Young Kenyan animator and film director Ng’endo Mukii is the mastermind behind Yellow Fever, a short animated film that explores how warped standards of beauty portrayed in mass media influence women’s and society’s perception of and control over women’s bodies – particularly the bodies of women of colour.
The Young Feminist Wire spoke with Mukii about the social commentary she is making with her film and how colonialism and racism pressure women of colour to conform to impossible standards of beauty that end up invisiblizing them.
As Mukii was making Yellow Fever, she says many questions started to pop up for her about the way media in general, but particularly Kenyan media, erases and strips the African woman of her true essence. She says: “If all the women on TV have weaves then, there’s not really any place for women who aren’t wearing hair from other human beings. Our hair doesn’t seem to have value according to our own media so, what are we doing to change ourselves to fit this model of beauty. If all the women on TV are pale or have a light skin tone then, how is the everyday woman reacting to this image that’s being portrayed?”
The film, which was Mukii’s final thesis project at London’s Royal College of Art, uses a combination of live-action choreography, computer-generated and hand-drawn animation, as well as recorded interviews with relatives and spoken word. The film revolves around Mukii’s own experiences and those of her family – sister, niece and mother. She also focuses on a woman who braids her hair, who, in the film she calls Mkorogo (the Swahili word for mixture), because she used skin lightening cream only on her hands and face while the rest of her body remained black.
Mukii says her teenage self remembers thinking: “‘This woman is so stupid. Look at her, bleaching herself. Look at her; she doesn’t even care about who she is. She’s trying to change her race.’ I had all these negative thoughts about her but I was too young to realize that, she was a product of the society we live in.”
She distinctly remembers that first scene in the film where she and her sister are at the hair salon as “the last time that I braided my hair. I remember being in so much pain.” She felt as if Mkorogo was punishing her and reacting really negatively toward her because Mukii’s skin is paler, thus more desirably close to the Eurocentric standard set forth in the media.
In the next scene, where heavily breathing black dancers’ bodies are juxtaposed with flashes of colonial representations of black bodies, Mukii narrates “I see the west seeing us and in response, this woman [who braids Mukii’s hair] had worked hard to erase the element that makes her truly African – her own melanin, her own skin.”
In yet another scene, where we see an animated version of her niece sitting next to a TV, showing the image of a white pop-star, we hear Mukii’s niece say things like: “If I was American, I would be white, white, white, white and I’d love being white.”
Mukii says it is not just her niece. She recounts how a lady who used to do her hair in the market in Nairobi once told Mukii that one of the things her daughter used to says as she stood in front of the mirror is: “Mummy, seriously, why am I not white? Why did I have to be born black?” The mum had no idea where this longing had come from and eventually the girl started saying: “Well, at least, I’m the whitest in the family!” Mukii thinks it is really heart-breaking, that a child, who is just supposed to be enjoying her childhood, could be asking such a fundamental question about her entire genetic makeup.
Mukii chose to call her film Yellow Fever, in reference to a Fela Kuti song with the same title, in which he attacks Nigerian women for using skin-bleaching creams. Mukii says she wanted to reflect on that song but without the criticism that Fela Kuti was expressing because – especially with skin bleaching – she feels that people have not yet realized that skin bleaching is a psychological state brought on by negative conditioning to attain impossible beauty standards which lead people to go to extreme lengths and to expose themselves to great health risks.
In her film, Mukii wants to turn the finger of shame and blame on society not women. “If we had a society that valued all the different types of skin tones then we wouldn’t be bleaching ourselves. If we lived in a society that valued having natural hair then we wouldn’t be braiding our hair to have long braids that we could throw around. We wouldn’t find braids more attractive than what naturally grows on our heads.”
Mukii’s film has won many accolades worldwide. University professors have used the film to explain theories about how experiences of great grand-parents who lived through slavery or colonialism; and the way they were made to feel ugly or stupid because of their skin colour still seep into modern day experiences because they are passed from generation to generation.
Young feminist Wire community, what do you think about beauty standards imposed by society? What do you think of the ideas brought forth in Yellow Fever? We would love to hear your take on this issue. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org.