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No More Bras Left To Burn? The Spectre Of Feminism Burnout

Modern feminism is too focused on the image of feminists themselves, rather than renewing debate of the movement's core principles. What can be done about feminism fatigue.

No More Bras Left To Burn? The Spectre Of Feminism Burnout
Violetta Simon

MUNICH — Should we have known? Were there signs of an impending implosion of tragic proportions? To be more precise, feminism has been struck with a classic case of burnout. Its advocates feel exhausted, depleted, particularly those meant to lead the way and shape opinion.

If we are to believe Katrin Gottschalk, editor-in-chief of the German feminist magazine Missy, it is less their dogged commitment and more a permanent reflection on feminism itself that has brought the movement's activists to this state of fatigue. They circle around each other in debates, having lost sight of the real objective.

It's not that feminists feel they can spare themselves the trouble because it's no use anyway. And it's not that they think society has already achieved equality of the sexes. They've been toiling without pause — unfortunately, not just at the substantive level. They have to deal constantly with their own image and their image in the eyes of others.

In Missy magazine, editor Gottschalk complains that writers and the media continue to process the image of feminism rather than getting down to the real issues. She references German feminist author Meredith Haaf, among others, who blames a "feminism improvement industry" for the paralysis. The question of how society can be improved has long been supplanted by the question of why this movement can be "uncomfortable, scary or complicated."

Just for example, when asked why so few people are committed to feminism, Malu Dreyer, state governor of Rheinland-Pfalz, said it was perhaps because people still associate it with "women wearing purple and some sort of bizarre shoes."

So something about the feminism debate is skewed. Meredith Haaf thinks so too. She says discourse about the equality of the sexes vascillates between euphoria and condemnation. One of the references the author uses to support her view is the German-language book Tussikratie by Theresa Bäuerlein and Friederike Knüpling, which is critical of feminism.

Can we get past clichés?

The authors castigate feminism for supposedly scary associations such as unshaved armpits and critique feminism from the standpoint of understanding towards men. In their introduction, they say they are "neither hostile to women nor anti-feminist." But they then proceed, in Haaf's opinion, to incorporate everything they regard as negative into a type of woman from hell that doesn't actually exist.

Haaf doesn't exclude herself from criticism. In fact, she blames herself as co-author of the 2008 book Wir Alphamädchen (Us Alpha Girls) for having played a significant role in the developments leading to the current feminism burnout. She says she has since realized she was not "part of the solution but part of the problem."

Teresa Bücker, editor of the German-language Internet portal editionf.com, describes the phenomenon in the online edition of the weekly magazine Der Freitag under the hashtag "#müde" (#tired). She believes that "feminist burnout" is more than just a passing sluggishness. "It is a depression of the activists — a disappointment and exhaustion that has put many activists off."

The (self-)criticism that feminism is going in circles, getting itself entangled in academic debates, and is way too elitist in its discourse, isn't really new. What's new is the pace, undoubtedly one of the reasons for the exhaustion known internationally as "activist burnout."

The speed at which feminist generations supersede each other is huge. Since the 1970s, when controversial German feminist Alice Schwarzer came on the scene, quite a few things have happened. And in the past 10 years, the pace has picked up significantly. In 2006, German writer Thea Dorn's F-Klasse stirred up those who were part of the 1970s women's movement, and in 2008 the "Alpha Girls" blogged in favor of a pleasure-oriented, self-aware feminism.

Now the heartbeat of the movement is determined by the frequency of social network bulletins — so-called "Twitter feminism" embodied by #aufschrei (#outcry) initiator Anne Wizorek.

Like every other form of activism today, feminism can be an energy-sapping business. The Internet has become a tireless political space that can be intellectually and spiritually challenging, says Bücker. It can only work if the community in which activists move give it the necessary protection. That the opposite often happens was demonstrated by the case of British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez, whose activism led to plans in the UK to issue 10-pound notes with the image of Jane Austen but who subsequently was the victim of online harassment. Furthermore, Bücker writes, the community needs to grow and develop strategies to reach its goals.

Developing a strategy

But strategizing isn't that simple. The last time feminism pursued a community goal in Germany was in 2013, when the effort reached people who had not yet committed consciously to equality of the sexes. But since then, there have been no actions with an equivalent symbolic power.

Bücker says feminism lacks a catalyst, concrete subjects that would attract the media. In addition, right now it's difficult to discern a community with a real profile that could give the movement a comparable boost.

Anne Wizorek doesn't believe that's the real issue. She has collected her insights in a book entitled Because an #Outcry is not Enough — For a Feminism of Today. The desire alone for broader social debate about the equality of the sexes, however, is probably just as unsatisfactory. Yet how do we break the vicious circle of frustration because of a lack of ideas, and a lack of ideas that leads to frustration? Lament? Give up? Fight?

In a recent online edition of Die Zeit, Author Hannah Lühmann presented a new aesthetic for the feminist movement. Is this just one more desperate attempt at a portrayal of the movement that actually hinders its advance? Just one more senseless hate rant to add to the grouchy, humorless image of feminists?

By no means. Lühmann writes about the soul of feminism and encourages activists to approach the issue with more humor. She categorizes the 2013 #aufschrei movement as insufficient and unproductive, and wishes the feminist discourse took place on a higher intellectual plane. This earned her both harsh criticism and high praise, and she certainly hit a nerve.

Who knows, perhaps it would do feminism good if the debates about its image were to stop so that it could do what every movement should: move forward. But for this image debate to stop or at least pipe down, those leading it would have to shut up and leave room for those who have something to contribute.

Why not adopt an if-you-can't-say-something-constructive-then-keep-your-mouth-shut motto? It would be worth a try. And it would be a blessing for all those exhausted readers and listeners following the debate.

All the other exhausted net-feminists and feminists in general should stop jumping through every hoop that the "feminism improvement industry" produces.

In the meantime, they may do what every sensible burnout patient does: relax, log off, tune out. They're going to need their strength for days to come.

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