Netflix’s Holiday in the Wild is Telling the Story of Orientalism
Netflix’s holiday season romantic movie is presenting Africa as the background for the Western heroes’ quest for self-healing, echoing a problematic cultural perception.
Spoiler alert: a plot detail will be revealed later.
Holiday in the Wild (aired on Netflix November 1, 2019) is a classic Christmas movie with a happy ending. It tells the story of Kate (Kristin Davis), a wealthy recent divorcee who embarks on a solo second honeymoon in Africa, after a painful breakup from her husband, and her son’s departure to college. In Africa, she meets Derek (Rob Lowe), a Western pilot who works in an elephant rescue shelter. Together, they rescue a baby elephant and fall in love with each other. The plot tells the classic love story: a personal crisis leads to an adventure, which brings catharsis, self-revelation, and true love found where the protagonist least expected.
Personally, I love romantic comedies. I never get tired of watching them. They’re cheering and sweet, providing a delightful escape from everyday life. When Netflix suggested Holiday in the Wild, I was glad to watch it. Yet, as the movie progressed, it seemed it was not just telling the story of the white Western protagonists’ love story but was also telling a tale about the context of the story. Zambia, Africa appeared to be the silent background to the romantic story; mentioned as the ‘wild’ in the movie’s title, yet overlooked in its plot.
Throughout the movie, Africa exists as the background for the protagonists’ process of personal development and growth. Africa is the plot mechanism driving them to fall in love through challenging situations. The movie lacks any reference to the political, financial, social, or religious worlds outside the elephant sanctuary as if the story is taking place in a fantasy world, that belongs to the white lovers.
Holiday in the Wild’s narrative is an unfortunate example of the Western hegemonic perspective of the orient as described by the scholar and intellectual Edward Said. Said’s theory of Orientalism refers to the way the Western world sees the Eastern world (the Orient) and fantasizes about it, as mystical, mysterious, and exciting. Mainly, the West sees the Orient as a cultural and geographical sphere that should be explored, toured, and controlled by the Western white explorer. This perception is based on a ‘power-knowledge’ relationship, where the West seeks to gain more knowledge about the unfamiliar East, and consequently, gains more cultural power and control over the explored territory. Within this process, Said argues, the West is constructing its identity through the comparison with the Orient and is relating to the Orient and what it represents as the ‘Other.’ Through this comparison, and the ‘power-knowledge’ relationship, the West dominates the cultural discourse and fortifies its dominance as the cultural elite.
Orientalism, according to Said, is expressed through as a system of representations, explicit or implicit, that produce an image of an Other to secure the stability and superiority of the Western self. These systems of representations are the mechanisms that allow the West to preserve its hegemonic dominance and authority over the Orient. In the Orientalist discourse, the West is portrayed in political and popular culture as masculine, civilized, pure, and rational, whereas the Orient is portrayed as feminine, mysterious, colorful, and emotional. It is an unknown terrain that will acquire meaning only when European settlers discover its secrets and natural beauty. That kind of one-dimensional view of the Orient ignores the diverse and autonomous existence and history of subcultures and ethnic groups living in the East, that are being seen as the Other, only to produce meaning for the West.
Orientalism in popular culture
Occasionally, popular culture offers a glimpse of Orientalism in movies or fashion that raise criticism. Movies like Sex and the City 2, Aladdin and Isle of Dogs were criticized for portraying the oriental contexts of the Middle East and Asia as designed to serve the narrative of the dominant Western protagonists.
Fashion has always been an important political sphere in which to manifest inequalities, statuses, and social classes. Colonialism and Orientalism’s view of the East has been expressed in the white colonialists’ clothing, which is almost always different than what the locals wear. In this view, the West is presented as clean, pure, and civilized, and the East is shown as the opposite: stained, colorful, and uncivilized. The renowned colonialist attire that was worn by nineteenth-century British explorers and colonial administrators in Africa has become the symbol of European colonial rule on the continent. Owing to this, the First Lady, Melania Trump, was criticized for wearing clothing that resembled the colonial era during her visit to Africa (2018). Her outfits drew much attention, as some critics argued that her wardrobe expressed white colonialists’ condescending view of Africa.
Orientalism in Holiday in the Wild
Africa is a continent; Zambia is one of the countries within Africa. Yet Holiday in the Wild only mentions the specific country where the story takes place in its opening title and refers to the scenery with the vague and inclusive name: Africa. Every reference to the geographical location relates to ‘Africa’, the continent, implying that nationality and diversity do not matter for the white visitors’ monolithic view of African-related issues.
This exclusion of the Orient and its autonomous identity continues an unfortunate and long history of the power relations between the West and the Orient, in which the West views the East as a mysterious and mythical place that needs to be discovered and controlled. In this movie, Kate’s ‘fish out of the water’ narrative of self-revelation takes place in the same colonial-like type of the wealthy lady embarking on an adventure, while learning from books about the place she is visiting, the mysterious Orient.
Surprisingly, although set in Zambia, Africa, the movie presents most of the black characters as background to the protagonists’ story. The local Zambezian characters have no names, identity, or agency in the plot other than supporting the protagonists. They are presented as service workers, and their entire purpose in the plot is to assist the white heroes. They appear on-screen only when the protagonists need physical assistance with their luggage or with elephants in the sanctuary, or when serving food; the black characters have an only minimal dialogue. It seems that all the white characters live in a microcosmos of their own, having minimal interactions with and existing alongside the ‘real-life’ in the ‘wild.’ The ‘wild’ is designed by the plot to support first and foremost the protagonists’ goals.
The only exception is the character Jonathan, the elephant sanctuary’s manager; he has some meaningful dialogue and connects with the heroes on a personal level. Yet, although Jonathan and his wife, Aliyah, have some agency in steering Kate and Derek’s love story, they are identified by their first names only and appear within the plot only to serve the heroes’ course of action. They are obscure characters that are missing their own autonomous context and storyline. They exist in the story’s universe to serve the protagonists’ quest for love and self-redemption. The lack of insightful dialogue for a variety of black characters, in a movie that is set in Africa, is mind-boggling. It is not just that Zambia is the background, its people are ignored as well.
A twist of the ‘power-knowledge’ relationship of Orientalism can be seen in a subtle and abrupt moment when Kate is changing her name. While presented as Kate at the beginning, she is renamed ‘Dr. Kate’ by the locals at the elephant shelter and recognized by her profession (veterinarian). Her professional identity is restored while highlighting at the same time the distinction between her and the presumably uneducated local staff. This is a power-knowledge relationship that emphasizes the need for Western knowledge and expertise. This change in the narrative also echoes the ‘white savior’ complex, as Kate appears to be the only skilled person in the entire African camp. However, though she is a veterinarian, she has no experience treating wild animals.
It is important to consider these issues because, over time, movies’ portrayal of political, social, or religious issues can shape the way the audience perceives these issues. Behind the curtains of a generic yet pleasing holiday movie romance, the plot can sometimes tell us a different story of reality and politics. A story of inclusion and agency. A story of perspective and worldviews, presenting the ‘Other’ as distant and mystical. It is important to read these stories as well, as they can influence the way we think about the world as political and social beings. Movies have a powerful role in shaping and representing different perspectives on the world and society. While enjoying their art and escapism, we should also take a second look at the way movies influence us.