"For as long as I can remember, i have had hemorrhoids." That revelation is the first line of the novel Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands), which has dominated German bestseller lists since its publication in March, and become the first German novel ever to lead Amazon's world rankings. Some say Feuchtgebiete's astounding popularity has been fueled by prurient fascination. But others place the book and its author, Charlotte Roche, whose first novel this is, at the center of an earthy neofeminist revival out to challenge Germany's comfortable preference for ideological abstraction.
The novel tells the story of Helen, 18, who, after a shaving accident, finds herself in hospital with the time and opportunity to ponder her favorite issues: bodily functions, bodily fluids and sex. Helen meticulously describes all sorts of sexual practices (involving men, female prostitutes and avocado stones) while expressing contempt for personal hygiene. Her attitude reflects Roche's own stand against the clean, waxed and odorless female beauty ideal propagated by the advertising industry and popular TV shows, such as former swimsuit model Heidi Klum's Germany's Next Top Model. "There are all these ads suggesting that you always have to smell as if you just came out of the shower and that otherwise you can't have sex," says Roche, a former music television presenter.
Roche's book is no isolated phenomenon. Feminism, which many German women have long considered the domain of unglamorous, joyless man haters with bad haircuts, suddenly seems sexy again in the most basic sense of the word. A series of books with titles such as We Alphagirls; Why Feminism Makes Life Better, and Neue Deutsche Mädchen (New German Girls) has cropped up this year. Despite stylistic differences, the books have one thing in common: their authors espouse a feminism that is less interested in a general critique of male-dominated society than in helping women deal directly with sexuality and their everyday lives. "I think it is important that as a woman, you talk about your sexual organs," says Roche, 30. And when these young women do so, they don't mince their words.
Behind the explicit language, personal tone and sometimes infantile humor of these "new German girls" lies a set of concerns that is more visceral if also more self-absorbed than a previous generation's fight for equality and respect. "This generation of women dares to declare that there are other things in life than either career or children," says Christel Eckhart, a sociologist and professor of gender studies at Kassel University. This is not entirely new. Since the late 1990s, Berlin's vibrant musical underground has featured women who undermine gender clichés through in-your-face sexual behavior. The Berlin-based Canadian musician Peaches and the all-woman band Chicks on Speed are known for explicit lyrics and the use of sexual paraphernalia on stage. But what was a subcultural phenomenon may now be finding its way into the mainstream. Months before Roche's book was published, 27-year-old German-Turkish rapper Lady Bitch Ray caused a media scandal in a TV interview that included "74 sex words in 75 minutes," by the count of Bild, the tabloid newspaper. TV host Harald Schmidt was prompted to nominate the factions in a new German Kulturkampf: "The shaved against the unshaved, the washed against the unwashed."
The real antagonism, however, lies elsewhere. Traditional feminists such as Alice Schwarzer, a pioneer of the German women's movement in the 1970s, have condemned the latest feminists for being interested only in "their personal affairs: that is, career and men." Yet many young women say that Schwarzer does not speak for them anymore. "We need a new feminism," says Elizabeth Raether, one of the authors of Neue Deutsche Mädchen. "The old feminism is influenced by the language, the rhetoric and the thinking of the '68 ers. It's a problem to get rid of them. They think because they invented the generational conflict, they are going to be spared by it."
One source of generational discord is pornography. Schwarzer initiated the PorNo campaign in 1987 to fight for a ban on porn. Roche, by contrast, says "I get a lot out of good porn," and calls traditional feminism "joyless." Somewhere in the middle stands Ariadne von Schirach, author of the book Der Tanz um die Lust (The Dance Around Lust), who decries "the pornographization of society" and wants to free female sexuality from the pressures of a world where easily consumable porn is supplanting eroticism. "I'm not against pornography," says Von Schirach. "I'm against people selling butter or cell phones with a woman who looks like she is going to have sexual intercourse within the next three seconds."
Some of the issues motivating younger German feminists are far from new. Eckhart says this is "a generation of women who are better educated than any other before them," but who still face structural disadvantages and discrimination. Today's thirtysomethings, she says, have grown up with a rhetoric of equality. "But when they enter the job rat race, they realize that this is not the reality." Jana Hensel, Raether's co-author, writes that when she started an internship at the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel in 2003, she was shocked to find that there was only one woman among the "almost 20 editors discussing the state of the country."
Eckhardt argues that the German workplace has "a lot of catching up to do" with European neighbors like France or Belgium on such issues as equal wages, promotion prospects and daycare. In 2006 German women earned 22% less than their male counterparts, according to Eurostat, making Germany's wage gap the widest in Europe after those of Slovakia and Cyprus. And the proportion of management positions held by women 15% remains below the European average.
Why has Germany lagged behind other nations? Hensel says that the women's movement was put on hold for years while Germany concentrated on the challenges of unification. "Gender studies were being taught at university," adds Meredith Haaf, one of the authors of Alphagirls, "but that was all very theoretical." That ideological interlude is now over. Ursula von der Leyen, Family Minister in Angela Merkel's coalition government, has initiated reforms aimed at getting fathers to take parental leave, and expanding child-care services. With women's rights before a broader German public, Roche's book appeared at a good time. Now the question is whether her frank talk will advance gender equality or simply fade into a trivial cultural memory.