It's time to abandon the white savior narrative

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 9:24pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

Today I’ve been on Instagram, Tik Tok, Youtube, probably Web MD and Snapchat. I’ve seen posters, listened to music, read labels and skimmed over descriptions from email subscriptions I forgot I even had. My day has been filled with the consumption of endless media, most of which I don’t think twice about. It’s for entertainment, out of curiosity, from anger or just boredom. Regardless, we all consume media like it’s an extra but necessary meal each and every day. Checking our phones is part of our daily routines. Sometimes even doing everyday tasks can feel like a drag without the help of music or a podcast or a Netflix show playing in the background. 

We memorize the content that we come across to bring up in conversation or store the things we don’t understand for our own minds to dig apart later. Sometimes we just throw away what we’ve consumed into our subconscious to be mostly forgotten. It’s endless —  a lot of it is subconscious, too — but the media is a double edged sword. It has the power to spread a message on a wide scale and inspire change, but it also carries the ability to spread hate or harmful ideas.

In my experience, social media has the tendency to feel superficial and redundant. My feeds are typically filled with snippets from other people’s lives and advertisements for skin care or swimsuits. 

I noticed a change in the social media I was usually exposed to practically overnight at the end of May, just after the loss of George Floyd. I no longer saw mindless beach posts or stories about a friend’s birthdays. Instead, I saw posts with important safety details to follow when protesting, I saw lists of organizations to donate to with reasons linked to each one, I saw alternative methods to help the Black Lives Matter movement like watching Youtube videos that dedicated their ad revenue to be donated. Together, a generation was creating a treasure chest full of resources to educate and spread information. 

In a Forbes article titled “Gen Z Leads The Black Lives Matter Movement, On And Off Social Media,” Rebecca Bellan explained that social media had transformed into a platform for mostly activism rather than recreation. She then went on to explain Gen Z’s role in the change by saying, “Now, as the world ignites like a dumpster fire and the generation that grew up socializing digitally comes of age, social media is a far more serious tool for change.”  

During the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests all around the country, many people (including myself) turned to this easily accessible, media treasure chest in an attempt to educate themselves and be an active ally for the Black community. 

While scrolling through Tik Tok, I came across a video discussing films that we should and shouldn’t watch in order to educate ourselves on racism. The video’s reason to avoid certain films was because of their ‘white savior narrative.’ This was the first time I had been exposed to this term, leading me to look deeper into the trope and reflect on the films mentioned that I had already seen. 

In the context of films, a white savior is described as a white person or character who provides help to a non-white person in a self-serving manor. Often the white person is seen as a hero because they were able to save a non-white person from a perceived inevitable fate. 

The Tik Tok gave The Help as an example of a white savior narrative. The film was directed by Tate Taylor and based on the novel written by Kathryn Stocket. The Help has become one of the most popular watches on Netflix during the past month. The film attempts to display the struggle of Black women in Mississippi during the 1960’s civil rights movement while they worked for oppressive and racist white families. It is a well-known film and story to many as it came out in 2011 and won both Movie of the Year from the AFI awards and a 2012 Academy Award. Overall, the film received significant praise from Hollywood.

I was familiar with The Help due to its positive feedback upon release. It was a film that I loved and thought highly of, and until recently, had never questioned the premise or execution of its plot. It never crossed my mind that a movie I assumed revolved around social justice could be so problematic. I have never thought to consider how the story was being told and each character was being portrayed. 

I found myself rediscovering the film a few weeks back when it popped up on the front of my Netflix homepage. As I rewatched, I remembered the feelings I had the first time I saw the film; however, something felt off. I thought back to the idea of a white savior narrative and then quickly noticed that the film was told through the lens of Skeeter, a young white woman who was an outcast among her friends solely because she wasn’t racist. As I continued watching, I recognized Skeeter’s same confidence and Aibileen’s sassy quips, yet I was beginning to identify the white savior trope for the first time — a concept so integral to the movie’s plot. Despite the evident white-savior characteristics present in the film, the trope went unnoticed by many due to the shadow cast of the film’s intense publicity and praise. 

Originally, I loved Skeeter: She was independent, driven, a feminist, and most of all, she was portrayed as brave. However, I didn’t realize how problematic she was as a protagonist. Skeeter was only portrayed as brave because she attempted to step away from her white privilege and give the women of the black community in her town a voice, even though this would probably lead to the loss of friendships in her bridge group. Her intention was to prove herself as a journalist, and in the process she seemed to be saving Aibileen and Missy from their fate as maids. Yet, with all of Skeeter’s “bravery,” the worst that could happen to her was a few dirty looks and some lost relationships.

What about Aibileen? She risked her life to share her personal stories of oppression and hatred because of her skin color during the Civil Rights movement in the South to a white girl who wanted to prove herself as a writer. She risked her life to have her perspective shown, her side of the story shared, yet the film focuses on Skeeter’s life, demoting Aibileen to a supporting character. 

While Aibileen’s struggle and hardship is somewhat displayed, why was any of the spotlight taken away from her and put on Skeeter? Skeeter very clearly embodies the definition of a white savior: she gave Aibileen a voice solely for personal gain.

On top of a white savior narrative, this critically acclaimed film is also problematic because it is sugarcoated by Hollywood production.

When I think of a Hollywood film, I think of old-time romance, with a stereotypical boy-meets-girl plot. I think of struggle and a character overcoming their greatest battle. I think of exaggeration and happy endings. A happy ending sometimes feels like a key element to a movie because it leaves an audience feeling satisfied, as if they’ve completed a journey. But when we apply this same tactic to a film about race, we then only see a misrepresented reality of a systemic and deep-rooted problem within our society. After, we can go back to our lives of  ignorant comfort because of the aforementioned “bravery” of a fictional character. 

Hollywood made sure to leave their dramatic, unnecessary, and out-of-touch mark on The Help by allowing Skeeter to steal the show. Her storyline was intensified with a romantic aspect and a problematic family life. And while she may be a complex and interesting character, these attention grabbing elements take away from what actually matters in the film —  the need for an honest representation of the South in the sixties during the Civil Rights movement.  

There is a reason that The Help won so many awards: many see it as a good film. It has multi-dimensional characters, a critically acclaimed cast and is perceived as heartwarming. But its problematic nature needs to be recognized, and if we are looking to educate ourselves more on racism, then it is not the film to watch. 

With this in mind, I’d like to discuss and recommend a truthful film that is not plagued by Hollywood’s utopian narratives: Moonlight, directed and written by Barry Jenkins. The film depicts the coming of age Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami surrounded by the harsh realities of drug abuse and poverty as he wrestles with his sexuality and identity. The film gives an honest representation of one boy’s intersectionality. It includes an all-black cast, leaving no opportunity for Hollywood to throw a white person in to “save” the characters. The films outstanding direction and soundtrack do not distract from the struggles faced by the people of the Black and LGBTQ community. Instead, they work to highlight them. The Point Foundation praised its complex nature, explaining, “Overall, this film does not give itself up to easy categorization or simple definition. It challenges our beliefs and biases, asking questions on the intersectionality of an individual’s identity and how it affects the community these individuals came from.”

The Help is only one example of a harmful white savior narrative among many others and Moonlight is not the only film to watch with the intent of educating yourself on racism. Many people have grouped the films, The Blind Side (2009), Greenbook (2018), Freedom Writers (2007) and Lincoln (2012) in the white savior pattern, promoting problematic messages that need to be further examined. Instead of those movies, here is a list of recommended films to watch.

Now that I understand the idea of a white savior narrative, I hope that moving forward, I am able to recognize this harmful element that is constantly applied to popular media and be more conscious of what I am consuming. It’s a step that we should all take when attempting to educate ourselves or inspire change together.

In an article praising Moonlight titled “Here’s why Moonlight winning Best Picture is so important,” Marty Preciado said, “we remind ourselves that, when it comes to art, we need truth — not escapism.”  

Media has more power than ever right now. There may be a time for birthday posts and rom-coms, but right now we need to focus on a far more important task: educating ourselves in every way possible. And in doing so, it is important to not allow the Hollywood happy endings blind us from the truth.