When TV tries to make colonialism cute
Growing up, my “knowledge” of Africa and it’s 54 diverse nations was gleaned from Tarzan, Blood Diamond, and charity ads.
That’s no accident, and it’s not unusual either.
In “How to Write About Africa” Binyavanga Wainaina uses sarcasm to articulate the phenomenon: “never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress”.
It’s no wonder that a ‘90s kid like me grew up so totally ignorant, when this was the state of popular Australian television, just last year:
Channel Ten’s “I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here” took a page from Wainaina’s book last year,
draping it’s hosts in leopard print and loincloth
In one particularly misguided scene, Chris Brown swings half-naked from a vine with Julia Morris clinging to his back, landing to beat his chest.
In 2016 a African Australian Change.org petitioner called for Channel 10 to end the Tarzan aesthetic:
This season is not so overtly offensive, but still in poor taste. Watching Julia Morris and Chris Brown in the treehouse from where they host the show, I find myself spotting antique-y looking props spread among the African-themed ones - old maps, old-fashioned telephones, telescopes, a phonograph, old candlestick holders and magnifying glasses.
When paired with the backdrop of Africa - South Africa, actually, but you wouldn’t know it since they keep saying “deep in the African jungle” - these antiques work to create a bit of a colonial theme. And that’s not very cute at all, if you know much about colonial history in Africa.
During the colonial period, Europeans carved up the continent in what was known as “The Scramble for Africa”, resulting in decades of pillaging, murderous brutality and cultural genocide.
Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” music video is another high-profile example of producers thoughtlessly adopting the colonial aesthetic.
And for some, it didn’t sit right at all:
From “Taylor Swift is Dreaming of A Very White Africa” - Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe
During the colonial period, the next best thing to dehumanising and degrading African people was often to depict Africa devoid of Africans, barren and primitive, as a setting for European adventure and romance.
In “How to Write About Africa”, Wainaina explains: “the continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular”.
“The bigger problem is that many Americans have never had an African history lesson. So we don’t totally blame Taylor Swift, but the people behind the video should have done a little more research. They should have wondered how Africans would react”.
For centuries, African people have been aggressively dehumanised and degraded in the western world. Those depictions range from the idea of the “noble savage”, to notions of Africa as “the dark continent”, and the disempowering ways African people have been represented by aid and development organisations through “poverty porn” - as hopeless, helpless, and utterly miserable.
The sheer lack of representations of Africa in our mainstream media - really, how many television shows or movies can you think of that are set in any of the 54 African nations? And how many of those are riddled with stereotypes? - means those who do choose to depict Africa/Africans in their creations have an increased responsibility to make sure those depictions are ethical.
That responsibility applies to aid and development organisations in particular - too often, fundraising advertisements set in developing communities, which are very often African communities - are one of the primary sources through which Australians come to understand Africa.
Our movement to end poverty is grounded in the idea that every human being is equal, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. For Oaktree and advocates of equality, that means taking every opportunity to empower dehumanised and degraded groups to regain control of how they, and their nations are represented.
Want to keep reading? Check out RIP First World Problems.