In the 1920s, Edward Bernays lifted the taboo on women smoking in public. The “father of public relations” achieved this by advertising cigarettes as “torches of freedom.” He was working for the American Tobacco Company.
Then as now, some projects carried under the banner of feminism have little to do with women’s rights. So it is important to analyze any claim, action, or individual that purports to be feminist. For example, what to make of groups like Femen and young women like Amina Tyler who use nudity as a tool to protest gender discrimination?
Of Tunisian descent, Tyler has posted nude self-portraits online with the following messages written across her chest: “Fuck your morals,” and “My body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honour.” Apparently, these statements are aimed at the religious and conservative segments of her society. Likewise, Femen activists have held nude protests with anti-religious slogans written across bodies of protesters. Admittedly, many oppressive methods of control are practiced on women under the cover of religion. However, conservative values cannot be reduced to “bad,“ nor liberal values to “good.“ Most societies are a mix of both; because, pushed to the extreme, either set of values becomes undesirable.
For example, liberal dress codes can be just as oppressive for women as conservative ones. In theory, those of us living in liberal societies are free to wear what we want. But, implicitly, we are pushed to uncover, flaunt our figures, and compete for the attention of men. However, ads invariably remind us that we are not good enough. So, we are expected to spend much of our time, energy, and resources on perfecting our appearance. But reaching the unrealistic standards created through surgeries and Photoshop manipulations is impossible. Yet, we are expected to keep trying and spending.
A reasonable level of concern for our appearance is natural. But imposing this excessive, obsessive regimen on women is just as extreme as imposing an ultra-conservative dress code on us. Our bodies may not be “the source of anyone’s honour” but they have certainly become the source of corporate wealth.
The “I can do what I want with my body” argument, taken to its extreme, isn’t limited to dress code. For some, it has turned into a depressing cycle of loveless promiscuity, selfish individualism, emotional indifference, and a culture of loneliness. The ultra-conservative alternative, obsessed with virginity and built on the subservience of women, isn’t appealing either. It stifles diversity, leaves little room for personal agency, and leads to loveless marriages. But, as much as they need freedom to explore and nurture their unique qualities, individuals need the comfort and support of family and community. Whatever happened to meaningful relationships, complicity, true friendship? Liberalism, taken too far, has left people drifting in solitary states and filling the emotional void with antidepressants and excess consumerism.
These women’s obstinately one-sided interpretation of freedom equals their opponent’s obstinately one-sided interpretation of virtue. And the lack of nuance in their slogans is made worse by the lack of substance in their method. It’s not that there is something inherently wrong with nudity: if everyone walked around naked, it would cease to be controversial. Femen activists capitalizing on the controversy argue that their performances attract more attention than serious, academic work on feminism. But getting attention and offering a real understanding of gender discrimination is not the same. The latter can only be achieved through genuine conversation and substantive political work.
As it stands, public discourse brought on by these women’s activities is limited to the shallow issue of nudity. They claim that their body is a weapon, but a lecture by Gail Dines or Jean Kilbourne is much more threatening to the establishment than Femen’s marketing schemes.
Unlike Bernays who openly supported corporate power, these women claim to have social and political motivations. But their slogans and methods, perhaps unwittingly, serve the establishment Bernays worked for more than they serve women.