For years and years, pharm the “white saviour” has been plastered across our screen. We’ve seen it in films like “The Help” when white characters are celebrated for rescuing people of colour from themselves or the damaging environments they live in. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was heavily criticised for the character of Atticus Finch who defended a black man accused of rape but seemed to be doing so for his own personal integrity instead of justice for Tom Robinson. This is just one example of the white saviour complex but because it’s one of the most commonly used narratives in entertainment, a lot of the time we don’t even realise it’s being used.
The white saviour complex has managed to crawl its way into the fashion industry too, with ad campaigns portraying the same stereotypes we see over and over again. Donna Karan came under fire for her SS12 campaign which featured two Haitian boys in the the background with Adriana Lima in the forefront wearing the glamorous clothes from the collection. Although Karan is known for her charity work and assistance of poverty stricken countries, this campaign seemed to be mistakenly insensitive; to photograph a beautiful tall woman with light skin and blue eyes at the foreground with Haitians, who had clearly suffered, seemed to be an act of carelessness. It’s almost as if these locals were merely used as props for Karan to remind her audience of her good work and shine a light on herself as a ‘saviour’ instead of those who were actually badly affected.
Versace, however wins the white saviour award for their AW16 campaign using Gigi Hadid as a mother in an interracial relationship with two mixed race kids, one of which is a toddler in a buggy with a chain. Yes, a chain. The cherry on top of it all is the fact that the black models seem to be “in the shadow of an elite fair skinned model”, one Instagram user commented. When I saw this campaign, my first thought was why not use a black model like Jourdan Dunn, who has actually has a child?! It’s bad enough that models of colour often struggle to get work but when they do, they are used as accessories and are often trapped in the stereotypical view of what POC are perceived to be: exotic and alluring. When asked about the campaign, Donatella Versace commented that it was “all about real life”, which could explain the interracial relationship, seeing as they are more common nowadays. However, at second glance, I realised that the campaign was either created in poor taste or just not thought through properly; considering the fact that it was shot in Chicago- a town coined as Chiraq for its notorious amount of black on black crime- Versace probably shouldn’t have used a shot of the helpless black family fawning over this angelic, heroic white woman.
There is so much power in an image and an image of this kind only causes harm; it reflects the modelling industry and the patterns we see where models of colour are either put to the side or are forced to take on work where, unconsciously, the white saviour complex is inherent. Although this may be unintentional, it happens way too often for it be an accident anymore.
This undoubtedly sends all the wrong messages and begs the question: is the fashion industry racist? Why in the 21st century are we still perpetuating the same stereotypes of white people as dominant and POC as inferior; why are we yet to see models colour as the norm and not something out of the ordinary? The fashion industry has always been seen as one which is a pioneer of change in the world, but maybe we’ve still got a long way to go.
Written by Sayo Olu