Feminism and the German Media: Condescendence, Ignorance, and the Inevitable Purple Satin Top

17 Sep

“Her dark hair shines, her neckline is plunging and her sentences are ready for press… “. What could this be? Introductory line for some cheap erotic novel? How about  “She wears a purple satin top and black ballerinas and her answers are always measured and polite “? A fashion blog? Or some more sex lit, this time the demure little shy girl, waiting for it to happen (come on, she obviously does, she wears a purple top! Satin!).

No, actually. These sentences are both taken from an article published on ‘SPIEGEL Online’(www.spiegel.de), the online portal of ‘Der SPIEGEL’, the biggest weekly political magazine in Europe  and once the forefront of quality coverage and the proud spearhead of investigative journalism in West Germany.  That said, two of the criticisms that Der SPIEGEL had always have to battle was that it was run as a boys’ club, and that its coverage of gender issues had this ever so slight patronizing and ironic undertone. Really now?

The article in question is about the young US-American blogger, Julie Zeilinger,, editor of the blog The F Bomb, an online community for teenage girls that deals with feminism and women’s rights. The article combines my three personal journalistic capital sins when covering feminist issues: 1 often patronizing and sneering language; 2. a remarkable lack of knowledge on the subject matter; and 3. obsessive concentration on the physical appearance of the protagonist(s).

Though the first issue is certainly not limited to the newspaper I am bitching about here, Der SPIEGEL is arguably particularly ambitious in committing deadly sin no. 1. Their style is characterized by articles that are often written from the perspective of a condescending narrator, playing the accentuated naïve but well-meaning common man asking rhetorical leading questions with eyes wide open in bewilderment as to all the exotic and bizarre things out there. This way the protagonist is denied autonomous motives for their actions, and, in the context of feminist issues, portrays them either as your usual man-hating feminist or as naïve, hapless girls. One example of this was the Pussy Riot coverage, where SPIEGEL could combine another of their specialties, condescending reporting on non-Western European countries with condescending reporting on feminist issues, concluding that a dark and uncivilized Russia puts women in jail for something that ‘appears like a harmless joke’.

An example of this condescension from the Julie Zeilinger article:

“The student appears in TV talk shows, faces up to radio interviews and does readings in book stores. Besides that, there is the already mentioned meaningful blog, it is called “The F Bomb”. There, the world can learn on a daily basis why feminism is really not out of date. Is it not? When women like Angela Merkel lead states, and Christine Lagarde presides over the IMF? When more than half of the students at many universities in western countries are female? How does a 19-year old American get the idea to wanting to revitalize a movement that had already seemed passé in the 1990s? Back then, people that were of Zeilinger’s age and were, in all seriousness, concerned themselves with Simone de Beauvoir`s standard work ‘The Other Sex’ were already then considered outdated”.

Sexism is passé because of Angela Merkel? Never mind wondering whether the German chancellor or the Managing Director of the IMF really are perceived as role models to the US-American teenagers for whom Zeilinger’s blog is primarily intended. It’s a reoccurring theme: racism is not an issue anymore because there is Barack Obama and; hey, Berlin has an openly gay mayor–even Christian Democrats are said to have a couple of gays somewhere–so homophobia is so last century.

This SPIEGEL standard method is, of course, not limited to male correspondents. In fact, the author of the quoted article is a woman. A woman, that, I found out after minutes of relentless investigative googling, is 24 years old, which means that in the 1990s, when feminism was oh so passé, she was in kindergarten. But I am sure her experienced older male colleagues were happy enough to confirm that back in the day, everyone caught reading Simone de Beauvoir was publicly tarred and feathered and struck off the ‘females to invite to the trophy room and read Hemingway to’ list.

The quoted paragraph also nicely illustrates my second deadly sin, namely demonstrated lack of knowledge on the subject-matter. Sometimes I have the suspicion that these sort of articles are solely written for the comment trolls. (Yes, I admit it. I make the mistake time and time again even though I promise myself to abstain for the sake of my mental health and for that of the people around me. I read the readers’ comments to newspaper articles. Sometimes, when I have an especially off day, I even answer. I have not not regretted it a single time. It’s a waste of time. Everyone knows it. But it is procrastination, enough said).

I’m not going to go into more details of what is wrong with this particular article (partly because I don’t really know where to start). But after having read a couple of articles that go in the same vein, a pattern emerges: German journalist seem to collectively have missed third-wave feminism. It is true that compared to the US, the feminist movement in Germany, while having been pretty strong in the 70s and 80s lost some momentum after that and third-wave feminism in Germany has largely been inspired by said movement in the US . It is also true that compared to Scandinavian countries, compared to France, Germany is hopelessly behind when it comes to implementing feminist policies and, maybe even more severely, feminist theories and rhetoric are largely non-existent in public discourse, meaning that leading female German politicians regularly feel the need to publicly pronounce that they are NOT (God forbid), feminists. In mainstream public discourse, feminism is equated with purple dungarees, unshaved armpits and is more or less always associated with one name alone: Alice Schwarzer.

Ms. Schwarzer is undoubtedly the most prominent feminist in Germany and German women owe her much for her courageous fight for the right to abortion; for her constant taking on of sexist stereotypes in the German media; for her groundbreaking publications inspired by her long friendship and fruitful professional collaboration with Simone de Beauvoir (dating back to the 1970s when Schwarzer came to Paris to study under Michel Foucault); for her fearless and tireless reminders to the German public that not all is perfect in the motherland. Unfortunately, in recent years, Ms. Schwarzer predominantly generated publicity with a gigantic ego, with systematically discrediting anyone emerging as a possible successor, with ‘warning’ against the islamising of Germany and with abolishing the benefit of a doubt in a column she wrote for Germany’s biggest (populist/right/sexist) Tabloid ‘Bild’  documenting a rape trial involving Germany’s most prominent weather forecaster.

Furthermore, her rhetoric reveals a classic 70s second-wave Western radical feminist world view in which men are by trend oppressors, Muslim women are voiceless demure beings that have to be liberated with the help of Western feminism, and pornography is per se degrading and needs to be banned. All in all, her world view hasn’t change much since the 1970s. A couple of years ago, she famously called young German third-wavers wellness feminists (see also: http://maedchenmannschaft.net/fur-eine-lebendige-feministische-debatte/) for their sex-positive attitudes, for their less lenient views on tools of ‘islamisation’ (aka head scarves), for pointing out that men, too, can suffer in patriarchic structures .

Alice Schwarzer is THE feminist in Germany. The one and only. I am pretty sure that if you’d ask random Germans about a German feminist they know, this is the answer you would get in 9.9 out of 10 cases. Every TV show, article, radio broadcasting on feminism features her and she happily has an opinion on any given topic (which I don’t mean in a pejorative way, that is quite an achievement. I, too, owe a lot to her activism, I just think she should have retired about 20 years ago).

This predominance of Alice Schwarzer in German is very convenient for the writers of troll articles, because they can comfortably withdraw to her public image where she has been depicted as the slightly hysteric witch. They can point to Alice, who will happily agree, and tell their readers: “This, she, is feminism”. And naturally, many people, too lazy/busy/uninterested to look further, will agree, even young women who identify themselves with many of the demands of feminism will say If this is feminism entails, I am out. And who can blame them?

My third deadly sin is an obvious one: drawing the reader’s attention away from the protagonist’s ideas and opinions and towards her body and her appearance. This is once again done using this irritant naïve sleazy old man, who voices his surprise about these women that call themselves feminists and wear makeup, or the women who call themselves feminist and don’t wear makeup (win-win situation for the writer here), which gives him/her the opportunity to elaborate on cleavage, or the lack of it, and also discredits the protagonist as a serious partner of debate.

So here it is. The condescension, the ignorance, the purple top (satin!). All in one. I don’t really have an explanation for why this sort of reporting is so predominant in Germany, other than the obvious and sad one: that our public discourse on women’s rights is light years behind that of some other countries, while we are, at the same time, convinced that we are spearheading progress and that our society is more equal, fair and social than all the rest. In that, we are the Americans of Europe (sorry rest of the Americas, sorry US of A, it just sounds too catchy [necessary aside? Distracting from your conclusion]): we don’t have that much of an idea what is going on around us, all the while, we have a very clear conviction that this is as good as it gets and everywhere else is generally worse and overall slightly dodgy. Maybe these things are slowly changing. Maybe it’ll just take a few of more years. Until then, I look with envy to some of the knowledgeable, informative, and yet critical stuff published in some major papers in Britain, in the US or in Scandinavia.


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