The Dancing Hawaiian Girl, At Your Service

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, Ph.D.; originally published at Sociological Images

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 storytelling.

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:

And from the 1940s (from IslandArtCards):


1965, via Jassy-50:


This picture was snapped by my friend Jason at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in 2008:

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.

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  • iwa79

    With the wealth of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and Pacific Islander scholarship that currently exists, I’m surprised that Racialicious picked this particular article to re-post. Dismissing modern hula as an invention of colonizers and capitalists is in itself a particularly colonizing position to take. Wade doesn’t differentiate between hula performed at hotels and other tourist venues, and hula that is performed in its original cultural context (such as the Merrie Monarch festival, or a family lu’au.) In the public eye, the Western consumer, there is the “hula girl.” In Native Hawaiian communities, there are serious hula practitioners. As a form of cultural expression and tradition, hula is as complex as
    its history. If you don’t understand the ways in which indigenous communities survive cultural disruption and oppression, which I don’t see here, it’s very difficult to talk about iconic images such as the “hula girl” in any kind of meaningful way.

    • Amelia

      Seconded. Also it seems kind of weird to me to try to equate the sexualization of Hawaiian women in with the sexualization of women from other cultures since traditional Hawaiian society was incredibly sexually open (at least until the breaking of the kapu system/conversions to christianity).

  • Maria Caliban

    There’s speculation that the hula was originally male only, but by the time European explorers reached Hawaii it was performed by women. As Tracy mentioned, James Cook wrote of female dancers in 1778 – that’s over a hundred years before the US established the Provisional Government. Suggesting women didn’t dance is suggesting that women didn’t have any part in one of the more important religious and cultural expressions of indigenous Hawaiian culture, which is odd as they had female chiefs.

    The hula is sexual in parts. While I agree that whites have re-framed this as sexuality that exists for a presumed white tourist, it predates European contact. “Hula ma’i” are specifically fertility and procreation dances (piko ma’i means genitals) and quite suggestive.

  • Tracy Benton

    Can we get a source on the “hula was a men’t dance” statement? I learned from a hula teacher that James Cook recorded seeing women dancing hula in the 1770s, so I would like to research more. thanks.

    • Amelia

      I was taught that hula originated as a mens’ dance, but later (but still before significant western contact) expanded to be a dance for both genders.