Why Humanitarians Are Sexy: Through the Lens of Television and Film
The creation of Tinder catalyzed an explosive switch in the past decade towards digital application-based dating. The (at-the-time) revolutionary means of swiping to indicate whether one believes a potential match is worthy of a “like” or a “nope” has heightened the accessibility and efficiency of browsing through potential flings. Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Badeen explains how the “eureka moment” came about after he had come out of a steamy shower: “When I stepped out, the room was especially foggy. I wiped the mirror clean, but within a minute it was fogging up again. I wiped it clean a second time, only this time, I wiped in the opposite direction. I saw a familiar face looking back at me in the clear sliver of the mirror that my hand had just … swiped.” Unintentionally, one of the founders of Tinder — an application that has exponentially perpetuated the social construct of whiteness as dominance — captured the problem with online dating himself. Even with the plethora of potential matches from all walks-of-life available at the swipe of a finger, ultimately, Tinder users wish to look at their devices and see a reflection of whiteness.
Corinne Lysandra Mason explains that Tinder reinforces the notion that whiteness and the fostering of new civilization go hand-in-hand. This “cultural dominance” arises on Tinder through photographs of compassionate volunteers who sacrifice money and leisure time to provide aid to those in need. From the pictures posted by these Tinder users, an anonymous creator founded a Tumblr page called Humanitarians of Tinder to document these “Good Samaritans” as a satire of the benevolence of White volunteers in developing nations.
Is there an issue with helping people if our good deeds might help ourselves, as well? How many of us have actively participated in community service or fundraised for charities at our respective Greek houses? How many of us have subsequently listed our Good Samaritan-esque deeds in resumés for school and job applications?
What about in the case of those we help in developing nations? Before even delving into the implications of Tindertarians’ use of “the other” as a means of looking more attractive to potential matches, it is important to question the economic efficiency of the aid these humanitarians can even provide: regarding both fiscal responsibility and utility (happiness) of those receiving assistance.
As Europeans set out to colonize lands of the other, the notion of whiteness as bearers of civilization became established as a historical and cultural construct. The colonizers — pioneers with technology, religion, and fair skin — made themselves out as heroes by saving the Indigenous from their “primitive” and “heathen” ways.
We see colonialism today through the supposed altruism of the aforementioned Tindertarians. Jacob Kushner’s writing, concerning the assistance of foreigners in less developed countries, touches on what he deems the “Voluntourist’s Dilemma”. Kushner highlights two instances that demonstrate the pitfalls of benevolent Westerners.
Firstly, he discusses the effects of voluntourists on orphans in South Africa. Referencing studies by the Human Sciences Research Council, Kushner points out that orphanages operate like businesses, in that, orphanages subject the children to worse conditions to encourage foreigners to donate more. In addition, the constant arrivals and subsequently abrupt departures of volunteers subject the orphaned children to attachment disorders.
Next, Kushner explains that as a reporter in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010, he witnessed a group of Christian missionaries struggling to mix cement and sand for the school they intended to construct. Meanwhile, Haitian masons stood out of the way during the humanitarians’ stay. Though seemingly selfless, these missionaries, who knew nothing about constructing buildings, ended up spending thousands of dollars to travel to Haiti—money which could have been allocated towards the wages of Haitian workers—only to end up stealing work away from Haitian locals. Forecasting long-run, Kushner found that most of the humanitarians did not have a plan to sustain the growth of their labor (i.e. wages for teachers at the schools the missionaries built; funds for training teachers moving forward).
Moreover, many economists claim that large-scale non-profit organizations, which supposedly strive to provide aid in developing nations, misspend and misallocate funds. In his article on the earthquake in Haiti, Junot Díaz notes that “after the disaster Haiti had received only 38 percent, or $732.5 million, of promised donations, excluding debt relief.” How then could an untrained humanitarian coming into a struggling developing nation be of any pragmatic use long-term?
If efficiency becomes out of question, purpose behind voluntourism becomes more conspicuous. These modern-day Westerners wish to (albeit subconsciously) further the notion of whiteness as fantasy. By sacrificing time and money to help those in need, the White Westerner maintains the role of bearer of civilization. Referring back to our Tindertarians’ dating profiles, their photographs demonstrating their benevolence towards struggling people of color inherently foster a desire for whiteness.
This modern desire for whiteness — given that whiteness goes hand in hand with both the fantasy of whiteness and the cultural dominance of whiteness — can be attributed to television and film.
Take, for example, the Disney film Pocahontas. The famous animated picture recounts a story of love between an English colonizer and an Indigenous American. Even from the first meeting between John Smith and Pocahontas, one can see how the colonizing Westerner asserts cultural dominance over whom he, himself, deems “the other”. John Smith notices an “ominous” figure standing in the mist of a waterfall. Pointing his gun at what he assumes to be a potential threat, Smith stops when he realizes it is a beautiful Native woman. Already, Smith institutes a power dynamic. Smith disarms himself when he recognizes the silhouette as both a Native and a woman: someone, he believes, to possess no power. Understandably, given the language barrier, Pocahontas remains distrustful — especially considering that Smith was just pointing a weapon at her: an unarmed person; however, all becomes well when Pocahontas takes the advice of a tree and “listens to her heart”. From there, our (intentionally) doe-eyed protagonist instantaneously can speak English thus commencing the true start to the love story. Rank with the stench of white saviorism, Pocahontas, a beloved Disney classic, reenforces in young children of color—particularly those born of multi-racial unions—the need for whiteness to save one from one’s own culture of color.
Seemingly romantic to the white and white-longing eye, the meeting between Smith and Pocahontas demonstrates the problems with Westerners—both in colonial times and in the modern day—who come to another’s land claiming solely good intentions. Firstly, the colonizer will only tolerate amicable relationships when “the other” renounces his or her culture: reminiscent of “a white black girl” Minh-Ha T. Pham discusses. From that, we see a fantasy of whiteness defined by the desire to help (as a White person) or to be helped (as a person of color). Finally, these supposedly beneficial-to-both-parties encounters only recount the perspective of the Westerner. Would a battle between Pocahontas’ people and the colonialists have ensued if John Smith and his fellow colonizers sought not to steal away Indigenous land? Would the Haitians afflicted by the destructive earthquake recovered more efficiently without the aid of untrained American voluntourists? Would South African children be better cared for if teenagers from the West realized that their two weeks in Africa only benefitted themselves?
Both colonialists and modern-day humanitarians have traveled to foreign lands and considered these lands strange when, in fact, these Westerners are the strangers in the lands of the Indigenous. Colloquially, Aboriginal is a word synonymous with an Indigenous person or Native. Broken down into its Latin bases, Aboriginal — according to the Oxford English Dictionary — derives from the Old Latin term “aborigines”, which was used to describe original inhabitants particularly in Classical Italy and Greece. The prefix “Ab-” denotes a meaning of both away and away from. Hence, colonizers have labeled Indigenous peoples as both originally from (Indigenous lands) and away from (the colonizers’ homelands). From this, one can understand how, with reference to Mason’s idea, that in the case of Humanitarians of Tinder, the stranger that is made strange is the Black body that exists within the frame of a Tinder photo and is concurrently the “stranger” that makes the true (white) stranger familiar.
Consider, for example, the critically acclaimed film 8 Mile. The film revolves around a White male protagonist named Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., played by respected rapper Eminem, who struggles to find his way in the heavily Black-dominated world of hip hop. In a music scene—founded hugely upon discourse concerning systemic oppression, the disparity of opportunity between Black and White people, and the still-ongoing struggle of the Black community in America today—where Rabbit is the stranger, viewers of the film find themselves cheering for the up-and-coming White rapper. Rather than justifying Rabbit’s—and inherently Eminem’s (as the film’s writers loosely based 8 Mile off of Eminem’s life)—place in hip hop based on his ability as a rapper and lyricist, one should understand the implications of a White man appropriating the toil of Black men and women’s art that represents the Black struggle in America. In 8 Mile, the Black hip hop artists that Rabbit faces in rap battles act as characters that merely push forward the plot of the film; these Black rappers become strangers in what should be their own narrative.
Though, at least in 8 Mile, these people of color had actual names and roles to play. Often, Mason explains, racialized subjects are used merely as backdrop to accentuate the eroticism of the white person in view through “exoticization and practices of othering.” Referring back to the Humanitarians of Tinder Tumblr page, we see another reason as to why White volunteers believe it to be attractive to post pictures with underprivileged subjects of color. The people of color make the Tindertarians appear exotic, well-cultured, and open-minded.
We see an example of this on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. One of the main protagonists, Queen Daenerys Targaryen, dismantles the slave trade in a foreign region of the fantasy world. In a scene where Daenerys and her army stand outside a city called Yunkai ready to liberate the slaves kept inside, the slaves come outside the walls, freed by their masters for fear of siege, and are introduced to her. Suddenly, the thousands of slaves, unchained from their bondages, begin chanting “Mhysa”, which translates to “Mother” in their native tongue. A sea of grateful brown hands hoists Queen Daenerys, and her fair skin and golden hair glisten in the blazing desert sun: made even more beautiful by the contrast provided by the Blackness of the people of color used as props around her. Game of Thrones furthers our beloved queen’s allure as she saves the countless people of color who could not save themselves. Here is where Mason would say that “it is the proximity to the other in images of ‘doing development’” that makes Daenerys more beautiful.
What is so appealing about the notion of “doing development” as Mason puts it? bell hooks explains that to humanitarians, making contact with “the other” assuages guilt of the past. “Doing development” serves as a means of detachment from accountability and the sins of one’s ancestors. At the core of all this, hooks stresses, is a desire to become the Other. In that, Mason explains that “other bodies are, of course, those whom imperialism rejects but cannot do without.”
Consider the Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side. Sandra Bullock plays the role of a wealthy, White interior designer named Leigh Anne Tuohy. Upon noticing that a Black teenager her son befriended named Michael Oher has nowhere to sleep, Ms. Tuohy takes him into her home, and soon enough, Oher becomes a part of the family. Encouraged to make use of his apparent physical gifts, Oher becomes a highly-touted high school football player who would later go on to play at Ole Miss University and eventually get drafted into the National Football League. In Oher’s years as a teenager, Ms. Tuohy finds herself facing many difficult decisions revolving around racial dynamics. Despite her resilience to outside influence, Tuohy shows inner doubt in Michael. Prompted by her friends that say Michael is a danger to her and her daughter Collins, Tuohy asks her daughter if Michael staying at their home is a danger to which Collins responds that they cannot simply throw Michael out.
Tuohy pushes away her inherent racist thoughts (i.e. Michael is a danger to her and her daughter) in part because of her white guilt. Her good deeds towards Michael relieve some guilt she holds from her subconscious views towards people of color. Almost every aspect of Tuohy’s life would push against the idea of welcoming a Black teenager into her family, yet she chooses to because she feels she has no other moral choice. Would Tuohy consider helping Michael if he was not a gentle giant? Kelli D. Moore attributes Michael Oher’s stereotyped placidity “as an overlooked performance that negotiates the representation of the black body in visual media.” Does a Black person have to be near-perfect to be glorified in media today? Does a Black person have to be near-perfect for a White person to even consider helping them regardless of the white savior’s intentions in doing so?
As our racial proportions head towards a more hybridized ethnic amalgamation, it is important to understand the nuances of colorism in our white-centric culture. There will always be dissenters of multiracial and intercultural love, but that group is the minority today. Now, rather than focus on those full of hate, it is imperative we understand these subconscious social constructs fostered over centuries of imperialist conquests and decades of neo-colonialist media—specifically in television and film—that make all of us inherently racist to a degree. From realizing how deeply embedded these notions of whiteness as beauty, as fantasy, as dominance lie, one can begin to change for the better. Only then, our beauties become liberated by love, rather than by “beautiful” liberators.
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The Blind Side. Directed by John Lee Hancock, screenplay by John Lee Hancock and Michael Lewis, 2009.
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