She was part of the mortar that held these scenes together, based somewhat at her home in the Whalley Range area of Manchester. She knew everyone, and apparently inspired nearly everyone she knew. She was the inspiration for The Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?” and her long-time BFF Morrissey’s “Cemetery Gates.” She met Morrissey at the soundcheck at The Sex Pistols’ 1976 show in Manchester that Morrissey later described in disappointing terms. He interviewed her for a fanzine in 1979 and she has been a steadfast influence in his life since his pre-Smiths days.
But the lovely Linder is more than a muse. She is a musician, pioneering visual artist, and performance artist in her own right.
As early as her art school days at Manchester Polytechnic Linder created some of the most recognizable posters, flyers, 45 sleeves, and LP covers in the U.K. music scene. She also created her own art, music (with her band Ludus) and her own much imitated collage style.
Ludus was formed by Linder and guitarist Arthur Kadmon, later joined by drummer Toby Tomanov and bassist Willie Trotter in 1978. They played the same Manchester venues as the burgeoning Smiths, such as Factory and The Haçienda. The Haçienda was the location of another of her art installations in conjunction with a Ludus show in November 1982, where a stained tampon and a stubbed out cigarette were placed on a paper plate on each of the tables at the venue. This piece, as well as her “menstrual jewelry,” is reminiscent of American artist Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse “Menstruation Bathroom” exhibit at the California Institute of the Arts in 1972, which managed to freak viewers out simply by including a trash can full of sanitary napkins painted red.
Also at this show, over twenty years before Lady Gaga, Linder was the first woman to wear a dress made out of meat. She wore a net dress with offal from a nearby Chinese restaurant sewn in. Members of The Crones distributed additional chunks of offal wrapped in pages from pornographic magazines to audience members. During the song “Too Hot To Handle” (video available here with no sound) Linder pulled up her skirt to reveal an enormous black dildo (an actual buzzcock!).
Her juxtaposition of men’s and women’s magazines, segregated by cars/DIYhome improvement/fitness/porn and beauty/fashion/homemaking/crafts, was used on the Buzzcocks’ “Orgasm Addict” 45 sleeve featuring a naked woman with her head replaced by a clothes iron and mouths in place of her nipples as well as Magazine’s debut LP Real Life. With the exception of a few upscale lifestyle magazines (most of which could easily be retitled Affluent Asshole Monthly), any media merchandiser with a corporate plan-o-gram can tell you that not much has changed since then as far as gender segregation. In fact, now we have the fitness magazines aimed at women (fitness always = weight loss) and more hot rod and hunting publications aimed at men than we did in the late 1970’s.
This ironic presentation of gender-specific media, particularly ubiquitous vintage images from the 1940’s to the early 1960’s, has been copied the world over in zines, flyers, and record sleeves. In fact, Linder and writer Jon Savage can be credited with literally inventing the now quite tired cut-and-paste zine aesthetic in their glossy fanzine, The Secret Public.
Curiously, Linder’s self-portraits using found media images (“I have always treated myself as a found object.”) almost always hide her mouth. When Morrissey asked her about this in an interview for Interview in 2010, she explained:
The mouth can betray in two ways—by what goes in and what comes out. I am not one of nature’s chatterboxes—but neither do I mumble. As time goes by, I have less and less desire to speak. And the number of people to whom I might address my select and diminishing group of words is likewise dwindling. My internal monologue keeps me busy enough. You once said that you felt as though you had read everything; I sometimes feel as though I have said and heard enough. I cheer the blank page. And central to my own work has always been the fact that women have more than one pair of lips.
She also described her self-image while she was growing up in Liverpool:
My mother was a cleaner in a hospital for nearly all of her working life. She used to have nightmares that she couldn’t get her windows clean, and so she couldn’t see through them. I grew up in that psychic force field. I can relate to the chill in Alan Bennett’s comment about a certain kind of Lancashire widow, who “tidied her husband into the grave.” But how might cleanliness look? Genteel? Pretty? Like art? As a child I begged for piano lessons, but pianos were dismissed as “dust harborers.” I wanted ballet lessons, too, but there weren’t any teachers in our part of Liverpool. Culture called—and Billy Fury answered via the radio. I grew up with pop, and pop will die as you and I die—if not before. When I was young, everything was neat and tidy, except for me. I have never felt clean inside, and I never felt beautiful.
Linder’s photography book, Morrissey Shot, was published in 1992. Her artwork has been displayed and/or performed all over Europe, including Paris’ Musee D’Art Moderne, the Cleveland Gallery in London, Sorcha Dallas gallery in Glasgow, the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, and the Tate St. Ives in southwest England.
The radical feminist street-theater protest group Femen has come under fire from all political sides, including some unexpected voices from the Left.
Femen is famous for its topless protests in Europe against sex trafficking, homophobia, right-wing politicians, Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality, and the Muslim laws and customs dictating women’s behavior and clothing.
Femen member Inna Shevchenko fled Ukraine last year after cutting down a wooden cross in central Kiev, which commemorated the victims of the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine of 1932-33, with a chainsaw to protest the conviction of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” She has recently been given political asylum in France.
Femen protests, which began in 2008 (the topless part began in 2009 on Ukrainian independence day) are announced ahead of time to the media and attract a substantial amount of attention, probably more for their bare breasts than the slogans (reminiscent of early 1990’s Riot Grrrls) written on them or the Amazonian flower garlands on their heads. Their in-your-face tactics are in the tradition of surrealism, punk, and the Guerrilla Girls.
Femen’s performance-like protests have gone way beyond the old cliché about feminist bra burning. For example, in 2010 they protested the egregious sexual harassment of women on the street and on public transportation (“the rush hour perverts that like to trespass up our skirts and undo their pants”) by protesting in the Kiev metro, holding signs that said, “I Will Rip Your Balls Off.” In December 2012 Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy stood outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm naked except for black stockings and red shoes – in the snow – with the slogan “Sharia is not a constitution” written on her torso. This year they protested at the Grand Mosque of Paris, chanting “Our Boobs Are Stronger Than Their Stones” and got away before security guards could restrain them. Vladimir Putin, however, liked what he saw when a group of Femen protesters rushed him and Angela Merkel in Germany this April and regretted that his security guards hadn’t been gentler with the women when they tackled them. International Topless Jihad Day began this year in support of a young Tunisian woman, Amina Tyler, who posted two topless photos of herself (Smoking! Wearing lipstick!) on the Internet with the words “Fuck your morals” and “My body is mine, not somebody’s honor!” written across her chest.
A group of young conservative French women have started their own group in response to Femen, Les Antigones. (Doesn’t Antigone die at the end of the Sophocles’ play of the same name?) Based on their officially released video statement and their publicity photos, the Antigones are comprised entirely of young white women who are dressed in modest white dresses, looking as demure as Big Ten college sorority girls at their freshman initiation ceremony. They don’t identify as feminists and object to the shock tactics of Femen as much as their message.
The Antigones describe themselves as, “Daughters of our fathers, wives of our husbands, mothers of our sons, we do not reject men. Instead, we are persuaded that it is with them, in complementarity, that we will build our future.”
After failing to engage the Femen leaders in a dialogue at a protest in Paris this year, the Antigones united to film an official message challenging Femen’s values. One of the Antigones apparently infiltrated Femen as a potential member for seven weeks. At the end of their message to Femen she calls for the arrest and deportation of leaders Oksana Shachko and Inna Shevchenko back to Ukraine.
Traditionalist men are breathing a very loud sigh of relief at the Antigones and celebrating their beauty, femininity, traditional values, classiness, and are hailing them as “real” French women.
One would expect to hear criticism of Femen from, say, Rush Limbaugh, even though the body types and BMI’s of the Femen protesters murder his credo that “feminazis” are ugly, hideous monsters: (“Truth of Life Number 24: Feminism was established so that unattractive women could have easier access to the mainstream.”) But on the other end of the political spectrum are leftist critics of Femen, 1960’s and 1970’s feminist icon Germaine Greer among them. She wrote “Is this feminism?” for Australia’s News:
As a revolutionary movement, Femen is fledgling. Its manifestations, though photogenic, are tiny.
If it could drive out sex tourism and the mail-order bride business, and protect women at risk of honour killing and infanticide, it will have accomplished much, but its attack is aimed as much at religion of any kind.
It belongs to the old order of radical feminism that sought to abolish marriage and patriarchy.
Its leaders tell us classical feminism is dead, but what’s happened is deeply conservative equality feminism has usurped its position. Daring as the young women in the flower garlands are, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Though Femen claims 150,000 members, most are virtual. If ever a mass demonstration were needed, most of them wouldn’t show. Virtual isn’t real; breasts aren’t bombs…
For nudity to be a guerilla tactic, it has to go further. The women of Femen are, first of all, young; but they’re also slim.
They may be all colours of the rainbow but they’re not fat, or even plump, or even well-covered.
The breasts they make so much of tend to be small and neat. Not a stretch mark to be seen. Femen offers a very marketable version of contemporary femaleness.
Contrary to popular belief, I am not opposed to boobs. Rather, I am opposed to women’s bodies constantly being objectified and sexualized. I am also opposed to the fact that nobody gives a shit about women or feminism unless women and feminism look like a beer commercial or a burlesque show.
Though Shevchenko claimed that Femen’s topless protests are about taking back power over their own bodies, she contradicts her point by saying that which is true — when it comes to women the focus is almost always on the body.
Many progressive Muslim women are offended by the fact that non-Muslim Femen members are insulting their religion and condescendingly offering to save them. When Femen members wore burqas at a protest in Paris (urging Muslim women to “get naked with me!”) and also burned a salafist flag (containing Muslim professions of faith), they succeeded in alienating many of the Muslim women they want to help. These Femen critics – Muslim Women Against Femen and Muslimah Pride – photographed themselves in their headscarves holding their own signs: “I am already free,” “Freedom of choice,” “Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving,” and “There is more than one way to be free.”
Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic. By clearly delineating the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” feminism, Femen is using colonial feminist rhetoric that defines Arab women as oppressed by culture and religion, while no mention is made of capitalism, racism, or global imperialism. It is actively promoting the idea that Muslim women are suffering from “false consciousness” because they cannot see (while Femen can see) that the veil and religion are intrinsically harmful to all women.
Yasmin AmatUllah (@YasminBSikdar) posted an open letter to Femen on Twitter on April 6th:
Accusing women of being oppressed is not only patronising and belittling but a form of control also. Funny how my so called feelings are forever being dictated to me, funny how I’m told that I’m oppressed when I’ve never uttered this, funny how I’m harassed for the way I dress – yet in this clothing I feel free from social pressures and most liberated.
Women in Islam don’t need western ‘freedom’ where you force her to strip away her dignity, limit her to flesh, undermine her ability to use her mind – in order to exploit her and then call it (her) freedom of choice, when you’ve dictated this to her. This is real oppression.
It isn’t likely that Femena is going to drop its nudity or its hostile attitude toward Islam any time soon. In fact, Shevchenko’s response to criticism from Muslim women in The Huffington Post UK was dismissive:
And you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day but don’t deny millions of your sisters who have fear behind their scarves, don’t deny that there are million of your sisters who have been raped and killed because they are not following the wish of Allah! We are here to scream about that.
An exceptional interview with Simone de Beauvoir, from the French TV program Questionnaire, in which the great writer discussed her views on Feminism with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber.
Beginning with a quote from her book The Second Sex, de Beauvoir explained the meaning of her oft-quoted line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,”
“...being a woman is not a natural fact. It’s the result of a certain history. There is no biological or psychological destiny that defines a woman as such. She’s a product of a history of civilization, first of all, which has resulted in her current status, and secondly for each individual woman, of her personal history, in particular, that of her childhood. This determines her as a woman, creates in her something which is not at all innate, or an essence, something which has been called the ‘eternal feminine,’ or femininity. The more we study the psychology of children, the deeper we delve, the more evident it becomes that baby girls are manufactured to become women.”
Recorded in 1975, this interview is in French with English subtitles.
Although I grew up in the punk era, it was really the post-punk stuff that turned my crank, and still does. During that time there were countless odd ephemeral little bands (including one I was in for 15 minutes) that not only stood no chance of widespread popularity, it never even occurred to them that they could be popular or that they should try to make some real money out of their music. It was almost more about doing something that other creative people in bands would take notice of. Why things were like that for a brief and shining moment I really can’t say, though part of it was the way economics worked then: If you didn’t need a lot of stuff, you could sorta get by with very little bread and spend a lot of your time hangin’ out and, occasionally, working out your musical ideas. Those days, of course, were forcibly crash-landed by Reagan & Thatcher, but for a narrow window of time there was some really incredible musical creativity made by folks who wanted to do something interesting.
One of the obscure little bands I was into was called The Raincoats, and I never saw a review of any of their albums, never saw a video and never saw a photo of them (all the albums I or anyone I knew had only had paintings on the covers). Although they seemed to be a mostly female band, I don’t think that thought really explicitly occurred to me back then: They just made this jangly, repetitive-but-catchy music with weird, often miserable lyrics sung for the most part “unprofessionally” (and as a punk that “unprofessional” bit really made it sound authentic to me). But something about it rung true to my ears and to my small circle of friends as well. We’d sit in dark rooms smoking hashish, listening to The Raincoats and just…abide, though not Cali-style: This was New York City style, complete with cold crummy weather and/or pouring rain.
Little did I know, then, that others were also huddled in dark places around the country, and around the world, listening to The Raincoats as if their music was a tiny little fire with which we’d warm our hands. Never having been a Nirvana fan (though I do appreciate their unique sound), I didn’t know that Kurt Cobain had helped to get their albums reissued on CD and had written this about them:
“..I don’t really know anything about The Raincoats except that they recorded some music that has affected me so much that, whenever I hear it I’m reminded of a particular time in my life when I was (shall we say) extremely unhappy, lonely, and bored. If it weren’t for the luxury of putting that scratchy copy of The Raincoats’ first record, I would have had very few moments of peace. I suppose I could have researched a bit of history about the band but I feel it’s more important to delineated the way I feel and how they sound. When I listen to The Raincoats I feel as if I’m a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark. Rather than listening to them I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above and, if I get caught - everything will be ruined because it’s their thing.”
Meanwhile, Kim Gordon had this to say about The Raincoats:
It was The Raincoats I related to most. They seemed like ordinary people playing extraordinary music. Music that was natural that made room for cohesion of personalities. They had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression…or the typical female as sex symbol avec irony or sensationalism.
Listening to The Raincoats I didn’t get the sense that I was listening in to a message from women to other women. They were just singing bluntly and honestly about their lives (which had patches of light but plenty of patches of rain too), and we listeners scattered in our dark places related to that. Though probably their best-known song is “Shouting Out Loud,” my favorite tune of theirs was always “I Saw a Hill” from Moving. Listen through to the finale and tell me this doesn’t kick your ass and point straight and unwaveringly at that hidden woman that you keep (be ye male or female) deep down inside and that until this moment you were absolutely sure no one could possibly identify:
The Raincoats’ stellar cover of “Lola” by The Kinks:
Below, seldom-seen footage of The Raincoats performing “Go Away” and “No Side to Fall In” in 1982.