By this point, I expect many of you may have watched the music video for Taylor Swift’s song, “Wildest Dreams.”
If you haven’t, don’t feel bad—I wouldn’t have watched it had I not volunteered to write about it. In any case, aside from the music, the video itself merits some discussion.
First, a synopsis of the video: Swift appears as an actress probably from the 1940s, filming a movie somewhere in Africa.
She sports dark hair, which makes her look like actresses such as Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor. The setting is characterized by impressive natural landscapes—rolling savannas, daunting waterfalls and elephants and lions in the background.
Think Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa.
Swift’s video follows her character through the filming of a movie and a love affair with her male co-star, on and off set, up to the film’s premiere, when, in melodramatic fashion, she leaves the theatre after seeing her former lover lock lips with another woman.
It is the former part of this video, replete with romantic yet clichéd visions of Africa, which strikes me as more interesting.
Despite the fact that Swift’s video is set in Africa, and has all the grassland and majestic animals that typically come to mind when one simply thinks of Africa in a very superficial way, it’s curious to note that not a single black African individual appears in the video (I didn’t see any, at least).
Overall, this video has a very African Queen sort of feel.
The movie Swift and her beau are filming seems to star two white actors in Africa, much like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn’s ordeals in their film set during World War I. One imagines Swift’s and her co-star’s characters setting off on some odyssey through exotic, if dangerous and perhaps inhospitable lands.
This narrative is clearly not without its problems.
Again, we are presented with a very quaint and Eurocentric view of Africa. The protagonists, even in an African setting, are white. Western civilization and culture must stand out against the wild and untamed landscape of Africa, to say nothing of its natives.
It was empires in Africa called Kush
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans
Whether the makers of Swift’s video are aware of it or not, their work ends up exonerating and romanticizing the age of Europe’s colonial dominance over Africa.
Their presentation of Africa as a raw, unpopulated landmass evokes the mentality of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” in which it is the task of colonizing white people to diffuse progress and culture throughout the globe. The terms “civilization” and “Africa” become so thoroughly dichotomized in this framework that it becomes difficult to think of anything that resembles human culture flourishing in Africa; that before Europeans arrived there, it was completely empty.
Good history lessons can clearly demonstrate otherwise, but the tolerance of this mentality in our day and age is tremendously backwards and problematic.
I was told before writing this article that I should refrain from judging Swift directly, so there’ll be no ad hominem attacks here—I promise.
Maybe the motivation behind this sort of video was simply to render homage to the Hollywood of yesteryear. And to be sure, Hollywood produced some outstanding works of cinema roughly between 1930 and 1960. The first time I saw Casablanca, for example, it managed to steal the spot of my number one film away from Taxi Driver—and that, believe me, is no easy task.
But surely, there must be other ways of paying respects to old Hollywood without also acknowledging a tacit complicity with imperialism and its right-hand man, racism.
It is possible to be exotic without at the same time collapsing into the pitfalls of fetishism and objectification.
The title of Swift’s song, “Wildest Dreams,” could have been rendered into video format in a nearly infinite variety of ways. We could have been given surrealist dreamscapes of the kind that pervade the canvases of Man Ray or Dalí. If the aim were to retain the emphasis on the “wildest” part, the makers of this video could have had Swift trekking through the Sahara Desert or the Amazon Rainforest. Or for a very simple, if perhaps incomplete fix, this video could have had some black Africans in it.
In closing, I’m personally in favor of the celebration of an era in Hollywood’s past, an era when Humphrey Bogart was the only person to not get sick on the set of The African Queen because he only drank whiskey rather than the local water.
However, the way Swift’s team has executed this particular project feels like a doozy of a misstep to me.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of user Ronald Woan via Flickr.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.