Category Archives: Media-wise

What does the SuperBowl have to do with Germany?

IMG_3546Until yesterday the answer would have been not much. But since the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl yesterday, Germany has now been linked to this most American of American all-men games. Naturally, it is a man who connected the two.

Sebastian Vollmer, a German national born in Düsseldorf, played for the Patriots and is the first German to win a Super Bowl title.

German news media spread the message to such an extent that my dad, who usually does not watch any kind of sports, German or American, noticed the news. He remarked that even Germany’s most watched newscast, die Tagesschau, found this worth airing, along with the remark that “violence, concussions, and deflated balls made for a hard year in American football” [Gewalt, Gehirnverletzungen und zum Schluss noch Bälle, denen die Luft ausging. Der amerikanische Football hat ein hartes Jahr hinter sich.]

The Tagesschau also reported that few German companies sought to use the overprized ad space of the Super Bowl; among German car makers only BMW was propagating its electric car as the wonder of the future.

Other German news media highlighted that Vollmer did not touch the ball once but served as bodyguard to another player and that Vollmer gave his first interview barefoot; most news media included Vollmer’s quote after winning: “I have no words. It’s insane.

The generally optimistic magazine Focus commented: “Germany has its SUPER-BOWL-HERO! Sebastian Vollmer writes football history.” [Deutschland hat seinen SUPER-BOWL-HELDEN! Sebastian Vollmer schreibt Football-Geschichte… ]

What do I make of this?

Simply, in the asymmetrical distribution of attention around the globe, German news media and people pay a lot more attention to U.S. sports and culture than vice versa. Luckily, Germans are also aware of the problematic sides of U.S. sports culture, see violence and injuries.

Moreover, German (and U.S.) news media like to declare heroes, especially men. And no matter, which nationalities are involved, it goes unreported that the Super Bowl as THE sports-entertainment-consumerism orgasm of U.S. culture is an all-men event when it comes to players and commentators. Of course, women are invited to stand on the sidelines, watch and dance half-naked in between.

So you have a white German dude as part of the men’s fest this time. Big deal.

The more interesting story is to find an event with all-women athletes and all-women commentators in the United States or Germany (or any country for that matter) that would rival such a nationalist-capitalistic über-celebration regarding viewership, hyping, and dollars.


Happy 25th anniversary reunited Germany! Beware of continuing differences

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I’m witnessing the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunion through the veil of heritage media and social media. The anniversary greets me whenever I check Twitter, click through the websites of German public television, magazines, and newspapers or listen to German public radio podcasts. They report about the details of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unsung heroines and protestors bringing about this peaceful revolution, and the persistent differences between the former East and West Germany.

Among the pieces I saw and read, oddly enough I liked an article in the U.S. press very much. The Washington Post, as one of the U.S. newspapers of record, acknowledged this moment in German history with compelling graphics that outline the ongoing differences between former West and East Germany. This is quite interesting and necessary to update the image of Germany among the wider U.S. public.

The vast majority of U.S. Americans I’ve encountered so far are familiar with the former West Germany. As they are usually happy to share with me, their ties to former West Germany came about because they were”military brats” (their words); had friends or exchange students from Germany; or traveled to Germany for leisure, work or to discover family history. I’ve only met about a handful of U.S. Americans who had traveled to former East Germany. Those who did usually visited either East Berlin or another big city in the East before people brought the Berlin Wall to fall on November 9. 1989. It’s seldom that I bump into a U.S. American who set out to visit former East Germany in the recent 25 years.

I’ve encouraged everyone who has talked with me about Germany to visit former East Germany. I’m happy to report that I’ve done my share to “bring” almost two dozen U.S. Americans to the East, particularly to Leipzig, Dresden, Weimar and other smaller towns in the heart of Germany where the reformer Martin Luther lived and preached. I smile when I realize that I introduced J. only to bigger and smaller cities in the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia — three of the five New States that make up the landscape of former East Germany. (Exceptions are his visit to the Eagle’s Nest of Hitler in Bavaria, airport lay overs in Frankfurt/Main, and must-see stops in Berlin.)

In my experience, most U.S. Americans only know of the differences between East and West Germany before 1989. Few have heard of continuing higher wages for the same work in former West Germany. The graphics on income and unemployment below demonstrate this discrepancy from yet another perspective: income is higher in the former West; unemployment is higher in the former East.

The roles of men and women differ. The overwhelming majority women with children worked full-time in the former East, out of economic necessity for the federal budget. Women with children in the former West most often stayed home or worked part-time. German laws still reflect this and make it difficult for families with children. The graphic on childcare below is a glaring example of what hampers women’s return to full-time work and their career, especially in the former West, after giving birth.

Another discrepancy are internet adoption and literacy which are higher in the former West. The Washington Post did not include a graphic for this but data exist. I also noticed this in my own research. In three separate studies, during which I interviewed a total of over 100 bloggers in Germany, the overwhelming majority of bloggers (women and men), and especially those with a claim to fame, are located in the territory of the former West Germany. This reflects the migration pattern of especially young people (and women) from former East to former West for better opportunities, higher pay and life quality. You can see the problem visualized in the graphic on demographics. This, by the way, also has created potentially more conflicts between adult children and parents in the former East. As these children move to the former West and find partners there visits home in the former East are not as frequent as for adult children who can stay in their home region in the former West.

So I was thrilled to discover an article in a major U.S. publication that acknowledges these differences between former East and West. Below are a few of the compelling graphics from the Washington Post (inspired by the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit). They also touch on the hot button issues of xenophobia, vaccinations (mandatory in schools in former East Germany), and people with migration backgrounds. (It’s not politically correct to call them “foreigners.”)

*This is the politically correct language for former East Germany: New States [Neue Bundesländer]. Former West Germany is now called Old States [Alte Bundesländer]. Since most U.S. Americans are not familiar with this terminology – as the article in the Washington Post also reflects — I will stick with (former) East and West Germany.

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Globalization before globalization and the 1920s girl


Bobbed hair, cigarettes, slender athletic bodies, and sexy clothes — the “golden” 1920s are often looked upon as a time of freedom for women, and its accessories and fashion have become icons. But how did this image come to be? And was it only a Western phenomenon as common images of girls in Paris, London, Berlin and New York suggest?

Turns out research across the world shows that globalization existed before the word became the everyday currency to comprehend ongoing contemporary entanglements. In a fascinating row of vignettes six researchers in six different countries and additional authors collaborated (image all the phone conferences and e-mails back and forth they must have gone through) looked at how this image of the modern girl arose in China, India, Germany, the Soviet Union, Australia, Japan and South Africa. While often people in the U.S. and Europe assume that colonization brought Western culture into other parts of the world, this thoroughly researched book of case studies shows how Asian, black and other influences flowed into shaping what we now think of the 1920s girl.

The authors look at the image of the girl — which is understood as a style rather than a biological age category — through cosmetics ads and beauty products. Issues such as tanning, face powders, and hair products became objects of daily use rather than luxury items. More so, they became linked to political debate about the situation of women. After all, it gave women time for themselves, to prepare to go out into public space, and by selling beauty products to become entrepreneurs with own incomes. While we perhaps only think of the link between political  statements and soap ads when remembering Dove’s Real Bodies campaign to feature healthy-looking women without sickly thin-looking bodies — beauty products in the past signaled national agendas, the movement to empower (black) women, and “tanning” strategies to signal race hierarchies.

Anyone interested in the depth of what the 1920s meant for being a woman and how the image of the modern girl was used for politics, not only in the West, should pick up The Modern Girl Around the World. Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization by the Around the World Research Group. It is very readable despite being historic sciences, features many photos of ads, and chapters can be read independently of each other if you’re only interested in a particular country or phenomenon. It’s introduction can give you more of the theoretical background if needed, while second chapter gives you a good idea of how ads on skin coloring flowed back and forth between different countries, weaving together beauty ideals across boundaries before the age of social media.

The book was published in 2008 by Duke University Press and should be available to be ordered in your favorite local bookstore, in a college or university library nearby or online.

Another detailed extended review by Jan Bardsley (from Intersections: Gender and sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 25, February 2011).

Think you’re brave? The stories of seven women activists in rural India

A review of Playing with fire: feminist thought and activism through seven lives in India by the Sangtin writers collective. Published 2006 by the University of Minnesota Press.

This is not a usual post but the second of three book reviews I am writing as part of a seminar I am taking this spring semester in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland. We are asked to write a book review geared to a blog audience. As it happens, I do have you as my wonderful audience and thought: ‘Why not?’

playing with fire

“A cumin seed in a camel’s mouth,” “the churning of our minds and souls,” and “using one set of teeth to show and another one to chew.” You think you are reading poetic fiction but lo and behold you are reading the impressive, real stories of seven women activists in rural India.

They are the Sangtin writers in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh; with Sangtin meaning closest female companion. Seven of them are field workers for an NGO that aims to empower women. They take you on their  journey during which they write diaries and read them to each other to discuss why their lives as women are they way they are. In their beautiful metaphors, they bravely tell you about the humiliations and abuse they have had to endure during childhood, youth, matrimony and motherhood and which continue because they are women, of a certain caste (and there are so many of them!), and religion.

Their tales of intricate and complicated family lives will give you a deep if often shocking view into rural Indian society but they also avoid sensationalism to foreground realistic ideas of what can be changed. Change, they teach us, can be achieved if it is “carried out in thoughtful and respectful manner” so that everyone can accept it. Their boldness to put their own lives and livelihood at risk by simply talking about it can only startle and impress anyone who takes individualistic expressions as a given.

This becomes particularly clear in the beginning and ending which explain the intriguing political backlash their book sparked in the “confusing, vicious circle” of NGOs: attacks on each of the writers and resignation from a job for one of them. Playing with fire merges gripping accounts of non-fiction writing a la Truman Capote with the best of feminist science. It is a must-read for anyone seriously thinking about the power of hierarchies and rituals that keep change from happening while avoiding the easy out of sarcastic resignation to work toward change and new ways to measure it. 

Check your local and university libraries for Playing with fire. Otherwise your local bookstore of choice can order it (apart from online selling sites.)

The original version was published in 2004 in Hindi and is titled Sangtin Yatra: Saat Zindgiyon Mein Lipta Nari Vimarsh (A Journey of Sangtin: Feminist Thought Wrapped in Seven Lives). It is available here.

Other review of Playing with fire:
Project Muse/ NWSA Journal 

Lifeline, Therapist, Teacher, Friend – The Meaning of Books in U.S. Prisons

This is not a usual post but the first of three book reviews I am writing as part of a seminar I am taking this spring semester in Women’s Studies. We are asked to write a book review geared to a blog audience. As it happens, I do have you as my wonderful audience and thought: ‘Why not?’

A book review of Meagan Sweeney’s Reading Is My Window. Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prison.


It’s easy to apply Megan Sweeney’s title metaphor to Reading Is My Window itself. Her 258 pages offer a window into a walled off world amidst U.S. society. But her window still has bars: The mostly African-American and white women, who are the book’s protagonists and focus, are locked up in the prison-industrial complex that since its building in the 1970s has morphed into a dysfunctional system to hide the “human evidence of our social failures,” as she writes.

Her well-organized book is based on the yearlong meticulous interviewing of 94 women in three prisons in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina on their reading practices during book club meetings she organized. But before we hear the women speak, Sweeney sets up the tight framework in which the women are tied. She starts with a dense historic overview of U.S. prisons and their libraries to then drill deeper into the specific conditions of women, books, and reading in prison. She details the often arbitrary restrictions and local politics for women to obtain books and the “Underground Book Railroad” they have built in defense. She follows up with individual chapters on popular genres such as urban fiction and self-help books highlighting the therapeutic, educational, and friendship-like nature the books take on for many women. She also introduces us to Denise and Monique in two portraits that carve out how these two avid readers make meaning of their lives with the help of books.

Zooming back and forth between sprinkles of theory, her observations, and the self-reflections of the women, Sweeney gives a lot of space to the women’s voices so that they shine on their own; she even includes copies of their reading notes. Above all, Cassandra, Maisey, and Solo remind us about the joy of reading books but also their value for intellectual and emotional survival in the struggle for human dignity when a world of fleeting meanings has forgotten some of its own citizens. As Maisey says: “A book has a why. TV just is.”

Meagan Sweeney. Reading Is My Window. Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press. 2010

In the spirit of informal book networks and counter the arising culture of digitally locked e-books, I am also happy to lend my copy to anyone interested. Alternatively, ask your local library. If you want to own a copy, the cheapest copies currently available are used paperbacks starting at $14.90 on Amazon.

Further reading: Read the Executive Summary of Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons. May 2011. Laura E. Gorgol and Brian E. Sponsler. Institute for Higher Education Policy. Sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nordisch-deutsche Weihnachten: NDR-Weihnachtshörspiel


Ein weiterer seltener Eintrag auf Deutsch, aber ein angebrachter. Denn wer noch gerne etwas länger in Weihnachtsstimmung bleiben möchte, dem empfehle ich ganz dringend das wunderbar produzierte NDR-Weihnachtshörspiel. Das Hörspiel dreht sich in seinen fünf Folgen a circa drei Minuten um den Weihnachtsstreik eines Jungen dessen Mutter im Krankenhaus liegt. Das heißt er muss Weihnachten auf der Insel beim Großvater verbringen:

Doch dann erlebt er ein Weihnachtsfest der norddeutschen Art. Er entdeckt “Adventsschiffe”, betätigt ein Weihnachtsnebelhorn und begegnet Engeln, Hirten und Sterndeutern in maritimer Gestalt. Den Inselbewohnern gelingt es, dem Jungen – entgegen seinen Erwartungen – ein frohes Weihnachtsfest zu bereiten.

Nicht nur dass ich es schon angehört habe und sehr gelungen finde, ich freue mich auch, dass meine Freundin Julia eine der AutorInnen des Hörspiels ist — praktisch eine Garantie für tolle Radioarbeit. Mir hat vor allem die 4. Folge mit den Sterndeutern im Nebel gefallen, einmal weil die ganze Gemeinde zusammenkommt, damit niemand verloren geht und weil es die Erinnerung enthält, dass man manchmal innehalten muss (oder “nach oben schauen” wie es im Hörspiel heißt), um das große Ganze zu sehen. Beides erscheinen mir die wichtigsten Weihnachtsbotschaften zu sein. (Und ohne es vorher zu wissen, habe ich heute erfahren, dass tatsächlich Julia auch die 4. Folge geschrieben hat!)

Also entweder alle Folgen in einem Rutsch hören, für 16 Minuten Harmonie zum Frühstück oder als Pause vom allem was schon wieder im frischen Jahr anfällt oder sich in der kommenden Woche je eine Dosis Weihnachtszauber und Gemütlichkeit täglich gönnen. In jedem Fall, hier anhören!


Little hype, more sobriety: Election season 2012

Terps vote — a bin of buttons in the UMD student union. I’ve collected a handful for my German friends as a U.S. election souvenir if anyone is interested.

I am writing election season because indeed the days of just one election day seem to be over. Even without trying I’ve bumped into plenty of early voting signs. On campus different student groups advocate for “Terps,” as the students are nicknamed for their university’s mascot, to vote. Albeit people can still vote tomorrow directly at their polling place, they also could have done so during past week for several days. And some states, like Washington, there are not polling places as all voting is done by mail — and you can do that early as well.

Making sure you find your polling station. At the university there even were shuttles to safely carry busy students to get their vote in without wasting time to walk.

Two of my house mates have already voted, J. has voted on the other coast, after filling out an endlessly long ballot asking him not only about picking a president but also a host of other people and issues. I’ve spend at least three nights on Skype with him, listening to political lullabies. His state, Washington, sent him a whole book with pages of fairy tales, detailing how they will balance the budget while also protecting all social programs. (This is also why the pictures of his voting material is fuzzy; they are screen shots of Skype.)

A guide for the responsible citizen and voter. 135 pages of information on people, issues, rules. Each issue that is voted upon is presented with pro and contra arguments and a background blurb. I now know all about a tax measure, legalizing marijuana, and creating charter schools. By the way the current law under debate about marijuana is tricker than you might think. It’s good there is a guide. (Not that I am allowed to vote or would tell J. who or what to vote for and urge him to vote in any case or to beg him to let me make the cross the next time…)

At a recent Halloween party we hashed out again why these awkward rules emerged such as voting on a Tuesday, a weekday and thus working day for most. The tale goes that Sunday was not good, because people attended church. On Wednesday was market day. You need a day to get to the market so you start out at least Monday, and stopping on your way, Tuesday, you could cast your vote. Voila! Between religion and capitalism, squeezing in some politics. (Of course I welcome corrections and precise historical accounts to add to this party-approved narrative.) UPDATE: J. just educated me that voting in the fall follows the logic of winter having nasty weather, spring being planting season. In the summer you have to take care of your crops but in the fall there’s not much to do so you can take a day’s trip over bumpy roads to vote.

The sacred document: the voting ballot with its little bubbles to be filled out with your choice. Pick me! Pick me! They all seem to shout. Interestingly the incumbent president is listed on top.

Another interesting tale from the party was the story of a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, who had been to an almost mystical event: the Green Party convention, in Baltimore (otherwise he told me, his newspaper would not have paid attention and coverage was scant anyway.) Were you surprised to see more than Obama and Romney on the ballot for president? Yes, there are other parties in the United States, one even having a woman-woman ticket, namely the Green Party. It is an old tale that third parties just don’t fit into the snug binary of Democrat v. Republic, blue v. red, donkey v. elephant, liberal v. conservative, pro-choice v. pro-life and so on. My colleague Elia Powers just a couple of days ago published a neat piece about the loneliness of third-party candidates. A sad tale you can read right here in the current issue of the American Journalism Review, located in my college.

Getting to know your people options: There are women running for president and vice president. You just have to find the right coverage of the election or check your local voter’s guide.

So while the excitement is spread out over several days, it is remarkably less excitement than four years ago. Sobriety and a more “normal,” if still sometimes bizarre election campaign, has been going on. The “war on women,” big bird’s projected death, bayonets and horses, binders full of women, and Sandy’s last minute twist are just the usual media-picked memes to jazz up an otherwise eventless campaign focused mainly on the economy. From a German perspective, the front-staging of candidates’ families, with wives giving speeches, and kids smiling into cameras appears a bit strange. Why would something so private matter? And doesn’t it make you into a bad parent to compromise the privacy of your children that way? Why does a wife’s celebratory message of her own husband count as a recommendation for a high political office? These are some of the thoughts some Germans might have. Personality and appearing as if the president could be the guy from next door sometimes appear to count more than concrete statements on pressing issues of the day.

It is comforting to be writing what the president is actually good for, after all the campaigning in which candidates reiterate the same soundbites. There is a purpose to the office and you can read about it in this fine booklet.

The impression here is that after Sandy, Obama is on an upswing. Listening to German media, Obama is closing in on a win. But then none of the German journalists and correspondents I’ve heard or read can imagine a country led by a Republican (as happened during the re-election of Bush when Europeans were shocked about repeating “fool me once.”)

Yard signs — a sure sign something political is going on. These are mostly about local candidates and issues, lining the street toward the polling station, a school. When I traveled into Virginia for hiking not too long ago, these cute signs grew to the size of double your bed sheet and mostly hailed Romney.

The indicator I like to look at is not a poll, not Twitter, not a certain medium, but where people who have some loose coins in their pocket like to put them within the confines of the blue-red binary. The Iowa Electronic Market, a small money futures market run by the University of Iowa, lets you buy shares “of” your favorite candidate. Money says that Obama will win tomorrow with a 75 percent chance. If you are betting on the right side, you will double your investment. it’s a winner take all market, just like the presidency.

Not only people, also issues are voted upon such as a law in Maryland to make sure everyone can marry.

So with heightened attention I will follow the election tomorrow. It’s a normal day at the university. Only an interview with a German radio station, DRadio, gives me some extra election awareness. The station hosts a “DRadio Wissen All American All Night” with burgers, coca-cola, and Amerian music until they can call a winner, while most Germans probably go to bed. A former radio colleague asked me if I could be called by phone to chime in. So I will. I am just not sure what I can tell them by 3 pm in the afternoon when they e-mailed they would call me. There certainly is little hype this time and more sobriety.

For further reading, here is an article by CNN-Berlin correspondent and German Frederik Pleitgen who’s been reporting for CNN from there since 2006. He’s highlighting the connections Germans and Americans share and how Germans are viewing the U.S. elections 2012.