In the wake of a disastrous wave of social media criticism for a new Dove advert that featured, among other transformations, a black woman changing into a white woman, the featured black woman spoke out in column on the Guardian.
Lola Ogunyemi had a lot to say about the original intention of the ad – which, to hear her tell it, was to show that no matter what colour a woman’s skin, it needs nourishment and care. The transformation from black to white was merely one in a series of racial transformations, and Ogunyemi was proud to be the first featured woman.
However, she is not in any way blind to the perception problem that Dove has. “I can see how the snapshots that are circulating the web have been misinterpreted, considering the fact that Dove has faced a backlash in the past for the exact same issue. There is a lack of trust here, and I feel the public was justified in their initial outrage.”
She then went on to say, “Having said that, I can also see that a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers the context on which to base an informed opinion.”
The context she’s speaking of is the whole ad, instead of just the transition between a black woman and a white one. The snapshot of the ad, which was shared far and wide on the internet, was created by a make-up artist with the Twitter handle @NayTheMua. I am not for a second suggesting that she was being in any way disingenuous in her creation of the image; she was illustrating her point of concern: that it seems as if Dove is saying that a black woman could improve her skin – and herself – by becoming a white woman.
The problem is that it is in the very nature of things going viral that the source was drowned out in the noise. Many people, all over the world, became outraged at the snapshot, which in isolation appeared to be a before-and-after image. The media didn’t help by using @NayTheMua’s snapshot as their source instead of showing the ad in its entirety, or at least showing various snapshots from it.
Dove certainly didn’t mean to create that message and a slightly deeper analysis of the original ad would have shown that there was a broader theme at play here. However, given that they are a high-profile brand that has run into trouble with this exact same issue in the past, they really could have taken better care when they put it together.
Is there a better way to show that no matter what colour your skin is, it needs to be nourished? Almost certainly. If you are going to insist on having races morphing into one another, just don’t have the black woman becoming a white woman. It may not be what you meant, but you have to accept that it’s not a huge leap to interpret it in that way.
While I feel Dove could have done way better, I also feel that we have to take Ogunyemi at her word that she is not a victim in this – and we have to listen to other strong black women’s voices – like Khanyi Mbau’s – when they say that the ad, when seen in totality, is not offensive to them.
Dove has apologised, hopefully they will be more careful next time, let’s move on.
Another storm of outrage broke out in South Africa when the Grand Canyon Spur in Pinetown posted a message about one of their employees, “Ma Dudu”.
The post (which has since been taken down) read: “Did you know that Ma Dudu has been our Waffle maker for the past 25 years! In her career she has made a whopping 37,485 waffles and still going strong. We salute you Ma Dudu and thank you for your dedication and years of service.”
Twitter erupted with rage that a woman who has been such a great employee for 25 years was still making waffles. Again, this is an extremely sensitive issue – capitalism is a nasty machine, apartheid was a human-destroying system, and Ma Dudu sits at the confluence of both. However, while it would be great if Spur helped all of its kitchen employees to become entrepreneurs, this is probably asking a bit too much of a corporation.
I don’t know if Ma Dudu is quietly seething about her lack of professional progress, or if she was proud to have been congratulated on Spur’s social media account for her 20 years of hard work. But I do think that this is yet another example of how social media outrage can sometimes miss the point – and in this case, take away a hardworking woman’s public recognition for a job well done.
We’re never going to stop the social media world from raging against perceived injustice – and I believe that we generally do more good than harm by playing watchdog to matters of sensitivity – but we can and should do better at investigating the issues rather than simply responding to them, and allowing that sometimes, there just may be another side to the story.