Barbie Savior: The parody that makes aid types feel good, but does nothing

(Barbie Savior/Instagram)

Put down that lemonade and all hail the brilliant satirical Instagram account Barbie Savior! With images of Barbie pretending to be a typical voluntourist in Africa, the account is acclaimed for managing to “neatly captures what’s wrong,” as it “hilariously parodies,” and “embodies the obnoxiously self-serving…attitude of many western travellers.” Once and for all, the plight of misguided white volunteers who take selfies with African babies has been put in its place! Beyonce only stopped the world for a few minutes, Barbie Savior stopped an industry.

That, of course, isn’t at all true. Barbie Savior is a real parody Instagram account and people are fawning over. Humanitarian insiders already critical of some of the self-serving aspects of volunteer trips and gap years in African countries (or insert any other developing country in the global South) are sharing the account and pieces about how great it is as a way to confirm what they’ve been saying for a long time.

While some significant publications have picked up the story, it really only feeds the appetite for people already paying attention to these issues. Savior Barbie is like the latest and greatest John Oliver takedown, it preaches to the converted to confirm their feelings on an issue and make them feel like something is going to change.

Savior Barbie 1

However, to steal a ploy from Oliver, these takedowns are like Arcade Fire. Critics and fans love the band, but most people did not know they existed until they stole the Grammy album of the year from Lady Gaga. The backlash subsided and they returned to the critical darling and a trivia fact.

Adam Felder recently argued that Oliver’s takedowns make people feel good, but have little impact. The platform on HBO allows Oliver to raise issues like lead poisoning, FIFA corruption, paid paternal leave and daily fantasy sports. Those segments got a lot of attention shortly after they aired, but it quickly waned and the problems revealed persisted.

“[G]iven that these segments don’t change policy outcomes and that interest in these bits is pretty ephemeral, it’s time to stop pretending these progressive late-night shows have more calculable political power than they do,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

Savior Barbie is very smart satire and a well-done project by the two anonymous people who created it. Praise is warranted as it shows the many problems with savior types and how social media can cultivate a much more narrow narrative of a white person going to help, and sometimes save, brown babies. Such activities deserve a level of satire to point out absurdities.

The thing is, is that these projects don’t really seem to do much to change attitudes. Whether it is an Onion parody or a Tumblr page devoted to people using pictures of themselves playing with African children and holding babies on Tinder, the joke is on the naive young white people. Maybe with various media that call them out, people will change their minds or decide not to go on a hug-an-orphan trip to India.

That isn’t happening. Rather, these are all new ways to make fun of people. We who are in the know get to sit high and mighty above the lowly and less informed saviors. They are the butt of our jokes in conversation, and now there are new forms of media to parody or call out these foolish young people. It is not the way that most people are actively thinking, but that is what happens in the end. Parodies and takedowns reinforce our beliefs and points of view.

Savior Barbie 2

Parodies and takedowns reinforce our beliefs and points of view. By being in on the joke or outside the eye of the criticism, we can revel in the mistakes of others. The problem in this is the fact that ignores the process by which people learn. Most people laughing along at Savior Barbie were probably guilty of doing what the account satirizes at some point. The creators admit it themselves.

“We were never as ‘savioresque’ as Barbie Savior, but we did things back in our White Savior days that we regret,” they said to the Huffington Post. “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here. Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.”

But that self-reflection is fleeting as the creators later say that people offended by the account should really be offended by the people earnestly posting things like this on social media every day. By calling it “the real offense” there is a presumption that people are knowingly sharing images that perpetuate the problematic white savior narrative.

There are many problems with the multi-billion dollar voluntourism industry. Journalist Jacob Kushner recently argued in the New York Times Magazine that such activities can sometimes cause more harm than good. It is not a new message. Nor is it one that reaches many people. Despite the insider debates about the volunteer in Africa industry, it seems to keep growing. That means more young people are joining the ranks of those made fun of by Savior Barbie.

Maybe some will see the account and think twice about the images they share. Others might see the account after going on a trip and realize the error of their ways. But for the most part, the problem will persist and the next clever way to make fun of the white savior complex will emerge to the acclaim of the already-converted. It is not known how to cause needed changes in attitudes. Barbie Savior makes a worthy attempt, but let’s not overinflate what it can do.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Yeah ok, point taken. But then there’s the #freejoebenson thing, where saviors don’t know what they are talking about, start making up numbers and repeating and retweeting them, and sooner or later an African born TV repairman gets put in jail for 60 months and The Guardian actually reports it as “saving” Africa from “e-waste”. Knowing what the heck you are talking about is definitely “a thing”. Primum non nocere is a thing. And a great deal of the #whitesaviorbarbie criticism via satire is aimed at lazy journalism which has a formula for printing “caring” stories about “nurturing” people without going through the drudge work of #datajournalism. Yeah, I can imagine blowback from white savior barbie memes, but it’s aimed at journalists who treat shallow activism as “news”, and isn’t more harmful than the “won’t someone please think of the children” meme a decade ago.