Colonizing the Imagination

Taylor Swift’s latest video has (shockingly!) faced criticism in the press; after the premiere of “Wildest Dreams” at the MTV video music awards on Sunday night, some complained that Taylor’s version of Africa lacked diversity and represented “colonial fantasy” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2015/09/03/taylor-swifts-wildest-dreams-video-draws-backlash-racism/71629452/). The video tells the story of a 1940s-era film being shot in Africa; Swift is the starlet who falls for the leading man who as they kiss in front of giraffes, lions, and other safari staple animals. Alas for Taylor, the leading man is married, and she runs out at the movie premiere (held, not in Africa of course, but in a Big City) to go off in her limousine and replay her days with Leading Man in her “wildest dreams.” The variety of African animals is the only representation of diversity in the video; the film crew and cast as well as the movie-going audience are all white, and for the most part quite well-to-do. Even Swift’s makeup crew wears gold watches.

Swift’s video brings back the glamour of colonial fantasies? Image from glamour.com

The people in Swift’s video are also older; Swift’s fan-base of tween girls is remarkably absent from the video. Indeed, the way that the video is shot, focusing (especially near the end) on Swift’s wide, childlike eyes and her pouty mouth, make her appear to be the youngest person in the video. This might seem a digression from the point of diversity, but it isn’t at all. Colonial fantasies, presented to children and young people, are about young people gaining the power and capital of the adult world. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff illustrates this point nicely; the book starts out with a happy elephant society that is interrupted by a white man with power and capital in the form of a gun. Babar, an elephant small enough to ride on his mother’s back, watches the hunter kill her for no obvious reason—perhaps just because he can. After this, Babar runs away to a Big City where he becomes almost instantly a grown-up elephant, gaining power and capital (though no guns—you can give the “good” natives education and sell them your cars and railroads, but weapons of mass or even minor destruction are out of the question) so he can go back and be King of the Elephants. In Paris, there are no children, only old ladies with full purses and old gentlemen with education, clothes, and military advice. Child Babar is happy with a shell, but adult Babar wants to rule the nation. It might comfort Taylor Swift to know that Babar does not contain any non-white people either, despite being set (in part) in Africa.

Like Taylor Swift, Babar puts on the clothes of the colonizer.

But Babar is only part of a long line of colonial fantasies. Most of those set in the “real world” (by which I mean only that the elephants don’t talk; like Swift’s video, they are not about realities) are aimed, not at the picture book crowd, but at tweens and teens who might soon grow up to rule and possess colonial lands. G. A. Henty, in the 19th century, was a master of writing books of this sort: strapping white (usually English) lads of about fifteen go out to the colonies, meet a special guest star (George Washington, for example, or General Kitchener, or Major-General Robert Clive), and have a part in saving the empire from either other colonial incursions or “native” unrest. In Henty’s books, there are almost never any children, and the teen hero is treated like a grownup and welcomed into a grownup world. In fact, the books usually end with the suggestion of an engagement for the young hero, perhaps put off for a few years in favor of more colony-hopping or wealth-gaining. Even in the books that concern uprisings of “native” people against the colonizers, the “natives” are often off-screen, as it were, seen from a distance, and talked about rather than talked with. The exception to this rule is the occasional native who helps the white colonizers escape from trouble, as the “loyal slave” Dinah does in A Roving Commission; or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti (originally published 1900; my copy, New York: Robinson, 2002).

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some "natives" (barely visible) are shot.

Our hero (in the funny hat) stands by and stays clean and neat while some “natives” (barely visible) are shot.

In the 20th century, these colonial fantasies continued, and they were not just restricted to strapping young lads. Young women were also venturing out into the colonies, although they were much more likely to be after financial gain than military success. Ruth Fielding Treasure Hunting by Alice B. Emerson (New York: Cupples and Leon, 1923) has a young female film producer traveling to the West Indies to shoot a motion picture—and find the treasure to finance it along the way. Like Nat Turner in A Roving Commission, Ruth comes into contact with “natives,” but only in a casual way (many are servants in the posh hotels where Ruth stays, for example). The book, like Henty’s, has almost no reference to children. These books suggest to their tween/teen audience that as long as they learn the rules of the colonizer (and are white, of course), they too can have the power and capital of the adult world.

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture!  I'm sure no one here needs it . . .

How lucky! A treasure to finance my latest motion picture! I’m sure no one here needs it . . .

The point of these colonizer fantasies is that it is the colonizer that matters. The identity of the colonizer, both individual and nation, is strengthened by the exploitation of the colonies, and the colonizer is enriched. The people who live, year in and year out, in the colonies, do not benefit in anywhere near the same way (if they benefit at all) from the colonizer’s temporary visit to their home. Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is no different. Perhaps, though, it is a positive sign that—whereas colonizer fiction was embraced in its time as thrilling adventure for the young (white) consumer—critics are beginning to question the suitability of these fantasies for young people.

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