Bodies have long been a powerful tool of protest. They are particularly potent when the object under threat is the body: its health, its safety, its integrity. That’s why Wednesday’s display of naked bodies in the office of House Speaker John Boehner, while indecorous, is not particularly shocking. The protests were staged by members of the groups ACT UP NY, ACT UP Philadelphia, Queerocracy, and the Health Global Access Group and were designed to protest the post-“fiscal cliff” budget cuts that would slash funds for AIDS treatment and research. They also illustrate the increasing pornification of politics. ACT UP is no stranger to political theater and like PETA and the Ukrainian anti-human trafficking group FEMEN they know that nothing draws media attention faster than naked bodies.
In this case, however, the nudity featured in the protest’s visuals is central to the protesters’ narrative about the federal budget. Press releases distributed by participating organizations are laced with exhibitionist metaphors. StudentGlobalAIDSCampaign.org’s release announced, “AIDS Activist Expose Themselves and the Naked Truth about AIDS Budget Cuts.” Queerocracy’s Cassidy Gardner noted that “when you strip away the rhetoric of fiscal cliff and the grand bargain, you see that these terms are a way to thinly veil draconian budget cuts that will leave millions around the world with absolutely nothing.” Michael Tikili, also from Queerocracy, promised, “we are here to bare witness and expose the effect” of the proposed cuts.
Visually, the protest couples vulnerability and strength. Violence is inscribed on the naked bodies (“AIDS Cuts Kill”), which are also marked as sick. Yet the protesters stand united, with arms locked in a show of solidarity and strength. Significantly, the woman in this picture stands alongside the men as their equal. They act as her compatriots rather than as her suitors, protectors, or stalkers. In addition to disrupting standards of propriety, then, this image challenges gender norms and invites us to view nudity in a political, rather than sexual, context.
Sadly, gender disciplining commenced as soon as the demonstration concluded. Although the protest featured a diverse group of women and men, the Associated Press reported that only the women were arrested by Capitol Police, ostensibly because the “naked male protesters appeared to have left.” It’s difficult to believe that if the Capitol Police were determined to enforce laws regarding lewd conduct and indecent exposure, they couldn’t have done so equitably.
As the pornification of politics becomes a tactic deployed by diverse groups and in myriad ways, journalists and citizens are left to reflect upon the naked truths these protests attempt to reveal. But with such titillating images dotting the blogosphere, the question becomes, is anyone reading it for the articles?
— Karrin Anderson (@KVAnderson)
(photo: Sahil Kapur/TPM via Twitter)