The Power Of The Rhombus: The Semiotic Evolution Of Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel is currently leading the Forbes list of the most powerful women in the world. As the head of the most powerful economy of Europe, she is (probably rightfully) hated by some for throwing crisis-ridden countries like Greece and Spain into a decade of austerity, while loved by others for her seemingly incisive and consistent economic policies. In the international media, she is consequently often presented as a strict and adamant German chancellor that will not divert from her political line.
In Germany, however, Angela Merkel’s public image is less polarized. Although not necessarily loved by everyone, she seems to be broadly accepted as the sober, stable and unavoidable head of state. She has won three national election campaigns in a row. In the last one, she was even close to winning the absolute majority which in a multi-party system like Germany has only happened once in 1957. This might have to do a lot with the economic success of Germany and Merkel’s hesitant political style. In contemporary media societies like Germany, election campaigns, however, are not only won in the sphere of politics but also that of semiotics. It is consequently worthwhile to have a closer look at the semiotic codes that might make Angela Merkel currently so successful in the German context.
In the field of visual representation, the cards originally seemed stacked against Angela Merkel. As an evangelical pastor’s daughter from the countryside of Eastern Europe, she was a novelty in German politics and even self-described as the “girl that doesn’t dance at parties but stands around and eats peanuts”. During her first steps in national politics, she consequently most notably came to be known for her unkempt bowl-cut, the hanging corners of her mouth and a sunk in body posture. She was ridiculed in the traditional as well as online media and even advertisement campaigns like that of the car rental company SIXT capitalized on her appearance.
Throughout her career, however, Angela Merkel seems to have learnt how to perform in a media society in which specifically female politicians are constantly surveilled and assessed upon their visual appearance. Starting as Kohl’s wallflower (the former German chancellor who introduced her into the political arena), she came to fashion herself as an intriguing assemblage of signs that stand out in their visual consistency. She got a new haircut, altered the colours of her trouser suits and replaced the hanging mouth corners with a tentative smile.
One of the most essential parts of Merkel’s semiotic repertoire might be the trouser suit that she wears in different colours from light blue to bright green and violet. The suit enables Merkel to embody the traditionally masculine role of a German chancellor while at the same time adding a touch of femininity to her performance. In this, it allows her to take on the desexualized femininity of a mother that is so crucial to her political success. In recent years, Angela Merkel has become known as the ‘Mutti’ (best translated as ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’) of the nation which grants her the trust and loyalty of large parts of the electorate.
Moreover, the trouser suit intelligently signals both consistency as well as flexibility. Wearing nearly the exact same type of trouser suits over and over again, communicates a sense of risk-avoiding consistency that plays on the longing for stability in the German public. It counteracts the classical German Angst that bubbles up heavily in the current Euro-crisis. At the same time, it symbolizes the skill to adequately adjust to a wide range of political challenges. Being able to wear all kinds of different colours, she seems to be saying: “I will solve any problem independent of what subject matter it falls into”. In this, she plays on her pragmatic and problem-oriented approach that like the scientist she was trained as (she has a Phd in physics), she applies to any political challenge she encounters.
The second feature of symbolic importance is Merkel’s new hair cut. The short bob hairstyle streaked with blond highlights adds a dimension of freshness and energy to her look while retaining the respectability of her appearance. Practical, easy and unpretentious- it is the designer version of one of the classical, conservative mid-length hair-cut styles that is so popular among middle-aged women in Germany. In this, it positions Merkel as ‘one of us’ while at the same time revealing a sense of taste that is expected from a person of her status in society.
Moreover, Merkel has replaced the hanging corners of her mouth with a little smile that communicates a sense of confidence and good-will. It, however, remains a shy and tentative smile as if wanting to underline that emotions should be kept outside of politics. Compared to the often heated parliamentary debates in France, Italy or the UK, German politics are rather dry and moderate and emotional rhetoric is seen with suspicion. Merkel, however, takes German moderation to a new level and keeps her personal and affective life nearly completely out of her career. Her husband, for instance, nearly never appears in the public and even when she found out that her personal mobile phone was hacked by the NSA, she responded calmly that the parliament will do its best in finding out the actual facts before taking any action. With her hesitant smile she hence underlines her detached ‘politics of small steps’ that seems to be highly popular with an anxious German public longing for stability.
The arguably most remarkable element of Merkel’s visual repertoire, however, are her hands. Nobody except maybe Mr. Burns could as easily be recognized by a single hand gesture as Angela Merkel. Before any speech or public talk, she calmly braces thumbs and fingers to a rhombus that she positions right at the centre of her body. Without trembling nor adding to much pressure on the fingers, it gives her an aura of incredible calmness. Climate change, social inequality or the Euro-crisis – everything seems to be absorbed into the magical rhombus. As such, it was even featured on the largest electoral poster ever made in the history of German politics. Titling “Germany’s future is in good hands” it directly uses Merkel’s hand gesture as a symbol of care and security promising to carry the nation through a time of global upheaval.
Angela Merkel’s public appearance hence seems to underline her pragmatic, nüchtern (sober) and unemotional politics. It positions her as the ‘Mutti’ of the nation and creates a sense of stability and consistency that the German public seems to be longing for in the current times of crisis. This might also explain the public outcries that take place when Angela Merkel diverts from the usual semiotic codes Germany has come to associate her with. When visiting the opera in Oslo in 2008, Angela Merkel wore a generous décolletée that revealed more than the German public was able to handle. Like a child that had caught its own parents having sex, the nation was in shock. The images circulated in the media for weeks and are still one of the first images that pop up when googling Angela Merkel in the Internet.
Another, more successful example in which Merkel diverted from her common regime of signification, was the ‘Schlandkette’ (Germany-necklace) that she wore during the chancellor- duel in 2013. After a rather tame and politically shallow debate with her political competitor from the social democrats, Peer Steinbrück, it was her necklace that was the most debated feature in the media and the Internet. Straight after the debate, the necklace already had its own Twitter account with several thousand followers. What for outsiders might seem like a irrelevant accessory, was in fact a risky act of re-signification. As after the horrors of the Third Reich nationalism is still largely seen as a taboo in German politics, a necklace in the national colours of Germany is still a novelty. Represented within the feminine symbol of a necklace, the hint of nationalism around Merkel’s neck, however, seems to have worked in her favour. It sent out the message that after years of coming to terms with the past, a new (more feminine) Germany might dare to be proud of its successful and diplomatic role in the world again.
While her dress for the Norwegian Opera might have been a massive faux-pas, her necklace seems to underline how Angela Merkel has learnt to deal with the media attention she is receiving as head of the German government. She seems to perceive the constant surveillance of her body and fashion no longer purely as a highly gendered burden but uses it as a chance to win over the electorate. In a current CDU advertisement she even playfully commented that throughout her years she learnt a lot even “what difference a new hair-style can make”. This form of self-ironic humour is unusual for Merkel and shows how comfortable and successful she has become in fashioning herself as the pragmatic, sober and artfully plain ‘Mutti’ of the nation. Although public fashion icons like Karl Lagerfeld might still criticize her style as bland and unoriginal, in a German society longing for stability, consistency and safety his might no longer be a weakness but rather the key to her success.