AFP: When Bare Breasts Are a Problem But Violence Against Women is Not

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When Bare Breasts Are a Problem

By Thomas Watkins, March 7 2014.
femen1.jpg

Photo of a man grabbing a Femen activist around the throat in front of Crimea’s parliament, published on Facebook with the woman’s exposed breast masked in order to conform to Facebook’s nudity policy. Uncensored version below. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

As one of AFP’s community managers, I have to decide which of the 3,000 images the agency distributes daily to post on different social networks. One of the more frequent topics of pictures — and conversations about whether we should post these on our social networks — is the feminist activist network Femen, originally from Ukraine.

The group’s signature style of direct action is to show up at rallies or places in the news and bare their breasts, which typically are adorned with very direct slogans. Their methods are outrageous by design. For instance, in December five women from the group gathered in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Paris and pretended to urinate on photographs of Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.

(AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

(AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

But the images generated from a Femen protest are often compelling and have real news value. And frequently, the photos capture male heavy-handedness as security forces or angry protesters confront the topless women.

A security guard tackles a Femen activist as she tried to stop the car of Tunisian Prime Minister from leaving the EU commission in Brussels. June 25, 2013 (AFP Photo/Georges Gobet)

A security guard tackles a Femen activist as she tried to stop the car of Tunisian Prime Minister from leaving the EU commission in Brussels. June 25, 2013 (AFP Photo/Georges Gobet)

Femen members are arrested in Berlin, June 7, 2013. (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen)

Femen members are arrested in Berlin, June 7, 2013. (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen)

One of our most important social media platforms is Facebook, which has some strict guidelines about what is and isn’t appropriate to post. Their community standards include “limitations on the display of nudity.” In the case of women’s breasts, this basically means you can’t show any nipples. Femen has its own Facebook page, but takes care to airbrush over any photographs of nipples.

We’ve run afoul of the rules once before, when Facebook pulled this image from our French site, presumably because of the nipples — never mind the news value and strength of the photo itself.

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Yesterday, we posted this picture but decided to censor the nipple to make sure we didn’t violate any of Facebook’s standards. But as several people commented under the picture, it is a strange paradox that it seems OK to show a photograph of violence against a woman, but not to let people see her chosen means of protest (toplessness.)

femen.jpg

The uncensored version.

“So it is OK to show women getting choked and beaten on FB as long as you don’t show any nipple. Go figure,” wrote one user.

Another blogged that the photo “reveals all that is wrong with Facebook’s nudity policy.”

Michelle Gilbert, Facebook’s director of communication in France, points out that the sheer volume of content shared on the platform each day makes it impossible to screen each item according to its news context, especially given different values across countries, regions and religions.

“Facebook is a universal product. It’s a very difficult job and we put a lot of resources behind it to make sure the content is acceptable,” she says. “We have to have guidelines and rules.”

Fair enough. But it raises the question as to whether news organisations should be given a little more latitude to publish pictures where news value trumps any squeamishness about nudity.

See Thomas Watkins, When Bare Breasts Are a Problem, Agence France Press, March 7 2014.

(Emphasis added)