Barbie doll in the garden wearing pink sweatshirt.

#BarbieSavior and Privilege

Look, I get it. I think the whole #BarbieSavior meme that has taken Instagram by storm is pretty hilarious–pretty dolls posed in the worst possible ways mocking “savior” voluntourism situations, clearly motivated by the plastic needs of the plastic character to assuage her own guilt and show the world how fabulous she is. (The photo in this blog, BTW, is NOT from BarbieSavior…it’s just Barbie)

I get that it’s all cool to be jaded and superior and above it all. Hell, I know lots of folks who make a living at it with professional snarkiness being their trade.

I also wonder if that route isn’t too easy. I wonder if pissing all over the best intentions of others moves us forward in even the slightest way, or if it, as I suspect, demeans and degrades us all, the critics as much as those they criticize. I think it’s brilliant that Savior Barbie has a tribal tattoo of the African continent, and gives her high heel pumps to tiny dolls of color, and puts dreadlocks in her perfect blonde hair. She is the Queen of cultural appropriation and, by herself (and her very astute creator), serves as a terrific cautionary tale…HOWEVER…what happens when you shame the folks that truly ARE making a difference?

Especially with the political process going on right now, I have a fair bit of cynicism exhaustion.

What happens when the NGOs and charitable organizations around the world doing truly meaningful, progressive, transformative work that is generated from WITHIN the communities (not delivered…or dispensed… from without) cannot survive without volunteer efforts?

What happens when the foundations shutter due to lack of interest and it guts the jobs of the locals who were running the programs? All so we can feel holier than thou pointing out how others feel holier than thou?

It’s pretty messed up that our default setting seems to be resignation and negativity and suspicion when we are faced with stories of people trying to do something positive in the world.

Do I sound defensive? I am quite sure I am. AND I firmly believe we can help educate and uncover the multitude of amazing, effective, non-harming ways that people can volunteer that leaves ALL in a better place than they would be without these programs and initiatives.

We can teach people about how to look for shady companies and avoid them. We can help them know the questions to ask of voluntourism organizers. We can illuminate the way to diagnose if a program is generated by the people served, and if it is their genuine wish to have help and how to discern and avoid like the plague those that are band-aids or put locals out of work or exist mainly as feel-good photo opps that do more harm than good.

One sassy college student’s experience with a crappy couple of volunteer ventures she didn’t vet very well can not be extended to the entire world’s volunteer situation, no matter how many people share her blog. She is WRONG, not about her experience, but about making that mean that her very specific and unfortunate circumstances are somehow universal.

My main question: Is that really where you want to put your energy? Does doubting and damning somehow give you something?

I ask because I want to know.

I ask myself.

*and by the way…in addition to being truly funny, the folks at BarbieSavior.com have this great statement on their site:

Together we have over a decade of studying, traveling, and working abroad. While this left us cynical and jaded enough to create Barbie Savior, we know full well that this issue – and these conversations – are so much bigger than us.

We don’t have the answers. This site we hope will become a place where we can pose questions, promote conversation, and try to learn together how to best do better.


Photo: horantheworld | CC License

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About The Author

Andrew Mersmann's picture

Andrew is the author of Frommer's global guide to volunteer vacations, "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference" (Gold Medal Winner from Society of American Travel Writers: Best Guide Book 2010). He spent more than a decade on the editorial team of PASSPORT Magazine. He has volunteered and led teams on service projects around the world, and is honored to be on the boards of directors for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF.org) and Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (mentorartists.org). Mersmann has been a featured speaker, interview guest, or moderator on several travel talks, from the New York Times Travel Show, Smithsonian Associates, and the 92nd Street Y-TriBeCa to Oprah and Friends, Animal House, and The Focus Group on satellite radio as well as on NY1 television. Past participant at the Clinton Global Initiative and judge for Condé Nast World Changers Conference, he blogs about volunteering and service travel at www.ChangeByDoing.com. As part of the evox television team, he is dedicated to audience engagement, so if you're not engaged, he needs to be thumped on the head (gently)...or at least told (nicely). Twitter: /ChangeByDoing

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