The video for Taylor Swift’s new single ‘Wildest Dreams’ has been condemned by many commentators as a racist neo-colonial folly. It features an all-white cast pretending to be glamorous classical Hollywood movie-makers on location in Africa (some parts were shot in Botswana). A lion, zebra, giraffe, and African landscapes provide pretty backdrops to the lead characters’ psychosexual dramas. At NPR, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe argue that Swift’s video is ‘devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets [it] in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatised millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic.’ Indeed. However, this critique can be extended. Rather than being completely absent, I would argue the people of Africa are represented in this video by the continent’s wildlife. This racist analogy has deep roots – not only in the Hollywood era depicted by Swift and co., but the entire history of European imperialism in Africa.
Essential to European colonialism and slave trading was the understanding of Africa’s people as less ‘human’ than their subjugators, and closer to animal. Wildcats, in particular, according to Wendy Martin, ‘came to signify Africans’ presumed “primitivism” and wild sensuality.’ Such notions continued to be expressed in early twentieth century European art movements, as visual artists employed African imagery and motifs, the bohemian intelligentsia decorated their homes with African animal skins, and Josephine Baker stormed Paris in the Revue Nègre. Though an American dancer, Baker’s movements and costumes of feathers and bananas strongly evoked the African exotic. A regular occurrence, and one heavily loaded with symbolism, had the black performer walk the Paris streets with her pet leopard Chiquita, applauded by appreciative onlookers. Sleglinde Lemke writes, ‘she became their pet, or, should we say, their panther, titillating and tame – potentially dangerous.’
The link between female sexuality and African wildcat exoticism continued in the late 1940s after the austerity and deprivations of the Second World War, but was increasingly redirected onto white bodies. Christian Dior almost single-handedly revived the French fashion industry with his New Look. His designs accentuated the female form, particularly the waist and breasts. Women who donned the new fashion often claimed they felt spectacularly feminine and sexy. Karal Ann Marling writes, the ‘New Look uniform of the 50s invited the shopper to try on a new persona, primal and highly individualized – a self usually hidden from the public gaze by skirts and hats and little silk prints’ (my emphasis). These ‘primal’ qualities of the New Look were accentuated further by the fabrics employed by Dior. For example, leopard print was used on his chiffon ‘jungle’ and ‘African’ dresses first released in 1947. The cut and fabric of his designs then brought the French lust for the exotic African body to mass-produced fashion and the wider western world.
In the 1950s (the period in which Swift’s video is apparently set), leopard print fabric and other wildcat motifs became a popular culture cliché – Ava Gardner, Jane Mansfield, Kim Novak, and many, many other actresses sprawled carnally on leopard print throws, glowered against leopard print backdrops, and barely contained their breasts in clinging leopard print swimsuits. The peak of all this 1950s African wildcat sexual symbolism was pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager’s famous series of Bettie Page, shot in 1954 at Florida’s Africa USA themepark, in which the model (kitted out in a Jane from Tarzan ensemble) poses between a pair of actual leopards and is tied up and threatened by ‘Machakas’ – an Africa USA employee dressed in African ‘tribal’ garb.
In the 1980s, the link between unrestrained female sexuality and African wildlife was firmly reinscribed on black women’s bodies when Jean-Paule Goude photographed a roaring Grace Jones nude all fours, inside a cage with a sign reading ‘Do not feed the animal.’ As Miriam Kershaw notes, this image parallels ‘the French, barbaric nineteenth-century practice of putting its African colonial subjects on caged display in the Paris zoological gardens next to non-European species of animals.’
Taylor Swift’s video is of course different to Goude’s image of Jones, but both are informed by the same colonial ethos: that the African continent is inherently primitive and wild. To Swift, Africa is an untamed landscape in which her character’s desire for her handsome white co-star can be unleashed (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is also clumsily referenced). A lion stands regally by Swift as she kicks and strokes her bare legs and sings, ‘You see me in hindsight/Tangled up with you all night/Burnin’ it down.’ Goude may have constructed an image of African people as animals, but the ‘Wildest Dreams’ clip goes a step even further and completely supplants the people of Africa with the continent’s wildlife.