‘What is wrong with this headline?’
Thomas M Blaser | October 30th, 2013


It may seem odd to quote Paul Dacre, the editor of the jingoist UK Daily Mail. He defended his slanderous headline about the late Marxist academic Ralph Miliband (‘The man who hated Britain’) and father of the leader of Britain’s Labour Party by writing that “popular newspapers have a long tradition of using provocative headlines to grab readers’ attention” and “[i]n isolation that headline may indeed seem over the top, but read in conjunction with the article we believed it was justifiable.”

The headline ‘What is wrong with the Germans’ (on July  26, 2013) that was used for a post we did about two pathetic German reality TV shows, was meant to grab attention and to provoke, and it did. This is where the similarities between the two headlines end. A provocation that aims to be more than just an insult and a hatchet-job is one that stirs a meaningful debate and even helps searching for the truth. (Even though novelist and essayist Tim Parks sees a more harmful process at play in the choice of headlines.)

To ask the question ‘what is wrong with the Germans’ might as well have been formulated differently: ‘What is wrong with the French, the Greeks, the Spanish, the Danes, the Swedes, the Swiss’, and so on. You get the point.

The larger malaise is what Achille Mbembe, only apparently mild-mannered, calls Europe’s new provincialism. This isolationism, accelerated by the political and social consequences of the economic depression that begun in 2008, and that reigns all over Europe, is assuming more and more frightening proportions and exacts a human toll that can only be accepted with a mind-set that subscribes to nothing more than a new barbarism.

With a border control that more than ever reflects not only a physical isolationism against undesirables but also an isolation of the mind, it seems apt to question the continued existence, perhaps even aggravation of race and gender stereotypes across Europe. After all, and that is one dimension that the many commentators of the blog largely missed, the atrocious TV reality shows are not only an insult to Africans and black people, but they also promote and enforce ridiculous images of women: race and gender denigration go hand in hand.

While there were many comments, the following three themes stand out:

* How far has Germany come in dealing with race and racism? This question dominated the commentaries. For some, the blog was an exercise in political correctness, spoiling the pleasure of harmless fun. With a Nazi past to grapple with, they are tired of the reminder of the duty to remember and responsibility towards ideologies that meet up with Nazism. For others, this Reality TV show was more evidence of the continued unease and difficulty of Germans dealing with racial and ethnic difference, if not a sign of the outright denial of the existence of real and harmful racism across the country.

* The claim by some journalists that the Reality TV show with white women making fun of themselves in the picturesque setting of an African pastoralist settlement, African men and women in their traditional clothing included, was somehow reversing the colonial gaze, is truly flabbergasting. How can we talk of a reversal of the colonial gaze when all the gazing is done in Germany, via RTL TV? The Africans merely serve as a backdrop. And how could making fun of white women be seen as a reversal of stereotypes that smacks rather of a ‘tit-for-tat’ revenge, targeted against women? Rather, it re-enforces stereotypes and denigration. Within the format of the show, how could the African protagonists rise above the role of entertaining subjects and acquire real agency that would indeed talk back to the former imperial centre?

* How much control have the Himba who feature in the show about their participation? Were they knowledgeable participants, giving the producers their fair share of ‘primitiveness’ and hence entertainment as the shows required? A recent letter that some of the Himba people involved in the show had sent to an NGO that works with indigenous peoples seems to indicate that they were not fully aware of the purpose and content of the show.

Only interviews with the Himba involved would fully settle this question. What is however not in question is that the Himba are a marginalized people that are in conflict with the government over land use and development policy. Like the San in neighboring Botswana, they are seen as a problem because of their different lifestyle and their refusal to fit into traditional development patterns.

At least some sectors of Germany’s civil society are mobilizing against the copy-cats of the show; the most recent iteration launched by the rival TV channel ProSieben and filmed in Tanzania. German reality TV clearly has more appetite for stereotypical Africa.

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Thomas M Blaser

Sociology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

4 thoughts on “‘What is wrong with this headline?’

  1. Similar shows are scheduled in many countries. In Italy, a TV reality called “The Mission” was supposed to be aired in December. Many celebrities spent some weeks in Congo and witnessed life conditions in some refugees camps (supposedly). Many protests were initiated by NGOs and citizens who started petitions against the broadcast of the show. (see )
    This would also raise the question of: what’s wrong with the Italians? and which Italians are we considering? the authors of the show and the VIP involved, or the thousands of people who signed the petition and the NGOs who started them? and how “Italian” (or European, or Western) is the UNHCR, which has been accused of collaborating with the show and thus betraying its original mission?
    Maybe it’s my problem, but I don’t immediately get the link with what Mbembe calls Europe’s new provincialism. TV formats are international, sponsors and advertising companies too – but, it’s true, audiences are not… and sometimes they react. Are we sure this kind of ‘spectacularization’ of migrants’ and refugees’ conditions (while at the same time the political issues posed by migration flows are removed) isn’t better understood in terms of global capitalism and changes in journalism and information (infotainment, etc.) than in terms of European anti-black racism (which of course exists and does not seem to decrease, as the attacks agains Cécile Kyenge in Italy or Christiane Taubira in France have for example shown)?

  2. I know its not about Africa, but it is about Germans: Here is a link from an artist named Kent Monkman ( Canada) who critics the perception ( from Germany) of First Nations in Western movies.

    Its part of an exhibition currently in Montreal named ” Beat Nation” which I saw and it was great since it is about other perspectives on cultures and colonialism through arts.


  3. Thanks Cristiano, there is resistance by Europeans in Europe against the increasingly violent right-wing sentiments and policies but it seems to me that this conservative trend is here to stay and is dominant. At least as long as the economic situation remains precarious. And it is indeed the free reign of capitalism that supports infotainment; in my view, they are all linked: the right-wing trend in Europe, global capitalism and the proliferation of harmful infotainment.

  4. Thanks for this Emilie, I enjoyed your links. The works on the colonial legacy of these young Canadian artists are similar to what young South African artists present these days.

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