Whitest Dreams?



I’ll start this off by saying that I like Taylor Swift. Love Story is a karaoke classic, and I apologise to my neighbours for my shower renditions of Blank Space. More importantly, I admire the way that she’s evolved through her career, managed to shake off (see what I did there?) all the misogynist criticism of her love life, and has written great music. Wildest Dreams seemed like more of the same: fun tune, about an ex. I had some good car sing-alongs. Then the video came out.

For those of you who haven’t watched it, here’s a quick summary. It starts off with a slow montage of African animals, merging together with Swift’s face and a setting sun. It quickly becomes clear that the scene is in fact the set of a film, with Swift as the lead actress. Together with a handsome leading man, they are starring in a film set in colonial Africa. Think ‘Out of Africa’, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. It transpires that it this is in fact a Romance, with a capital R, set against a backdrop of majestic African landscapes and big game. There’s some kissing, and at one point Swift flies a plane, with a fabulous headscarf and glasses combination. When the shooting finishes, Swift and Handsome Man part, seeing each other one last time at the film premier, and though they both have feelings, fate intervenes, they miss each other and are kept apart.

As soon as the video was released, the predictable debate appeared: was it racist? A lot of the argument has hinged on whether there are African people represented in the video (apparently there are, but only in one shot and you’d practically have to go frame-by-frame to notice it). However, if you added in local people where they would historically most often have appeared in a colonial household (holding trays, in the edges of the frame), I don’t think it would make the video much better. When you have a film that revels in nostalgic colonial imagery, adding one African servant will never make it progressive.

Criticism of the video has generally levelled the accusation that it is “colonialist”, without saying how, or why that is bad. It is because all we see in the video is a sanitised version of British colonialism in Africa: elegant safari outfits, rustic tent beds framed by mosquito nets, plentiful big game, and soaring in a two winged plane over the veldt. What we don’t see is the violence and exploitation that British Africa was built on, the impacts of which African nations still live with today. That the European powers seized East African between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, ruthlessly crushing any military resistance by the region’s inhabitants. That white settlers rapidly took over much of the prime land and natural resources, breaking down traditional power structures and changing communities, setting in motion many of the current socio-economic difficulties that plague the area.

When we glamourise the colonial aesthetic, we sweep beneath the carpet the brutality, economic coercion, white supremacy, political repression and sexual abuse that were as much part of the daily life of colonial Africa as were loose white shirts and khaki trousers.

Director Joseph Kahn defended Swift’s video, commenting that “this is not a video about colonialism but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa, 1950.” However, the East African (in particular Kenyan) colonial romance has a long history in creating a rose-tinted view of the British occupation of Africa. By the 1920s, the exotic empire had become a favourite setting for British Romance novels, with no place more favoured than the Kenyan Highlands. Tales of love in the rugged farmland of Kenya, told in purplest of prose, soon occupied the bookshelves of women in Britain. Although some settlers in Kenya were scandalised, the so-called Kenya Novels of the 1920s romanticised the colonial experience, subtly making the empire more palatable and so supporting the British presence in Africa. Karen Blixen’s famous 1937 memoir Out of Africa only cemented the image of East Africa as a place of beauty, European romance and a nostalgic colonial order. Swift’s video is part of this long trend of romances that, while nominally politically neutral (because after all, it’s just a romance), nevertheless embed an image of colonial Africa that is only positive. Even though we are half a century on from political decolonisation in the region, these images still linger.

To some degree, Swift’s video acknowledges the artificial nature of such idealised colonial fantasies. After all, the scene is a film set rather than reality. However, it still glorifies such imagery, painting colonial African life as a place of beauty, excitement and romance, the stuff of motion pictures and old Hollywood glamour. If the viewer is familiar with the history of the images Swift utilises, then they can recognise them for what they are: a fantasy, perpetuated in novels and historical films (like the one that Wildest Dreams centres around) rather than real life.

But it they are not, then that distinction will probably not be conveyed and what is left is pure, romantic colonial nostalgia. Almost no African history is taught in New Zealand secondary schools and very little in universities. Far more people will watch Wildest Dreams than will read a book or article on colonialism in East Africa, and that worries me.

So, enjoy the song and even watch the video, but do so with awareness of where these images come from and the power that they have.

References:

Chloe Campbell, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya (Manchester:Manchester University Press, 2007).

C. J. D. Duder, ‘Love and the Lions: The Image of White Settlement in Kenya in Popular Fiction, 1919-1939’, African Affairs, vol.90, no.360 (July 1991),

Dane Kennedy, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).

One thought on “Whitest Dreams?

  1. Jane Mills

    This is a superbly written essay with excellent politics and a really good knowledge and understanding of the issues involved . My congratulations to the author.

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