Cosmo Landesman

Sorry, but I don’t think feminists can fight the male gaze by baring their breasts

This is feminism as Penthouse would want it

Sorry, but I don’t think feminists can fight the male gaze by baring their breasts
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Imagine that you have stepped back in time to the 1970s. Feminists are out on the streets of London protesting against the Miss World competitions. There you meet a sleazy men’s magazine publisher who tells you he has a new idea for getting women to show men their breasts. He’s not going to offer them money or fame like Playboy or Penthouse. No, he’s going to get them to take off their tops in the name of women’s liberation. ‘I have seen the future of feminism,’ he tells you, ‘and it has great tits!’

Naturally you think: this man is insane! Surely no woman would fall for that? Wrong. Not only did they, but the link between showing your breasts and serving the feminist cause didn’t come from men but from women themselves! How’s that for insane?

I call it flaunt-it feminism. A key moment in its history was the founding of Femen — a radical feminist protest group of ‘brave topless female activists’ created in the Ukraine in 2008. Their motto and means are summed up thus: ‘Our mission is protest. Our weapon is bare breasts.’

They are the ones behind the first ever International Topless Jihad Day, two years ago. One Femen member was quoted as saying, ‘Our tits are deadlier than your stones.’ It would be funny if women weren’t actually being stoned to death and cartoonists shot dead. But for sheer flaunt-it feminism lunacy you can’t beat the woman in Dresden last year who stripped off her top as an anti-fascist protest to reveal a slogan praising Bomber Harris on her breasts. It read: ‘Thanks Bomber.’

Bare breasts are still at the forefront of the battle against sexism and most recently the publication of naked pictures of girlfriends (revenge porn) and celebrities who have had their phones or emails hacked like Jennifer Lawrence. The ideological justification has been provided by the Guardian. There you can find its ideological champions like veteran feminist Joan Smith, who not long ago wrote that ‘Posing nude is one of the ultimate feminist acts.’

The Guardian, in the name of feminism, recently provided sexy pictures of a naked blonde and her breasts. The pin-up was Emma Holten, a Danish journalist who had been the victim of ‘revenge porn’. (Her ex-boyfriend published naked pictures of her online four years ago.) Holten has been receiving nasty comments and emails ever since and decided that enough was enough; it was time to fight back. So what did she do? Write a complaint to Google? Name and shame her odious ex-boyfriend? No. Holten arranged to have photos of her breasts taken and then posted them online! It’s a curious logic, this — fight pictures of naked women with more pictures of naked women.

Woman's rights organization FEMEN protest against the execution of a woman in Iran in front of the Iranian embassy in Berlin Photo: Getty
The movie actress Jennifer Lawrence has likewise decided to fight nudity with nudity. When last October naked photos of her were posted online without her consent, Lawrence told Vanity Fair magazine she was the victim of a ‘sex crime’. Now that she has consented to appear naked in Vanity Fair (with a boa constrictor covering her private parts), Lawrence defends her actions thus: ‘It’s my body and it should be my choice.’

For Holten, Lawrence and the flaunt-it feminists, choice is everything. The theory is that when a woman chooses to take off her top, she is magically transformed from ‘passive object’ of the male gaze to active ‘autonomous subject’. But the choice argument reduces publication of naked breasts to an act of copyright infringement that has nothing to do with sexism.

And I hate to spoil the party but I suspect that her consent doesn’t change anything as far as men are concerned; that male gaze is still happily pointed at the new Holten and Lawrence-approved photos. As far as men are concerned breasts are breasts, and they’re likely to leer. Even right-on feminist men of the Guardian persuasion are going to look, because Holten’s consent means they now have permission to look and still be good feminists. It’s a kind of Page 3 titillation for people who despise Page 3.

Jennifer Lawrence Photo: Getty
Feminist academics provided the vocabulary — terms like ‘empowerment’ and ‘autonomy’ — for the flaunt-it feminists of today. But it was Madonna who in the 1980s brought the idea into pop culture and public consciousness. It reached the point where you could justify any degrading and sexist image of a woman in the name of empowerment. When Madonna was confronted with claims that appearing in a video wearing a neck manacle and crawling on all fours degraded woman, her defence was simple: ‘But I chained myself! I’m in charge!’

The same defence has been taken up by Page 3 girls, lap dancers, porn workers, prostitutes and female pop stars. Empowerment is the big buzzword in the debates surrounding the film Fifty Shades of Grey. According to director Sam Taylor-Johnson the story is all about ‘empowerment’ — which might seem counter intuitive given that it concerns a girl who is made powerless for male pleasure. Not so, claims Taylor-Johnson, ‘It is all her choice… all decisions she clearly made. That’s the message I want people to walk away with.’

But choice never exists in a vacuum. Women choose to strip off for Page 3, have the breasts enlarged, their vaginas tightened and all sorts of things the flaunt-it feminists would claim are symptoms of a sexist society that seeks to exploit women. Their argument begins and ends with a woman’s right to choose — they never stop to consider that one woman’s empowerment is another man’s erotic pleasure.

I first grasped this with the release of the film Basic Instinct in 1992. There’s the infamous scene where Sharon Stone’s character is being questioned by the police and she opens and crosses her legs, revealing quick flashes of her pubic hair. Some academic feminists — like Camille Paglia — claimed it was an ‘empowering moment’ that was frightening to men — but my friends and I just kept replaying that scene over and over again and squealing with delight.

And that’s what I expect still happens today when women flaunt their breasts in the name of feminism. When five members of Femen staged a topless ambush on Vladimir Putin at the Hanover trade fair in 2013, he merely smiled and gave the protesters the thumbs up sign, while the assembled men looked on with bemused pleasure. Holten is still being ogled and googled. And God knows what men are thinking about the naked Lawrence and her snake. It’s time the flaunt-it feminists really served the cause of feminism — and put them away for good.