We get the icons we deserve, and today, nothing seals a stereotype like a parody Barbie Instagram account. Last year, Socality Barbie nailed the glossy-haired hipsters whose Pinterest-worthy social media posts make you feel bad about your own sloppy life:
And now, we have Savior Barbie, a pitch-perfect takedown of the gap year traveller who manages to make their volunteer work in a developing country all about them – with the help of a few Instagram filters, some tactless “inspirational” quotes, and the hashtag #blessed.
In her bio, Savior Barbie describes herself as being all about “Jesus. Adventures. Africa. Two worlds. One love. Babies. Beauty. Not qualified. Called. 20 years young. It's not about me... but it kind of is.”
The account is aimed at young, Christian Americans going on volunteering missions to African countries, and it's undeniably hilarious. But it also taps into the broader trend – and important issue – of young, privileged Westerners breezing into disadvantaged communities, spending a couple of weeks building an orphanage or teaching English, and sailing away again.
When done right, volunteering can be a powerful tool. A 2015 study of 3,700 participants from four different countries found that volunteers can be an effective means of reaching poor and vulnerable communities, while also giving them access to valuable public services and fostering a spirit of altruism within the communities themselves.
But when done Savior Barbie-style, this kind of “voluntourism” can do more harm than good – as well as being teeth-grindingly irritating when it’s clogging up your news feed.
It makes sense when you think about it. An inexperienced student with no real practical skills is unlikely to be the most useful person in the world: one former boarding school student who volunteered in a Tanzanian village as a teenager has described how, after she and her classmates attempted to build a school, local men would spend every night redoing their shoddy construction work. The very presence of volunteers can mean that local workers are prevented from getting much-needed jobs, while local children can also be left traumatised after forming emotional attachments to volunteers who only stay for a couple of weeks.
The account was created five weeks ago by two white twenty-something women, and already has over 7,000 followers. Its anonymous creators once volunteered in East Africa themselves, and describe themselves as former “white saviors”.
“We were never as ‘savioresque’ as Barbie Savior, but we did things back in our White Savior days that we regret,” they told The Huffington Post. “It really just started as a joke between us, a way to get some of these things off of our chest. Its hard to pinpoint the irony at times in real life... the wildly self-centered person veiled as the self-sacrificing saint.”
“The attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners, can be traced back to colonialism and slavery,” they added. “It’s such a simplified way to view an entire continent.”