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The Vastness of “White Savior” Themes in Western Media

White Savior Complex – mindset for a white person to provide help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling.

After a grueling several weeks, I have stumbled upon my latest television obsession: Elité. In an era following 13 Reasons Why and How to Get Away With Murder, Elité brings a revitalized look to a dying murder mystery trend. For lack of better terms, it is the epitome of soap operas for young adults: the feeling of wanting to be the characters but also hate them at the same time. But the thing that intrigued me the most upon watching the show was the inclusion of a Hijabi-Mulim character as one of the protagonists. Elité is a show I can only include with a handful others in similar positions.

Nadia initially leads a docile and academic lifestyle once entering Las Encinas, a prestigious boarding school revered by all scholarship-winning students. She spends much of the show breaking out of her shell and exploring newfound interests—all developments I am absolutely for. But it was the inclusion of several particular plotlines that made me question the writers’ intentions with the show. In one of the early episodes in season one, the principal of Las Encinas gave Nadia an ultimatum to remove her hijab or leave the school, and she painstakingly chose the former. As a non-Muslim, I cannot fathom the toll this would take on a growing woman, especially one who is as marginalized in a community. Where this scene spoke volumes to the flaws of the education system and performative diversity, it was an entirely different development that left a conflicting message in my mind.

During season two, the show’s Twitter account posted a video of Nadia walking confidently into a discotheque in Spain without her hijab, titling the video “QUEEN.” The response from the Muslim Twitter community was no more polarizing: one user commented “this is gonna be my fav scene. We stan queen Nadia,” while another wrote “can Netflix hire a Muslim woman so she can write Nadia a good storyline empowering her without -taking off- her hijab and drinking?” While I think the interpretation of this scene can be very complicated and, to an extent, is to each their own, it would be an understatement to say that Nadia’s character seems to capitalize on Muslim stereotypes.

Mariam Khan, editor of It’s Not About the Burqa, wrote a piece for Metro entitled “TV needs to stop ’empowering’ Muslim women by removing their hijabs.” I recommend readers to follow along with her op-ed as I am not a Muslim woman myself and her sentiments are heavily felt.

While Elité follows adolescents navigating life in the middle of, well, the elite, there is an entirely other movie that left audiences speechless—and not in an acceptable way.

In the summer of last year, Netflix issued an apology for its promotions of the movie Cuties. For those who may have missed it, Cuties is a French coming-of-age drama (originally Mignonnes) that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It follows the story of a Senegalese Muslim girl who is torn between two contrasting sides: her traditional values and contemporary  Internet culture. The film is also said to discuss the hypersexualization of pre-adolescent girls. While this idea may look good on paper, once the Netflix trailer was released, the internet was up in arms—and for good reason.

While the film is supposed to address the sexualization of young girls, it ironically does the opposite and seems to promote it. What’s more? The original poster for the film had the four girls jumping down the street looking happy, but the Netflix poster had them posed in risqué positions and wearing little to no clothing—despite the girls only being 11.

Disclaimer: the activities depicted in the trailer below are not shared by the author or the Northeastern chapter community.

In a time of #MeToo and increasing accusations against misconductors, this movie appeared to fail in bringing about its message even before it was released. It treats the girl’s family as villains for not wanting her to engage in revealing dances, stealing, and provocative clothing. While understandably so, this portrayal leads into yet another issue with the movie: the “white savior complex.” Rather than following a journey of a young girl’s exploration in the modern world, the audience is expected to presume she feels “liberated” from partaking in the actions seen in the trailer. Whatever good intentions may have motivated Cuties, the bottom line is that the film sexualizes children while also reinforcing raging negative stereotypes about Muslim and African immigrants, especially in Europe.

Upon reading over this piece, I have realized that both examples used involved Muslim characters and incorporated themes of Islamaphobia, but messages surrounding “white saviors” are prevalent in major blockbuster films as well as in other races. The Help received sizable backlash in its act of using Emma Stone’s character as a driving force in the movie’s storyline rather than any of the black-leading characters. The Blind Side, originally one of my favorite movies, attempted to suppress Southern racism with a white blonde woman taking a black teenager in and motivating his interest in football through his academic year. Whatever your views on these complexities may be, it is inevitable to declare that Hollywood has a knick for uprooting white representation over people of color.

Sreya is a third-year combined computer science and business major. Prior to being Campus Correspondent/Editor in Chief from 2020-2021, she was an editor for Northeastern's chapter. Besides being part of Her Campus, she's also in HackBeanpot and Scout. She spends most of her free time watching cringy reality shows, scrolling through Twitter, and going to concerts.
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