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How America's Obsession With Hula Girls Almost Wrecked Hawai'i

When Captain James Cook and his crew landed in Hawaii (which they called the Sandwich Islands) in 1778, the meeting set off a culture clash that has repercussions to this day. The islanders had beliefs, customs, and rituals that sailors misread through the lens of their own culture. And once their reports were published, it was almost impossible to change the impressions of those outside Hawaii. The hula was a ritual performed by both men and women that included dance, poetry, and music for both religious and secular reasons, but what stood out to the sailors was that the women were topless.    

In his journal, Captain Cook described the Hawaiians’ hula: “Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.”

In The Natives Are Restless, Hale explains, “To be sexually adept and sensually alive—and to have the ability to experience unrestrained desire—was as important to ancient Hawaiians as having sex to produce offspring. The vital energy caused by desire and passion was itself worshiped and idolized.”

Cook and his men—and the merchants, whalers, artists, and writers who followed—mistook the hula’s sexually charged fertility rituals as a signal the Hawaiians’ youngest and loveliest women were both promiscuous and sexually available to anyone who set foot on their beaches. In her 2012 book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire, historian Adria L. Imada explains how natural hospitality of “aloha” culture—the word used as a greeting that also means “love”—made Hawaiians vulnerable to outside exploitation. To Westerners, the fantasy of a hula girl willingly submitting to the sexual desires of a white man represented the convenient narrative of a people so generous they’d willing give up their land without a fight.

Contrary to this fantasy, the people populating the eight islands of the Hawaiian archipelago weren’t so submissive.

When word about Hawaii got out, everyone wanted to go -including missionaries who went to convert the islanders and instill a proper sense of shame about women's bodies. Read how Westerners made the hula into a permanent and profitable stereotype at Collectors Weekly. The article contains some vintage nudity.

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