When reading Tavi Gevinson's interview for Bitch Magazine on a rainy Sunday afternoon I was struck by this quote: "My arch nemesis at school would like to tell me that Rookie is for a first-world girl.” First world girl? What. No! The dismissal of Rookie, the teen girl magazine that Tavi founded, edits and art directs, as 'first world' made me so sad (and mad!). It’s a criticism I’ve heard before. Not to say that Rookie is perfect. But this statement in particular really says more about so called 'Western' countries ignorance towards the so-called 'developing world' than it does about that site. Oh and possibly my long-standing irritation towards the whole #firstworldproblems outlook (the hash tag, the phrase, just everything. I never said I was easy going okay?!) The misguided belief that simple pleasures, like pop culture, silliness and cuteness, are contained within the borders of rich, white nations is an insidious sort of ugly I’m keen to avoid.
It’s the ‘stop talking about Miley Cyrus people are dying in Syria’ attitude. The brand of ironic colonialist back patting that is all over my Facebook newsfeed and makes me feel funny. To divide issues into silly and serious ignores that everything is part of well...everything. Power manifests everywhere, and we can learn as much about the history of these power structures in the VMA’s as whatever humanitarian crisis of the month The Onion is pretending to care about. I’m saying this as a real life Syrian girl that wrote a whole term paper on Miley by the way. This stuff really does co-exist and to say otherwise denies the complex contradictions of being a person of colour from a developing country in the 21st century.
Pop culture matters. The ghoulish spectre of slavery cuts through the institutionalised racism and cultural appropriation of American pop music. And what about the supposedly hash-tag-less ‘East’? Here, seemingly 'first world' motifs are reconstructed to signify the political identity of the Arab World. Sponge Bob Square Pants has become an icon of Tahrir square while Mickey Mouse is a Hamas children's TV mascot. Tell me, is that a third world problem or a first world one?
I think of the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’, which subverts the white saviour narrative by telling the fictional story of a white doctor’s destructive relationship with Idi Amin, the president of Uganda. This quote by Amin to the white doctor, is especially important, contrasting the fantasy of ‘Africa’ with the reality of Ugandan life under Amin. He says:
“Did you think this was all a game? 'I will go to Africa and I will play the white man with the natives.' Is that what you thought? We are not a game, Nicholas. We are real. This room here, it is real. I think your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you.”
Because we are real, and perhaps the most troubling part of the #firstworldproblems mind set is its erasure of the lived experience of so called ‘third world’ people. In reducing big parts of the map to homogenous blobs of ‘sad brown faces’, you forget that the rhythm of day-to-day life, its annoyances, it banality is universal.
In this sense for ‘first world people’, to even attempt to see the inhabitants of the so-called ‘third world’ as human, they must actively work against what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes as “the single story”. The single story is a pre-set narrative, which forces a shallow tale of imagined suffering onto people of colour. Writer Jenny Zhang nails this, in her essay ‘Style=Substance’ for Rookie Magazine. And yes, that was the ‘first world girl’ magazine we were talking about before. She writes:
“Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school and so proud of myself for being the exceptionally compassionate, caring person I believed myself to be: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals. It turns them into stereotypes of pain and damage and ignores everything else about them, including whether they’re funny, or stupid, or weird, or brilliant, or irreverent, or stylish, or creative, or boring, or selfish, or anything else that people are capable of being. It takes away their complexity and vastness and reduces people to one-dimensional figures.”
You see, the thing is, even when I was at my lowest #thirdworldproblems point I still cared about 'stupid' stuff too. And to quote to, once again, quote Jenny’s beautiful essay: "we contain multitudes". Yes! We. Contain. Multitudes. We contain so much more than you think us capable of. And I’m not talking about epic poems on genocide, terrorism, civil war. I’m thinking crushes on cute boys, cat’s eyes in liquid eyeliner, late night talks with best friends, idealistic daydreams and everyday disappointments. And whilst real bad stuff like war is perhaps more 'real' to me (whatever that means) than to some people, I still have room in my head to worry about whether my hair look cute or throw a grump that my blackberry isn't receiving emails. I know it may not seem ‘authentic’, but it's true.