They love Beyonce. They annoy their parents. They want a better life. How three teenage girls discover feminism for themselves.
Role model: singer Beyonce, shown here performing for Hillary Clinton Photo: reuters
Explaining feminism to adults is a pretty hopeless cause, that much is for sure.
Noa: "I used to think like this: it’s quite logical, it must make sense to people. I have to pass this message on to everyone!"
Henriette: "But it’s hopeless sometimes because people just don’t want to understand."
Mira: "Because they are old. Well, older than us. And because of that, they’re just not as open-minded anymore and have weird opinions."
Henriette: "They already have an attitude: Oh never mind, I’ll die in ten, twenty, thirty years."
Mira starts giggling and then everyone laughs and that settles the adult issue for now. Henriette is 13 years old, Noa has just turned 14, Mira is the oldest, she is also 14. The three of them go to the same class at a school in southwest Berlin. There, they are the head feminists of their grade, they say. For them, feminism means equality of all genders. That’s how they explain it – in the classroom, on Instagram, at dinner with relatives.
When they talk about before, before they discovered emancipation as their thing, that before is just over a year ago. But when you’re 13, it’s just been forever since you were 12.
This year, they met the coolest girls in the world on the Internet. An author who has 17,000 followers on Twitter met with them, the eighth-graders, for a peer-to-peer conversation.
It started with Emma Watson
But it was also the year when people at school started rolling their eyes. The year when a classmate said, "That one boy doesn’t like you anymore because you annoy him with your feminism.
The three experienced how glamorous emancipation can be today. And they realized: It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to be a girl.
Mira stumbled across feminism by accident. An actress she likes, Rowan Blanchard, a child star in a Disney series, spoke rapturously of Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations in an interview. So Mira searched for this clip on YouTube.
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In 2014, the UN made Emma Watson, who played the smart Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, the UN Special Envoy for Women’s Rights. For her first major speech, she stood in front of a hall full of delegates, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon sitting next to her. Emma Watson spoke her lines with the precise intonation of an actress. She told how, as an eight-year-old girl, she was called bossy because she insisted on directing in the school theater. But how the word never came up with boys who wanted the same thing. She challenged men to make feminism their business, too. "You may be thinking, who is this Harry Potter girl and what is she doing here at the U.N.?" she asked. "All I know is that I care about this issue and I want to make a difference." Twelve minutes lasted in her performance.
Mira: "I watched it and then I was like, oh my God, I love her! I loved it even before that because of Harry Potter. After that, I was always into it and somehow it became my thing."
It’s the second-to-last day before summer vacation, not worth mentioning what’s still going on at school. Noa, Mira and Henriette finish early and walk up the street to the next park. There’s not a bench free, mothers with strollers everywhere, so the girls sit down on their jackets in the grass. Mira pulls out stalks and twists them between her fingers.
On her Instagram account, Mira writes about herself, "My life consists out of books, music, feminism, Harry Potter, obviously Beyonce and most importantly food #blacklivesmatter." She posts black and white photos with captions like "Une femme libre?" and posters showing different women – black, white, with headscarves – standing next to each other and showing their biceps. Above them is written, "We all can do it!"
As magical as a unicorn
Noa liked all of this and Mira liked the picture of Noa’s upset Valentine’s cake with pink frosting and the one of Noa kissing her little sister in return. And, of course, the unicorn drawing that says, "Feminists are as magical as unicorns."
Noa saw net feminist Anne Wizorek’s book at the airport last year, "Because an #outcry is not enough. For a Feminism of Today." She had been interested in equality before, she says. But she didn’t really know what she was talking about. She had heard of Alice Schwarzer, but not of a younger feminism.
Noa read the book and clicked through Internet sites. There she found women like Petra Collins, photographer, artist, model, 23 years old. She shoots for Vogue, walks for Gucci – and exhibits panties with menstrual blood in a gallery. Instagram temporarily deleted her account because of a photo showing pubic hair peeking out of her bikini. Her most famous image is a T-shirt motif painted with the softness of a watercolor: a hairy vulva with blood flowing from it; fingers with colorful nail polish resting on the clitoris. Menstruation plus pubic hair plus masturbation. Style-compatible.
Fashion blogger at 11, feminist author at 15.
Petra Collins’ friend Tavi Gevinson, now 20, started her first fashion blog in the nursery when she was 11 and quickly became famous. Interviews, Fashion Weeks, Karl Lagerfeld and Lady Gaga celebrated her. At 15, she founded Rookie, an online magazine about what it means to grow up as a girl while trying to like herself. "I’m a feminist, sure," she says.
Petra Collins and Tavi Gevinson became two of the most important faces of a new wave of feminism. They are It girls who stand out as personalities, not as ambassadors. Their criticism of everyday sexism, beauty ideals and hate postings runs along en passant, like the soundtrack of a film clip. You like it because the video is so good. And the video is made even better by the music.
Since Noa and Mira are talking about equality, Henriette is also concerned with it and also with "How did you say that again, Mira? Poti…? Politici?" "Political correctness!" "Exactly!" Henriette has been dancing to Beyonce since elementary school, now she knows her favorite singer is a feminist. Henriette doesn’t speak English as well as Mira, who has an American father, and Noa, whose father is from Israel and who sometimes speaks English with her relatives there.
The forms change, the content only partly. The big issues in feminist debates on the Internet:
1. sexism in everyday life: Against objectification of women in advertising, in media, on the street.
2. self-determination: About body, sexuality. Homosexuality, abortions, headscarves should not be taboo.
3. violence: Victim-blaming, rape culture, women talking about sexual violence.
4. Equality: In child rearing, education, salary, power.
Henriette: "I always thought like, if I’m a real feminist, then I have to be on social media and stuff. But I just don’t understand that, it’s stupid when I say: Hey, just like! That doesn’t really do anything for me. That’s why I tend to do stuff like that in everyday life and explain it to people."
Noa: "I think this whole feminism is somehow moving away from the political – because most of it is already enshrined in law – to the social. It’s almost a lifestyle: the clothes, the music. But not in a stupid way. But rather, it’s part of our identity."
To explain what might be a problem with that, it’s best to start with the T-shirts.
Feminism has become a label
"Feminism: the radical notion that women are people," reads a belly-baring T-shirt from H&M. Mira saw a girl walking around with it at school and approached her about it. The girl didn’t know what her T-shirt said. "So sad," Mira says. Someone ignorantly wearing a feminism slogan around can still somehow be chalked up to progress, of course.
But the fact that H&M is selling this T-shirt is also an indication that feminism has become a brand that can make money. The company has just unveiled its fall campaign. To the song "She’s a Lady," a video clip shows women eating fries on the bed and showing off their armpit hair, slamming files on the table in a conference room full of men, and celebrating their belly fat in front of the mirror. A lesbian couple kissing in the pool.
Twitterers praised the "first truly feminist clothing ad." They said the clip redefines beauty.
Advertising aimed at women had long functioned by pointing out deficiencies, then suggesting a product that could fix them. Oh no: pimples! Here: face lotion.
The idea of commercials like H&M’s, on the other hand, is that women feel good after watching the clip, and some of that feeling transfers to the product. The corporation comfortably appropriates values without, for example, having to talk about work-life balance among its seamstresses in Bangladesh.
That feminism is becoming cool right now, that Beyonce and Emma Watson have become feminist heroines and companies are trying to get some of that glamour for products from shower gel to sanitary napkins, worries some. "There is a form of feminism that is shaped by the mainstream, by celebrities, by consumers, and frames it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can claim," writes U.S. feminist Andi Zeisler.
She has a book out this summer called "We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement." Zeisler has harsh words for what she calls market feminism. "It’s decontextualized. It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably the most popular manifestation of feminism ever."
The controversial falls by the wayside
It’s a label that glitters beautifully but means little. Both advertising and celebrity messages are almost always about the less controversial aspects of emancipation, he says: that women should feel comfortable in their bodies. That we need to encourage girls.
According to this logic, any decision could be sold as an act of self-empowerment, as long as it was made by women themselves: "High heels. Flat shoes. Plastic surgery. Wrinkles. Having children. Not having children. Natural birth. C-section. Being fat. Anorexia. Housework. Being lazy. Pretending to be male. Pretending to be female. Learning self-defense. Drinking. Driving a truck."
Andi Zeisler herself worked for a long time to ensure that feminism would end up where it is now slowly arriving: in pop, in the mainstream. ithin the nineties, she founded a magazine in San Francisco, a magazine stapled together by friends, Bitch Magazine. Women who were interested in feminism wrote there, but they were just as interested in popular culture. They analyzed music videos, reviewed TV series and hoped that first pop culture would change and then society.
Today, millions watch the prison series "Orange Is the New Black" – written by women, almost all female protagonists: African-Americans, Latinos, lesbians with and without tattoos, and one trans* woman. Beyonce, the highest-paid woman in the music business, sang at the MTV Awards in front of giant illuminated letters that beamed the word "feminist" into the room. To that, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was heard to say, "Feminist: the person who believes in political, social and economic equality of the sexes."
But in this process, which Zeisler once wished for, feminism has now been damaged, she says. Because the political profile had been lost. Systemic issues and strenuous struggles over unwieldy, unattractive problems took a back seat.
"The problem is that feminism is not fun".
It’s the story of any commercialization. You want as much reach as possible for the impact of an idea. But on the way to the masses, the idea loses depth.
"The problem is – and the problem has always been – that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun either. It’s complex and it’s hard and it pisses people off," writes Andi Zeisler. "It pisses people off."
In that sense, feminism is like growing up. It’s important and complicated. But it’s always supposed to look insanely casual.
Noa: "I feel like I’ve totally improved lately! I don’t freak out at all anymore, do I?"
Henriette: "Yes, a little bit."
Noa: "Well, I think I’ve loosened up already. That initial phase where you start to see everything, and then you’re like: Oh my God, how did I live in this world without realizing it! It just upsets me when people are so deliberately dumb."
"All this feminism kind of gets away from the political," Noa says. "Girls just can’t throw," the teacher told the class. "You’re just asking for trouble. You have to be afraid of the men," says Noa’s mother
Like today, the second to last day of school before the vacations, when the teacher asked the class for suggestions for improvement. Nora said she’d like to see more talk about sexual assault.
Henriette: "The others were like: …“
Noa: "What is she talking about?"
Mira: "It doesn’t matter!"
Henriette: "Well, they don’t say it exactly like that, but that’s the attitude behind it."
Noa: "I think I annoy them the most. Maybe it doesn’t really bug them with you guys."
Henriette: "I think when they think of feminism, they think of you the most."
Noa: "I think it depends on how you express it. If you’re as angry as I am sometimes, the reaction is like, ‘Sigh. Seriously?’ People don’t like it when you address stuff like that so directly."
Mira ruined a dinner with relatives when she asked the question, "Tell me, which one of you here is actually a feminist?" Silence, change of subject, then long discussion. In the end, she had her aunt’s friend to the point where he said, "If that’s the case, then I’m a feminist. "You don’t have to be politically correct all the time," my aunt said. And then I was like, Huh? You can try, though."
The other day, a girl in class threw something at the wastebasket. And missed. "Girls just can’t throw!" the teacher said. It was the same one who said girls shouldn’t wear such short shorts. At one point he followed up with, "Not as your teacher, but as myself, I’m telling you: If she has a good ass, it’s o.k."
By now, everyone in the class knows that moments like this don’t go by without Mira, Noa, and Henriette saying something. Often they just call in, "Seriously?"
Mira says it slowly, supercool and nonchalant, drawing the question out a bit through her nose.
When the three of them have to choose a topic for a project in their last year of school, they decide on gender stereotypes in movies. Mira posts on author Anne Wizorek’s Instagram profile asking if they can interview her for the school project. They are total fans, she says.
"Great," Wizorek replies. She often gets such requests and tries to make these conversations possible. Her book is aimed at feminist newcomers, which earned her the accusation of being undercomplex in some reviews.
They arrange to meet at a cafe in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, Noa and Henriette are running late, so Mira and Anne Wizorek talk about Beyonce and Tavi Gevinson. The girls quickly work through the questions they wrote down for their school project. But they actually wanted to talk about bad experiences on the street. About men who stare on the subway and stupid comments at school. And about their idols. "That was great, at that age I had nowhere near the feminist consciousness they had," Anne Wizorek says today.
This one, this is for us
She found the topic herself through U.S. blogs. Of course, it’s important to take a close look at what else comes from pop stars besides proclaiming to be a feminist, she says. But Anne Wizorek doesn’t get much criticism of Beyonce’s feminism out of her. She was at the concert in Stockholm this summer, almost only women, many women of color, the feeling: This here, this is for us.
And only that moment with Beyonce in front of the Feminist sign, Anne Wizorek says she still gets goosebumps when she thinks about the video. "That was so awesome. The feeling of, ‘Wow, we live in a time where this is actually happening!’ Just imagining how many of her young fans in particular will see that and then maybe engage with feminism for the first time. That makes me feel totally optimistic."
Noa: "I think for young feminists, it’s already changing things with Beyonce and stuff. We don’t feel so weird anymore."
Hennriette: "Not so alone."
Mira: "You’re not alone and Beyonce is there."
So since May, there is a photo of Mira, Noa, Henriette and Anne Wizorek. Noa posted on Instagram. "It was so cool to meet the lovely @marthadear and talk about feminism and pop culture. You guys know this meeting was my dream." Behind it, a smiley face and a heart emoticon.
How short can shorts be?
"I stopped shaving my legs, are you proud of me?" shouts Noa down the stairs. It’s the last day of summer vacation, Mira is back from France, Noa has just sorted her exercise books, that is, she has carried them to the basement. Henriette has grown an inch during the vacations, now she is taller than her mother. The three have arranged to meet at Noa’s house, her mother’s house in a single-family neighborhood. It’s a day to throw open the door to the backyard and let the summer sunshine in once again.
"Man, I cut my shorts too short," Henriette says. She runs springily from the garden door toward the living room. "It’s still okay," says Noa. "But look now," Henriette leans forward a little. "O. k. Borderline," Noa says and laughs.
What else is new?
On vacation, Mira explained to the children in her relatives that it’s homophobic to use "gay" as a swear word. When something doesn’t sit right with them, they now say, "Full homophobic, man."
Henriette was at the swimming lake a few days ago when these guys next to her were talking about how many kids they wanted someday. Five, said one, but if it’s a girl, I’ll abort. I only want girls, says the other, they can clean for me. In the past, Henriette says, she wouldn’t have noticed anything like that. At the lake, she almost said something.
"You don’t have to be politically correct all the time, my aunt said. And then I was like: Huh? You can try, though."
Actually, the three of them wanted to write a text about role cliches in movies. Anne Wizorek offered to publish it on her blog. That would be something to be proud of. For those moments when Noa thinks she’ll never amount to anything because no one answers when she sends in photos she’s taken to her favorite magazine.
Noa flipped open her laptop.
"We are confronted with stereotypes every day. And we’ve noticed that women are very poorly represented in them."
"That’s terrible," Mira says.
"Yeah, totally," says Noa.
"Bullshit," says Henriette.
"I’m overwhelmed," says Mira.
The cursor blinks.
So they look at Noa’s latest photos instead – "Guys, I have the same camera as Petra Collins now." They run up to Noa’s room and throw themselves on the bed in front of the red wall with the butterflies on it.
Noa unpacks old black and white pictures of her grandparents, of her mother. On the white bedspread are pictures of young women with similar round facial features, similar full hair as Noa. With similar looks.
The grandmother was an apprentice carpenter
Noa, Mira and Henriette are not the first generations of young girls to grow up feeling that the world belongs to them and that this world will be a better place once they grow up. Noa’s grandmother was the first woman in the village to apprentice as a carpenter; after she became pregnant, she never worked again.
"I felt like Noa, that I had a healthy anger like that at that age," Noa’s mother says downstairs at the kitchen table in her home. Her name is Susanne, she’s 45 years old, and she only wants to have a first name here because she’s just finishing up her traineeship, which she dropped out of back when she got pregnant with Noa. She is afraid that one of the examiners might not like what she says in the newspaper.
The anger thing also started when she was 14. She thought Alice Schwarzer was great, if only because all the men were against her, including her father, of course. The fact that Alice Schwarzer was never afraid of confrontation impressed her. "I thought even as a girl: There must be someone who pushes even further than I do, otherwise nothing will move."
She grew up in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart, her father was a pediatrician, her mother a housewife. In the morning, her mother poured her father’s tea. "It totally bothered me that at home, in my world, women were always so content with this traditional role," she says. She blamed her mother for that. In school, in college, it was always clear she was an emancipated woman. But then she fell in love, got pregnant. The children were her thing, she accepted that, demanded little from her husband. It wasn’t until she was 43 that she continued her education.
Noa’s mother is proud of her. But they argue a lot
Of course, she hopes things will be different with her daughter. But she’s not so sure. In the meantime, Noa has come into the kitchen, first she has made a plum jam sandwich for her sister on the countertop, then she sits down at the table, makes another one and listens.
Susanne is proud of Noa. But the two argue a lot. About headscarf and burka bans, which Noa finds stupid. Her mother agrees with Alice Schwarzer, who is in favor of them.
Or about clothing that is too skimpy. It always starts when she or her sister wear shorts that are too short, Noa says. And when she says that, that’s when it starts.
Susanne: "A lot of shit just happens to you as a woman or girl, that you almost get raped or a guy jerks off in front of you on the train. I’ve been through this valley of tears and learned not to present my charms like that. That’s just asking for trouble. You have to be afraid of men."
Noa: "Of course I’m scared, too. But the point is that I think it’s stupid, first of all, to teach your daughters to pay attention. I don’t think that’s the case with sons."
Susanne: "But nothing happens to sons."
Noa: "But it’s important that they know the limits!"
Susanne: "But you can still meet the asshole who just hasn’t been told."
Noa: "First of all, I think it’s stupid that all the responsibility is dumped on the girls again. Besides, it’s not outfits or anything that get raped, it’s people. They can also be dressed ugly. I think it’s stupid that people sexualize my body, so when I wear my hot pants, I’m immediately into sex."
Susanne: "But men are like that!"
Noa: "I think society is like that."
Susanne: "You keep thinking that until it’s too late."
Noa: "But you can’t protect yourself from that!"
Susanne: "A little bit, yes. You can’t play dumb."
Susanne leans back on the kitchen bench, Noa pulls her legs up on the chair. Two women separated by a table, 30 years of life, and perhaps the question of whether the world can change. Noa talks about tomorrow, about "No means No" finally having to be discussed in school, in sex education. Susanne talks about earlier, about the experiences that made them cautious.
Susanne: "Back then, I told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to look anyone in the eye on the subway. Just one look is enough and you’ve got them on your back."
Noa: "Isn’t that funny? Because that speaks against your own logic. You’re in favor of the burqa ban. But that also means that women are not allowed to look men in the eye, because that signals sexual willingness."
Susanne: "I already know that this is stupid. But you are my child and I don’t want you to be raped!"
Noa: "But how should it change? I’m not to blame for anything, even if I go naked on the street!"
Susanne: "Of course you are not to blame! This is not about guilt. I don’t want that kind of hurt to happen to you. It’s the same as when I say, ‘Please put on a bicycle helmet.’ You think it’s silly, but in the end you feel more comfortable."
Noa: "Yeah, but you’re making us feel bad. It’s just that people don’t respect me because I show two centimeters more. Like it’s a surprise that I have an ass."
On the last day of vacation, up on the bed in Noa’s room, Henriette takes selfies. "Being a teenager is very dramatic, and I love it," Mira says. She flips through a yearbook of Rookie magazine, which Noa likes.
Figuring out who they are. That’s her job
She talks about how she recently told her mother she felt more black than white and how they both cried.
Noa talks about plans for her belated bat mitzvah. That her father is Jewish hasn’t mattered much to her for a long time, but she wants to know more.
They’re teenagers, and her job is to figure out who they are. Jewish. Black. Feminist. And to tell the world about it.
Henriette’s biggest success is her little sister, she’s 11. Henriette explained everything to her and she’s been a feminist ever since. She had the German translation of Emma Watson’s speech picked out, she wants to do her final project of elementary school years on feminism. Henriettes had written about volcanoes back then. The other day, her sister was explaining to the boys in class what sexism is. "I think she’s more crass than I am," Henriette says.
With kids, Mira says, with kids she still has hope.