Harvey Weinstein, it is now clear, will enter history books. He ended one era and ushered in another. His era was one in which powerful men like him molested women with impunity. The new era is one in which women, like some of his victims, push back — and win. In America, the tally of reckonings grows by the day, as former alpha males of politics, business and media drop to ignominy: Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, even Garrison Keillor.
Some of them conveniently look the part, as chauvinist, right-wing bullies (O’Reilly). Others inconveniently don’t. Matt Lauer’s TV persona was, as the New York Times puts it, that of an “easygoing dad”; Charlie Rose’s that of an “urbane, inquisitive host”; Garrison Keillor’s that of “your quirky uncle, quick to spin a yarn, tell a corny joke or even break into a song.” Some are politically on the right, others on the left, or somewhere in the middle. What they all are is: men. Men who so far appeared “normal” but now look like perverts, as women reveal their transgressions, and as society — this is the radical change — listens to, and believes, those women.
How do German women and men feel about all this? For starters, we could posit an axiom: All major American social phenomena, positive and negative, also spread to Germany, albeit in delayed or attenuated form. It started after World War II, with blue jeans, chewing gum, and rock’n roll (which Elvis personally brought over). It continued with divorce, drugs, and reality television. And feminism. But feminism, in particular, proves that trends attenuate by the time they reach Germany, for German women have never embraced feminism as easily as their Anglo-Saxon sisters.
This makes Germany a perplexing place for Anglo-American observers, and ever stranger the more deeply you penetrate into its culture. In the domain of language, feminism has triumphed unequivocally. Any public figure nowadays twists into ludicrously stilted verbal concoctions to avoid inadvertently “excluding” feminine-gendered nouns, and by extension women. A typical German speech begins thus: “Dear citizens and citizenettes….” “Dear soldiers and soldierettes….” “Dear pensioners and pensionerettes….”
If language includes women to the point of satire, however, everyday working life often excludes them. Especially in the former West Germany, women are still expected to take care of the children while the men bring home the bacon. The tax system rewards that division of labor and punishes two-salary households. A British executive in Germany says she keeps getting questions from her (all-male) board about how she can possibly manage, what with the kids and all. (Her answer usually begins: “I have a husband, several nannies, an after-school service, …”)
As to male-female exchanges in offices, Germany still seems to be more in the previous (Weinstein) era than in the new world. In that, of course, it is like most places in the world. A first resistance formed in 2013, after an elderly politician rather too un-subtly complimented a young reporter for her curves, and she wrote about it. This sparked a collective “outcry” (#Aufschrei in German) on social media and dispatched the politician into retirement.
By the sound of it, however, nothing much changed since then. Even in the Bundestag, or parliament, women (who have 31 percent of the seats) report an ambiance resembling that on “Mad Men”. Margit Stumpp, of the Green party, was told that she was “remarkably competent” and, besides, had “the best ass on the committee”. Katja Kipping, who belongs to a party called The Left, recalls how she was once on a tear with a sophisticated line of argumentation when a man interrupted: “Your earrings are jiggling so beautifully when you get excited.”
Since “Weinstein”, however, German women, too, are speaking out. Carina Kontio, who covers gender relations for the German-language Handelsblatt, has been hearing a lot of these stories. Two weeks ago on Twitter, she invited both women and men to share their experiences, and many have. But there is a big difference between Germany and America, she says.
In Germany, “they tell me what happened but not who did it,” says Ms. Kontio. Even when Ms. Kontio urges them to get specific, “the women don’t name the men, and they never file charges.” It’s not a matter of weak or bad regulation, she adds: If a woman complains to human resources, the employer is legally obliged to take action. But still, the women don’t want to give names. Some fear recriminations. Most say they don’t want to ruin the lives of men who have careers and families. Compared to Americans, Ms. Kontio says, German women still have an “inhibition”.
Women in America and elsewhere in the world, of course, have until recently had exactly the same inhibition. It took Harvey Weinstein to tip that norm in America. Returning to our axiom: all American social trends also spread to Germany, but delayed or attenuated. If this one is merely delayed, a lot of German men still have it coming.
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