Members of the satirical feminist Hysteria Fellowship crash the right-wing Academic Ball. Photo: Vice.
Something wicked is afoot in Wien…something wickedly funny, that is. And it’s got a lot of really nasty men all hot and bothered — or helpless and befuddled, depending whom you ask:
Vienna, outskirts of the city. The pubs here are called “Zum guten Tropfen” (The Good Drop) or “Zum g’miatlichen Franz’l” (Jolly Franzl’s Place), and look as though they had been shuttered long ago. The police recently hauled a far-right singer (“Rocker Rolf”) out of one of them, a rumored neo-Nazi meeting place, along with his antisemitic songbook. Today, elegant, black-clad women are standing out on the sidewalk in front. They look like artists and are waiting to come in. Their invitations read: “The Hysteria Fellowship requests the honor…”
In the wood-panelled semi-darkness of the cellar, in which martial-arts groups and men’s clubs used to meet, now one sees women in uniform: black blazers, white collars, narrow ties, white gloves, red caps. One could see on the Internet how the women dragged a couple of men out of the cellar. Now the Hysteria club is inaugurating its new “joint”, as it’s called in the fellowship’s slang. Here, they will be forging plans for their mission. “Towards the golden matriarchy,” they roar, and howl in a chorus like their heraldic animal, a hyena with a wide-open mouth. Then they begin a formal hymn, that ends with the lines: “Let the call ring out: Honor, freedom, patricide!”
The scene looks like a nightmare-come-true for all critics of feminism who believe that men get robbed of something when women demand their rights. For these women say: “We believe, in line with our traditional values, that the sphere of public politics is reserved for women.”
Just last fall, the fellowship publicly carried the patriarchy to its grave. On the Prater Hauptallee, in line and in step. The grievous occasion came as it was announced that a new president would be elected in the spring. Above all, the right-wing populist FPÖ could not get over the defeat of their candidate, Norbert Hofer. They looked for and found no procedural error that could be grounds for a re-vote. Men, Hysteria concluded, were obviously overloaded with their voting rights. For that reason, they demanded the “ultimate restriction of male voting rights”. Further demands: A female and transgender quota of 80 percent in all public offices. The death penalty for all men who refuse to “gender”, that is, who do not use feminine forms when speaking. An abortion should cost 20 euros maximum, with everything after the third one for free. And heterosexual sex which ends without an orgasm for the woman involved must, de jure, be considered rape.
As the Austrian media became aware of it, they described the fellowship as a priceless feminist satire project. Hysteria rejects this designation, and thus is reluctant to speak to the press. If they must, then only in an officiously ideological tone, and under their craft names: Sprenghilde, Polyxena, or Rothraut.
Even I was admitted to the Hysteria inaugural ball only under strict secrecy. I had to wear a label on my lapel reading, in Old German script, “Systempresse”, so that the fellows in front of me would not inadvertently slip out of character. So even observers were made to play a role. Even if it’s some kind of practical joke in which I am participating here, there is no boundary or outside space from which I can observe without becoming involved. The situation becomes a kind of reality.
As is proper for fellowships, there is lots of drinking. There is a buffet, on which a sign (also in Old German script) designates a portion of the dishes as “vegan”. There is a loud cry of “Silentium!”, and the official part of the evening begins: In formal speeches, the fellows praise their deeds and heroines, quaking with pathos. One of them is Leopoldine of Austria, a Habsburg and later empress of Brazil, who supposedly founded Hysteria in 1810. On the internet in the present, however, the fellowship appeared in January 2016.
Since then, they’ve accomplished various things. In several spots in the room, for instance, one can see where the fellows have scraped the right-wing insignia off the walls: an Iron Cross made of tiles was chipped away, and posters with xenophobic slogans torn down. The women still shudder when thinking of the previous renters. But, just as when they simply took over the Nazis’ party-basement with the headstrong glee of playful children, they also mimic the rituals, songs and habits of right-wing fellowships. They use them for their own points and purposes. The tactics recall the social sculptures of Joseph Beuys or Christoph Schlingensief: social reality becomes material that can be re-shaped. Some of the Hysterics, one hears, are artists in their everyday lives.
The fellowship has become politically impactful, since right-wing and far-right student clubs play a much bigger role in Austria than in Germany. They put themselves out front through particularly chauvinistic viewpoints. And it always gets interesting when the FPÖ starts reaching for power again. They recruit their personnel partly from fellowships that only admit men, and are known, for instance, as “Silesia” or “Marko Germania”. In the Olympia programme, it says: “Involvement means doing, not talking, with clear recognition, without conditions, without hesitation or dithering, through rain, storm and snow, as a society, for honor, freedom, Fatherland!” Whereat Hysteria, in suitably chaotic syntax: “Our being is doing, not talking, with clear recognition of circumstances outside the norm. Hysteria, the convulsing, headless body!”
By adopting this tone, Hysteria is playing out what feminists could become if they were to organize like right-wing men’s clubs: exactly the militant beasts that the critics of feminism or masculists call them. Hysteria turns their most grotesque fears and misrepresentations into reality. And posits the “golden matriarchy” as a totalitarian régime.
However, the game of resentments is not without risks, as prominent Hysteria member Stefanie Sargnagel* recently found out. She and some writer friends travelled to Morocco, where the women, as they later wrote, “made out with the muezzin” and “kicked a kitten”. The tabloid Neue Kronen Zeitung had little wit for such ironic plays on prejudices against devout leftists who go wild on vacation. Cited with deliberate humorlessness, the travel report brought a hateful internet mob out onto the field. The women were inundated with death and rape threats, and eventually had to seek police protection. “Austrian evening news: Sargnagel* denies cat torture”, tweeted the writer, truthfully. Austria can get very strange at times.
But this country has always been known for its artistic scandals and realistic satires. On the internet, those are now more chaotic, random and violent than ever. However, Sargnagel* also expressed another suspicion: The old travel report was just a front for the right-wing mob, which was actually enraged over a TV report on Hysteria’s actions. Namely, the occupation of the Nazi basement. And the takeover of the Academic Ball.
At this FPÖ-organized event, right-wing fellowships meet every February at the Wiener Hofburg. Part and parcel of the evening’s traditions are the demonstrations against it, and the police presence required to hold these in check. In 2017 too, Norbert Hofer, third president of their National Council, came to the ball with the black-red-gold flag of his fellowship, Marko Germania. Those are the colors of the German flag. The Austrian one is red-white-red. As the Austrian edition of Vice reported, Hofer thumped his chest and proclaimed, “But I carry this flag, and I carry it with pride!” At the end of his speech, Hofer said: “And every one of us gathered here must do their bit, so that this land, so that these colors, will rise again!” A ball-night, that is, in which Austrian representatives dance in dreams of Greater Germany.
Meanwhile, Hysteria has re-dedicated the occasion to the “Hysteria Ball for the Upbringing and Protection of Men”. In evening dress, the fellows turned up at the Hofburg, and hung a banner with their name and the insignia of the howling hyena in the ballroom. They simply threw it over a flag that was already hanging from one of the balconies.
The strategy worked: The rightists had to give up some of the media attention to their ball. And FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache, of all people, belatedly delivered the script for this occupation. On Facebook, he wrote: “The leftist ‘Hysteria’ shows, thankfully, that everyone who buys a ticket and sticks to the dress code can get in, and further, that persons with a different political orientation can dance, drink, and unfurl banners in peace at the Vienna Academic Ball.” Demonstrators against the ball, thus, need not freeze on the streets in future. The effects of this message on the advance ticket sales for next year could be considerable.
Hysteria also creates a similar dissolution of boundaries with their demand to confine men to the “domestic sphere” and cut off their rights. Thus they profane the chauvinism of their opponents, whose positions are usually deemed indisputable. One can’t talk with the people who represent them, goes the saying, and so one keeps one’s distance. And thus the extremists stew in their resentments undisturbed. Hysteria, on the other hand, takes their pathos, their symbols and ideas, plays with them, and turns them into public spectacle and public laughter.
It can’t escape one’s attention that the women thus use violent speech and vehement gestures. But, to quote a tweet from Stefanie Sargnagel*: “Artists can do eeeverything — Nazis can’t do nothin’! Humanism arglebargle!”
The success of this tactic is stunning. The fellowship is growing. According to its own estimates, it has a membership in the hundreds, with numerous applicants and offers to ground chapters in German cities as well. At the inauguration in the former Nazi cellar, there were artists, writers, filmmakers, actresses, jurists and politicians. And they all played along in a certain way with Hysteria’s odd rituals. There, too, the fellowship’s desired effect occurred: these things bind, and that’s how ties are formed. And when one looked around among these culture-creators, it dawned on one that from such a network — satire or not — a real societal force could emerge.
By the way, men were shut out from this evening. Except for a few liveried boys, who silently and servilely brought drinks and munchies.
I would be remiss if I failed to note that Austria, unlike Germany, was NOT de-Nazified at war’s end in 1945. That’s why there’s such a ridiculously overt proliferation of far-right parties and candidates there, and why Austrian politics tends to list starboard-side. It was something of a miracle that they managed to elect a progressive head of state this time around, although whether it could have been accomplished without a massive rejection of his opponent in the run-off, the aforesaid far-right (and pro-Anschluss) guildsman Norbert Hofer, is debatable. Had it been a more mainstream right-wing candidate squaring off against Alexander Van der Bellen, things might have gone a lot worse — er, differently. As it is, there’s no shortage of Nazis-in-all-but-name. And no shortage of actual Nazi thugs, either, although these tend to lurk mainly in the basement bars mentioned in the first paragraph.
This, then, is the political climate against which Hysteria is staging its witty stunts. And this time around, they’ve managed to upstage their quarry nicely. But the rape and death threats on the internet are real, and worrisome…and a fact of life for any woman who speaks up on any subject, unfortunately. It’s especially dangerous out here for leftist women (and that’s the reason I’ve closed my comments sections until further notice; I feel genuinely unsafe online in the current political climate).
But Hysteria, by satirically mimicking the far-right and turning its premises upside down, seems to have tapped into something that the more established factions of the left have missed: the artistic playfulness and quirky, sharp social-literary commentary for which Vienna has long been renowned. They’re going for the gut here, and so far, the tactic has paid off brilliantly. One never knows just what they’ll do next, but one knows more or less what will happen as a result: the far right will be hoisted on its own flagpole, by the seat of its pants, and left hanging in mid-air, yelling ineffectually as it twists in the wind. And everyone else will be pointing and laughing.
*Sargnagel is German for “coffin nail”.