Topless: Some thoughts on protest, naked and otherwise

Nudity, my own or other people’s, doesn’t bother me, but I’m in no way a nudity fanatic. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve bared myself in public—in Harvard Yard along with hundreds of other naked students (Primal Scream); beside the Wannsee in Berlin on a summer day beside hundreds of other naked sunbathers; as the singer of Chickita, an all-girl punk band, in a warehouse in Athens, Georgia; and as a mute Scheherazade at a benefit for young playwrights at a renovated church in Times Square. 

            Although it’s been fifteen years since my last foray into full-on public nudity, as mother who breastfed, I found myself in the last few years baring breast in unlikely places: airplanes, libraries, grocery stores, on a park bench overlooking the East River. From day one, my daughter refused a bottle, so if I was going to leave the house and not have a hysterical infant on my hands, I quickly realized, I was going to have to suck it up and whip out some boob. And so, last Spring, when I saw the picture of a topless young woman accosting Putin and Angela Merkel at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, with “FUCK YOU, PUTIN” written on her back, I felt pride and relief. Punx not dead. We are not powerless.

            Staged by Femen, a Ukrainian women’s rights group, the Hanover trade fair protest was intended to bring light to Putin’s numerous human rights violations, in particular his continued imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot, the all-female punk rock collective based in Moscow, who had been arrested for hooliganism after they’d staged a “Punk Prayer” protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

            A few days after the Hanover protest, Femen called for an International Day of Topless Jihad in solidarity with Amina Tyler (Sboui), a young Tunisian woman, who, after posting two topless protest photos of herself on Facebook, had received numerous death threats and feared for her safety. After the protests, Tyler was kidnapped by her family and forced to undergo virginity tests. Then she escaped her family, went into hiding, and was looking to leave Tunisia. Since then, Tyler and others have come out against Femen for forcing a Western feminism onto the non-Western world.  

            Most members of Femen are very young. They are also beautiful. Many wear make-up. Their project is based in part on reimagining feminism as something sexy, something young. As one member, Sasha Shevchenko, put it: “I didn’t even know what feminist meant. I thought a feminist was an ugly woman with a mustache. She is lesbian and she hates men. If you ask girls on the street about feminism, they will tell you the same story.” This narrative rankles. The sexy revolution, as many have argued, does little to reverse the basic problem of women being viewed as objects to be leered at and desired.

            The Pussy Riot members, it should be said, were never naked. In fact, in their protest, they were entirely covered, with colored hoods over their heads and sweet girlish dresses and bright tights. And although Tyler had originally aligned herself with Femen, her Facebook pictures send a different message than the pictures of Femen’s street protests. In the pictures of Femen’s public protests, the women are standing with their backs erect, their knees locked as if ready for attack. In the photos of Tyler that first sparked the controversy, she sits against a black backdrop, her face is made up with red lipstick and black eyeliner, and her hair is cropped and styled. The photos are  intimate, a far cry from the photos of women in cut-off jean shorts and combat boots standing in military position on the streets of Paris. Also notable is the calm, almost passive, expression on Tyler’s face. 

            The photos of Tyler remind me of the work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, who often uses her body as a site of exploration and resistance. In one early work, Rhythm O, 1974, Abramović stood in a gallery beside a table with 72 objects and a sign that explained that the spectators could do what they wished to her for six hours. At the end of the six hours, she would leave. As the performance progressed, audience members became more bold, more violent, more aggressive. Her clothes were snipped off, her skin was cut with razors, she was fondled, someone held a gun to her head. At the end of the six hours, she got up and left. As in much of Abramović’s work, even as the audience assaulted her, her eyes remained open but her face remained expressionless, as if in meditation.

            I am not suggesting that Tyler is really a performance artist masquerading as an activist or that Pussy Riot and Tyler are engaged in the same fight, but I do think it is worthwhile thinking about the intersection of art and protest. Art often has a power of persuasion that political rhetoric lacks. It stems from an artist’s genuine expression of a particular emotion or set of circumstances, and one’s own body is a convenient and cheap resource for artists. A Jeff Koons sculpture or Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation requires a warehouse (or two or three) and a small army of people to come into being, but to do a simple performance, as Zhang Huan has said, a performance artist's mind can serve as her studio. 

            What amazes me about both Amina Tyler’s and Pussy Riot’s stories is that young disenfranchised women are making themselves heard. Punk rock has been deemed dead by some, swallowed up by the man, another casualty of relentless consumerism, but here we have women all over the world getting angry, getting heard, and not backing down. I remember vividly the visceral catharsis of standing on stage and screaming my head off over the deafening roar of my band. The one night we went topless was no different than all the other nights. The impulse was the same: No fear. Make noise. Be heard.