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Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

While Hollywood is trying to acknowledge diversity by awarding the foreign film Parasite with four Oscar awards, the western superiority complex still exists. 

Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

Source: The Philosophical Angle

Directly related to Eurocentrism, the western superiority complex describes the belief that western countries are superior to others, while simultaneously concealing their actual feelings of “inferiority and failure”: they realize that other countries are just as powerful, but don’t want to admit it. This is done by acting to ensure that western countries remain in power throughout various areas, including the arts. In the film industry, the Oscars has been dominated by white men for almost a century, despite finally changing history and awarding the best picture award to an international film. Even in 2020, the Academy membership is comprised of 84% white and 68% male members. Thus it’s no surprise that the western superiority complex still prevails in Hollywood. 

Films dominated by this complex are called white saviour films, which involve a white protagonist that acts as a hero to ‘save’ foreign cultures from their struggles. Regardless of intention, Matthew W. Hugley in his journal, Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors describes these films as reproducing “racist messages by naturalizing the supposed cerebral nationality, work ethic, and paternalistic mortality of select white characters”. Like the name implies, white saviours take the position of power and ultimately work to “reaffirm the social order and relations of racial domination by reproducing centuries’ old understandings of racial difference.”

A famous example includes the second highest grossing movie of all time, Avatar. An article from Psychology today describes Avatar as following this narrative: “White men invade natives, one [in] particular [and handsome] white man stays to learn the native ways, grows to like them, falls in love with [a] beautiful native girl, and eventually winds up rescuing the tribe.” Here, the protagonist, Jake Sully, is a white man that is used as a “normal guy” to help the audience connect to the Na’vi, a clan consisting of humanoids that live in the futuristic world, Pandora. Furthermore, Jake becomes the other without losing his white identity — “In his Avatar form, Jake IS Na’vi, not just culturally…but biologically at the DNA level.” He goes through a “rebirth” in his Avatar form and, to borrow a term from Bell Hooks (2009), he “consumes the other,” which is where the dominant race reasserts their power and ultimately goes through a “white transformation.” By doing so, he “asserts power and privilege.” 

Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

Source: My Poster Collection

Considering this argument, it can be said that Avatar is more than just a white saviour film. If he becomes the Na’vi, don’t they save the planet themselves? However, let’s not forget the fact that out of all the Na’vi, Jake Sully is depicted as a “super-version of the Na’vi, taming and riding the red flying beast that is recognized as the most ferocious of the jungle.” He ultimately depicts “a mystic hero” and “the messiah.” 

Avatar also creates and reinforces the idea that non-whites are “spiritual and athletic,” and as such this treatment is “interpreted as a metaphor for the plight of American Indians,” where the film ultimately implies that ignorance is “the path to grace.” It would have been worthwhile if Avatar and the film industry stopped using white saviours, but the director, James Cameron, is planning to release three sequels in 2021, 2024, and 2025. While the plot has not been confirmed, it is questionable to how they would continue the story of the spiritual and technologically incompetent Na’vi without any white saviours. As such, not a lot of people are looking forward to the sequels, as claimed by The Guardian, “Avatar: why no one cares about the sequel to the most successful movie.” 

Recently, the film Green Book also continued the white saviour narrative. While this may not be a conscious decision, this Oscar winning  film portrays similar messages and is criticized as such. The YouTube video, “How White Savior Movies Hurt Hollywood” visually demonstrates how films like Green Book use a white saviour to tell the story about Black characters. The film is based on the true story of Don Shirley and his American driver, Tony, who acted as a chauffeur during Don’s concert tour in 1960. As Black pianist, Don faced struggles in finding his spot in the orchestra, but Tony, as a white man, defends Don in numerous occasions from other white characters, including the time Don was assaulted by white patrons, or when Tony bails Don out of jail from fighting a white man. 

Furthermore, it reinforces racial stereotypes, where Tony tells Don that he needs to experience more black culture, and that he’s more Black than him because Don doesn’t know how Black people normally eat and act. According to him, Don goes on tour to perform for rich people and “sits on a throne”, while Tony “lives on the streets.” This is paradoxical, as Don still experiences racism and prejudice everyday despite being in a higher social class. After the film came out, Don Shirley’s real family stated in an interview that the movie was very misleading and “was a symphony of lies.” Don Shirley was very different in real life. His nephew, Edwin Shirley, stated that “They’ve impaired the integrity of Donald Shirley’s life with events and innuendos that just run counter to the man I knew.”

Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

Source: Universal Pictures

Outside the film industry, the western superiority complex is problematic because the same ideas are seen in Voluntourism. As “an outgrowth of the ecotourism movement of the 1990s,” it allows volunteers to buy an “authentic experience” different from travel packages that allows them to do something good. However, these volunteers are assigned work despite lacking in qualifications, such as building schools. One volunteer recalled how they did so poorly that the men had to rebuild the structure that they made each night so that “they would be unaware of their failure.” Moreover, The Guardian further describes how it cost $30, 000 to build a school in Honduras while “local Christian organizations could build it for $2000” — two thousand dollars can pay a village teacher for four months.

There are also volunteers like Josefine Johansson who create and reinforce negative stereotypes online. On Instagram, she posted a photo of herself with a child from Kenya with the captions, “In two years you are going to meet a grown man that you have never met before and you two are going to have a child … he will probably leave you alone … in your small home made of mud and tree’s. You will probably sell your body to someone else to earn money for your child.” She further confirmed her western superiority complex with, “I just want you to know there is hope, there is. Dreaming could be your saviour, dreaming could keep you alive. Dear child, keep safe.”

Like film directors, Johansson’s post could be considered unintentionally racist. However, it is obvious that this is an example of the western superiority complex, where it affirms the belief that people from the western or developed world are able to help the ‘other’ because they are saviours. Volunteers can also be harmful to the targeted community. There may be what’s called the “orphan tourism” that exploits orphanages to donations (money) from these volunteers, and these children may form attachments to these volunteers which could negatively affect their mental health. 

Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

Source: Pacific Standard

Problems continue outside of the volunteer community as well — the responses to these volunteers on social media reifies racial stereotypes. Many volunteers use “impoverished Black kids as photo backdrops and deems it entirely appropriate” and they still receive praise for being among “black bodies.” A famous example of this is Madonna’s Instagram caption where she claimed that the sanitation of water in Kibera is non-existent: “imagine this is where your water comes from!” As such, these social media posts are just a repackage of the white saviour complex that aims to “civilize” them. Locals expressed anger at these volunteers, where they stated, “Kibera is not a national park and we are not wildlife.” This anger is understandable, because volunteers and their posts act as a sign of western superiority complex that emphasizes their ability to “opt-in and out as they please” of Kibera, when for locals, it is their home. 

With all of this, the future can appear unfavourable. However, films that do not turn white characters into saviours exist. A notable one includes the film Lion, which includes Nicole Kidman as a white adoptive mother of the protagonist, Saroo. The film follows Saroo’s journey as he finds his own Indian identity after 25 years of being adopted into a white family in Australia. He sets out to find his family in India, and unlike Green Book, this film is focused on his journey despite Nicole Kidman being the most known white cast member. Furthermore, the film ends with a note of how much children in India, like Saroo, go missing every year

Western Superiority Complexes in Films and Humanitarianism

Source: Pinterest

And of course, films like Parasite and Black Panther, can really create media interest about foreign films outside of the Oscar’s white dominated world. It is a symbol of change that emphasizes the fact that the white saviour complex in movies is outdated, overused, and that there are other important stories and messages to deliver. 

So yes — the western superiority complex continues to be problematic, especially because individual actors do not gain much recognition. In 2016, only 7% of best actor winners were non-white, and only one woman of color has won the best actress award. Furthermore, while the film Parasite has been recognized by the Oscars, none of the cast were nominated. As such, the representation of non-white actors in Hollywood won’t change overnight, and Voluntourism will likely continue. The eradication of the western superiority complex and white saviour films won’t be the sole answer to how we could solve this problem, but films like Lion and Parasite could be the prompt we need to begin genuinely understanding that non-Western cultures do not need saving.