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:
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.