Sex-ed to sexism: New series explores being a woman in Germany and the US

American YouTuber in Munich, Dana Newman, travelled around Germany to ask women their perspectives on topics ranging from sexism to maternity leave. The result is a compelling series not afraid to tackle taboo topics.

Sex-ed to sexism: New series explores being a woman in Germany and the US
Dana Newman. Photo courtesty of Dana Newman.

Spurred on by the #MeToo movement, American in Munich Dana Newman had several conversations with German female friends about their own experiences of being a girl and women in today’s society. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about women's rights in Germany

“Sometimes I would tell my friends here in Germany stories of things that happened to me in the US that were more or less ‘totally normal for me growing up there, only to find my German friends respond with shock,” said Newman, who has lived in the Bavarian capital for the past nine years.

“‘What? Are you freaking kidding me?’ they would say sometimes.”

A video Newman made about her 'Sex Ed' experiences in the US, and how Germans react.

Newman watched her wide-eyed friends as she described the “wait until marriage” sex education she received in a public school in the US state of Florida, or the strict dress code which her schools enforced to avoid “distracting” boys.

But other times, when topics such as body struggles, gender expectations or being pressured into sex came up, her friends could “absolutely relate” and shared similar experiences, she told The Local.

“When I heard other women sharing their stories,” said Newman, “I started being like, yeah, that thing that happened to me that I’d been holding on my shoulders as either something I did wrong or couldn’t put into words.”

'It's not what we say'

The 33-year-old, who has produced over 500 YouTube videos since 2014 spotlighting German culture from weird windows to language quirks for her Wanted Adventure channel, considered making one video comprising these conversations. 

Newman's latest video, published for International Women's Day on March 8th.

But she didn’t just want to scratch the surface. Instead, Newman and co-producer and husband Stefan embarked on a Germany-wide tour interviewing other female YouTubers, authors and academics for a full video series “Being a Woman.” They stopped in Stralsund in the north, Berlin, Hamburg and Düsseldorf, among other locations. 

“I realized I would need to share my own very personal, very intimate, very guarded and real stories and experiences,” said Newman, who sought the same from her interviewees – many who also opened up on camera for the first time. 

What she found was at times touching. “I love everything about being a woman,” states Sarah Jane Scott, an American Schlager singer based in Berlin. 

READ ALSO: How Germany's Schlager music is making a useful comeback

But it was also raw and honest. “I don’t have any girlfriend who is really 100 percent happy and comfortable in her body,” says German YouTuber Hannah from Klein aber Hannah in the most watched video of the series on body image.

“From a very young age we are taught that our body is a very big part of our existence,” said German YouTuber Marie Johnson. That it’s not what we say and what we know.”

The video in the series which has gotten the most views, nearly 100,000.

The series also spotlights societal differences between the US and Germany. In a segment on motherhood, Newman points out how new mothers in the US, where there is no paid maternity leave, often “don’t have time to give birth”, instead digging into vacation days and sick days, if they had any.

In Germany, by contrast, “you can take up to three years of Elternzeit (parental leave), and your employer has to accept that,” states German YouTuber Trixi from Don’t Trust the Rabbit.

READ ALSO: German parental leave – your guide

The series additionally shines light on the similarities in how gender is perceived in Germany and the US. “If someone cries, it’s okay for a girl and not okay for a boy,” said Cari Schmid from Easy German, echoing Newman’s statements about how girls in her home state were encouraged to “cry things out” whereas boys from a young age were told to hide hurt feelings. 

Both also agreed there was one emotion that was more socially accepted for men than women to show in public: anger. “Throughout history when women have gotten angry and passionate about something, they have been called hysterical,” said Newman.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel is “very calm,” said Schmid. There’s also gender-specific speech used in Germany, like “wie echte Männer (like real men)”, she said, even though this is improving from generation to generation.

Videos für alle

While most of the interviewees are women, the videos are intended for everyone, says Newman.

READ ALSO: This is what German men really think about Gender equality

She also spoke to the German Ambassador to the UN Campaign #HeForShe, Vincent-Immanuel Herr, who states that, “I've learned from experience that some men are more likely to listen to other men talking about sexism than women, unfortunately.”

The trailer to Newman's Being a Woman series. Photo: DPA

Newman has so far filmed 18 videos, a number she wants to grow to 20. Her current challenges are finding a sponsor, and that several of the videos are automatically demonetized – meaning that YouTube does not allow advertising on them – when the algorithm detects that sex or “sensitive matter” is a subject. 

But Newman says the project, which was self-financed by her two person team, continues be worth it. 

“Afterwards many people said to me, 'Oh, that was a nice therapy session! I didn’t realize that I had been holding on to these things'”, she said.

Newman herself said she was “so nervous to talk about these topics, and now that I put them out there, I feel like a weight has been lifted. It's a big sigh of relief.”

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7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)