27 Feb V is for Vaterland
Berlin, being the capital city of Germany, is a place where every night promises a handful of political events, promoting whatever might be strategically advantageous with the obligatory glass of sekt and regional beer. This reclaimed capital is crawling with diplomats who haven’t eaten at home in months because each night offers the next parade of tempting fried snacks served up lukewarm with a side of eager lobbyists. In the rare event that I am invited to one of these things, I do like to attend. Somehow the Berlin embassy scene holds a certain appeal, for a large part due to their dual appeal – sipping free wine and watching stiff bald men wheeling orange-toned blonde women with clenched jaws to the shark feeding frenzy called a buffet table.
As an independent identity designer, artist and writer from the US who has built a business in Berlin for the last several years, I have managed to get on a wide array of mailing lists – some connected to the straggling world of business but others linked to the mainstays of Berlin life, politics, culture and design – the main products of this economically bankrupt city. So, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to an awards ceremony held in conjunction with the second annual „Victress“ event. This pro-woman conference-cum-networking event, tied to the CDU (Germany’s current ruling party – the Christian Democratic Union) promotes itself as being established to celebrate the empowerment of women through their brave achievements in the cut-throat environment of the German corporate business world; heroically negotiating the challenges of facing both motherhood and a career.
In a country where, until recently, the market shopping hours extended only until 6 PM on weekdays and 1PM on Saturdays, second earner incomes taxed at greater rates than primary household earners and an education system where the length of school days varied from moment to moment and day to day, there wasn’t much opportunity for women to hold down a demanding career while simultaneously raising children. Even today, 6 years since my arrival, in the black and white/binary world of conventional German wisdom, the prospects, and apparent will for women to do both are statistically lower than anywhere else in the rest of Western Europe.
Having been placed on the mailing list for the first Victress event by Sister Safia, the illustrious queen of West-Side Berlin PR, I already had an idea what to expect – high freak factor, including over-the-top hairstyles, vampish perma-grinned organizers and not so subliminal messaging from the sponsors. Knowing I wasn’t going to be disappointed in this department, I wanted to include a friend in the fun this time. Naturally I thought of inviting my pal Emily, also heralding from the US, who is building her career as a freelance body-work practitioner in Berlin. As a self-employed businessperson herself, she has experienced how much harder it is to be a professional woman here than it is in our home country.
On the way to the ceremony I filled Emily in on a few details of the Victress program, peppered with my own editorializing about their so-called agenda and partnership with the CDU. In the last few years the CDU has taken a leadership role in Germany – with the crowning achievement of raising „their girl“, Angela Merkel to the position of Chancellor in the last national elections. With the wind in their conservative sails, the Victress organization has ridden along with the party, producing Victress promotional T-shirts linking Angela Merkel with their both their organization and, oddly enough, the outworn image of a popular revolutionary. A frightening image plasters black shirts – appropriating the famous silhouette of Che Guevara (with the additional trivia tidbit being that this ubiquitous image was taken while he looked from the audience up to Castro, who was giving a speech) and placing Ms. Merkel’s upturned face in it’s negative space. Above, scrawled in semi-rough lettering stands the word „Evolution“.
Attending with Sister Safia the year before, I had been sourly disappointed by both the organization’s name and logo design selected to represent the German vanguard of female empowerment –a Wagnerian opera singer’s horned helmet rendered in sober burgundy and gray toned disco light bulbs, a-la Studio 54. It looked to me like an overzealous nike swoosh, pendulous and pointed and painfully trapped in kitsch conventions of a bygon Teutonic era. And then there was the name, Victress –implying both a winner, supposedly women this time – and the loser – the unfavorable bottom position now appointed to the male camp. Their name spoke in a cross current to the statement of purpose they touted on the Victress website. Instead of chooseing a name that embodied their message of the sexes working toegther, it denoted a battle to be won by a single side. What ever happened to the idea of equality? Balance? Working together instead of continuously fighting the war of the sexes. What if, instead of fighting a series of corporate battles on the turf of the „enemy“, we all turn the tables 45°, seeing the relationship between the sexes as a dynamic of equal, synergistic parts – paving a new road and inventing new outcomes?
Admittedly, it is a challenge to peek outside that pesky little bubble called myopic cultural perspective long enough to see that there could be a different way to view things, to do things and subsequently new possibilities in every direction. I mentioned all of this to Emily, getting worked up into a breathless diatribe. But fortunately Emily was on the same page, having also been educated like I was, in the gender neutral ways of 1970’s American pop culture TV, featuring The Bionic Woman and Public Broadcasting programs like „Free to be You and Me“. She admitted she was indeed quite curious to see this strange, devolutionary throw back to the fifties for herself.
Passing through the guest list check-in table we were each handed a program for the evening’s award ceremony and a brochure hi-lighting the 2 days of events that had been held as a run up to this grand finale. I couldn’t help but drop my jaw at the key cover graphic representing this year’s Victress series. The tag line „Brave is Beautiful“ was illustrated with a poorly photoshopped image of a bullfighter. But in this version, the typically male icon of violent, virile agility was replaced by elongated female legs and ass, sporting green skintight bullfighter pants and impossibly high stiletto heels. The bull, looking more like bull shit as a result of the photoshop filter abstracting it, cowered in the shadow of her artificially narrowed hips. But where was her face? Was there going to be no steely gaze to assert an authentic sense of self? No strong feminine identity to challenge the gray patriarchy financing this „girl-positive“ project? Above the schwag bag table hung an oversized wall poster doubling as a calendar decorated with the same sexist motif, like something one would find in an auto menchainc’s back office. Placed suggestively beside the enormous skinny ass dangled a selection of assorted t-shirts available for sale, including the Evolution-Che/Angela design and another featuring pink cartoonish stilettos and emblazoned with the motto „ I’ll Work for Shoes“. It was difficult to imagine a more cynical joke, until the cigarette girls, clad in black slinky cocktail dresses, penetrated the dense pack of guests enjoying their complimentary glass of sekt and now their free smokes. Did anyone else besides Emily and I see the hypocrisy? Remarkably, things only went down-hill from there.
Soon we were corralled into the auditorium, without even a hint of snack cracker or cheese cube to tide over our now growing hunger for some substance. Eventually the lights dimmed and a slideshow of photos taken during the 2 day event began playing behind the male host for the event, Michael Glos. Following his gushing comments on the revelations made about the current and admittedly rather sorry state of German women, the audience was dragged on a photographic journey of the attendee’s 2 days of self-discovery – from color-me beautiful-esque makeup sessions and voice coaching accompanied by acoustic guitar, to dour panel discussions and confidence coaching offered by Carl E. Gross a small, bearded man dressed in a chinese kimono and hailing from the US. As the tour of hi-lights wound down, the first of the awards was presented by Werner Schulze-Erdel, a overly cheerful man in a gray suit, to the corporation Bosch in recognition of their efforts to create a day care center and other career liberating programs by and for, as he put it in the diminutive, „the girls“ (die mädels). Each of the following trophy presenters, aside from the one female –Carola Ferstl a television presenter for the business channel n-tv, was an equally patronizing male business leader, breathlessly complimenting the achievements of the award winning „girls“. In the shadows of the audience, Emily and I glanced at each other from time to with the beseeching look of „ Did he just say that? Is this for real? “ written plainly in our eyes. Apparently in Der Vaterland, yes – this is real.
Scattered between the award presentations were entertainment acts – again built primarily around the very outdated stereotypes that the Victress organization was purporting to challenge. In one instance the famished audience was tormented with the act called Duo Blind Date, featuring female „businessman tamer“ a suggestively clad in a leopard print unitard, taking a gray suited and bespectacled bald man through his paces with her crackling bull whip. It gave new meaning to the term Pussy Whipped – but did little for either of the sexes. For the finale, the Berlin Star Singers, about 15 blonde girls with midriffs showing under their tight white t-shirts, sang out from behind the steady, macho guidance of the lucky single male lead.
As the lights came up Emily and I looked at each other, equally shocked at the sheer number of patronizing quips and stereotypes that had been slung around in the last hour and a half. How could this behavior have anything to do with their purported efforts at female empowerment? The mission as stated on the Victress website „to increase the proportion of women in leading positions in order to make the region of Germany prepared for the future“ had little apparent connection with the barley-subliminal messages being doled out tonight with buffet table sized serving spoons and a pat on the head.
We made our way to the banquet hall and ran into Suzie, another female ex-pat originating from Detroit who is building her own business in Berlin with a cozy comfort food restaurant in the trendy Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. She came up to us with her mouth open in an expression of dumbfounded shock and awe. Did we see what she saw? How condescending! What a throwback to the 1950’s! So it wasn’t just Emily and I who had felt insulted by the event’s not so subtile sub-texts running against the smooth veneer of lip serviced empowerment.
But the events we had witnessed tonight were, in no way, contrary to the messages we were used to being bombarded by every day in this traditionally patriarchal country, where the German language reinforces the weakness of woman (weiblisch meaning both feminine and stupid), while hyper sexualized bodies are presented as a disposable pleasure objects on the back page of the populist daily newspaper The BZ. However, Victress brazenly creates a cross current of silent website words mouthing one rather empowering, feel-good message while their brand images and public actions paint a completely different and more misogynistic picture. It is hard to believe that an organization connected to a political party as powerful as the CDU would make this blundering contradiction by accident. By applying these degrading images and comments under the umbrella of female empowerment I can’t help but wonder if the Victress organizers are consciously driving these crossed messages to confuse their audience and subtly negate their publicized intention. Or, could it really be that their image campaign concepts have been developed by an agency so naive in visual theory, so steeped in the madonna/whore complexed culture from which it emerged, that the stiletto heeled bullfighter butt was developed out of a sadly sexist innocence. If this was the case, however, then how could this campaign image have slipped past the educated eyes of the empowerment focused event organizers in the proposal phase?
The world is a mysterious place, and operates in many hidden ways. But we are learning new tricks all the time, techniques for bending public perception and shaping mediated reality. There are many questions that emerge in this arena of visual communication about how to operate with integrity: Asking ourselves in what ways can we work ethically with the power of brand images? Who do the images we both present and consume serve? How do the pictures one uses to represent their cause or corporation speak reveal one’s actual beliefs? Are they positive, sustainable, enriching and empowering ideas or do they perpetuate exclusion, domination and limiting stereotypes? Do they serve a hidden agenda or speak openly? In the case of Victress, their conservative underwear shows its ugly panty line against skin tight bullfighter trousers. Condescension is the clear sub-text, splashing sexist slogans across the promotional fitted girlie T-shirts for sale in the lobby shouting „I’ll work for shoes“ and „Hot mind, brilliant body“. Brave may be beautiful, as one of the Victress Day tag lines suggests, but the bravery necessary these days in Germany, our beloved Vaterland, as in other countries around the globe, is in breaking down these tired and limiting female stereotypes and choosing new role models; not by paying lip service to women’s empowerment while continuing to hide behind these one dimensional images born from the minds of men.
Originally released in 2007