Naked protest and the revolutionary body

Drawing attention to the way that they have been stripped of political power, many protestors have stripped themselves of clothing. In this context the naked body represents vulnerability and strength, being disarmed yet empowered.
Anti-government protesters during a demonstration

In a recent TVAD seminar, Daniel Marques Sampaoi observed how «the body opposes power» [1]. Although man has developed war-machines that surpass the abilities of the human body, there is a perceived political and emotional strength in the human form. After all, conflict and power-plays are ultimately about people, not about the weapons that act on our behalf.

Power is opposed not simply by the presence of people, but by emphasising their corporeal fragility and contrasting it with mechanised brutality of war machines, or by juxtaposing the vulnerability of the individual against the might of an opposing army. It is with this intention, that «nudity is strategically employed as a mode of social and political action». [2]

This is not just about the naked body, but the act of becoming naked. It is the removal of clothes, not just the absence of clothes, that is meaningful in these contexts. Stripping down demonstrates willingness and, therefore, purposeful vulnerability.

Bret Lunsford observes that nudity has particular power in anti-war demonstrations. He cites an anti-war campaigner who proposes that, through nudity, she is «disarmed». This protestor argues that «naked people … can never make war». She observes that the outcome of war is usually dictated by inequality, with victors being those that hold the most power. Stripping away this power by removing weapons and uniforms, both sides are made equal, and conflict cannot occur. [3]

This protestor’s views stem from the idea that nudity renders everyone equal, and that equality resolves conflict. In almost any protest, inequality draws attention to perceived injustices. The vulnerability of a naked body contrasts so severely with the unifomed and armed body of a soldier that it highlights the inequality of the solder/victim relationship. When a bare chest is pressed against a canon (as in Ladislav Bielik’s ‘End of the Prague Spring‘), the stark inequality seems unfair. The conflict is revealed as unjust, with the opponents clearly presented as victim and oppressor.

It is not the case, however, that nudity in these contexts necessarily evokes sympathy. It can often be a show of strength. In these same wartime scenarios, nudity can be employed to signify active resistance. The nude body is primal, animalistic, and it is not uncommon for it to be accompanied by bared teeth or a war cry. These are aggressive displays of the primal male, stripped of all material signs of civility.

Perniola has observed the connections between nudity and savagery [4]. In this reading, the stripping of the human body represents a descent into savagery, making the subject potentially liable to unpredictable and aggressive resistance. Here, the naked body conveys the message that resistors will not give up without a fight.

FEMEN protesters in Paris
Topless activists of Femen in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Female protestors are more inclined to use their bodies as an invitation to «make love not war», using sexuality to distract and disarm. Such methods present «love» (and, by extension, «sex») and «war» as mutually exclusive extremes.

The feminist group Femen has found international notoriety by protesting topless. Their nudity is a protest against objectification, specifically the feeling that women have been «stripped of ownership» of their own bodies [5]. Ironically, these demonstrations rely on the very thing that they seek to end. Their nudity is only powerful for as long as it is repressed.

Femen members use the power of nudity to counteract patriarchy. Though this is not because they feel that nudity has innate power in itself. They achieve power via, not through, nakedness. Nudity is a tool by which to achieve media coverage, and by Femen’s admission, it is this press coverage that provides power against their oppressors [6].

Conscious that their breasts will be the focus of observers’ attention, Femen protesters write their messages of protest directly on their torsos. The fact that viewers are drawn to read these messages reinforces their argument that they are being objectified. Simultaneously, the position of these messages invites the viewer to look directly at the protesters’ breasts. Exposed breasts make gender visible. By highlighting gender difference, these feminist protests are not cries for equality, rather for acknowledgement of the value of women, equivalent to, but different from men.

PETA protests
Supporters of Peta stage an anti-fur protest. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

While the lives of American women are less governed by conflict, they still find ways of using their nakedness for political gain. Peta’s infamous (and much-imitated) anti-fur campaign featuring the slogan: «I’d rather go naked than wear fur,» used nudity to suggest that the act of dressing can sometimes be unethical. Here, nudity is offered as an alternative to enabling the unethical practices of the fur trade. It is an act of passive resistance against the power and influence of the fashion industry.

It seems that, wherever there is power, the naked body is the last line of defence. Stripped of weapons or political power, protesters make use of what nature gave them. Over the history of human evolution, we have developed a culture of dressing [7]. The belief that the human body should be clothed is unnatural, but dominant. This expectation has given nudity a particular power. Despite being our natural state, nudity is often rebellious and always remarkable.


[1] Daniel Marques Sampaoi, ‘The Image of Revolution’ (TVAD seminar on ‘image events’), University of Hertfordshire, 20 November 2013.
[2] Brett Lunceford, Naked Politics: Nudity, Political Action, and the Rhetoric of the Body, New York: Lexington, p. x.
[3] Ibid., p. 3.
[4] Mario Perniola, ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, 1989, as cited in Ruth Barcan, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, 2009.
[5] Femen statement of objectives.
[6] Quentin Girard (Translated by Pat Brett), ‘Bare Breasts, High Heels‘, PressEurop, 20 September 2012.
[7] Perniola, Op. Cit.





Naked protest and the revolutionary body.

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