Thursday, December 25, 2008

How the Media Perpetuates Stereotypes

I was thinking about this recently after reading Maureen Dowd's profile of Tina Fey in Vanity Fair. 

Fey was known on Saturday Night Live as "Herman the German" for her ability to make a plan, stick to it, and get the job done. Dowd even threw in a Rommel reference - the Nazi general from World War 2 who was called with admiration the Desert Fox by his competitors in the battlefield. He's also one of the "good Nazis" for his role in the plot to kill Hitler, and he committed suicide in 1944.

It was an interesting stereotype about Germans, one which they love: sort of the hookers with the heart of gold spiel, like Rommel, who ignored orders to kill Jewish civilians. 

This stereotype was popular during the 1950's in Germany, thanks to media representations. Des Teufels General, a play about the moral conflict of a Nazi officer; The Enemy Below, which has a very moving speech by the German submarine commander: "it's not a good war". In their context, these were real breakthroughs: Germans not being painted as cruel oppressors, much in the same way blacks emerged in films as more than slaves or stupid house help through more complex roles. 

But I wonder what the new stereotype of Germans will be, as the baby boomers get older and die in that country. They were caught in the middle, too young to be personally guilty, but desperately questioning their parents and relatives to understand their role in the national mass hysteria of National Socialism. Americans are easily impressed by Germans who come here to work and study - their Herman the German mentality is efficient and let's face it, they do follow orders very well. 

But a few friends of mine who work for German companies in American offices point to lack of creativity, off color remarks about minorities, and a world view that is resistant to change, even in the face of the most compelling evidence otherwise. These are the reasons why German companies in Germany are recruiting international candidates for top positions in German companies - the country is very good at producing worker bees who are easily trained - but not so good at developing leadership. We have the opposite problem in the U.S. - everyone wants to be in charge and thinks they should be! 

Because the baby boomer population in Germany is incredibly large, I expect this to dominate for another 20 years. They didn't have a boom in the late 80's and early 90's as we did, so their younger generation's voices get drowned out, and the fall of the Wall means that we will continue to be deluged with stories from the former East German Republic in our media landscape, some grim (The Lives of Others) and some nostalgic (Goodbye, Lenin!)

I suspect we may be forever stuck with the Herman the German stereotype - but in fact Tina Fey is undeniably American. I can't think of her German equivalent - as I can't think of one for Jon Stewart. So that's what I look forward to - the media political cartoon that at once confirms stereotypes while at the same time destroying them. 


Janie said...

Interesting perspective. I read the article, and it's one of the very few Maureen Dowd articles I can tolerate. Maybe because it was about Tina Fey.

Benno Groeneveld said...

Born just after the war in Amsterdam and growing up in Holland, hate for the Germans was ingrained in me. Nobody talked about the war and the Nazi occupation, but you could cut the vibrations with a knife.

The kind of atmosphere where you still learn German in highschool, but feel that if a German asks you for directions, you first ask for the radio back that they confiscated from your parents at the beginning of the war, then request the bicycle back that the soldiers stole to flee from the liberators, and then send them the wrong way.

However, I have always found younger Germans, those too young to participate in the war or born after the war, were (are?) very apologetic about their history and felt very guilty.

I assume that this guilt is wearing off in the post-babyboom generation and later. But as far as I know that guilt will be there for still be there for a while.