LONDON, KAMPALA AND SPOKANE, WASHINGTON VIA EMAIL—If you haven’t seen the Barbie Savior Instagram account yet, it’s time to check it out. The BBC described it as, “a satirical account that encapsulates what some see as the white saviour complex, a modern version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’” while Mashable stated that the site was, “a hilarious account parodying those volunteers who make service trips to developing countries—and make it all about themselves.” (One well-known example: Louise Linton, a Scottish actress who is married to the U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, was famously slammed last year for her book “In Congo’s Shadow” about her gap year in Zambia).
Two American women, Jackie Kramlich and Emily Worrall, who have a combined total of over a decade working and volunteering in Uganda for NGOs, started Barbie Savior almost three years ago. Last month they launched a video campaign with Radi-Aid, a project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) entitled “How To Get More Likes On Social Media”, a parody aimed at getting people to think before taking selfies when abroad that reinforce stereotypes of developing countries. “Stereotypes Harm Dignity” is one of the lasting images from the video. Emily, who is still in Uganda, and Jackie, now back in the U.S., did an email interview with she-files’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic about the stereotypes campaign and where they see Barbie going in 2018. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL: Why did you decide to set up the account?
KRAMLICH AND WORRALL: We both saw the ridiculous double standards that people hold in terms of ethics abroad. Most of our conversations revolved around this issue. One day [Jackie] started up an Instagram [account] and sent it over to Emily as an inside joke. We went back and forth on it. [We] remember joking about doing a Barbie Savior account. It was late at night on [Emily’s] end, and we have an 11-hour time difference. [Emily] went to bed and the next morning Jackie had already gone to Wal-Mart, purchased a doll, set up the account, and had a mini-photo session. Emily started amping up the images with Photoshop. We would toss hashtags back and forth throughout the day. [Jackie] created a mini-photo studio for Barbie in [her] bathroom; honestly, it was such a hysterically therapeutic experience. [Jackie][ felt like somebody finally understood, could laugh at it, but also truly cared about the issues. Barbie arose from a need to express ourselves to one another and to provide a narrative to our own experiences. We had no grand scheme that it would turn into anything else. It was cheap therapy.
Were you surprised by how it took off? Did most people “get it” in that it is a clever critique of development and people who head over with good intentions but clueless on a lot of aspects?
Jackie still remembers the day it went viral. She was working at a hospital [back in the US] and glanced at her phone on break. She couldn’t even scroll to the bottom of the alerts on her phone. It was a bit terrifying because we never imagined it would be used on a bigger scale. Emily threw up. She had to lock herself in the bathroom for several minutes to collect herself. We called each other and laughed hysterically and swore and laughed and swore for several minutes and then hung up. A few weeks later, Emily was heading to the States when it started going really viral. She remembers getting on the plane and after a five-hour flight we had gone up over 10,000 followers. We did not think there was such a large audience for the dark humor we had grown accustomed to using. Probably the most humorous critique for us is when people try and shame us for detouring those who want to help. Our response is pretty simple: if a satirical Barbie doll is enough to make you change your plans about humanitarian work abroad, you have absolutely no business being there in the first place. We set a rule for ourselves pretty early on that we were not going to interact with comments about what we meant by things or what was intended. It is for interpretation. It’s actually been fascinating to read the conversations between people back and forth. The conversation is the point of all of this.
Why do you think it has struck such a chord?
We think it’s because we are addressing something that nobody is socially allowed to say out loud. If someone says, “I don’t think so-and-so is really helping the people over there in Tanzania….”, it is instantly met with a sense of, “well what are YOU doing that is so great?” People who go into the non- profit [sector] tend to be held above reproach. We aren’t allowed to critique them because they are “holier than thou” in the eyes of the public. Obviously, this can be the root cause of so many problems in the humanitarian sector. And Barbie Savior provided an easy, relatable, exaggerated way for people to see those underlying issues.
Why Barbie? And how do you set up the photographs?
We put very little thought into this originally. Usually, an idea would just hit us. Obviously, it was easier to come up with them right away when our head was spinning from all the injustices we had seen. After a while, there were fewer and fewer ideas. We don’t want to stray too far from the main idea of Barbie Savior just to keep the Instagram [account] alive. This, in part, is why we took a break from it. Depending on the details of the photo, it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.
How did this campaign with Radi-Aid come about? The video is pretty funny.
We want Barbie Savior to serve as a conversation starter. Coming up with the guide with Radi-Aid was such a great way to do this, and we are so grateful to have worked with them. We have talked about doing study guides or a book to make the project a bit more concrete. Radi-Aid obviously has similar ideals, and we had emailed back and forth in the past. When they approached us to work on the guide, we were thrilled. We are just in a time where travel and social media have posed so many ethical questions, and there has been a long-needed paradigm shift for a change in how we present recipients of aid.
Where do you see the Instagram/website going next year? Will you expand it or get involved other projects that help spread the word on being more culturally sensitive when travelling?
Who knows? We never expected Barbie Savior to reach this point. We are both interested in furthering conversations surrounding these topics. As far as the Instagram goes there has always been an end to the storyline. But I don’t think that will be the last time you hear from us.
You were off the account for some time this summer–why was that and what was the reaction when you came back?
At that point, Jackie had to step back from Barbie Savior, and Emily was going through a lot in her personal and professional lives. One of those issues was [that] she was immersed in a situation where good friends were being treated less than because of the white savior complex. She was watching intelligent, educated individuals (who happened to be African) be discredited and treated “less than” by a Western-run NGO. Emily reached a moment with her friend where she began to resent Barbie a little bit, it seemed cheap when compared to the severity of these issues. However, Emily eventually came back to what she always has believed: Barbie Savior is a commentary on a very real problem. We don’t claim to have all the answers and [Barbie] provides comedic relief to a sensitive topic.
You have remained anonymous for quite some time—why?
What we most definitely do not want, and a large part of the reason we remained anonymous for so long, is for people to view us as gurus of the NGO world who think we’ve figured something out. If you are looking for us to provide you [with] all the answers to humanitarian complexities you are going to be wildly disappointed. Barbie Savior is not a “how to” platform. It’s a “What the hell?!?” platform. We have all kinds of scenarios given to us via email or in person, with the followup question being, “is this okay?” We rarely have an answer to that. The neat thing is, the person who is asking us is actually asking themselves if what they are doing is okay and that is all we could hope for in all of this. We are mostly just here to say: you are not alone in questioning if things are “right” or “ethical”. It’s okay to critique one another. It’s okay to critique yourself. By all means, critique us.
All photos courtesy of Barbia Savior