Watch out, there’s politics in here


Worse yet, we’re talking feminist politics

The 15th International Literature Festival Berlin is over, and this year, I attended two events that were part of their Special “On the current state of feminism.” On Friday, September 11, Laurie Penny was there to present her book “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” and to talk about the complex issue of desire. On Sunday, September 13, there was a panel discussion of digital feminist Laurie Penny, fiery-haired Egyptian Mona Eltahawy (“Headscarves and Hymens“) and film-maker Josephine Decker (“Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” both shown at 2014’s Berlinale).

I was impressed and inspired by both events, but it was much easier to take notes when it was just Laurie Penny being interviewed by the erudite Frederike Kaltheuner. Though the conversation did not center so much around desire in the end, it touched on a lot of still-pertinent issues regarding the relationship of the sexes, inequality, the role of capitalism, cyber-sexism and so on. Penny talked about how she discovered feminism as a pre-teen by finding a Germaine Greer book in her mother’s bookshelf (“The Female Eunuch,” I assume), the revelation that came from reading it, and how she took her thoughts on women and men to the budding internet forums and social networks. Favorite quote: “The internet is for finding all the other weird people.” I find that to be very true for my own life. If you’re the least bit “different,” troubled or “queer” in any sense of the term, the internet is where you find your tribe, find that you are not alone, there are others like you, others that understand you.

The internet is where feminists are winning

Penny also said that the internet has two faces: It’s where sexual harassment of the worst kind happens, but it’s also the place where women band together in unprecedented ways, where they have a voice; many voices, loud and colorful and thus echoing strongly. And that is precisely WHY the backlash, the sexism, the rape threats are so bad and so intense, because the internet is where feminists are winning, because it is where women are changing the culture, and fast.

What Penny speaks up against is the still-entrenched notion that for women, showing their hunger is forbidden. We’re not supposed to want too much, be too much of anything, whether it’s food, sex or power (In her book, she speaks in some length about the pervasiveness of eating disorders among young women, which is one way to prove this point). And while I guess this applies to both masculinity and femininity, Penny also stressed how much women are forced to “perform” their gender. A lot of them may not be what “we” consider as “woman.” In trying to write about this topic, I feel the urge to put almost all my words in quotation marks, because it’s a discourse and a discussion that deals with a lot of concepts and conceptions that may not have unambiguous, one-to-one counterparts in the real world.

And this leads to another vital aspect of the agenda, namely a focus on language. Someone from the audience asked whether it is still necessary to come up with new terms or other changes in language to accommodate women (or people identifying as neither of the binary genders). Penny answered that we can only become what we can imagine, and we can only imagine what we can articulate. So yes, language is an important field where rigid conceptions can and must be toppled. Language is a fluid, ever-evolving medium, and we can be part of its evolution by introducing new ways of speaking gender and sex.

And lastly worth mentioning is Penny’s decided anti-capitalist stance. Taking the example of Unconditional Basic Income, she claimed that at its heart, this is also a feminist project, because it constitutes a rethinking of the value of labor – and women still perform the largest part of unpaid labor, like childcare, education, household and cooking tasks, plus the emotional labor of “caring” in general.

In a way the only jarring note for me on that evening was the puzzling gift of a red rose for the author and the presenter. All this talk about gender roles and backlash and anger, and then a red rose, the gift of a flower for a woman, so cliched, so much part of the language of that one kind of sanctified love, the one that Penny decries and ridicules as “Love TM,” as the new version of Marx’ “opium for the masses.” Don’t get me started, but that seemed thoughtless at best.

Where is the hatred?

Because of the inspiration I took from Penny’s talk, I also attended Sunday’s panel, and a day later, I hit upon a review in the German press, a grumpy slating in Die Welt that made me wonder whether its male author has a special chip on his shoulder, or was even at the same event. He spoke of the hatred these “feminists” have for men, using the term once again as if it were an insult. While the women onstage may have criticized “men” as a whole, and “the Mubaraks in the government, the Mubaraks on the street, and the Mubaraks in our bedrooms” (Eltahawy) more specifically, I did not detect even a hint at “hatred” in any of these women. Despite the fact that they have experienced tangible, unadulterated hatred FROM men time and again. When a woman says that men should treat them differently, or reflect their attitudes and actions, that does not equal hatred. Mundane statement, isn’t it? But when that woman gets very graphic death and rape threats on Twitter every single day, just for being so audacious as to speak her mind, that is quite obviously hatred. So dear Mr. Küveler from Die Welt, please take a few minutes to read the review your colleague from Berliner Zeitung managed to write with just a little more openness and common sense, and then think again about the hatred you ascribed to the three women on stage. Whose hatred might that have been?

So what did I see and hear on that panel?

Well, three courageous women talked about feminism, women and men from extremely different perspectives, which made it a fruitful discussion and an enriching, inspiring experience for the audience. The presenter Priya Basil did very well in summing up their writings and theses smoothly yet pointedly, and in asking the right questions to get them going. Their mix of righteous anger, spiteful humor and, especially in Decker’s case, thoughtful and tentative exploration of the issues and questions at hand was like a showcase of what it can mean to be an outspoken feminist today. It also showed that no matter where we are, what social, ethnic, geographic background we have, feminism is still very much needed and alive; feminism as the strife for equal rights, equal pay and even equal opportunities to speak without fear.

And (excuse the expletive) fuck me, in a venue that is not called “Großer Saal,” Large Auditorium for nothing, they managed to create moments of fragile, straight-to-the-heart, empowering intimacy, when Josephine Decker was bold and honest enough to talk of her own experience of assault and abuse with quite the opposite of hate. To use that 70s term and concept, this was a moment of sisterhood, where I guess at least every female person in the audience could and had to relate, to feel with her, to remember or imagine their own dark, all-too-human moments. I had tears in my eyes for much of the evening. Tears of sympathy, but also of sadness, anger, confusion and resolve.

Saddening and rousing by turns

After those two evenings, I downloaded the original English ebook of Penny’s “Unspeakable Things” to my Kindle and spent a few evenings with it, reveling in her candid, straightforward, sometimes bordering-on-the-lyrical style. Her assessments of the condition of girls and women, boys and men, the role of the internet in all of this, sexuality and anti-capitalism are saddening and rousing by turns, clear-sighted and colored by her very own, specific experiences, which makes her book very honest and relatable. It also provides a glimpse into the world young women (and men) currently live in – the generation that is between 20 and 30 now, who has seen little but crises in politics and society; the digital natives, the people who hold the future in their hands.

I for one will give that book to my daughter, who has just come of age. I am left with the feeling that each generation has to fight their own battles, but that they don’t have to start from scratch; they shouldn’t have to. Making my kid read a book like this can help her sharpen her senses and her arguments. Because I want her to inhabit a more equal, less frightening world, and this is a central piece of the puzzle. I sure hope that the revolution that Penny predicts is coming – I hope it for all of us, women and men.

And seriously, what’s with the red roses?

Post by Claudia Rapp, author of three novels in German, the weirdest being “Summer Symphony.”