The Femen Movement in the Catholic Cathedral of Cologne and the Need for Gender Analysis Today
I like the action-driven courage of the bare-breasted Femen women. Their radical feminism reminds me of how many of us feminist academic types have retreated into the “do-able,” the “tenure-able,” “promotion-able,” and “adaptable” versions of gender practice in our work lives and lives overall. The “lean-in” women who are trying very hard to make it in the business and corporate world face similar temptations of compromise and cooperation with the gendered structures of domination that, as we all know, go far beyond gender. Yes, in manifold ways they intersect with race, ethnicity, class, nationality, age, physical abilities, and other forms of socio-political, economic, and cultural forms of oppression. In my view, many women and feminists have long left the boat of radical feminism or they were never on it for various reasons.
When I heard about a Femen woman, a young student of philosophy at the University of Hamburg in Germany, sprinting to and jumping upon the altar of the Catholic Cathedral in Cologne during the Christmas Day service on December 25, 2013, I could not get the image out of my head anymore. It is simply powerful how she stands there half-naked on the altar with outstretched arms up to the heavens. It made me wonder what would happen if we did this kind of thing in Perkins Chapel.
The scene of the Femen activist standing on the altar is indeed powerful. There she is like mother goddess, tall and basically naked, with arms boldly raised up, shouting: “Unser Gott ist eine Frau!” (Our god is a woman!) Painted on her front body is the sentence: “I am God!” Only a serpent is missing in her hands! Mother goddess in the Cathedral of Cologne, finally! I also wondered how different the world would look like if women ruled the world. Watch how very quickly Catholic male priests and security guards pulled her down from the altar, dragging her out like a hunted animal although she still attempted to keep shouting, “Our god is a woman!”
The Femen movement has made it into the global news because of the activists’ courage to protest topless. Originally the group was founded in the Ukraine, protesting against the sharp increase of Ukrainian prostitution. By now, the movement has spread to other European countries and the Latin American country of Brazil. Some articles discredit the movement stating that a man runs Femen. Whether this is indeed true, I do not know. Alice Schwarzer, the renowned German feminist journalist, observes that in the early 1970s feminists were criticized for being so-called “men haters” whereas today the Femen women are criticized for including men. Is there ever a way that feminists can get approval from the mainstream public?! So what to make of the controversy between the Ukrainian and the Brazilian Femen groups? Some of the internal troubles are reported here.
The other interesting aspect of the Femen movement is that the activists are all in their early to mid-twenties. They are young and bold, criticizing different institutions in contemporary societies, including religious organizations such as the Catholic Church. Hence, the action on Christmas Day in the Catholic cathedral in Cologne. The Femen movement reminds me that feminist theologies and feminist religious analyses must continue to be bold, courageous, and to the point, not trailing off into compromised or perhaps even incomprehensible chitchat about obscure details. Too much is at stake even today.
A look into the regular newspapers easily demonstrates what is at stake. There are many stories about gender, yet rarely are they written from feminist perspectives.
Just think about the recent interest in polygamy, more correctly classified as polygyny, in the United States and the efforts to mainstream this practice. The emphasis in articles I have seen is usually on the multiple wives approving polygyny as a “normal” way of life. For instance, one article explains that “[t]he Browns face the same financial challenges of other families, but more so.” Importantly, articles on polygyny make sure to mention that polygynous marriages and families may be “the next frontier after same-sex marriages.” Reports simply state that to some polygynous men and their wives their “family arrangements” are a “life-style choice” that should be accepted legally just like the increasing legal recognitions of same-sex marriages. What the reports do not clarify is that the legal battles for same-sex marriages have nothing to do with “life style choices.” Rather, they are about gender justice and the elimination of legal discrimination of people historically persecuted for their sexual orientation.
Then there is a report about Rev. Oliver White whose black Protestant congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, dwindled after he voted in favor of a resolution supporting same-sex marriage at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ back in 2005.
The New York Times explains: “Though he was not homosexual, he knew that his stand in favor of same-sex marriage put him deeply at odds with the African-American church.”
Still it came as a shock to White when his congregation of 320 members dwindled to 70 members one month after his vote. He paid dearly for his conviction. Luckily, he found a new church position thanks to Rev. Lisa Bodenheim of Clark Memorial Church in St. Paul. What kind of Christian faith did the members of Rev. White’s previous congregation believe to be upholding? Clearly, discussions about gender and religion must be on the agenda everywhere.
And very briefly a third example. Apparently, two TV shows are popular with TV watching audiences, so much so that a comparison of both shows made it into the New York Times under the heading: “Looking Again At That Mars-Venus Thing.” I have seen neither one of the shows, “Girls” and “Looking,” but I read that one show follows four young women who live and seek love in Brooklyn and the other show follows three gay men who live and seek love in San Francisco. The author of the New York Times article, Alessandra Stanley, sums up her comparison:
“’Girls’ is a comedy about people who take themselves too seriously. ‘Looking’ is a drama about people who can laugh at themselves.”
Okay, got it. Women are still too serious whereas men, especially when they are gay, have a sense of humor, especially about themselves. But, hold it, in the end “Girls” really wins:
“Behind a scrim of whimsy, ‘Girls’ is bold and tartly satirical. Behind a scrim of sexual audacity, “Looking” is actually tame and muted and, accordingly, less compelling.”
Perhaps we move on to watching something else altogether since this girl and gay looking thing is getting too depressing. “The Wolf of Wall Street” anybody?!! Or how about trying to do a wedding ceremony for your own gay son in the United Methodist Church? Defrocking anybody?!!
But there is a fourth report from the world of gender politics that I want to mention after all. Did anybody see the piece on gender politics in the music world? Apparently, the punk band Against Me! is now engaging transgender politics in their songs and relationships with their fans because the band’s lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, previously known as Tom Gabel, is now a woman. The song “True Trans Soul” is apparently “a vicious and beautiful number” from the band’s new album. Listen to it here.
And some say feminism is over?! It seems to me that we need it more than ever or at least as much as ever in the secular and religious realms of society and in the world. But the question is, in my mind, what kind of feminism do we promote? Let’s exclude the boring one, the one that adapts and does not want to change the structures anymore. That’s what I take away from the Femen action on Christmas Day.