Self-optimisation - a combat strategy
Laura, Verena, Petra, Barbara, Emma, Jolie, Lisa, Tina and Brigitte: Jovana Reisinger names her protagonists after German women’s magazines in a reckoning with the journals’ self-optimisation maxims, the dictatorship of neo-liberal capitalism and the sexism of our society.
By Helena Matschiner
In 33 episodes, the novel Spitzenreiterinnen (Front Runners) follows a chronology that gives glimpses of the realities of the protagonists’ lives over a period from February to June. These protagonists are members of affluent society, like the image of women presented in women’s magazines of every ilk. They enjoy a drink with their best friends to mark an occasion or just for the fun of it, apparently enjoying an easy life. Yet a look behind the façades reveals the “subtle terror“ (Marie Schmidt in the Süddeutsche Zeitung) involved in maintaining this image.
“NOBODY‘S PERFECT” WAS YESTERDAYSelf-optimisation maxims pervade this novel like recurring mantras. Laura, who “finally” gets married at the age of 37, is relieved that her fiancé’s wealth means she will never depend on paid labour. Instead, she can spend her time online shopping (for lingerie and beauty drinks), on self-gratification (for a smoother skin and vaginal rejuvenation – after all, her husband has certain expectations) and on presenting her perfect marriage on Instagram.
Lisa freaks out on her 44th birthday after her partner leaves her because she is unable to have children. Believing that she has failed as a woman, she gets drunk and hurls snails around a delicatessen restaurant. But this catharsis is soon followed by a phase of self-optimisation. “Make a good impression. Hydrate. Perform.“ Since “every woman is the architect of her own fortune”, she gets herself into shape and invests in herself and her body before heading out with renewed vigour to test her chances in the online dating market.
Among these women, Petra and Jolie represent the younger, woke generation. Jolie goes on an International Women’s Day march, while Petra hands in her notice for a job for which she is overqualified and underpaid. Yet despite their self-reflection, they too have internalised the dogmas of the beauty industry: “If you’re not beautiful, you haven’t made enough effort”, muses Petra, looking at the dark circles under her eyes in the mirror. And although Jolie has always strictly observed the guidelines at work to “be friendly, give them a nice smile and nod“, she cannot avoid compulsory redundancy.
MEN ARE EVERYWHEREMen are given short shrift in this novel, underlined by the fact that they are given initials rather than names. Yet they are everywhere, and have a sometimes subtle, sometimes manifestly aggressive impact on the protagonists’ lives. When Barbara’s husband D. dies after she has cared for him for decades, his voice continues to pursue her. Only slowly does she realise that her husband is dead, but she is still alive. “Women our age have spent most of our time with men. Can you image how exhausting that is?“ she asks her best friend’s daughter, explaining her newly-found freedom.
For Tina, living with her husband A. is not only exhausting, it’s life-threatening. In an attempt to fend off his violent excesses, she not only receives support, but is also treated with contempt by the people around her.
The older women’s experience may have led to the situation in which Jolie and Petra find themselves, where men play no role as (long-term) partners. They have both experienced the men around them accusing them of being “hysterical” and “frigid” and they sense that “men who have been slighted” can be “time bombs”. So they have worked out strategies to nip in the bud any unwanted attempts at flirting and keep out of men’s way if they possibly can.
Jovana Reisinger draws a portrait of society that sometimes comes across as over-the-top satire and sometimes as brutally matter-of-fact. The protagonists do not always come off well. But there are also optimistic aspects. The friendship between Barbara and Emma, for example, where solidarity is everything and rivalry plays no role. Or Petra’s development – no longer afraid of not fitting into the system, she heads off into an uncertain future.
Above all, this book makes one thing clear. Shedding the internalised misogynist dogmas of patriarchal society and the pressure to achieve of the neoliberal system takes courage, energy and solidarity.
Jovana Reisinger: Spitzenreiterinnen
Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag, 2021. 270 S.
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