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The Enlightened Woman: Media Circulation and Lesbian Identity in Weimar Germany – Renata Critton-Papp

The Weimar era in Germany marked the start of the so-called ‘homosexual panic’ as a public paranoid reaction and progressive critical questioning of sexual orientation and gender began.1 The chaotic beginnings of the twentieth century allowed for the women’s emancipation movement to gain momentum, resulting in the emergence of the term Neue Frau, a label pertaining to the newly enlightened woman.2 It was not until the 1920s when the Neue Frau gained her full identity and power, particularly regarding her sexuality.3 The availability of lesbian literature, artworks, and spaces meant that women in the metropolis could identify their desires. The ability to observe and participate in the rich lesbian subculture of Berlin made women, in the eyes of a male-dominated society, a threat. Their destruction of the performance of gender was executed with such virility it appeared as an implicit annihilation of the male.4 Sapphic publications Die Freundin and Garçonne became dangerous tools for heteronormative Germany. Censorship was imposed to combat a belief that reading queer content “could ‘seduce’ a ‘normal’ person into homosexuality”5 and was often referred to as the ‘seduction thesis.’6 Unabashed portrayals of lesbian identity were also displayed in artworks of the time, a theme which well-known German painter Jeanne Mammen often focussed on. Her painting Siesta (1930), from a series depicting Les Chansons de Bilitis7 —a book of lesbian poetry— exemplifies an artwork made for the female gaze. Mammen portrays an intimate and genuine moment between two women while negotiating her powerful position within lesbian subculture in Berlin.8 In Weimar Germany, the emergence and circulation of lesbian identity reveals a narrative of powerful and threatening femme security, sensuality, and joy. 

I will begin with an analysis of common rhetoric surrounding female sexuality in Weimar Berlin. The text Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France discusses a variety of films, books, and scientific discourse debating the sapphic identity. Lesbianism was initially labelled as outside “the bounds of the laws of nature,”9 existing as something seemingly unquantifiable for the male gender. The mysterious nature of queer women and their sexual activities proved so hard to determine that “German lawmakers decided repeatedly not to criminalize it.”10 However, there was consensus on lesbianism’s overt masculine fashion and impudence,11 which reoriented gender binaries. The labelling and quantifying of lesbian appearance revealed fear associated with the “bodily gender dissonance of masculine women.”12 Paranoia regarding the masculine, queer, woman also exposed the implication that men were not essential to women’s happiness or success. The Neue Frau was indulgent and intolerable,13 emancipated from family life; she could support herself both monetarily and intellectually. The most threatening of queer women was ‘the scorpion,’ a label which Mel Gordon writes about in Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, who would “castrate men” and corrupt young girls.14 She was dominant, a symbol of the new social order “without erotic boundaries or familial conventions.”15 ‘The scorpion’ symbolizes the dark seduction that lesbians were associated with at the time. The strength wielded by lesbian women in Weimar is clearly articulated through their orientation of gender performance and the revelations of queer utopias they could create.16

Mass circulation of printed media and literature was imperative to the process of queer women realizing the “possibility of happiness.”17 The facilitation of community and hope spread in publications created a safe learning environment for a variety of women. The sapphic magazines Die Freundin, Garçonne, and books such as The Well of Loneliness not only sustained the lesbian community but created it. One such short story from Garçonne introduces a young woman, Loni, who reads a copy of the magazine, connects with it, and falls happily in love with a woman. Thus, the process of becoming queer is “made possible by reading.”18 Without queer literature Loni would not have had the language to express what she felt, therefore making “media a necessary precondition for lesbianism.”19 These magazines also offered readers connections to queer urban social scenes by advertising club nights and parties.20 The daily experiences of lesbian women were normalized through both active participation and the imagining of queer lives where “the heteronormative disapproval of society could be absent.”21 The embodiment of the Neue Frau was also attained as a method of “self-improvement through reading and education.”22 Women were able to attend university and could self-define, penning the very content in lesbian magazines and books. In summary, reading and consuming lesbian content was a process of becoming23 both more self-aware and influential.  

As the influence of publications grew, so did the visual culture depicting queer women and their daily experiences in Weimar Germany. Jeanne Mammen’s Siesta (fig. 1) is an artwork which explores the power of feminine intimacy and the new possibilities for happiness presented to lesbians. Siesta, painted in 1930, is a lithograph from a nine-part series based upon Pierre Louÿs’ erotic lesbian poem “Les Chansons de Bilitis” written in the late 1800s and translated from ancient Greek lesbian narratives.24 Wolfgang Gurlitt, a German art dealer, commissioned Mammen for the illustrations, planning to distribute them in sapphic publications later on. Mammen’s Siesta is a depiction of a moment between two sleeping women in a comfortable embrace. Their bodies are unidealized and exist beside each other with a certain familiarity. Since Mammen was fully immersed in the subculture of lesbian Germany, she regularly engaged with questions of sexual identity, the Neue Frau, mass media, and queer visual politics.25 She became synonymous with the freedom of Berlin26 at the time and was well equipped to articulate feminine companionship in an authentic manner. In Siesta she poses the intimate and loving side of Berlin’s lesbian underground through a moment that denies the male spectator and instead focusses on feminine visibility. Reading Siesta through the text Lesbian Decadence : Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France orients the scene as a rhetorical question, “and shouldn’t women who are disappointed by love find their consolation elsewhere, in the renewed intimacy of the pure and familiar embraces of our childhood?”27 The question of safe and familiar intimacy gives way to an enlightening idea: queer women do not represent an ‘otherness’ and instead they recognize the comfort and joy in same-sex relationships. In Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, Ruth Roellig is quoted stating that “lesbian love arises from the refinement and depth of emotional experience.”28 Roellig’s complexity of emotion is reflected by Mammen, as she flaunts the unspoken ‘threat’ of sapphism in Germany, where men are denied the consumption of an intimate embrace between two female partners.29 

In conclusion, the circulation of sapphic publications and artwork allowed for lesbian women to both form their identities and threaten the gender roles of Weimar Germany. The visual and literary politics which I have discussed reveal the impact of knowledge in forming one’s self-perception. As the Neue Frau became a widespread phenomenon, a new age of queer female intellects rose to contribute to the abundance of lesbian subculture. The power of a vast female network allowed the fostering of community, happiness, and liberation as queer women created, consumed, and discovered their identities through these material cultures. 


Fig. 1.

Jeanne Mammen, Siesta, c. 1930–32. Colour lithograph. 57 × 40.5 cm. Jeanne Mammen-Stiftung, Berlin. Photo: Mathias Schormann. 


Notes

  1. Clayton J. Whisnant, Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880–1945 (New York, NY: Harrington Park Press, LLC, 2016), 42.
  2. Whisnant, Queer Identities and Politics, 45.
  3. Whisnant, Queer Identities and Politics, 47.
  4. Nicole Albert, Nancy Erber, and William Peniston, Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France (La Vergne: Harrington Park Press, LLC, 2016), 167.
  5. Laurie Marhoefer, ““The Book Was a Revelation, I Recognized Myself in it”: Lesbian Sexuality, Censorship, and the Queer Press in Weimar-era Germany,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015): 63. https://doi:10.1353/jowh.2015.0016.
  6. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation.”
  7. Camilla Smith, “Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic,” Art History 42 (2019): 785.
  8. Robert Heynen, Degeneration and Revolution : Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany (Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill, 2015), 427. 
  9. Heynan, Degeneration and Revolution, 165.
  10. Laurie Marhoefer, ““The Book Was a Revelation, I Recognized Myself in it”: Lesbian Sexuality, Censorship, and the Queer Press in Weimar-era Germany,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015):84.
  11. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation.”
  12. Robert Heynen, Degeneration and Revolution : Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany (Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill, 2015), 95. 
  13. Robert Heynen, Degeneration and Revolution : Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany (Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill, 2015), 197.
  14. Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2008) 105.
  15. Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 105.
  16. Gordon, Voluptuous Panic, 105
  17. Laurie Marhoefer, ““The Book Was a Revelation, I Recognized Myself in it”: Lesbian Sexuality, Censorship, and the Queer Press in Weimar-era Germany,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015): 63.
  18. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation.”
  19. Laurie Marhoefer, ““The Book Was a Revelation, I Recognized Myself in it”: Lesbian Sexuality, Censorship, and the Queer Press in Weimar-era Germany,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015): 63.
  20. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation,” 69.
  21. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation,” 70.
  22. Marhoefer, “The Book Was a Revelation.”
  23. Marhoefer, “The Book was a Revelation,” 72.
  24. Camilla Smith, “Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic,” Art History 42 (2019): 796.
  25. Camilla Smith, “Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic,” Art History 42 (2019): 795.
  26. Smith, “Sex Sells!”, 795.
  27. Nicole Albert, Nancy Erber, and William Peniston, Lesbian Decadence : Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France (La Vergne: Harrington Park Press, LLC. 2016), 167.
  28. Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2008), 111.
  29. Camilla Smith, “Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic,” Art History 42 (2019): 799.

Bibliography 

Albert, Nicole, Nancy Erber, and William Peniston. Lesbian Decadence : Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France. La Vergne: Harrington Park Press, LLC, 2016. EBSCOhost.

Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2008. https://books.google.ca/books/about/Voluptuous_Panic.html?id=81FjCwAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y.

Heynen, Robert. Degeneration and Revolution : Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany. Historical Materialism Book Series. Leiden: Brill, 2015. EBSCOhost.

Marhoefer, Laurie. ““The Book Was a Revelation, I Recognized Myself in it”: Lesbian Sexuality, Censorship, and the Queer Press in Weimar-era Germany.” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015): 62-86. https://doi:10.1353/jowh.2015.0016

Smith, Camilla. “Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic.” Art History 42 (2019): 780–806. https://doi:10.1111/1467-8365.12460.

Whisnant, Clayton John. Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880–1945. New York, NY: Harrington Park Press, LLC, 2016. EBSCOhost.

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