How television affects our youth

A teacher in a dialogue with her class

by Anne Noll

Germany’s Next Topmodel is a German casting show in a Reality-TV format on the Pro Sieben TV network. This series has been produced yearly since 2005. The first series was already watched by 2.74 million viewers, which means that it reached 7.9 percent of the total viewing audience and 13.5 percent of the advertising-relevant target group of 14 to 49 year-olds.
The self-declared goal of the programme is to find Germany’s “next top model”. In 2010 there were already 21,312 young women applying for it, 2000 queued for the casting in Cologne, and a double-digit number of them was chosen. The young women then compete against each other in special tasks, so-called “challenges”. For example, candidates were doused with salat sauce, an octopus was put on their head or they had to pose in a bar made from ice. The women may refuse carrying out a task for personal reasons such as feelings of shame when revealing photos are taken or when they have phobias, but this may have a negative impact on the jury’s decisions.
The jury, which consists of Heidi Klum and two other members of the fashion industry, decides at the end of each episode who has to leave and who will progress to the next round.
The content of the series and also its impact on the public have been severely criticised from different sides since the start. Also the “taz” reported in 2009 that so far none of the recent winners had suceeded in building an international model career.

Compare: “Germanys next Topmodel”, www.wikipedia.org from 27 May 2016, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung of 8 May 2010, Süddeutsche Zeitung of 17 May 2010.

Nowadays, parents wonder increasingly, where the young people take the role models for their actions. They do not understand why their children are involved in mobbing as perpetrators or as victims, as they are sure that they themselves set an example of another world in their families and treat their children with respect. Also the affected behaviour that young women, almost children, suddenly show is alien to many parents. However, if you watch television programs that are produced and broadcast for young people, you understand better why they suddenly live up to other values than their parents. With the help of the media and, in particular, through television, young people are massively influenced today.
The students of my 8th grade had re-commended that I should really watch a certain program on TV. In this exciting series young women participated in a competition with the aim to become a model. For three years I have been teaching this class, and in addition to the subject material, we repeatedly use opportunities to discuss everyday events and questions of life.
Curious to know what fascinates the students so much, I am sitting  in front of the TV. A young woman is trying to walk up to a small podium between rocks stepping on stones. She attempts to stride dynamically, because that is the order to all candidates of today. Her performance is assessed by the “jury”, the three persons who are enthroned in director’s chairs on the podium.
The woman is wearing only little on her body, a kind of swimsuit, extended by cantilevered brackets with metal or fabric between waist and head. It represents an “alien”, that was the comment when the clothes had been handed over. Her feet are in objects that you cannot really call shoes and the soles are at least 15 centimeters high.
Despite the shoes she succeeds in getting the path to the jury over and done tolerably. Now her face appears in close-up shot. Hope and uncertainty are reflected in the pretty young woman’s face. Heidi Klum, former model and member of the jury, comments this performance analogously: “You did not perform so well, you wobbled. What was my order?” The young woman cannot repeat it, she had not been attentive as she admits. Other derogatory comments of the jury members follow. The young woman’s reactions are shown in close-up each time, she is ashamed. On her way back the camera follows her, now you can see from the back how she is trying to keep her balance.
In spite of the shoes some of the girls succeed in getting the way to the jury over and done with quickly, with others aremore kind of a stumbling. The day before, a young woman had injured a toe and, seeing the shoes, worried about how she should walk in them. The viewers can see that, too. Again and again, close-ups of faces are shown: fear, hope, uncertainty is seen in the one, boldness and challenge in the others.
“You did everything exactly as I imagined.” “You implemented all instructions.”  “What was good about your performance was that you did not complain in the distribution of footwear. This is  unsuitable on a set.“ Such compliments are distributed to some of the women.
By various means the suspense for the audience is maintained. For example, a scene is displayed where three women are placed in front of the camera together. A longer, expectant silence is broken by a member of the jury: “We could have fired each of you.” Pause, dramatic music. Two of the young women learn: “We will give you another chance.” Each of them thanks neatly. The third is informed that she will leave now, her great disappointment is obvious. Again close-ups, all reactions are presented in long shots.
Repeatedly, individual scene segments are shown: The young women in the car on their way to their performance, in the camp with the other participants, when clothes are distributed, as they see the shoes. Sometimes they comment on their own performance into the camera, as if they were telling their thoughts to a friend. Airtime is also allocated to participants’ intimate telephone conversations with their mothers. In this way, the audience is privy to their self-assessment, their fears and hopes.
While watching all this, I become ever more outraged at this way of dealing with young people. The young women and their spontaneous feelings are properly shown up. I think about my students. Why are they so keen on this? And above all, what they do they learn from it, what lessons do they draw?

What are the values conveyed to the audience?

This programme, which enjoys viewing figures of 13.5 percent (see box), is only superficially about the models. The target group is essentially the audience, young women in the German-speaking countries. For ten years now, this series has influenced the self-image of young women, has shown them what they should be like.
Being beautiful according to today’s ideals is a prerequisite to even being on the show, but it is not enough. There are three people who claim the power to issue orders and instructions. These have to be implemented by the young women whatever happens, if they want to compete successfully. They have to ignore what their own body tells them, they have to ignore pain, their sense of shame, and they have to give up their own will. They bear being humiliated by others, here the “jury”, because they want to surpass their competitors and progress to the next round. Plus: They watch when others are humiliated, and compassion is not in demand.
The next day, my students are eager to hear what I think about the series. In consternation I describe to them what I saw and what I thought about it.
My students counter in an engaged and lively way, as they are full of admiration for the world presented in this show. Their most important objection is that the young women have joined the show voluntarily and that thay might therefore also leave it at any time. They have trouble understanding that the show addresses the girls’ ambition and their wish to beat the competition and then step by step leads them into undignified situations, as it is the ones who subordinate themselves without complaint and even keep appearing bold and challenging.
The idea that they are themselves the actual target group of this programme first seems strange to my students. However, they are willing to listen to my observations and reflections and to consider them. Some days ago now they told me that a few of them had discussed this further amonst themselves and would now like to speak about it again in class.

Engaging in dialogue with young people

I have also reflected about it in the meanwhile. This so-called competition is not about the beauty of ten women, but about the spectators who are engrossed by it at least for one hour every week, and in whom certain values patterns are to be implanted. Natural emotions like disgust, shame and pain are devaluated. Ruthless treatment of themselves and of others gets to be praised and rewarded. Sensitive and feeling young women who might also show a weakness are voted out, while the bold, cheeky and tough ones go on to the next round. In this way, a sharp divide between those at the top and those at the bottom is shown and practiced.
I am curious to hear the ideas and observations of the young people in my class, and so we are soon in the midst of an important discussion. The illusory world presented in this show that has nothing to do with lived reality can be revealed and perhaps even deprived of its mystique by means of a genuine dialogue. This kind of dialogue gets going when adults take it up with joy in young people and in the debate. Instead of being manipulated by means of such programmes, young people need this kind of dialogue in order to form basic values on their way to becoming mature and responsible adults. Do not let us leave them in the lurch and spoil their futures!     •
(Translation Current Concerns)