What’s wrong with the Germans?
German reality shows that travel to Africa have the feel of colonial era ethnographic films in how they perpetuate the image of the ‘primitive other’
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 globalized 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.