Cinema has emerged to be a potent tool in shaping perspectives of culture, society and history. The power of visual stimulation can be manifested and exploited politically, socially and economically. The unparalleled popularity of cinema is not only driven by entertainment, but also as a candid medium of conversation that inevitably perpetrates certain beliefs and values. The issue is not for films to be cultural communicators, but that of cultural appropriation arising from the flawed and ignorant description of a place that the filmmaker has not directly experienced.
Africa has long been a subject of colonial subjugation – from media, literature, popular discourses, academia, to cinema. Films have layered Africa in Eurocentric ideas and ideals. The “otherization” of Africa making it, as Chinua Achebe said, the “antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” has been championed by Western film images since centuries.
European imperialism was not only legitimized and internalized, but also fluently put-in-action by American and European filmmakers wherein the dominant image of Africa seen on Western screens was that of condescension and paternalism.
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Western cinemas attempt at portraying Africa as a repository of wild animals and thus reducing Africans to wild natives is perversely racist, and is essentially a colonial emprise. Whilst standardizing the colonized as per the cinematic demands of western audiences, these films inverted the reality of Africa and African values making it a playground for White fiction.
The dehumanization of Africa and African people; blatantly making a mockery of a significantly diverse African culture; stereotyping the entire continent through a one-dimensional, mostly western, perspective; disseminating popular myths of the “wild” Africa are all racist overtones glorified, celebrated, and massively quoted from the classic, all-time pop culture mega-hit Mean Girls.
A 2004 American teen comedy film directed by Mark Waters and written by Tina Fey, Mean Girls had a stellar cast of Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, and Lacey Chabert in the leading roles. It traces its root in “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, a nonfiction book by Rosalind Wiseman. The movie centered around Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) who was raised and home-schooled in Africa before she was moved to a public school in America. The now smartest girl in the Evanston Township High School, she was yet naïve to the functioning of high-school cliques, fashion rules, and extremely critical – the boyfriend choices she was supposed to make.
Beginning with the (in)famous cafeteria scene where Cady tries to sit with the “unfriendly black hotties” by greeting them with an enthusiastic “Jambo!”
On being ignored, she ends up eating her lunch in the washroom. The use of “unfriendly” for black people is rooted in the conventional white stereotyping of them as aggressive and uncouth. It is a colonial rendition of the unregulated rage and furiousness of natives towards benevolent White men with their “civilization mission”, who were merely disseminating the gift of development to savage lands. The segregation and labelling of the high-school cliques in line with their ethnicity was in itself a rather unappetizing racist incident in the movie.
The use of “Jambo” which is Swahili for “Hello” was another instance of demarcating African people in mass. Assuming that they would not know how to speak English, and then assuming that all black people speak Swahili was reflecting White people’s dismissal of the multiplicity of African languages. However, the larger part of the casual racist attitude, nonchalantly projected by Cady rests on her assumption that all black people must be from Africa. For someone who was home-schooled in Africa, such a significant omission of African-American history was hardly believable, lest intended.
Cady’s introduction of herself as raised and schooled in “Africa” was a striking, and yet much-ignored racist instance in the movie. Africa is a continent of 54 sovereign countries. Cady’s insistence that she is from Africa was, in addition to a lack of common sense, an erasure of individual identities of diverse and multiple countries and within them tribes of the vast ‘continent’ that is Africa. When Tina Fey’s character Ms. Norbury introduces Cady to her classmates as a new student from Africa, she presumes it to be one of the black students in her class. On being called, the student said, “I am from Michigan.” It is ironic that Ms. Norbury did not know about a student from her own class. The repeated trope in the movie that all black people are from Africa, and all Africans are black was uninformed at best and repugnant at worst.
Another infamous scene, wherein Cady equated being in a mall to “being home in Africa….”, reinforces the Eurocentric prototype that unlike the native “savages”, only westerners are capable of being civilized. In Cady’s imagination, all people in that mall were primitive and animalistic. In essence, Mean Girls debased an entire continent to the level of bestiality. It relegated Africa to the classical imagination of White men – wild, uncultured, uneducated, grotesque.
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Mean Girls underhandedly robbed Africans of a human expression, divesting them from individuality that the “superior” White men have protected since ages. The need to present Africa as an antonym to Western sophistication and politesse, in order to accentuate the development of the West is done to materialize and smoothen the Western pride. Cady’s juxtaposition of “this” world to the “other” world was not humorous, but a part of systemic branding of Africans as “savage” or jungle-living-humans, presenting them as second-class citizens who are inferior to their White American counterparts.
The widely celebrated pop-culture queen, Regina George’s comeback to Cady’s apology in the movie was, “They say you are a home-schooled jungle freak who’s a less hot version of me!”
The long-standing White groaner of bracketing Africa with jungle has been dutifully avouched by the cutting-edge wit of Tina Fey. Africa has seldom been spared a human identity in western imagination, as the inhabitants of this continent were seen only as “objects of spectacle” for the European–American gaze. Western movie-makers caricatured Africa as a “dark continent” whose inhabitants were nothing but savages or passive primitives doing funny things in the jungles to amuse white thrillseekers.
Tina Fey’s construction of humor and scintillating one-liners in the movie–that later went on to become nothing less than legendary–was partly emanating from a half-baked knowledge, if not an acute disregard, of Africa’s history, geography, society, language and culture. While partly it is the asinine White understanding of Africa which is the residuum of Western imperialism.
As cinema shapes and reflects the societal structure of its time, it becomes necessary to filter and be critical of the media we consume. Mean Girls has aged to be a terrible classic. In all its glitter, fashion and high-school glory, Mean Girls actualized the racial stereotypes lobbed at Africans, but with a soft ignorance that counterbalanced the awry. Pop-culture is not innocent of racism; it has rather normalized our view towards it by packing it in glossy narratives.
The presumptuous colonialist representation of Africa by western film-makers is an extension of imperial philosophy – that of patronizing, ruling, uplifting, and in essence exploiting Africa. Movies like Mean Girls inadvertently – if not knowingly – perpetuates these same rationales and hence authenticates the vain pride of White men and fundamentally reflect the ideology of the imperial government.
It would be counterproductive to the development of racial justice, if Western cinema is not regulated in its racist overtones and if film-makers do not educate and sensitize themselves to African history and society. Cinema is used to instruct and influence, just as it is used for entertainment, hence prioritizing critical thinking is necessary while watching films.
Nuzhat Khan is a student of English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia. She is from Lucknow. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter.