The winter of 1620 was a devastating one for the colonists who had just arrived from England in New Plymouth. They suffered from scurvy, exposure to the elements, and terrible living conditions. Almost half (45 out of 102) died; only four of the remaining were women.
They made contact with the Wampanoag tribe in March. The tribe taught them how to grow corn and donated food to the colony. Thank to their help, the pilgrims were able to celebrate a harvest, or thanksgiving, that fall. It was attended by the 53 remaining pilgrims and 90 indigenous Americans.
That’s why this Red Bull commercial is so annoying. In the final 12 seconds, you see four pilgrims and two Indians, three women and three men. So, by pure numbers, reversed and heavily female. The turkey is served by a pilgrim, sending the message that the pilgrims were feeding the Indians and not vice versa. It’s a woman, of course, but likely most of the food preparation would have done by men, since they were 77% of the colonist population.
But, it nicely lines up with how we apparently think the world should be today: multicultural but majority white, with women cooking, and everyone paired up in same-race, heterosexual monogamy.
This month I enjoyed a lovely week with my mother and step-father, during which we drove down to Key West, FL. Flipping through the tourist book in the hotel, I was surprised to see this:
I’ve been writing for Sociological Image for over six years now and, as a result, it takes a lot to shock me. Well, you got me, Ripley’s! I did not know that we were still marketing racial or ethnic others as “oddities.” At least not this blatantly.
The women who have historically practiced this neck lengthening illusion (what you are seeing is a depressed collar bone, not a longer neck) are a Burmese ethnic minority called Kayan or Padaung. As late as the early 1900s, Europeans and Americans were kidnapping “Giraffe-necked women” and forcing them to be exhibits in zoos and circuses. Promotional materials from that era look similar. Here’s an example:
I knew that Westerners still traveled to the communities where Kayan people live to see them “in their natural habitat” (sarcasm) and I’ve argued previously that this is a case of racial objectification. I had no idea, however, that we still featured them as grotesque curiosities. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: “Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years.” Taking that tradition thing really seriously, I guess.
Earlier on SocImages, Lisa Wade drew attention to the tourism industry’s commodification of Polynesian women and their dancing. She mentioned, briefly, how the hula was made more tourist-friendly (what most tourists see when they attend one of the many hotel-based luaus throughout the islands is not traditional hula). In this post, I want to offer more details on the history and the differences between the tourist and the traditional hula.
First, Wade states that, while female dancers take center stage for tourists, the traditional hula was “mostly” a men’s dance. While it has not been determined for certain if women were ever proscribed from performing the hula during the time of the Ali’i (chiefs), it seems unlikely that women would have been prevented from performing the hula when the deity associated with the hula is Pele, a goddess. Furthermore, there is evidence that women were performing the dance at the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i.
Second, while the traditional dances were not necessarily sexualized, they were very sensual. The movement of hips and legs that are seen as sexual by some visitors, and showcased as such by the tourism industry, certainly existed in early practices.
In fact, the supposedly lascivious and blasphemous nature of the hula prompted missionaries to censure the public practice of hula, and in 1830 Queen Ka’ahumanu enacted a law prohibiting the public performance of the hula. This law was highly ineffective, however, and when King Kalakaua ascended the throne he actively encouraged public hula performances and other expressions of Native Hawaiian culture, earning him the moniker “Merrie Monarch.”
Eventually, a modernized dance emerged that did not incorporate much religiosity and employed modern music rather than chants. This is closer to what you would find at a hotel luau, but differs drastically in costuming and lacks the uncomfortable cloud of objectification associated with hotel-style hula (that is, the focus is on the dance rather than the dancers). Below are some examples of the evolution:
Hula (ladies’ dance, traditional):
Hula (men’s dance, traditional):
These examples of hula, and other Polynesian dances, are vastly different from what one finds in a hotel’s “Polynesian Revue” luau.
In conclusion, it is true that the hula dances, and other dances of Polynesia, have been usurped by the tourism industry and commodified. The culturally authentic forms, however, still thrive. Native dances are impressive enough without the ridiculous costuming and disrespectful bending of the islands’ histories seen at hotel luaus; unfortunately, it is difficult to find any culturally sensitive displays of Polynesian culture due to the huge influence of tourism over these locations.
*The information in this post was gleaned from various courses I’ve taken at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. For more information on hula and the commodification of the Hawaiian culture, see Haunani-Kay Trask’s From A Native Daughter.
Sarah Neal is currently working on obtaining her M.A. in English at North Carolina State University.
The marketing for beach-related vacation destinations often capitalizes on the association of foreign beaches with (partly) naked bathing beauties. This intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that positions the “ethnic” woman as particularly sexually accessible have deep roots in our colonial past in which foreign lands “open” to conquest by the Western world were conflated with foreign women “open” to conquest by Western men.
The “Hula Girl” is a case in point.
Hawaii was colonized by the U.S. and, when the islands became a tourism destination, Polynesian women were transformed into Hawaiian babes ready and waiting to please tourists from the mainland.
One transformation was the hula. Widely understood to be an “authentic” Polynesian tradition, the hula was actually originally mostly a man’s dance. It was religious. It involved chanting and no music. There were no hip movements, just gestures. Basically, it was story-telling.
Today, the men take a back seat to women, who are scantily clad in grass skirts (not authentic, by the way), and perform exaggerated hip movements to music. So the hula is an invention, designed by colonizers and capitalists, to highlight the appeal of “foreign” women.
Despite the constructed nature of the hula girl, she’s been used to market Hawaii for over 100 years. Here is an image of hula girls sent back to the mainland way back in 1890:
A Google Image search for “Hawaii postcard” in 2013 reveals that about half include the figure of a woman:
The phenomenon is a common one: women are treated as objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure — exotified, in the case of “foreign” or darker-skinned women — and used to embellish a place or experience. While lots of things have changed for women since the beginning of this particular example in the late 1800s, their role as decoration resists retirement.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
We often hear that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, a word that erases the 50 million-plus inhabitants of the continent that were already here when his boat arrived. A person can’t discover something that another person already knows about. In the American telling of the story, however, the indigenous population don’t count as people. They’re knowledge isn’t real.
This dismissal of knowledge-of-a-thing until the “right” people know about it is a common tendency, and another example was sent in by Jordan G. last week. CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times, among other news outlets, reported that a new species of monkey was “discovered.”
So where did they find this monkey? Tied to a post in a Congolese village; it was a pet.
And it was cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute!
So someone knew about these monkeys. It just wasn’t the rightkind of person. In this case, the right kind of person was a (bonafide) scientist (with credentials and institutional privileges not un-related to living in the West).
Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter that a trained scientist encountered the monkey and established it as a unique and previously undocumented species. The team did a lot of work to establish this. As the Times, which otherwise does a fine job on the story, explains:
Convinced the species was novel, team leader John Hart began an exhaustive three-year study to describe the monkey, and to differentiate it from its nearest neighbor, the owl face monkey. The study included geneticists and biological anthropologists, who helped confirm that the monkey was different from the owl face, though the two share a common genetic ancestor.
In other words, something significant happened because those scientists happened upon this monkey. But to say that they “discovered” it is to mischaracterize what occurred. The scientists write that it was “previously undescribed,” which is far more accurate. Their language also doesn’t erase the consciousness of the people of the Congo, where this monkey is “endemic.” In fact, they recommend the short-hand name “lesula,” “as it is the vernacular name used [by people who've known about it, probably for generations] over most of its known range.” In doing so, they acknowledge the species’ relationship to a population of human beings, making them visible and significant.
After the outcry in response to this revelation began, IKEA responded by called the removal of women a “mistake” “in conflict with the IKEA Group values.” IKEA seems to have agreed with its critics: erasing women capitulates to a sexist society and that is wrong.
But, there is a competing progressive value at play: cultural sensitivity. Isn’t removing the women from the catalog the respectful and non-ethnocentric thing to do?
Susan Moller Okin wrote a paper that famously asked, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” The question led to two decades of debate and an interrogating of the relationship between culture and power. Who gets to decide what’s cultural? Whose interests does cultural sensitivity serve?
The IKEA catalog suggests that (privileged) men get to decide what Saudi Arabian culture looks like (though many women likely endorse the cultural mandate to keep women out of view as well). So, respecting culture entails endorsing sexism because men are in charge of the culture?
Well, it depends. It certainly can go that way, and often does. But there’s a feminist (and anti-colonialist) way to do this too. Respecting culture entails endorsing sexism only if we demonize certain cultures as irredeemably sexist and unable to change. In fact, most cultures have sexist traditions. Since all of those cultures are internally-contested and changing, no culture is hopelessly sexist. Ultimately, one can bridge their inclinations to be both culturally sensitive and feminist by seeking out the feminist strains in every culture and hoping to see those manifested as it evolves.
None of this is going to solve IKEA’s problem today, but it does illustrate one of difficult-to-solve paradoxes in contemporary progressive politics.
In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.
While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.” While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”
The main source of distortion has been the mass media. Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa. In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:
Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.
People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one. The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.
Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation.
Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses. In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation. The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora. While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.
Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.
Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…” This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.
Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”
News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women. The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”
Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.
Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).
FGCs are not an “African practice.”
The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):
Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures. These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching. While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.
Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.
It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children. Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful. The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.