Cedar Crest College
“‘Pop’” Goes Hawaii: The 20th Century Origins of Tourism in Hawai’i & the Impact of U.S. Pop Culture on Women in the Islands of Aloha”
Far off the western coast of the U.S. lie the breath-taking, mythical, magical islands of Hawaii—the country’s premier paradise playground and the ultimate alluring island fantasy for tourists worldwide, like a tropical Disneyworld. In this idyllic tropical paradise, Native Hawaiian women serve as cultural hostesses, whose bodies, dress, ‘suggestive’ dances, smiles and costumes are commoditized embodiments of an allegedly primitive, pre-commercial society. In short, Hawaiian women’s femininity has been exploited by the equally powerful forces of colonialism, imperialism and tourism.
Despite its centuries-long status as an independent nation of islands in the South Pacific, Hawaii became the fiftieth U.S. state in 1959—after its 1898 annexation in the country’s turn-of-the-century imperialistic drive. During the twentieth century, tourism became the main, driving economic force in Hawaii; in tourism brochures, even pineapples were a promotional ‘agent’ of tourism. Once World War II exposed the beauty and magic of the islands to the U.S., Amercian pop culture co-opted this fantastical image for its own use in movies and television shows. World War II, then, was an important historical turning point, transforming the public representation of Hawaii in the American imagination. Specifically, my research in the Hawaiian/Pacific Collections at the Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa found depictions of “exotic” Native Hawaiian hula dancers, in leis and hula skirts, touring nightclubs in the U.S. to promote tourism to Hawaii before and after World War II. These hula shows, sketched by American artist John Melville Kelly, created an “imagined intimacy” between Hawaii and the U.S., allowing Americans to possess their island colony physically and figuratively. As Hawaiian women danced the hula, they feminized and eroticized Hawai’i, implying that like a woman, the islands willingly submitted to American tourist and military ambitions.