Anna Babka, Peter Clar

Elfriede Jelinek: Feminism, Politics and a Gender and Queer Theoretical Perspectivation of
Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen & Ulrike Maria Stuart


Our article will proceed in a twofold way: on the one hand we attempt to introduce the audience more in depth to Elfriede Jelinek's work, extrapolating mainly her style of writing on the basis of the theoretical reflection, that underlies her textual production; on the other hand we want to focus on two plays that are interesting and prime examples for her exposure to the question of feminism, gender-roles and gender-identifications and the very deconstruction of these complex cencepts in the respective texts. Moreover we want to illustrate the whole thematic complex by visual examples of the plays or by sound recording.

1. Introduction

Elfriede Jelinek usually is labeled as 'feminist writer.' However, whereas secondary literature in the 80s deals with Jelinek's ' feminism' from a contemporary fenminist perspective, emphasizing aspects of visibility, awareness and equality with respect to Jelinek's writing the term 'feminist writer' nowadays is used more like a 'standing matter' without any consequences regarding the applied theoretical approaches. It seems that hardly anybody undertakes readings and analyses of Elfriede Jelinek's texts that are based on recent gender- and/or queer theories. In the following article we will try to show that the just mentioned theoretical views and perspectivations turn out to be productive in reading Elfriede Jelinek's complex texts no matter whether the older texts are concerned, like Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen[1] (Sickness or Modern Women), or the more recent ones, like Ulrike Maria Stuart[2].

2. Poetics and (Feminist) Politics
Elfriede Jelinek is not only a feminist writer, she is, to the same extent, a deeply political writer. In fact the two aspects cannot be separated from each other. Early in her career, triggered through the contact with the student movement, she shifts from formal-aesthetic problems and language play to content and political impact.[3] Already in her first novels, wir sind lockvögel baby! (1979) or in Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellschaft (1972), both having a character of linguistic rebellion and aiming at popular culture, Jelinek draws on Roland Barthes’s analysis of myth to reveal how pop cultural forms work as palliatives to oppressed sectors of society by suggesting that all men and women are equal.[4] Culture industry, as Jelinek stresses last but not least out of her Marxist conviction in Die endlose Unschuldigkeit,[5] follows a strategy of de-historicizing and depoliticizing in order to make readers, listeners and spectators of all classes feel equal instead of offering them improvements in their material welfare. A concession, however, the ruling class is not willing to make.[6]
According to Barthes the effect of myth is to transform history into nature, that means, what we think that naturally given is given through language and discourse at a given moment in time. Thus, the discrepancy between reality and its representation in language is what is concealed by myth. Jelineks primary assumptions in this respect are: "es kann nämlich alles mütös werden […]." ("everything can become mythicious," as one could try to translate mütös).[7] She warns and outlines her guiding principle: "ich spreche von den dingen die sich in den begriffen einnisten" ("I speak of the things that settle down in the concepts," our translation).[8]
Jelinek deconstructs myths insofar as she adopts and amplifies the meaning of the original myth which brings this myth to a halt. That does not lead to an entmystification but rather to a denouncing of the myth through exaggeration. This kind of artificial myth that Jelinek then produces hyperbolises, overacts and perverts the ideological myth and reveals what Roland Barthes calls its 'naivety'[9].

However, as already mentioned, textual and political strategies go hand in hand. When she says that "everything can become mythicious, "[10] one has to be aware of the fact that this word mütös does not exist in the German language – thus it is also a nice example of one of her stylistic and at the same time political approaches to language, namely creating neologisms, using certain linguistic devices – like suffixes –that mutilate a word and transform it semantically, like in this case the suflix 'ös', which designates a more negative semantics of a word (like komatös [comatoseJ, maliziös [malicious] porös [porous] etc.), or using the phonetic spelling of a word instead of the correct orthography, in this case she writes "ü" instead of "y". Themes, concerns style intertwine. Jelinek suspends all the usual categories of a novel (or a play) like time, place, figures. story lines (or, in the case of plays, monological or dialogical structures etcetera). Jelinek also abolishes the hierachization between high and low literature in the way that she takes in the patterns and techniques of trivial literature into high literature.[11] More than this, she creates a 'new language', a language that takes part in the performance and thus in the message of the texts. Since there does not exist a means of expression beyond language (or similar semantic systems), Jelinek carries clichés to the extremes, making them visible in and through language, taking possessions of them and finally emptying them of meaning. This functions because of her seemingly uncritical adoption of the clichés which brings to the fore its absurd character. All of this is part of the already mentioned fundamental idea of the deconstruction of myth within her works. One could argue, generally, that her poetics, and, as the critique formulates it, the “new language”, that she develops, perform the political. “This new language”, as Shanta Rao in The political aesthetic of Elfriede Jelinek’s early plays point out, enables her to present her critical views on Austro-German cultural history, particularly her belief that the historical subjugation of women (within private and public spheres) is closely aligned to the formation of a distinctly gendered subjectivity.”[12]
Subjugation, violence, be it sexual or physical violence against women, or at a larger scale, in and through language within the context of mass media, builds a central thematic complex in Jelinek’s texts.[13] She discloses the symbolic violence of the state, i.e. the functioning of the police and military forces as an expression of the state’s power and dominance. Also she unveils that the latent and turned into a taboo sexuality within all these realms.[14] Matthias Konzett puts it even more pointed, namely that Jelinek reveals the “pornographic addiction and self-debasement in consumerism and nationalism”[15] of the entire cultural landscape. Jelinek hence is received as a “socialist feminist believing the overthrow of capitalism to be the prerequisite condition for the success of feminism."[16] Moreover Jelinek is understood in the way that “under the present socio-economic conditions, healthy sexual relations are a virtual impossibility between men and women.”[17] Jelinek herself very recently formulated her feminist position as follows:

I do not fight against man, but against the system that is sexist. The system that judges the worth of women, the system that judges women’s worth through her youthful body and looks and not for what she does. Men are defined through what they do, women through their looks.[18]

What we do, in the following analysis of her two plays, is to read Jelink both feminist and queer.



  • Anna Babka Assoziierte Professorin an der Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Universität Wien seit Juli 2014. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte umfassen u.a.: Gender Studies / Queer Studies / Postcolonial Studies sowie Komparatistische Theorie und Methodik / Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaften / Gattungstheorie und Theorie der Autobiographie.
  • Peter Clar Studium der Komparatistik, Spanisch und der Germanistik an der Universität Wien und an der Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. 2004-2012 Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter des Elfriede Jelinek-Forschungszentrums, (Mit-)Arbeit an mehreren wissenschaftlichen Publikationen, v.a. über die Autorin und Veröffentlichung einiger literarischer Publikationen. Seit Oktober 2015 Assistenzprofessur in Danzig.


[1] Jelinek, Elfriede: Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen. In: Jelinek, Elfriede: Theaterstücke. Reinbek: Rowohlt 2010, pp. 191-265. The English translation we take from Jelinek, Elfriede: Sickness or Modern Women. Translated by Fiona Templeton with thanks to Anna Köhlero. 

[2] Jelinek, Elfriede: Ulrike Maria Stuart. (27.2.2006), (= Elfriede Jelineks Website). (Der Text war nur vom 27. bis 28.2.2006 auf der Website veröffentlicht, Anmerkung der Redaktion)

[3] See: Spanlang, Elisabeth: Elfriede Jelinek. Studien zum Frühwerk. Wien, Diss. 1992, pp. 181f.

[4] Ibid., pp. 158-166.

[5] See: Jelinek, Elfriede: Die endlose Unschuldigkeit. Schwifting: Schwiftinger Galerie-Verlag 1980.

[6] Ibid., p. 49; cf. Fiddler, Allyson: Rewriting Reality. An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek. Oxford: Berg 1994, pp. 40-42.

[7] Jelinek, Elfriede: Die endlose Unschuldigkeit, p. 49, our emphasis.

[8] See: Ibid; see: Fiddler, Allyson: Rewriting Reality, pp. 40-42.

[9] Heberger, Alexandra: Der Mythos Mann in ausgewählten Prosawerken von Elfriede Jelinek. Osnabrück: Der Andere Verlag 2002, pp. 26f. Marlies Janz calls her Approach a "Mythendestruktion" a destruction of myths: Janz, Marlies: Mythedestruktion und "Wissen". Aspekte der Intertextualität in Elfriede Jelineks Roman "Die Ausgesperrten". In: Arnold, Heinz Ludwig (Hg.): Elfriede Jelinek. München: Text + Kritik 1993, pp. 38-50.

[10] See: Jelinek, Elfriede: Die endlose Unschuldigkeit, p. 49.

[11] See: Schmid-Bortenschlager, Sigrid: Gewalt zeugt Gewalt zeugt Literatur ... "wir sind lockvögel baby!" und andere frühe Prosa. In: Gürtler, Christa (Hg.): Gegen den schönen Schein. Texte zu Elfriede Jelinek. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Neue Kritik 1990, pp. 30-43, p. 32. 

[12] Rao, Shanto: The Political Aesthetic of Elfriede Jelinek's Early Plays. (15.2.2017) (= University of Massachusetts, Amherst).

[13] See: Heberger: Der Mythos Mann in ausgewählten Prosawerken von Elfriede Jelinek, p. 29.

[14] See: Schmid-Bortenschlager, Sigrid: Gewalt zeugt Gewalt zeugt Literatur ... "wir sind lockvögel baby!" und andere frühe Prosa, p. 32, our translation.

[15] Konzett, Matthias: Slow Homecoming. Cultural Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. Chicago, Diss. 1995, p. 220.

[16] Fiddler, Allyson: Rewriting Reality. An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek, p. 3.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Griehsel, Marika: Elfriede Jelinek - Interview. (15.2.2017) (= Web Site of the Nobel Prize).