Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar, The Noble Savage, and Dominant Narratives

The folks over at Sociological Images have a fantastic review of the recently released movie, Avatar, up. Their commentary discusses how race, colonization, and the "noble savage" are deeply embedded in the blockbuster film. And the comments beneath their review also interrogate covert gender trends in the film.

They relate Avatar to other relatively recent films, such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, where white men "go native" and end up assuming major leadership roles within indigenous/minority populations, thereby ultimately becoming the central leaders for those "other" populations.

Consequently, the bottom line message from that genre of films is that while there are lessons to be learned from both cultures, it is the white, male culture that truly enables people of color to resist internal or external threats, even if only temporarily. Or even in movies based on true events, such as Freedom Writers and The Blind Side, with white women as the saviors, one must wonder (1) why those stories in particular were chosen as stories for motion pictures, and (2) why those stories were recieved so well by American audiences.

In the end, who, once again, is the hero, and what does this say about racial stratification in film and society? This is the same message I argued was expressed in Gran Torino (though most readers of that entry expressed their hatred of me and my analysis).

It is a fantastic read and obviously applicable for students right now. Check it out: On Avatar, The Movie (Spoiler Alert)

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Casually Passing Around Native Culture

I caught this add for The Polynesian Cultural Center earlier today. It was displayed at the Koolina Resort over on the West Side of Oahu.

One can't help but notice how Hawaii and its natives (i.e., Polynesians) are utilized by corporate entities in the global economy. What is the not so subtle subtext within this add regarding race, "primitive" culture, and the casual diffusion (or consumption) of that culture?

Are the "natives" learning or adopting mainstream, corporate, American, white culture? No, one might assume that is not what can or should happen in this context. Rather, while on vacation, it's the leisurely western tourists who can appropriate the "native culture" temporarily and play out their subdued primal instincts. In fact, this is their right, given that they have the means to pay for this luxury, and the native population is dependent on their capital.

Upon return from vacation, wealthy tourists can go back to their more advanced, sophisticated and refined lives, while the natives stay back in vacation-land to serve new tourists and seduce them with their primal performances (sarcasm). Clearly, Polynesian culture is denigrated into a tourist-based commodity for wealthy tourists to consume at their will and on their terms.

For more on this, see here and here.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, Grumpy Sociologist Style

While watching some of the NBA games today (Christmas day 2009), I noticed the promotional pieces used by the NBA included pop star, Mariah Carey, singing a Christmas jingle while seductively blowing a kiss into the camera. Intermingled into her promo were updated highlights from the basketball games. See below:

Seems pretty clear to me on what terms women (including powerful, professional women) are integrated into professional athletics, in particular those pro sports historically deemed highly masculine -- in this case, basketball.

Well, happy holidays all!

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

More on appropriating Hawaiian culture

Building off my previous post on the commodification and appropriation of Hawaiian culture within the context of a global economy, one can clearly see how hula has been utilized by foreign cultures in the following three videos:

See, below, how Japanese nationals have taken the Hawaiian art as their own in this sexualized version, revamped for profit:

And not surprisingly, local Japanese (born/raised in Hawaii) are complicit in an industry that passes around the Hawaiian culture as something that can be freely passed around:

And then there is the typical Waikiki version incorporating its corrupted version of hula into a tourist-driven economy:

For a more accurate history of hula in Hawaii and the Pacific, go to, or at least watch these very interesting videos, below, which show hula and its connection to war and provide an explanation of gender stratification:

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

When Crime and Exploitation Are Deemed Important

It is pretty disheartening how the international community only cares about crime and exploitation when a major sporting event is on the horizon. Keeping athletes and those who come to watch safe in the host country is clearly of greater importance than addressing the root causes of crime that occur in marginalized areas of the world. That, unfortunately, has become glaringly evident as next year's World Cup, being held in South Africa, and the 2016 Summer Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, approach.

It appears that areas of South Africa are now being "cleaned up" so that tourists are not bothered by the homeless. Clearly, potential tourists, their income, and the country's image are defined as more important than South Africa's own marginalized citizens. What actually occurs remains to be seen. As seen in the Al Jeezra YouTube video, below, homeless may simply be driven out of the area, housed temporarily in camps, or given short-lived employment. But again, the important points here are, (1) the homeless situation is only being addressed with the World Cup approaching, and (2) no root causes of homelessness are being addressed.

Additionally, South African officials are considering decriminalizing prostitution, not entirely with the intent of enhancing the safety of sex workers, but to improve "entertainment venues" for foreign tourists (from the BBC):

Durban's municipality said Germany had many adult entertainment centres during the World Cup in 2006, which were very popular with visitors.

It said while prostitution was illegal in South Africa, it could not ignore the fact that the sex industry thrives during major events like the World Cup.

To address this, entertainment centres such as strip clubs and escort agencies would be located in special areas where they would be safe and easily accessible.

More from an article in The Guardian:

Calls are growing for South Africa to legalise prostitution ahead of next year's football World Cup in an effort to limit HIV infection among millions of fans visiting the country for the tournament.

There is rhetoric focusing on the health and safety of sex workers.

In January, MP George Lekgetho called for prostitution to be legalised during the tournament.

"It is one of the things that would make it a success," he said.

He told parliament that it would help cut incidences of rape.

The BBC's Mpho Lakaje in Johannesburg says his suggestion was met with derision by other MPs. But a group representing sex workers welcomed it.

"We would support any legalisation of sex work, particularly during the 2010 World Cup," Nicola Fick from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (Sweat) told the BBC.

However, others note that legalizing prostitution does not stop the harm of women and girls, but rather increases their violent victimization. Furthermore, as noted with the piece on homeless in South Africa, it is only with the World Cup coming up that this issue matters, and nothing is being discussed that would help to ameliorate the root causes of sexual exploitation (poverty and patriarchy).

Finally, in the context of the World Cup, these articles' headlines are evidence enough of who and what is defined as important (incoming tourists and the host country's reputation) and who is not (the poorer South African citizenry):

The same short-term, iron-fisted and often corrupted policies are escalating in Rio de Janeiro where the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will be held (from NPR):

...could the arrival of the 2016 Olympics do more harm than good for Rio de Janeiro's poorest residents? It could depend, in part, on how the Brazilian government plans to beef up security in advance of the Games?

Security crackdowns in Rio de Janeiro have often amounted to police raids on the sprawling shantytowns, home to a third of the city's population, where drug traffickers have ensconced themselves. The resulting gun battles have killed scores of innocent bystanders — predominately poor and working-class residents of the favelas — thus contributing to the stunning 2,069 murders that happened in Rio last year.


Certainly, Rio won't be the first Olympic city to resort to such measures — even liberal Vancouver is trying to force its homeless into shelters in advance of the 2010 Winter Games, and China made no secret of its repressive crackdown in the lead-up to last year's Olympics. But Rio de Janeiro's history of using ham-fisted tactics to combat violence makes me worry that the city's working poor will end up in the crosshairs in run-up to the Games.

Major sporting events are part of the global economy. They frequently command so much international attention and incoming revenue that governments will pander to foreign countries that have enough wealthy residents who will fly in and spend money in hotels, restaurants, and retail stores (or even in criminal ares, e.g., prostitution). This governmental pandering, however, comes in the form of defining the foreign tourists and their money as more important than the local "deviants." The emerging justice policies reflect this viewpoint.

(Photo via The Guardian)

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hawaii's Tourist Economy and Globalization

Globalization now follows a rigid pattern in Hawaii due to the island chain's geographic isolation and the degree to which Hawaii has become entrenched in a tourist-dependent economy. Stewart Firth (2000) in his essay, "The Pacific Islands and the Globalization Agenda," relies on a definition of globalization provided by Bairoch and Kozul-Wright:

a process in which the production and financial structures of countries are becoming interlinked by an increasing number of cross-border transactions to create an international division of labor in which national wealth comes, increasingly, to depend on economic agents in other countries...

Firth then adds:

Globalization is characterized by huge increases in flows of capital across the world, rapid growth in trade, the emergence of new kinds of trade in services, a technological revolution in communications that makes the globe itself the site of operations for major companies, and the growing influence almost everywhere of market forces.

There is much more to Hawaii's state in the global economy than that driven by global market forces. In addition, there is a long history of cultural appropriation and exploitation. As Haunani Kay-Trask argues in her outstanding essay, "Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture," (see From A Native Daughter) the relationship between the international tourist industry and those who work in it is analogous to that between a pimp and prostitute:

The pimp is the conduit of exchange, managing the commodity that is the prostitute while acting as the guard at the entry and exit gates, making sure the prostitute behaves as a a prostitute by fulfilling her sexual-economic functions. The victims participate in their victimization with enormous ranges of feeling, including resistance and complicity, but the force and continuity of the institution are shaped by men.

Focusing specifically on the tourist industry's commodification of the hula, Trask adds:

The first requirement is the transformation of the product, or the cultural attribute, much as a woman must be transformed to look like a prostitute, i.e., someone who is complicitious in her own commodification. Thus, hula dancers wear clown-like make-up, don costumes from a mix of Polynesian cultures, and behave in a manner that is smutty and salacious rather than powerfully erotic. The distance between the smutty and the erotic is precisely the distance between Western culture and Hawaiian culture. In the hotel version of the hula, the sacredness of the dance has completely evaporated while the athleticism and sexual expression have been packaged like ornaments. The purpose is entertainment for profit rather than a joyful and truly Hawaiian celebration of human and divine nature.

Trask, however, does not chastise those indigenous persons who partake in their own exploitation, noting that tourism has essentially become "the only game in town" by which many Hawaiians can make a decent living. And as Firth notes, the general populace has built up an ideology that supports globalization, or in the case of Hawaii, the tourist industry.

When people challenge tourism, they are challenging Hawaii's central revenue producing mechanism. As such, they are said to be challenging business investment, public school improvement, and a higher standard of living. Tourism in short, runs the show; the global market runs Hawaii, not Native Hawaiians.

And it's been external investment that has driven up the cost of living in Hawaii for local and indigenous residents. John Fischer comments on how this has caused the homeless population (largely indigenous Hawaiians) to skyrocket:

The median cost of a single family home on Oahu, as of the third quarter 2006, is $635,000. (Honolulu Board of REALTORS®, October 18, 2006) The median cost of a condominium is $315,000. Even on Oahu's less well-to-do Leeward Coast, the median cost of a single family home is $365,000. and a condominium $ 179,000. None of this is to infer that many such residences are even available for sale.

However, while Fischer criticizes foreign "investment" that ultimately supports outside capitalists (and not indigenous peoples), he goes on to state tourism is the answer that will help local residents and the indigenous population, thereby buying into the globalization ideology, or at least the tourist-driven ideology:

The real root of the problem are people like you and me - mainlanders who either move to the islands or buy property in the islands driving up the cost of housing each year and driving more and more locals into economic hardship. Many, if not most, of these mainlanders are independently rich or retired rich. They are consumers of society, not contributors to society. Most never work in Hawaii. They depend on others to service their needs.

People ask me why I don't move to Hawaii. For me, it's a matter of principal. Hawaii does not need more mainlanders investing in or moving to the islands. Visit Hawaii. Spend your money. Don't move there.

For a humorous, but insightful look into how tourism exploits the native culture, see The Rock's skit from Saturday Night Live (of note, "The Rock," Dwayne Johnson, grew up in Oahu and is half Samoan). It conveys many of the messages expressed by Trask -- that tourism not only prostitutes culture, but that tourists also appropriate it as their own since the Hawaiian culture is built into a service-based economy, which therefore must be generous and welcoming (put on that big smile!), even if it marginalizes native peoples, perpetuates crime, poverty, and homelessness.

(Photo of Oahu homeless via John Fischer)

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