AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

What’s wrong with the Germans?
Thomas M Blaser | July 26th, 2013

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This summer, two private German TV channels offer their audience the experience of visiting exotic Africa from the comfort of their homes: RTL started in July the reality TV show ‘Wild Girls – Auf High Heels durch Afrika’ (Wild Girls – Across Africa on High Heels) in which highly stylized, white women, propped up with plenty of collagen, botox, and silicon — some are starlets and low-brow, local ‘one day’ celebrities — compete for fame, monetary compensation, and the trophy called ‘the Golden High Heel’. Not wanting to be left behind, the rival channel ProSieben is scheduled to launch in August ‘Reality Queens auf Safari’ (Reality Queens on Safari). 

The two channels are not the first to entertain with a show in which an exotic location features as backdrop: in 2011, a Dutch station aired a season of ‘Queens in the Jungle’, offering a similar spectacle. And the same production company, Eyeworks, produced the Dutch/Belgian reality show ‘Groeten uit de Rimboe’ (Greetings from the Jungle), starting in 2005, of which the Belgian ‘Toast Kannibaal’ (Toast Cannibal) is another version. Both, despite the latter’s rather dim title, seem to be a little more sophisticated than its German counterpart. The ancestor of the genre is the long-running (since 2002) British reality show ‘I am a celebrity – Get me out of here’. As in the first Dutch shows, the exoticism of the British show is confined to the “Australian” jungle in which low-brow celebrity contestants compete in a staged wilderness. Also, the British show, in comparison with its German counterparts, features both men and women.

RTL’s show, however, is pushing the genre to new lows. All the contestants are recycled starlets from earlier German reality TV shows, most are blonde and the show does its utmost to expose their physical assests. One contestant is a male travesty ‘artist’ from Austria. The audience is then invited to laugh at the women, clearly marked as ‘bimbos’, and their ridiculous behavior in the African desert. In departing from the other shows, the African desert landscape and African ‘tribesmen and women’, Namibia’s Himba, feature prominently in the show.

Scantily clad women on high heels are the staple of European TV entertainment — especially Silvio Berlusconi’s channels come to mind — and despite their blatant sexism and denigration of women, this genre hardly seems to raise eyebrows on a continent adrift; however, the prominent role of the ‘primitive’ Himba ‘tribe’ adds quite another vertiginous dimension to the spectacle of sexy yet farcical white women.

According to the news magazine Spiegel Online, the German Green Party wrote to RTL and asked why they had chosen to film in Namibia, the former German colony where troops committed genocide against the indigenous Herero people in 1904. (For some analysts, this was a precursor of what was to come during WWII.) The letter suggested that the Germans had a moral responsibility towards the former colony and its people, and could not just use the indigenous people and landscape without taking cognizance of a difficult past. They further asked how the channel would address the precariousness of the Himba, a marginal and pastoral people whose lifestyle is under pressure. The channel replied that such historical and political issues were not of concern, theirs was a mission to entertain, and, as final proof of the correctness of the show, RTL emphasized how the Namibia Tourism Board welcomed their filming amongst the Himba.

The Himba have morphed into the tourism draw card for Namibia’s primary tourism advertisement, according to Michael Bollig and Heike Heinemann. They note that most Namibian tourism marketing, locally and overseas, features ‘primitive’ and picturesque Himba women in a desert landscape, a visual representation that goes back to colonial times and apartheid rule. Namibian tourism authorities seem to have little qualms in their efforts to promote the country. Hollywood star Angelina Jolie filmed ‘Beyond Borders’ there in 2003, gave birth to her daughter Shiloh in the coastal town of Swakopmund in 2006, and ever since, the country is rolling out the red carpet whenever she decides to sojourn there. Malawi has Madonna, Namibia has Angelina Jolie.

In their illuminating analysis of Himba visual historiography, Bollig and Heinemann document the sustained presence of Himba representations in Namibian and European culture as the exotic ‘Other’ per excellence, free from the burden of civilization, natural and beautiful in their simple, pastoral lifestyle. This imagery, still so apparently more alive today than ever before, originated in the colonial period and continues to be sustained by ‘Othering’ discourses, be they of commercial interest, as in tourism, or in ethnographic descriptions. Robert J. Gordon, an ethnographer who was born in Namibia, writes in the latter context about the “Himbanization” of Namibian anthropology – “the Himba have “conquered” visual spaces which before the 1990s were still unexplored or covered more equally by the different ethnic groups of Namibia”, according to Bollig and Heinemann. For an example, see here. And here is a critical analysis of a Discovery Channel ‘documentary’ (the anthropologist Christofer Wärnlöf was consulting this production and his observations, quoted below, seem to be based on his rather sobering experience).

Images of the Himba, especially of bare-breasted Himba women, that emphasize their eroticism, are plenty in European popular culture –- a quick internet search produces an abundance of Himba imagery with a subtext of an erotic/natural idyllic. The crassest example perhaps is a feature article in the now defunct German Marie Claire magazine of September 1998 which celebrated Himba women for their free love making and seductive prowess in seducing men. In the same year, the Himba were featured in a “soft-pornographic programme” on German TV.

Christofer Wärnlöf argues powerfully that ethnographic film was and is instrumental in perpetuating the image of the ‘primitive Other’. After all, old-school ethnographic film created the fiction of representing reality with (European) filmmakers and indigenous protagonists staging timeless authenticity. With this mix of fiction and reality, and with the popularity of (ethnographic) nature documentaries in Europe, ethnographers laid the ground for reality TV: does reality TV as a genre not share the same mix of fact and fiction? Do reality TV producers not equally claim to bring different cultures closer to each other?

With the above history of Himba representation in European culture, RTL’s choice to use them as props, just like the Nambian desert as an attractive background appears then as a rather logical, albeit cynical step to attract and entertain German TV audiences.

While the bad taste of the German reality show is obvious, discussions of the show in German news media really makes one wonder about popular gender and race stereotypes. Reports in the popular Spiegel Online magazine and Focus Online add to the denigration of women through their commentaries that mock the women-female contestants. Furthermore, they offer readings that seek exoneration from accusations of neo-colonial stereotyping and thereby exhibit so little understanding of the wider world beyond Fortress Europe; of the global politics of race; and of the politics of socio-economic development.

Spiegel Online argues that the colonial gaze is now being returned –- the ones that are being stared at are the white women on display. The viewer is invited to make fun of the women, with their botox lips and artificial breasts. The display of the women’s silliness with Africans playing background props is, according to the article’s author Christian Buss, not “Eurocentric arrogance” but “rather indifference against the human beings [the Himba] and the environment”. In his reading then, to relegate Africa and its people to the status of an entertaining backdrop is very normal and acceptable for Europeans. For him, the real primitives are the European (women) and not the Africans. Spiegel Online and Focus Online suggest that in contrast to the human circus that displayed real African people like animals, commonplace throughout Europe in the 19th century, the humans on display here are the show contestants, and not the indigenous African people. The article in Focus Online enumerates the exotic animals one encounters in the Namibian desert: ‘dangerous predators’, as well as “leopards, jackals, crocodiles, rhino, ostrich” and the author does not tire to point to the picturesque, if not primitive life style of the Himbas, who maintain ‘social contacts through community dances and ‘feasts’. In another article in Focus Online, the headline reads: ‘Zicken Alarm in Namibia: Die Wilden sind die Weissen’ (Bimbo Alarm in Namibia: The Savages are the Whites). The author first points to racist popular German culture which belittled black people… only then to claim that now colonialism turns on itself (“als entwickelte unsere Gesellschaft ein koloniales Verhältnis zu sich selbst”) by sending white women to Africa; hence, as Spiegel Online did, Focus claims that now the whites are stared at in a zoo-like exhibition while the blacks are supposedly the ones who shake their heads at the grotesque display that is in front of them. This kind of representation intends to construct equivalence between black and white, between today and the colonial period, between marginal Himba people on the one side and German TV starlets and audiences on the other.

Perhaps there is something to this argument that in our globalised and ultra-capitalist world, we all share now the same visual, imaginary space. But does it mean that we are all equally equipped with the power to earn a good living and decide about representations of our image? As if colonial legacies could be easily dissolved through such representations in mass media and through making fun out of white women in Africa.

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Thomas M Blaser

Sociology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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178 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the Germans?

  1. Don’t take it too serious. It’s only television. As some people mentioned before, there are trashy TV shows in pretty much every other country in the world, too. Sometimes it seems to me that getting upset about some television show is a mere German phenomenon.

    I’m also sick of hearing all those bashing comments on RTL. It’s a private television channel and the character of the RTL brand has always been provocation. By the way, this is the only private general channel that still broadcasts an appreciable amount of news programs, whereas ProsiebenSat.1 doesn’t care about communicating serious current affairs topics to their audiences.

  2. I think once again this whole topic gets over analysed. I am Namibian and in our country nobody even thought as far as racism or exploration by the german “Kolonialherren” when this series got filmed. It was just seen as some common Reality show.
    The germans must stop bringing their past into every little happening. I know they feel guilty of what happened in the past, but I do not think this Reality show has anything to do with it.
    Is it of bad taste? Yes indeed, but the Namibian government and the Himbas had a say in this if they wanted to be involved. And the country and the Himba tribe who was involved made a good amount of money out of this.
    Some of you are totally right. When you watch something like this week after week you support it. Funny enough, the people who always shout the loudest about racism and exploration of the african tribes are the ones who watch it every week and suck it up like a sponge. On my side I believe that only a few german common people whatch this, and these are probably people who are not the brightest sheep in the flock.

    • I am Namibian and completely agree with the analysis. It speaks to the continued “othering”, exoticising and dehumanising of African people in general and the Himba in particular. This is especially in bad taste seeing as the colonial history in the country.

  3. Thank you for this detailed analysis of those two (frankly, horrific) programs. The colonial gaze being turned is an interesting idea, though of course not totally new and, as it seems, not in the best hands with these channels. German schools still rely on a rather conservative, male white canon when it comes to literature and film in the EFL classroom. The introduction of the Educational Standards in 2004 has set this area back, imho. Teaching to the test leaves little space for deconstructivism. Sadly, from my experience with university students here, even in Higher Education, cut budgets and study reforms make us fall short of slightly more complex work even in BA literature courses. We’ve taught students to see university as a place to collect credit points; we have thus raised a student generation that focuses primarily on passing exams rather than on broadening their horizons. PS. Pessismistic, yes. I’m sorry; I have just finished grading some rather disappointing term papers.

  4. I am a german and i have to say i’m ashamed of the german TV shows. The TV transmitter makes more and more shows which are very antisocial and the only purpose of those shows are to humilate people. But as ashamed as I am of those shows, i’m ashamed of the many people watching this shit. Because if they wouldn’t watch the shows would be canceled. (I don’t know if my english is ok but if it’s not: sorry)

    • Nope, not correct. The German public broadcaster ZDF sent the complete series “Auf der Flucht” (the German copy of the Australian “Go back to where you came from”) though it was heavily contested for its racist content and reached only a small viewership (zero-point-something). Plus: It won a TV award.

      (I’m sure, sending the complete series was only an act of defiance from whites who were critized for being racist again and again and again …)

  5. Unbelievable how many Africa, Germany and US experts we have
    here! So many smart words, everybody feels attacked and uses the poor Africans to
    make the others feel bad :’-( how heart wrecking.

    I’m a German living in Africa and one thing I can tell u. no
    one, really no one gives a bloody thing about such stupid TV shows,
    no matter from Germany, Netherlands, UK, US…

    Please just come, leave your cash and f..k off again, that’s all
    we want!

    If you are really such good people like you write, stop talking,
    buy a ticket and come here to help!

      • This comment is a little ignorant isnt it, the image Europeans keep culitivating in their minds(through television shows) is what leads them to hold incorrect and frankly debasing views about Africa and African people.

  6. Hi,

    I have lived in Germany for almost 2 years now, and while there are many many aspects of it that I really love, I have to say that I have never lived in such a xenophobic country in the “west”.

    I don’t even look like a foreigner (have scandinavian heritage)… and the amount of genuine dislike and hate directed at me on an almost daily basis by germans is absolutely astounding.

    Not every German… I have met many friendly people here too… but it is nonetheless alarming.

  7. One correction to the line:
    “‘Zicken Alarm in Namibia: Die Wilden sind die Weissen’ (Bimbo Alarm in Namibia: The Savages are the Whites).”

    ‘Zicken’ cannot be translated into ‘Bimbo’.

    It is more like bitch/goat

  8. First of all I’m NOT surprised that instead of commenting on the actual subject, people here seem offended because for once in their privileged lives they are taken as a group (“The Germans”). Isn’t that what we white Germans do all the time when complaining about “The Turks”, “The Africans”, “The asylum seekers”, “The Muslims” and so on? But as stated above: These reactions have to do with the white privilege of being blank and surprised about other peoples’ experiences. Most Germans are either openly or subliminally racist and since we are talking about racism in Germany here, I don’t think it advances the discussion in any way to say “Oh my, when I was in Morocco or where ever people just wanted my money”. It doesn’t make sense because a) THIS IS NOT THE TOPIC and b) This so called “racism” is a reaction to white racism and is based on positive stereotypes of privileged white people and is due to centuries of colonialism where WHITE people came up with the absurd idea that they are superior, richer and simply better than everyone else in this world. So don’t complain if you as a white person have to deal with the repercussions of colonialism and racism – because: Guess what! All the Black and People of Color had to put up with that over decades now! This shit was started by whites, so be mad at your ancestors. Besides that it would be much better for Germany if we reflected our own way of judging people by their supposed group “membership” instead of pointing at others. Or as we say in German: “Kehre zuerst vor deiner eigenen Tür!” Literal translation: “Sweep in front of your own door first!”. Last but not least I think it says a lot about our “German mainstream” if two of the most popular private TV stations think that such a TV show might be a success. Before a TV show airs, they usually run a market analysis to determine if the show will be a success or not. Since this show does air now, the results of the analysis must have pointed out that this kind of disturbing, racist, sexist and embarrassing TV show might appeal to quite a number of Germans. So sorry to disturb your daydream with a “pinch” of German reality.

  9. NOO, please don’t believe the headline. That isn’t germany, that’s just the f***ing trash TV like you know it also from your countries.Only a little minority watches and supports this trash.
    Germany is more than this shit!

  10. I really like the headline, cause I think it’s quite helpful to generalize such things. Cause no matter how many or few Germans watch this …stuff(? don’t even have a word for it), it happened and is presented to the masses and when we just say “who cares, nobody is watching” then it will happen again and again (there are always some idiots watching…) and sooner or later everybody is fine with it, as it will become usual.
    I don’t want this kind of “entertainment” to be “standard”. I want it to be an example of “how exactly not to do entertainment for the masses except you want to be despised”. So I am totally fine with everybody stating that there is something pretty wrong with “the Germans”, because then it’s our concern and not just “oh RTL/SAT1/Pro7/etc is doing this shit again (and again and again…), but who cares, I didn’t watch”. We have to tell them that we really don’t want such kind of TV and not just don’t watch it and leave the rest to some reviews in the news

  11. saw some comments, though coming late. native austrian here ;)
    * Our worst problem, probably it’s global, IMHO is the oligopoly in broadcasting.
    I dare say RTL is _not_ genuinely German. There is a cabale and dynasty behind it: plz lookup “Bertelsmann North America”, on one side they claim they can make a better world with their think tank, on the other side they are co-owners of such double-message shows.
    They have a leg _in_ Germany and they compete with the “Springer” dynasty. Therefor, the mutual criticism is rarely motivated by truth or any care for the better of the country and the culture. It is jealousy about owning the bigger number of “pawns” or John Does…

    In fact, what I despise most and in rage, it is the total refusal of any responsibilty about country and people, when you are sitting in the center of a global oligopoly and flood the country with your very own stuff and content. But one day, it might harm international relations, when that care about sensitivity in _other_ countries in consequence is null as well.

    People from any country might go for a search for genuine TV for their own culture. Prospects are not good. Do something about THIS! In a certain way, they have such a thing in the “thug” states. Russia Today tells me issues, facts and trends about my own society, on more honest level than RTL…

    * The double message by the show will of course make ratings with the racism, not fight it. Any their statements are pure lip-service.
    * A symptom of our problem is visible in the reactions by Germans with visibly non-european ancestry. Neither can most of them find a cozy home in mainstream society, nor are they capable for a deep connection with their “old” culture somewhere else. The creation of a new society needs some reasonable environment to become a healthy one. But TV has become the most influential environment, only lately competed by social media (which are fickle anyway).

    * Please, investigate the mirror of/to Europe that Jose Rizal has created!
    His literary work has been successfully anti-colonial. (start with the “Indolence..” essay and the “Noli..” book.)

  12. Bimbo = Zicke!

    For all those of you who complained in the comments that “bimbo” is the wrong translation for “Zicke”, maybe you should consider that a word could have different meanings in different languages? I perfectly well know about the racial meaning of “bimbo” in German, but in english slang the term “bimbo” has a completely different meaning (from urban dictionary):

    1. bimbo
    A girl who is stupid, wears lots of make up and is obsessed with boys and clothes. Generally blonde but there are exceptions. Usually hang around i with other bimbos. You can spot them because they will be the big group of girls that all look the same and are giggling hysterically.

    2. bimbo
    Woman who is not attractive enough to be a model, not intelligent enough to be an actress, and not nice enough to be a poisonous snake.

    3. bimbo
    A very stupid woman; an airhead

    ….

  13. How can we be sure this is Germany, how can we know it’s not some far Eastern Europeans trying to catch their fun, in any case this shouldn’t be taken so seriously as it’s just a TV show

  14. the title is completely wrong, whats wrong with the germans? that same ideology is like africa is one country. Or should i tell the truth; all germans are wrong, are you happy hearing that?

    • Oh wow. Oh super wow. You sound like one of those alabama boys (in the deep american south) son. I think, ‘One Country’ is a way to say We are ONE People? I think, whomever named the site knows that Africa is a continent? Jeez.

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