Fantasies of Universality?
Neue Frauen and “Others” in Weimar and Nazi Germany

Uta G. Poiger (University of Washington)

    In the 1920s, modern girls (neue Frauen) in German advertising, popular magazines, films, fiction, and social commentary were frequently depicted through encounters with “non-German” images of womanhood. These included images of contemporaries considered modern at the time, such as the white American girl, the French garçonne, or the Japanese moga, as well as images of “modern” (usually American or European) women in encounter with others considered “primitive.” German artists and advertisers also participated in the construction of recognizable, and purchasable, cosmopolitan aesthetic of and for the modern woman. This international aesthetic included the “Asianisation” of facial features and the elongation of female bodies. In Germany this aesthetic became prominent in advertizing images of women at the same times that orientalist tropes and explicitly demeaning depicitions of blacks and Chinese largely disappeared from ads. At the same time, advertisers, particularly cosmetics advertisers, tried to appeal to women consumers by highlighting the appeal of their products in countries and cities around the world. In 1929, advertisers met at a 1929 international convention in Berlin that carried the slogan “Advertising—the key to the well-being of the world”. And in 1930 a “taste” columnist in the German women’s magazine Die Dame announced that “national characteristics were being abandoned in favor of international style.” (Die Dame, no. 26, 1930). Although Nazis made frequent racist associations between modern girls, cosmopolitanism, and Jewishness, the aesthetic styles associated with the “neue Frau” did not simply disappear in the 1930s.

    The paper examines the fantasies of universality expressed in German constructions of “neue Frauen” and modern girls in the illustrated press, in marketing strategies, and in social commentary in the 1920s and early 1930s. It investigates the limitations and contradictions inherent in the various appeals to universality, and their relationship to narratives of modernisation. In doing so, it reflects on the visions of ethnic difference, sexuality, and social hierarchies, as well as international connection, that various groups of Germans attached to aesthetic choices in the aftermath of World War I and in the context of forced decolonization. Magazine editors, advertisers, and social critics discussed repeatedly what made women within and outside of Germany modern, attractive, and/or threatening, and implicitly or explicitly compared German women to non-German examples. The paper concludes by examining how images of modern girls did, and did not, change under National Socialism after 1933.