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The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific

By Patty O'Brien

Review By Frances Steel

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 151 Autumn 2006  | p. 104-5

In their recent edited collection, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History (2005), Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton call for a renewed focus on gender as a category of historical analysis, positioning “the body” at the centre of colonial governmentalities. In attempting to make women and gender more visible in world history, they emphasize that “the extent to which women’s bodies (and to a lesser degree, men’s) have been a subject of concern, scrutiny, anxiety, and surveillance in a variety of times and places across the world [is striking]” (4). The Pacific Muse certainly extends these perspectives. As a “gender-focused world history” (14), Patty O’Brien foregrounds the female body in her exploration of the colonial South Pacific.

O’Brien takes an overlapping thematic and chronological approach, tracing the product ion of exotic femininity from its foundations in antiquit y through to the present day. The first chapter examines the lenses through which late eighteenthcentury explorers viewed femininity in the Pacific, heavily informed as they were by the revival of classical thought in the Renaissance and the imperial experience in the Americas, Africa, and the Orient. Chapter 2 addresses colonizing masculinities, charting the intertwined myths of “unfettered sexual freedoms” available to “uncontrollable” Occidental men in their Pacific exploits. In Chapter 3, O’Brien explores the divergent portrayal and treatment of indigenous women across multiple Pacific frontiers, characterized by extraction, plantation, and pastoral economies. The ways in which images of the “natural Pacific woman” mediated European debates about women’s “proper” role in the body politic informs Chapter 4. Finally, O’Brien surveys the ongoing cultural power of the archetypal “smiling island girl” in twentieth-century art, literature, and film.

The Pacific Muse is a history of the West’s “comfort” with the Pacific region (269). It addresses colonial repre sentations of women in diverse island settings, which were, for the most part, misrepresentations. O’Brien is at her best in deconstructing the logics behind the mythmaking and the cultures of the mythmakers themselves, tightly weaving her analysis into the fabric of everyday life. Given the dramatically uneven power relations in Pacific Island colonial contexts, these misrepresentations had very real outcomes for very real bodies. She shows how indigenous Australian women, once exoticized in ways akin to women in Polynesia, soon lost this status as settlers linked sexual violence with control over land and resources. The inclusion of these histories provides an impor tant corrective to the undue emphasis on Tahiti in primary and secondar y literature as “the” site of Oceanic desire. The image of exotic femininity circulated in metropolitan centres for other ends: to contain European women within the domestic sphere. By including Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand within a broader regional imaginary, and by keeping Europe always in sight, O’Brien aligns herself with the growing body of historical scholarship concerned with tracking the circulation of people, commodities, and ideas across imperial sites.

O’Brien concludes: “This book has sought to restore Pacific women to a colonial history in which they are fuller historical entities than the vast majority of literature on the Pacific will allow” (268). Towards the end of the book, she briefly surveys postcolonial engagement with and resistance to colonial stereotypes but provides little evidence of engagement and resistance in the preceding centuries. I was left no further ahead in understanding why, for example, Tahitian women approached European sailors with bared breasts (what meanings did nakedness hold in indigenous cultures?) or what the “sex trade” may have meant for those on the other side of the beach. A caution that many island societies understood exchange as a social rather than as an individual practice is buried in a footnote (286n69). This is, no doubt, a problem of source material, but without looking in more depth at the complex of meanings colliding in these crosscultural encounters, “the indigenous body” often figures as little more than a static, blank surface upon which outsiders freely inscribed meanings.

O’Brien situates the contemporary Pacific as a “soft,” friendly, benign “other” to the “Islamic world” in the eyes of rim states like the United States and Australia (7, 268-69). Yet, as I write this review from Australia in mid-2006, recent riots in the Solomon Islands and East Timor have prompted Prime Minister John Howard, predicting further regional troubles in the coming decades, to commit ten billion dollars to an expanded defence force. Very different bodies and very different regional agendas, it seems, also define Pacific “hot spots.” Overall, The Pacific Muse is an engaging, wide-ranging, and insightful work, enhanced by the liberal inclusion of excellent images. It will appeal to scholars both in and beyond Pacific scholarship, including those interested in the history of ideas, colonial history, the history of gender and sexuality, anthropology, art history, and cultural studies.