- The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific
In her recent book, The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific, Patty O'Brien has provided an extensive and expansive discussion of the fetishistic image of island women whose ubiquity in popular culture is at once instantly recognizable and entirely clichéed. O'Brien defines the "Pacific muse" as that "stereotype of exotic femininity" that involves the representation of Pacific Island women as "little brown gal"—exotic, youthful, "unself-consciously naked," "physically perfect, passive, and pleasing" (p. 5). The Pacific muse is a "portal" through which the Pacific past—its historical myths, meanings, and representations—might be viewed. Not only does the notion of the muse reveal how colonial representations of island women "fed the making of Pacific history"; it also shows how this history, in turn, "fed colonial representations" (pp. 4–5). Hence, O'Brien examines the accounts of explorers, beachcombers, missionaries, whalers, sealers, and convicts for their representations of indigenous women while also showing how those documents served as the basis for fictional, poetic, musical, artistic, and other representations. These creative forms fed the further production of expectations and assumptions about the Pacific that contributed to later colonial projects. (So perhaps while the notion of the "Pacific muse" grates to those who acknowledge the gendered critique of the concept of the muse, in many senses it is an appropriate term.) The muse image emerges out of, on the one hand, the accounts of voyages of exploration and contact beginning in the 1760s (in particular landings in Tahiti and what would become French Polynesia), and on the other, a harkening back to the representations of women in the Hellenic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. O'Brien deftly charts the transformation of this image over the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. She positions [End Page 531] the Pacific muse in relation to anxieties about colonial masculinity and white femininity, showing how the image "contrasts" with and also "absorbs" the latter (p. 4).
O'Brien's book contributes to the burgeoning field of studies of gender and sexuality in Pacific Studies at the same time that it broadens the feminist critique of constructions of sexuality and gender to include locations such as the Pacific, a location that is often thought of mistakenly as merely a geographical extension (or derivative) of other colonial sites. Chapter 4, which looks at the notions of noble and ignoble savages, is particularly important because it furthers our understanding of how these concepts were produced beyond the highly masculine notion of "the savage." O'Brien persuasively examines how Western judgments about Pacific Islander women's bodies as either nubile or maternal bodies were being produced in relation to Enlightenment ideas of women.
The geographical terrain of The Pacific Muse is broad, incorporating typical images of exotic femininity associated with Polynesia as well as constructions of Aboriginal women, those of the western Pacific islands, and those of Micronesia. At times, this geographical sweep leads to a re-inscription of the type. Thus, for example, the only significant discussion of Hawaiian women comes in the chapter in which O'Brien discusses the incompatible notions of European and Hawaiian feminine beauty. In the process, figures such as Ka'ahumanu or Kīna'u are reclaimed from their infamous "girth" in the following way: "Powerful Hawaiian women such as [these], whose girth was often a point of interest, were revered and courted by the American missionaries of the islands, because their influence depended upon these women.… Transient observers had no need for such diplomacy" (p. 201). The passage reveals a tendency on O'Brien's part to provide brief, summative answers to explain the complexity of Ka'ahumanu and Kīna'u's significance which went far beyond mere "influence" (p. 201). These historical figures become opportunities to reinscribe the Western approach to women as objects of men's evaluative and amorous affections. But perhaps this is the result of O'Brien's particular approach, a...