South seas fiction and later cinema as a genre, that pictures Pacific Islanders and their land, really took off as early as 1898 when the Hawaiian islands were annexed by the United States.
Forerunners of the many films that would cover Polynesian culture were the magical and powerful reports of European sailors when they were confronted with life and sheer Edenic landscapes of Polynesia. A huge part of that fascination was of a sexual nature, if we consider first contact between the 18th century seafaring male crews from Europe who after weeks, and months confined to a small vessel suddenly arrived on Polynesian shores and were greeted by beautiful and most of all scantily-clad or entirely naked young local women. Two worlds clashed, as for those Europeans the topless women when being part of the so-called “Canoe Greeting,” a basic theme in films about such first encounters with native people greeting ships in their canoes, promised sexual affairs and erotic pleasures without consequences. Since usually, the crews would sail back to Europe and leave pregnant affairs behind them. (Not to mention other things such as lethal diseases that cost the lives of hundred thousands of islanders, and additional vernal diseases equally unknown on the islands. There are estimates that, for example, the population of the Hawaiian islands was thinned out between 70% and 90% by those encounters alone.)
As for Europeans then nakedness was tied immediately to sex, lust and “vice,” while for Islanders, living isolated from Christian ideas and moral imperatives in a mild climate, it meant nothing of the sort. The mix of exotic and erotic fantasies and lore that developed, as true and realistic accounts of the islands in the 18th century were rare, it manifested Tahiti and Hawaii as paradise in the minds of Europeans and later Americans ever since, with obviously men imagining the locations as dreamland or large brothels. With the advent of film, such visions became movie plots shot on location as early as the 1920s.
This book presents Matthew Locey’s decades of research concerning those fantasies in fiction, mainly in movies. Locey, a native of Hawaii, is a movie industry insider and worked for many years on the islands and accompanied countless projects there, including Magnum P.I. and Pearl Harbor (2001). Besides, he is a member of the Directors Guild of America and president of the South Seas Cinema Society.
As is to be expected, the movies under inspection here basically center on the adventures and romantic fantasies of those European males arriving on the islands and sooner or later have sexual encounters with one or more female locals. Interracial sex was a mandatory plot device. The local women for decades in films were presented as permanently sexually available, topless, and grateful for attention. Tragically, sexual exploitation of women happens in the movies boldly on the surface, it left an “almost subliminal” mark on American theater audiences and for many years was a stereotype whenever Polynesian women were concerned, either in films, commercials, paintings or in everyday life, particularly on the islands. “Not surprisingly, in terms of these interracial relationships only .93 percent of these South Seas titles contain a plot with a sexual relationship between a male Polynesian character and a Euro-American female.” As Hollywood’s movie industry during most of its existence was dominated by male directors and executives, they naturally favored the male perspective.
For a while, from 1934 until the late 1950s when it began to weaken, the Production Code of Hollywood prohibited numerous themes and romantic constellations, such as interracial romance, be they white/black, white/Asian or white/Polynesian. During that time, careful allusions to sex and adultery at least in American films had to do. “… [I]n particular, the ensuing birth and raising of children, was an extremely touchy subject full of anxiety that had to be delicately finessed in mass entertainment in a country where a form of apartheid widely existed when much of South Seas cinema was filmed” argues Ed Rampell, eromaxpert and author of several titles on the genre in the foreword.
White Lens on Brown Skin has the focus on some of the most stereotypical movie sequences that seemingly were mandatory for the genre over the decades. Such clichés include the “… Canoe Greeting of the Westerners when their ships appear; the Lagoon Swim Scene with scantily clad vahines; the “hip-notizing” sensuous Indigenous dance; The First Kiss between Western newcomers and Natives; the feasts featuring foods, such as poi, that are strange to the European palate; and much more,” adds Rampell.
Locey’s book is divided into two parts. Part I in nine chapters tells the well researched story of countless fantasies, incidents, historical facts and the many (mostly negative) results of the cultural and physical “invasion” of the islands. It started with mystical reports that developed into fictional accounts that resulted in movies in the end. Generally, the title is a most political piece of work, as it uses historical data, facts and documents (such as film) to draw attention to at least some of the many devastating results of the exploitative and sexualized negative images of the Polynesians in Western culture.
Part II lists 158 (!) films “whose story lines involve the sexualization of Pacific Islanders and their sexual relationships with Euro-Americans and Europeans.” 152 of these movies contain at least one of the features or clichés mentioned above, such as the “Lagoon Swim Scene.” (This is just a relevant selection made by the author; altogether, there are around 800 movies set in the Pacific, 176 are from the silent era alone.) The Annex holds a short glossary of Polynesian terms.
Those films basically gave the wrong impression of the Polynesians, not to mention they mostly featured American or Mexican female stars with dark makeup instead of local talent, showed animals not present on the islands at all and spread a very erroneous image of the local people as naive, stupid, lazy and uncivilized beings. Following Hollywood and male-gaze-logic, in the films those natives must necessarily be educated, rescued or supported by the stereotypical brave, smart and superior white male from Europe. “Another interesting point that can be observed in this filmography is that of the 12 film titles that include all four of the emphasized sexualized tropes, almost all are high budget, popular, and historically significant films,” explains Locey.
In the movies, generally, the results of those erotic holidays of the protagonists were merely the memories of an adventure, while effects on the island population, the females left behind were hardly ever mentioned or presented in a negative way. And with the “addition” of the Hawaiian Island to the US in 1959, the image of the Polynesian women was not improving. As chapters 7 “Other World War II Conquests: Prostitution in the Pacific” and 8 “The Greetings Continue: Romance and the Tourist Trade” enlarge on.
Locey has compiled here a powerful study that successfully demonstrates the popularity of Polynesians in film and American popular culture (and Tiki pop) while he delivers dates, examples and proof of decades of incorrect and straightforward chauvinist sexual representations of those people and their fictional representatives. His aim, beyond delivering film research, is to “create a new awareness, leading to corrections of centuries-old tropes of the people of Oceania … The demeaning psychological wounds caused by ‘outside’ political, religious and commercial forces were used to dominate the Indigenous Pacific Islanders historically. This book will expose the causes of these wounds, specifically in film.”
A very interesting and recommended reading for anybody interested in film history, Americans Studies and Polynesian culture.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Matthew B. Locey. White Lens on Brown Skin: The Sexualization of the Polynesian in American Film. Foreword by Ed Rampell. McFarland, 2023, 298 p.