white saviour

The White Saviour Complex: It’s Not Just a Problem in the Movies

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Nicola Codner

Intersectional feminist, therapist and writer

The white saviour complex is most commonly talked about as a narrative trope in film and literature. The white saviour trope in fiction is where a white character is sent to rescue people of colour from harm and to improve their lives in some capacity. The trope thus centres and glorifies the white character, who becomes the hero in the narrative.

white saviour

You’ve probably seen a lot of films and read a lot of books which use this trope. Here are some well-known and popular examples of films which contain this trope: ‘The Help’, ‘Dances with Wolves’, ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘The Blind Side’, ‘Blood Diamond’, ‘Cool Runnings’, ‘Dangerous Minds’…I could keep going. There are so many to choose from. Most recently, ‘The Revenant’ is an example of a film which contains this trope. What is important to acknowledge about these films is that commonly, audiences absolutely love them and are frequently uncritical about the messages these films carry. When I say ‘audiences’, I’m not just talking about white people either. People of colour can at times be heard endorsing and championing films which carry the trope. People of colour have been taught to actually be grateful for these movies and just to be glad that their stories are getting some attention, even if a white person is right in the middle of them, getting most, if not all, of the spotlight.

It looks like ‘The Revenant’ may even receive an Oscar or some Oscars this year. When films which carry the white saviour trope are some of the most popular films around, it’s important to stop and question what this says about us.

White Saviour
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.

The plot line for ‘The Revenant’ is simple. After being attacked by a bear and left for dead whilst on a fur trade expedition in the 1820’s, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Hugh Glass fights for his survival in the American wilderness so that he can avenge the murder of his mixed race son, who has Native American heritage.

In his review of the ‘The Revenant’, Native American Gyasi Ross says:

“It seems almost a conspiracy how little control, autonomy or voice Native people were given over our own lives in this movie.”

He also describes the movie as “the same ‘white saviour’ garbage…that has permeated pretty much any mainstream movie that includes Natives as major characters”.

He goes on to describe in his article how DiCaprio’s character is centred in the narrative and shown as both a rescuer and avenger on behalf of Native Americans, whilst simultaneously being an exploiter of Native Americans and their resources for his own gain in the movie. Ross also says DiCaprio’s character is shown as going ‘full-on Native: somehow surviving the worst tragedies, misfortunes and pains that the world can throw at him’. Essentially, we get to watch DiCaprio play a white man’s version of a Native American, except he does everything better than a real Native American of course. After all, he’s white. I’ll be honest; I personally found this film laughably ridiculous and completely offensive for some of the reasons mentioned above and more. It worries me how much acclaim such a film is receiving in this day and age.

As if the white saviour trope in movies isn’t enough of a problem, we need to start acknowledging this complex is not limited to fiction. Did you see the response DiCaprio got for mentioning Native American issues in his Golden Globe acceptance speech? This was a great example of how the white saviour complex plays out in reality. All a white person in the public eye has to do is say something about the issues a racially oppressed group faces and they will immediately be painted as a hero and a saviour. This is exactly what happened to DiCaprio after his award speech. I see this happen literally all the time. As Gyasi Ross points out in his article, if DiCaprio really wants to help Native Americans, he will use his privilege to give them a platform to speak for themselves and move over. Whether he will actually do this is yet to be seen.

I’ve seen the white saviour complex at work in my own life. Just recently I noticed that a page I follow on Facebook posted literally nothing for black history month except one post which was about a white woman called Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who was an activist for black rights in the US. Now I don’t want to downplay this woman’s activism, but how am I supposed to be enthusiastic about it when black people are erased from black history month and only her story is promoted? When I complained about the erasure of black people from black history month and the centring of a white narrative in the comments under the post, a white woman basically told me to be quiet because all people experience racism and I should give credit where credit is due.

The white saviour complex is everywhere. It is the inevitable fallout of our history of white dominance and supremacy. It can, disturbingly, be at the heart of humanitarian work, where white people go to developing countries thinking they are going to rescue the inhabitants and teach them how to live in ways which they feel are more successful and acceptable, (in other words, by converting them to more westernized thinking). It can also play out in teacher/ student relationships, in therapy, and any other kind of relationship where someone white is helping a person of colour. One of the biggest problems with the white saviour complex is that it does not help people in racially oppressed groups to be autonomous. It places them in a child-like position where they are dependent on white people and in service to them. This dynamic is called ‘enmeshment’ and both white and non-white people can unconsciously play into it. Enmeshment can occur in any relationship where there is a power imbalance due to structural inequality and it ensures that the power imbalance stays firmly in place, resulting in frustration and resentment for the oppressed group.

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Ex Machina

People in oppressed groups need to overcome their own internal and external oppressions without being rescued, otherwise they cannot really be independent. A film that attempts to work with this concept is Alex Garland’s film, ‘Ex-Machina’. The female protagonist is shown as embracing her own female power and not relying on men to give her freedom. She seizes her freedom opportunistically, relying on sisterhood rather than masculine power, and without being burdened by a sense of responsibility for male feelings, which would only maintain the status quo. ‘Ex Machina‘ has its own issues with race however, in that it is the white female robot who receives her freedom, whereas the female robots of colour do not, and in some ways they could be seen as being in her service. Again, this is a very common trope in movies where the character of colour is seen to do all that they can to keep the white character safe, even if this means their own death. This trope also occurs in ‘The Hunger Games’. It’s depressing that even in films that are positioned as ‘feminist’ this trope is still an issue.

In my opinion, we need films which show people in oppressed groups being genuinely empowered and liberated. I am in no way trying to say that there is something wrong with people in privileged groups helping those in oppressed groups. What I am saying is that people in privileged groups need to know how to manage their egos in these scenarios, to know when it’s time to stand back and when it’s time to move the hell out of the way.