Germany’s Next Top Model and the Psychology of Privilege [The Germany Files]

by Guest Contributors Carolina Asuquo-Brown and Elisabeth Schäfer-Wünsche

Heidi Klum may have never exactly been a catwalk super model like fellow German Claudia Schiffer, but she is definitely one of the country’s most savvy business women and biggest advertising stars.

In Germany, Heidi’s face sells sweets, shoes, fast food and almost every other product you could come up with. But her biggest media success so far has definitely been to follow Tyra Banks’ footsteps and host a show called “Germany’s Next Top Model,” a show that in most respects is the exact copy of its big sister “America’s Next Top Model.” We all know the story: Young hopefuls from all parts of the country flock to Heidi’s castings (conducted strict governess style), strut their stuff on the catwalk and undergo various photo shots and challenges before, in the end, one young woman is crowned the next Heidi.

One thing that is strikingly different though is the ethnic make-up (no pun intended) of the contestants. Though a look at any shopping-mall or classroom will suggest that Germany is an ethnically quite diverse nation, up to season 3 (this summer) no brown face made it to the final stages of the show. In last year’s show, a girl with a Brazilian mother came fifth. But it was not until the 2009 season, that Sara Nuru, Bavarian-born with Ethiopian roots, did not only crash the Top 10 ranks but also won the contest.

Interestingly enough, another hugely popular German TV format (also adapted from a US show, namely from “American Idol”) is well known to draw its contestants mainly from Germany’s migrant population. It has consequently elicited quite a number of vitriolic remarks from the media, branding it Germany’s “Migrant Idol.” But most Germans (at least those who admit to watching the show, as it is considered quite a bit of a guilty pleasure that most intellectually demanding German TV viewers deny watching), for 5 consecutive seasons have happily been going along with the highly diverse crowd of aspiring Idols.
Things seem to be a bit different though, when it comes to reactions to Sara Nuru’s victory and to modeling, a business that is almost solely based on looks: features, hair, body and the iconography created around those attributes.

Based on comments from German online communities, it seems that the majority of participants in those virtual discussions happily accepted the fact that the arguably prettiest contestant won, some voicing that they especially appreciated the fact that a not stereotypically German looking girl made it.

Of those that did not agree, only few were blatantly racist, but quite a few more flaunted an only slightly more subtle racism. They argued that in line with the traditional laws of citizenship (with German citizenship only granted on the basis of German ancestry) Germany’s next top model should be genetically and quintessentially German. The laws have long changed, but it seems that the concept they embodied still lives on.

Most posts that had an issue with a winner of color claimed they found it difficult if not impossible to identify with products or fashion that were advertised and promoted using a black model and that as Nuru looked nothing like the majority of Germans, she could not be considered a role model.

This line of argumentation strikes one as odd, considering how little the average woman can or generally does identify with the omnipresent size zero models anyway, regardless of common ethnic background.
The interesting bit is however, that – for most of these posters – this might be the first and only time that an issue that normally is the fate of the minority population, to not see yourself, the way you look, your hair, your body reflected in mainstream media and advertising, becomes relevant to them.

Always keeping in mind that these reactions were shown only by a “minority” of people, this seems to be an excellent example of how a very profane everyday issue can actually highlight the often hidden psychology of privilege and of power. Hidden that is to those who possess these privileges, often oblivious and without ever reflecting on that, as being the representative “norm” is never questioned. Social-psychological and at the same time political issues like the processes of group identity, stereotyping, and the influence of minority representation on majority group members’ perception are tackled by the show.
Having to come to grips with the experience of not seeing yourself reflected and represented and thus having your position and self-image questioned poses a psychological challenge to a majority. The comments may be ignorant and annoying, but on the flipside even the slightest bit of realizing that media representation mirrors the power structure within a society is a first step, as this is a concept that is not easily conveyed to those that are not negatively affected by it.