Gender Politics Return: Germany's Rebellious New Feminists
Daring, young and self-assured, feminists have reclaimed social discourse in Germany in a big way. But along with activists' successes have come fresh ideological conflicts.
Anna-Katharina Messmer likes to watch porn. That's a problem for a feminist. She is also in favor of Germany's childcare benefit, or Betreuungsgeld, which gives mothers who stay at home with their young children 150 ($190) a month, because, as she says, "reproductive work needs to be appropriately compensated." That's also not an easy position to defend. What's more, she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the current trend toward cosmetic vaginal surgery. She doesn't see anything wrong with it.
Messmer is the face of the new feminism -- or at least one of the faces popular these days on talk shows that attempt to draw the new frontlines in the battle of the sexes. Four months ago, Messmer and two other women she met via Twitter launched a campaign under the hashtag #aufschrei (meaning "outcry"), which overnight became synonymous with resistance to everyday sexism.
For a long time, Messmer thought that feminism wasn't for her. It seemed too uptight and conventional for her taste. When she thought of feminists, she saw women who were proud that they didn't shave their armpits.
Then she attended a panel discussion organized by Mädchenmannschaft (literally "Girl Team"), a popular feminist blog. At the front of the room stood a woman who said: "My name is Verena and I watch porn." "Cool," Messmer says she thought at the time. She had always been a staunch supporter of equal rights, so why not assertively state her position?
Speaking with Messmer can be very entertaining. She is well versed in the entire theoretical construction of modern feminism, from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler. She can explain precisely why it's important to say Studierende instead of Studenten (both could be translated as "students," but only the first is gender neutral), and why it's important never to forget the gender gap when writing texts. But when it suits her, she also occasionally quotes the notorious conservative German political theorist Carl Schmitt.
The Issue of the Hour
Feminism is a hot issue these days. Anyone who organizes a conference on future challenges would be well advised to come up with something that touches on this topic. Not surprisingly, the final major presentation at re:publica, the largest and hippest blogger conference in Germany, was dedicated to online feminism last May. Even the Grimme Award, one of the most prestigious awards for German television, is getting in on the action this year: #aufschrei has been nominated for the online award, the first such honor for a Twitter hashtag.
This is an astonishing development for an issue that seemed to be getting on in years. It was 40 years ago that German activist and publisher Alice Schwarzer put feminism on the agenda in Germany. A great deal has happened since then: Child support legislation has been tailored to the needs of patchwork families, abortions have been practically legalized, and the right to equal pay is undisputed. But thanks to these successes, it looked as though the women's movement had basically served its purpose.
All that seemed to remain was the demand for more women in management positions. It's an honorable goal, but light-years away from the fighting spirit that gave the movement its drive and energy in the early years. The generation that followed Schwarzer, which is now between 40 and 50 years old, apparently no longer wants to change the world, but merely the gender ratio on the executive floor. Women like Messmer call that "elitist feminism."
Today's feminism has become rebellious once again. It asks fundamental questions about the balance of power, and is thus right back where Schwarzer began -- dealing with gender politics. Everything is on the agenda again: how men look at women, how they speak to them, and how they put down the opposite sex in jokes and silly comments to make themselves feel bigger and more important.
If one were to summarize what the movement is about, then it would be the notion that gender shouldn't make any difference anymore. Along the way there, the idea is to shatter the images and clichés that assign women and men to different positions in society. The problem is that there are widely divergent notions about how to achieve this objective.
A Trusty Old Method
Messmer was recently invited to attend a talk show hosted by German journalist Sandra Maischberger. The activist was to discuss how #aufschrei had changed Germany.
The show, "Menschen bei Maischberger," lasts 75 minutes. Two days before the show was due to be recorded, an assistant producer called Messmer and told her that during the second half of the show she would have to give up her place in the studio to an activist from Femen. He said the show's producers had seen the topless protest by the feminist group during Putin's visit to Hanover, and Femen was now even more exciting than #aufschrei.
Messmer took part in the broadcast for 54 minutes, twice as long as the Femen representative. During her time on air she spoke at length on three occasions, and what she said was highly praised on Twitter. There was even a positive review printed in the center-left German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the country's leading papers. The TV appearance had paid off.
The political struggle is also increasingly about images, happenings and performances that punch up the activists' demands and slogans. And no one has been delivering better images over the past few months than the women from "Femen Germany," as the local branch of the Ukrainian women's guerrilla organization is called. With her quick wit, nose piercing and light-blonde hair, Messmer is a natural for media appearances. But even she doesn't stand a chance against the bare breasts of the feminist competition.
Femen has existed in Germany for just one year, with some 30 women between the ages of 18 and 40 who are united in the fight against male domination. Wherever they appear, they find themselves in the limelight.
There is nothing new about the method: Way back in the 1960s, women were baring their breasts in protest. Now Femen has dusted off this form of activism for the modern media world. Anyone who joins the group learns what it's all about during a training session right at the outset.
On a Saturday afternoon, 10 women stand in a rehearsal room at the Theaterhaus Berlin Mitte, a production venue for the performing arts in Berlin. They have signed up for this training session via Facebook. At the front of the room stands Irina Khanova, a graphic designer from Hamburg who participated in the protest against Putin at the Hanover trade show. "This is about provocation, and not about getting everyone to like us," she says as a greeting. "The movement is five years old and the method works," she continues. "You can't come here and make your own rules."
The women slip into jogging pants. In the background stands a photographer who constantly takes pictures. A signal is given and the training begins. First, assume a typical Femen stance, planting both feet firmly on the floor with your hands in the air until your body forms an "X." Second, look into the cameras -- always at the cameras, never at the people around you. Third, no matter how many people are listening, scream. "On the photos people will hear your screams," says Khanova.
There is also a protocol for the arrest: The idea is to do everything possible to prolong the protest. As soon as the cameras are gone, they should act normally again. There is no reason to kick madly if no one is taking pictures of it, the women are told.
The group's ideological framework is just as simple as the rules for the topless protest. The Ukrainian founders have established three goals for Femen: the fight against forced prostitution, the struggle against the oppression of women by religion, and resistance against all manner of dictators. If they are going to use their bodies as banners, they might as well aim for some lofty goals.
The 'Feminist Spring'
Things actually couldn't be better for feminism these days. Besides #aufschrei, Femen is now the second-most successful group at attracting public attention. But many feminists take a critical view of the topless protesters.
"What bothers me about Femen is that there are apparently no women in this movement who do not meet a certain standard of beauty," says Anne Wizorek, one of the initiators of #aufschrei, at an event in Berlin. Messmer also can't help making a pointed remark: "Thinking about demonstrating for the liberation of the Femen women," she twittered after the group burned a cross during a protest that marred the opening of the life-size Barbie Dreamhouse in Berlin. "They are slaves to the media system and need our help."
There are many things about Femen that are not appreciated by other feminists, who say that the concept is too simplistic and the method is questionable. Their lack of a theoretical foundation is a major problem for many women who are critical of the group. They point out repeatedly that the activists have no knowledge of feminist literature. This is not just a question of envy, but also of distancing oneself from other groups.
Feminism has traditionally been a project organized by academically educated women. It was always in seminar rooms -- and not in supermarket checkout lines -- that the ideas for an equitable society were formed. This is a sore spot for a movement that claims to speak for half of humanity. The left-leaning Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung (taz) recently reported on an evening debate hosted by the feminist publication Missy Magazine and asked the following question: "Was it only the white, young, good-looking, German upper-middle class that joined the debate?" This immediately prompted a firestorm of furious online comments.
- Part 1: Germany's Rebellious New Feminists
- Part 2: A Simple Concept
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