Is Germany nailing numerous and inclusive leisure? | Movie | DW

“Why kiss a frog when you could kiss a princess,” goes the tagline for “Princess Charming,” the self-proclaimed first lesbian reality dating show in the world that is being aired on the German streaming platform TVNOW. Modeled after The Bachelor, the show has several lesbian women vying for the affections of one woman. And for gay men, there’s the show Take Me Out: Boys, Boys, Boys to the same effect.

And then we also have the Heidi Klum-produced-and-hosted show Germany’s Next Topmodel 2021, which features trans model Alex Mariah Peter as its latest winner and Druck, a YouTube series on teenagers in Berlin that aims to represent different ethnic groups in the German capital. It would appear that German TV reflects the kind of pluralism that the country is known for around the world.

Even in the less agile world of cinema, there’s been a steady trend toward greater representation: In recent years, films like Türkisch für Anfänger (2012) — which was spun off from a TV series — and Fack ju Göhte (2013) have also tried to reflect Germany’s changing social structures. But is all this enough?

  • Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    The winner: Alex

    Alex Mariah Peter from Cologne became the first transgender person in the history of the show to win the competition. “Being different is much more normal than we admit to ourselves,” said the 23-year-old, who barely broached the subject of inclusion throughout the season. Speaking about future plans following the victory, the winner said, “First of all, I’m going to get a schnitzel to eat.”

  • Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    A gender-sensitive avatar

    “Inclusion” is now a global catchphrase, and the show also brought it into focus by adding a ‘*’ to its logo — a symbol for diffuse gender roles. Women who were previously marginalized or left out because they were different could now present themselves on GNTM. Refugees, curvy women and transgenders — all got a chance under the spotlight.

  • Dascha at the grand finale of the show on May 27, 2021.

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Curvy is beautiful

    Ukrainian-born Dascha has been living in Germany since she was five and says she was bullied for most of her life. That’s why she didn’t just want to win but also make an important statement: “I want to be an ideal and support people who are bullied.” The confident 21-year-old weighs 85 kilos (187 pounds).

  • Soulin at the finale of GNTM on May 27, 2021

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Living the dream

    In 2015, Soulin and her family fled Syria and arrived in Germany via Turkey. The 20-year-old was all teary-eyed while modeling for a jeans brand: “I am the girl who could not achieve her dreams. Now I’m here and living my dream.” Soulin is now a model and made it to third place on GNTM.

  • Romina at the final of GNTM on May 27, 2021.

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Small is beautiful

    At 1.68 meters (5 ft. 6.1 inches), Romina is hardly someone you would call “short,” but aspirants for GNTM need to be at least 1.76 meters tall. Romina had a very natural look for the show but earlier, she copied stars like Kylie Jenner and even got botox injected into her lips. Now she wants to support young girls who blindly follow social media trends.

  • Heidi Klum (left) stands with Sara Nuru at the 2009 finale of the series

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Beauty beyond skin color

    Sara Nuru’s parents immigrated from Ethiopia, and she says she was the first Black baby to be born at a hospital in the town of Erding in Bavaria. She was also the first Black model to win GNTM in 2009. Nuru has gone places since then and is now involved with developmental projects in her parents’ home country.

  • Heidi Klum applauding at the GNTM finale in 2018.

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Heidi Klum’s ‘circus for models?’

    “Germany’s Next Top Model – by Heidi Klum” has been on air since 2006 with the supermodel as its host. For decades, its catwalks only displayed mostly white, slim and tall women with long legs. Transgenders, small-sized women or those with curves had no chance of walking on the ramp.

  • Topless women protest in Augsburg in front of the building of TV channel ProSieben, which is airing the show.

    Transgender person wins ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’

    Physical beauty is skin-deep

    Heidi Klum and GNTM boast loyal fans among many Germans, especially young girls, who idolize the show and its models. But critics say that teenage girls often copy anorexic models on GNTM, which sends out the message that beauty is more important than education. This year as well, feminists protested the sexualization of female bodies on the show.

    Author: Suzanne Cords

German popular culture seems to be getting more inclusive, at least when it comes to acknowledging the presence and existence of LGBTQ individuals and of people from different ethnic backgrounds. But until now, television and entertainment in general have primarily stuck to stereotypes when portraying such minorities.

And there has been little public discussion on the various dimensions pertaining to diversity that issues like inclusion in society and — by consequence — the representation of minorities in television and entertainment generally should entail.

Too Turkish to be German?

“You can see that homosexuals, transsexuals and others are indeed represented in German television. Germany is much more liberal than other countries,” says actor Dean Baykan, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents. Compared to Germany, other European countries like Hungary, for example, have been very strict in their punitive attitude towards homosexuality, with a recently tabled law there practically outlawing the public representation of lifestyles that don’t fall in line with so-called traditional family values.

“But while Germany is open in some ways, in other ways it’s actually more conservative,” Baykan continues. “For example, foreigners or those with a foreign background are not taken seriously in feature films or in serious acting projects.”

Actor Dean Baykan

Actor Dean Baykan has missed out on many ‘meaty’ roles

Baykan himself explains how he once almost scored a major role in a popular crime series on a German TV channel — but only almost. “I made it to the final round,” he said, adding that he feels that his Turkish background may have been the reason for producers deciding against him — despite the fact that he has a western first name. Whether his ethnic background was a dealbreaker or not may never be known, but actors like Baykan feel that they are not being considered for certain roles not because of an apparent lack of  talent but rather because casting directors prefer when they are reduced to representing stereotypes.

‘Drug dealers, criminals and weaklings’

Filmmaker Deiu Hao Do agrees with that sort of assessment. The son of Chinese minority immigrants from Vietnam is part of the project Vielfalt im Film (diversity in film), and represents the Berlin Asian Film Network (BAFNET).

“You have Black people selling drugs, Muslims being cast as criminals, Asian women playing weak characters … But there is much more complexity to these ethnic groups, and these also need to be represented,” he told DW.

In a recent survey conducted by Vielfalt im Film, 5,500 participants said they found that such clichés were being perpetuated by the industry. Nearly 88% said that Arabs were usually represented in stereotypical ways on German television. The number was nearly 83% for Muslims in general, nearly 75% for Asians and 56% for Jews, as anti-Semitism is on the rise across many parts of Europe once more.

Born this way

Sheri Hagen has featured in many films, including the Oscar winner Das Leben der Anderen

German-Nigerian actor Sheri Hagen

Furthermore, 13% said they had faced bias because of their body shape and weight, while 10% of the participants said they had experienced discrimination because of their sexual identity. The study also mentioned homosexual participants saying that they had tried to hide their sexual orientation in order to improve their chances of finding work or obtaining a certain role in a film or show.

Earlier this year, 185 actors in Germany publicly announced in a newspaper article that they identified as “different” and that it was time for them to publicly acknowledge that they were gay, bisexual, lesbian, queer, non-binary and transsexual. They all demanded more visibility and representation in the German entertainment industry, having been pushed into hiding, ignoring or glossing over their identities.

Indeed, broadcasters themselves have been rather reluctant about addressing their actors’ sexual identities directly, even reflecting a sense of denial in some instances. German actress Ulrike Folkerts, for example, is a lesbian in real life but plays a heterosexual police officer in the crime series Tatort.

In a recent interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, she said that she had only recently been asked by the producers of the show — i.e. the regional public broadcaster SWR — to finally reveal her sexual orientation publicly. She refused, saying it was too late to do so.

A photo of the February 5,2021 cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung

185 actors revealed their sexual identites in the Süddeutsche Zeitung

Diversity = complexity?

Actor Sheri Hagen says that the concept of diversity is not just limited to having LGBTQ stars and the token person with a non-German background being featured in a show. The Lagos-born actor moved to Germany in the early 1990s. She identifies as being a German with Nigerian roots.

Hagen has acted in films like the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen or the previously mentioned television crime series Tatort, and often speaks about the importance of greater inclusion in the German entertainment industry.

“Diversity for me is not just about skin color or gender, which is what the dominant thinking in the German film industry, is” she says, adding that diversity also “includes disabilities, sexual identity, weight-based discrimination, east-west discrimination — especially here in Germany — class-based differences, ethnic differences, cultural differences, skin color and more.”

Filmmaker Deiu Hao Do agrees that in this context, it is important to understand how these various dimensions of diversity and the related aspects of potential discrimination interact with each other. Fighting this sort of exclusion is central to promoting the cause of diversity, he stressed.

Film director Deiu Hao Do is currently working on a series about the Vietnam war

Deiu Hao Do: campaigning for inclusion

A sore lack of perspective

Streaming platforms have created alternative ways for filmmakers from around the world to showcase their work and reach new audiences. And while content from some parts of the world has certainly capitalized on this potential, these new opportunities haven’t translated into creating a greater amount of diverse streaming content coming from Germany.

Hagen says that Germany can learn a lot from best practices of inclusion currently employed  in the British film industry, where shows like Bridgerton and a recent limited series on the life of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, have used colorblind casting as a means to promote diversity even in period dramas.

  • Tsitsi Dangarembga Autorin Simbabwe

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Tsitsi Dangarembga

    Dangarembga is not only a filmmaker but also successfully writes novels and screenplays, including for the film 1993 “Neria” that went on to become the most-watched film in Zimbabwe. In 2020, Dangarembga was arrested in Harare at a protest against government corruption and still faces trial a year later.

  •  Wanuri Kahiu, woman wearing colorful shirt and a blue hat looks into camera

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Wanuri Kahiu

    Born in Nairobi in 1980, the director had a global cinema success with her 2018 film “Rafiki.” The first Kenyan film shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it portrays a love affair between two young Kenyan women and was banned in her home country. Kahui is now off to Hollywood, where she will direct “The Thing about Jellyfish,” based on the acclaimed novel by Ali Benjamin.

  • Kemi Adetiba, laughing woman at a press conference

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Kemi Adetiba

    The Nigerian filmmaker, who also makes television series and music videos, is a big name in Nollywood — which is what people call Nigerian cinema, the second most productive in the world after Indian film. Commercially, Adetiba’s feature films are hugely successful. She is producing her next film, a sequel to her blockbuster “King of Boys,” exclusively for Netflix.

  •  Kunle Afolayan, man seated at a microphone

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Kunle Afolayan

    The Nigerian director is one of the most important representatives of the new Nigerian cinema (“New Nollywood”), which is characterized by narrative complexity, a new aesthetic — and a much bigger budget. Afolayan’s thriller “The Figurine — Araromire” (2009), one of Nigeria’s most commercially successful films, is considered to have launched the movement.

  • Abderrahmane Sissako , smiling man looks into camera

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Abderrahmane Sissako

    Sissako’s films deal with topics including globalization, terrorism and exile. Born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, the film director and producer is considered one of the best-known filmmakers from sub-Saharan Africa. His 2014 film “Timbuktu” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and won several prizes at France’s Cesar Awards as well as at the Cannes Film Festival.

  • Philippe Lacote, man sits in a chair in front of a house, looks into the camera

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Philippe Lacote

    The film director from the Ivory Coast most recently premiered “La Nuit des Roies” (2020) at the Venice International Film Festival. The film, reminiscent of the stories from the “One Thousand and One Nights” Arabian folk takes, tells the story of convicted criminal named Zama who becomes a convincing storyteller in order to survive at La Maca prison in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan.

  •  Machérie Ekwa Bahango , head shot of a woman smiling into the camera

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Macherie Ekwa Bahango

    Promising new talent: The 27-year-old director from the Democratic Republic of Congo saw her film “Maki’La” debut at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. The young self-taught director spent three years working on her first feature film, which is the story of a group of street children in Kinshasa. The film won top prize at the Ecrans Noirs African film festival in Cameroon.

  •  Moussa Toure, head shot of a man wearing a white shirt and a colorful hat

    Contemporary African filmmakers: Names to remember

    Moussa Toure

    Moussa Toure is a Senegalese film director, producer and screenwriter and has long been a major figure in African cinema. His feature films and documentaries are often political. Toure describes his 2012 film “La Pirogue,” which tells the story of refugees’ journey by boat from Africa to Europe, as a “slap in the face of the Senegalese government.”

    Author: Maria John Sánchez

Sheri Hagen says that diversity is indeed not about the token actor of color in a television series but rather about a more holistic approach. The recently aired German TV-series Breaking Even, which stars Ugandan-German actor Lorna Ishema in the main role, is a case-in-point for her. Hagen says that diversity is also about who’s writing the story, how these stories are communicated and who executes these ideas on camera.

As of today, she adds, the boards of most German media broadcasters are still “male and white” — and her assessment is, de facto, not wrong. Dieu Hao Do agrees that in order “to acknowledge the multiple perspectives in storytelling,” the German television and film industry needs more diversity, “and this is something we don’t have at the moment.”