- Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World
The thing about birds is that they can fly.(202)
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The thing about performance studies is that it gives us license and language for looking at what's obvious in ways that are both provocative and meaningful. Tourism is a growth industry, increasingly pervasive within the United States and internationally, constructing and marketing local identities in the face of and hand in hand with globalization. The tourist industry seeps into communities where the original sites of work, commerce, religion, and play—the way people live—have decayed and receded, re-creating and commodifying places, practices, and peoples as objects to be looked at. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage writes: "Dying economies stage their own rebirth as displays of what they once were, sometimes before the body is cold" (1998:151). In Staging Tourism, which was nearing completion when Destination Culture appeared, Jane Desmond looks through the metaphor of the social body to its actualization in human and animal performances for tourists.
Much of her work looks directly at what's obvious. Most birds (not all) fly, and: "Many, many people are willing to pay a lot of money to see bodies which are different from their own, to purchase the right to look, and to believe that through that visual consumption they have come to know something they didn't before" (xiii). This is true, of course, not only of people and animal tourism, but also of the theatre and film, the peepshow and pornography—that is, of most performance practices. By juxtaposing her close reading of Hawaiian tourism and performance in the first part of Staging Tourism with a series of snapshots taken from visits to aquariums, animal theme parks, zoos, and ecotourist sites in the second, Desmond dislocates the practice of tourism and provokes more questions than she resolves about the poetics and politics of representing cultural and natural behaviors for the education and entertainment of others.
In the first, most substantial part of Staging Tourism, Desmond delves deeply into the history and practice of hula performances, particularly through the context of the tourist lu'au in Hawai'i. She begins by describing her childhood love of hula dancing as understood in suburban U.S.A., acknowledges her hula teachers, and discusses her own experiences as a tourist in Hawai'i. Her research encompasses both field and archival work, and she exploits a wide range of popular and commercial images, postcards, and photographs to draw a complex portrait of the construction of the "native" for tourist consumption. For the most part, Desmond is deeply concerned with the creation of the "hula girl"—the alluring, slender, and seductive brown (not black, not white) woman whose image acts as a synecdoche for Hawai'i itself—as an essential element of the discourse that represents the Hawaiian native as a gentle, playful, sensual antithesis to the afflictions of Western civilization and the affectations of modernity. That is, she doesn't closely look at the hula dance in and of itself, but rather at the image of the dance and the dancer as developed over the past century. The level of detail assembled in this part is exceptional, although at least one error crops up early on: the Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa not Au Tearoa (23). And while Desmond's [End Page 170] own argument seems to flatten out at some point—she gets somewhat stuck in the recognition that sexism, nationalism, and racism are inextricably linked in this kind of performance—the section on Hawaiian performance offers a remarkable resource for anyone interested in further pursuing Desmond's initial lines of inquiry.
The exploration of animal tourism in the second part of Staging Tourism serves largely as a way of expanding upon Desmond's critique of Hawaiian tourist performance. This is both the most original and provocative part of her book...