Mermaids of the South Seas: paradisal landscapes and the Western Imagination

Mermaids of the South Seas: paradisal landscapes and the Western Imagination

Anaïs Duong-Pedica


Visual representations of Polynesia depict the region as ‘paradise’ and have been ripe with myths since Europeans’ first contact with the islands, particularly around Polynesian women. This article considers representations of mermaids and Polynesian women in Western visual culture, specifically ‘Girls of the South Seas’ imagery from Tahiti. Using a postcolonial feminist perspective on representation, this essay argues that similar visual narratives are used to represent mermaids and Polynesian women in that they are both created through heterosexist and colonial understandings of the Other. This is particularly apparent in the use of visual markers of exoticism and eroticism in both types of representation. The article also explores the relationship between these images, their representational practices and tourism as a myth-making industry and urges us to place these representations in their broader historical and colonial contexts as well as problematising their social impact on the Pacific Islands and their peoples.

Keywords: Polynesia, mermaids, representation, Tahiti, women

To most people of the world, we… who are called ‘Pacific Islanders’… are not real.

We are thought of as people of the past; people who come from small island states; people who live in the sun by sky blue oceans.

We are thought of romantically… by the Western world… with images of beautiful women thinly clad in cloth with hibiscus patterns, flowers in our hair, hips swaying under the coconut palm trees, beckoning the Western world into a world of magic and romance – Hinewirangi Kohu, Ngati Kahungungu Ngati Ranginui (Māori) (1994)


 “Mermaids of the South Seas” is a play on words that connects the mermaid with another myth: the “South sea maiden” (Rothenberg 1995; Sturma 2002), one of the terms used for Western sexualised representations of Polynesian women. Scholars have attributed a variety of other names to this form of representation, such as the “Wood Nymph” (Nordström 1992), the “nubile savage” (Sturma 1995), the “Pacific Muse” (O’Brien 2006), or the “Dusky Maiden” (Taouma 1998; Pearson 2005; Smith 2008; Tamaira 2010). All of these terms reflect the concept of the dark sexual “belle”. She is “dark”, yet she is not Black. Being neither Black nor white, Polynesian people and women served as a “buffer race” in the Pacific region, “between the colonizing whites (and later, Japanese) and those who early on had been defined as blacks, especially Australian aboriginal peoples from neighboring island societies and New Guinea” (Gailey 1994, 35). For Western explorers, the nature of Polynesians’ otherness is attributed to the noble (brown) savages who stand in opposition to the dark savages of Melanesia. This racial distinction means that Pacific island women were not represented in the same way. If, historically, the women from western Pacific Islands (e.g. Vanuatu, Kanaky New Caledonia) were depicted as “ugly, sexually unappealing and sexually sequestered ‘beasts of burden,’ cruelly oppressed by men”, women from the eastern islands (e.g. Tahiti and Hawai’i) were represented as “beautiful, sexually alluring, ‘lascivious ladies’” (Jolly 2007, 520). This racial hierarchy continues to inform the way in which Pacific islander women are imagined and represented in and by the West. On its own, the term vahine, which is merely the Tahitian word for ‘woman’, suffices to elicit exo-erotic images of Tahitian women in the contemporary French imagination. A quick search on the word ‘vahine’ in Google Images demonstrates the erotic connotations associated with the word.

This paper is about encounters. First, it is about my regular encounters with the ‘Polynesian’ body – “both ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Teaiwa 1998, 250) at home, in Kanaky New Caledonia, and in other places, including Western popular culture. The second encounter is with mermaids, those who are ‘imaginary’, especially in folklore and popular culture, and the ‘real’ ones (mermaiders). Mermaiders is a term coined by Robertson (2013) and alludes to individuals who take part in the mermaid subculture and fandom through mermaid ‘cosplaying’ (costume-playing), and/or the adoption of mermaid identities, or ‘mersonas’. Mermaiders are also referred to as ‘real mermaids’. Some of them become professional performers and are paid to embody the mythical creature in aquariums, water parks and at special events, and for modelling. In merging these two icons, I wish to render visible the colonial contexts and legacies, as they are meant by M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2012 [1997]), in which these images are produced and without which they would make little sense. I attempt to demonstrate that contemporary Western representations of ‘Polynesian’ women and mermaids suggest the inheritance of gendered colonial visual and representational practices when it comes to the Pacific. Mermaiders, in constructing their mermaid personas, create racialised, sexualised and gendered selves. ‘Polynesian’ women, in being constructed as ‘South sea maidens’, become racialised, colonised, sexualised and gendered objects. This paper shows how eroticised Western representations of ‘vahine’ are a way of crafting their difference from Western lifestyles and femininities. On the one hand, the photographs analysed here contribute to the creation and reiteration of monolithic images of Third World/Southern women (Mohanty 2003) that are created by the tourism industry. On the other hand, these visual markers of ‘Pacific’ or ‘Polynesian’ landscapes and femininity are appropriated and used by Western mermaiders and in mermaid visual culture to produce underwater and overwater fantasy identities and worlds.

I call the visual representations that I focus on in this paper ‘Western’ because they are created for and by the West. The way in which ‘the West’ and ‘Western’ are understood is mainly informed by Meyda Yeğenoğlu’s definition of the ‘Western subject’ in Colonial Fantasies (1998, 3–4):

The operation I call ‘Westernizing’ consists in the fashioning of a historically specific fantasy whereby members imagine themselves as Western. The engendering and fashioning of the Western subject thus has a fictive character. But the fictive character of this position does not mean that it is not real; on the contrary, it produces material effects by constituting the very bodies of the subjects that it subjects. […] One ‘becomes’ and is made Western by being subjected to a process called Westernizing and by imagining oneself in the fantasy frame of belonging to a specific culture called the ‘West’

The Western subject is, by definition, positioned in opposition to the colonial subject. Western societies, as the instigators and/or benefactors of colonisation, are seen as civilised, whereas colonised lands and peoples are perceived as primitive. As Stuart Hall has argued, “‘the West’ is a historical, not a geographical, construct” and characterises societies that are “developed, industrialized, urbanized, capitalist, secular, and modern” (1992, 277). In his work on orientalism, Said (1978) argued that the Western desire to represent and know the Oriental other was connected with its will to power. In the case of the Pacific Islands, the racial ordering of Oceania is organised around the Western subject and its universal norms. This failure to deal adequately with difference has generated sexist and racist attitudes towards the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. Oceanicism (Pearson 2005), the South Pacific version of orientalism, is also an ideological instrument of domination in that it is “a homogenizing project of power and discourse that has created racialized identities, essentialized mentalities, and cultural typologies” (Sissons 1998, 164). An exploration of representations of the Pacific feminine Other (in this case, the ‘vahine’) and mythical creatures (mermaids) seems relevant insofar as “encounters with the ‘other’ have always provided fuel for myths and mythical language” (Selwyn 1993, in Hall 1998, 140). In investigating the visual relationships between mermaids and ‘vahine’, this research reiterates the persistence of colonial narratives in twenty-first-century visual representations of the Pacific Islands and lays down the groundwork for making visible the connection between mer-visual cultures and colonialism.

I first provide some context for the images I have analysed, especially for sexualised images of ‘Tahitian’ women. I then briefly introduce the resurgence of the mermaid as a significant and powerful symbol in Western cultures before making some historical links between the ways in which mermaids and ‘Polynesian’ women have been perceived and represented. Then, I explore the similarities between them in contemporary photography and visual media and discuss the implications of these resemblances. Whilst I focus on twenty-first-century photographs of mermaiders and ‘Girls of the South Seas’, I often make links with historical visual representations in order to shed light on the lineage of these images.

‘Girls of the South Seas’

In this paper, I analyse twenty-first-century mermaider photographs taken by both professional and non-professional photographers, as well as broader visual representations of mermaids in Western popular culture. These representations of mermaids are then juxtaposed with visual representations of ‘Polynesian women’ aimed at Western audiences, especially in the context of tourism to the Pacific Islands. Specifically, I explore ‘South sea maiden’ imagery, in which the models are posing near or in bodies of water, with a focus on the ‘Girls of the South Seas’ photo collection created in Tahiti by the company Pacific Promotion. These photographs are a continuation of the phenomenon of ‘exotic’ and eroto-ethnographic photography, intended for foreign audiences, that flourished during the period of imperial expansion in the Pacific during the nineteenth century (Nordström 1991). They are part of a broad pattern in Western culture of representing the Pacific Islands through photography (Waldroup 2010). ‘Girls of the South Seas’ is a translation from the French “Filles des Mers du Sud”. It consists of a collection of photographs started by French-Tahitian photographer Teva Sylvain in the 1970s. Teva Sylvain was continuing the work of his French father, Adolphe Sylvain, who arrived in Tahiti in 1946. Adolphe Sylvain’s photographic work in Tahiti is essentially constituted of images of “Polynesian nature, girls or landscapes” (Charnay 1981, as cited on Pacific Promotion n.d.a, my translation). At the time of his arrival on the island, Tahiti had been a French colony for 66 years. In an interview, he recalled that there were already a few professional photographers based on the island and that they all specialised in portrait photography. According to him, there were two Americans, a Czech and a French photographer whose photographic work, much like the work of nineteenth-century French painter Paul Gauguin before them, represented the island and its peoples through a Western lens (Charnay 1981, as cited on Pacific Promotion n.d.a). In fact, European and American itinerant photographers and travellers were already taking pictures of French Polynesia in the 1850s (Waldroup 2010) and a commercial photography industry was first set up in Pape’ete, the capital of the island, in 1868 (O’Reilly 1969, in Waldroup 2010). Adolphe Sylvain is most well-known for his portrait photography, especially black-and-white portraits of thin, young, bare-breasted Tahitian women posing among Polynesian nature. A selection of these photographs can be found in Tahiti: Sylvain[1], a book dedicated to his work. The back cover of the book states that “between 1974 and 1980, [Adolphe Sylvain] contributed to the creation of the Polynesian myth by taking many photos of vahine” (Barbieri and Lacouture 2001). Like Gauguin, while in Tahiti, Adolphe Sylvain married a Tahitian woman, with whom he had five children, including Teva, who established himself as a photographer in Pape’ete in the 1970s. Through the creation of his company, Pacific Promotion Tahiti, Teva Sylvain produced a series of postcards that can now be found in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, American Samoa, Hawaii, Cooper Mountain, in the (mostly French) Caribbean, and Paris (Pacific Promotion n.d.b.), as well as in other European countries and the USA (Poirier 2012). The company’s website further states that “millions of the photographs were edited into various forms: postcards, calendars, posters, books, lighters, table sets, coasters, mugs, writing sets, envelopes…” (Pacific Promotion n.d.b, my translation).

It is through these postcards, calendars and posters that I first encountered Teva Sylvain’s photography as a local of Kanaky New Caledonia. In fact, in Kanaky New Caledonia, one can find bare-breasted ‘Polynesian’ women on these items in shops selling tourist curios but also in supermarkets. Lighters decorated with pictures of ‘vahine’ striking erotic poses can be found in ‘Tabac Presse’ and convenience stores. Exo-erotic visual representations of ‘Tahitian’ and other ‘Polynesian’ women have a (colonial) history and, in Tahiti, they are not limited to the work Adolphe and Teva Sylvain. Many photographers specialise in this type of photography, which can then be used and marketed by other companies. The erotic character of the photos varies and depends on the context in which they are used. For example, the popular Tahitian beer brand Hinano Tahiti[2] capitalises on this type of imagery by each year releasing a calendar which the brand describes as “paying tribute to the Vahine and her power of seduction” (Hinano Tahiti 2018). Although the models’ breasts are concealed in the pictures, the emphasis on seduction appears clear in a two-minute video showing the making of the 2017 Hinano Calendar (Hinano Tahiti 2016). The Hinano website also points out that the launching of a new calendar is an event that many fans of the brand look forward to in French Polynesia and all over the world and that it has become a collector’s item. This seems to be a continuation of the nineteenth-century trend of creating collectable postcards and stereographs of the Pacific Islands. As Teva Sylvain himself says, “the vahine is a product that is exported/exportable to the entire world” (Poirier

Throughout this paper, I use inverted commas when referring to ‘Polynesian’ and ‘Tahitian’ bodies. This is because, while the models in the photos are meant to represent Tahitian and Polynesian women, not all of them are in fact Tahitian or Polynesian, nor do they all come from the Pacific Islands. In the documentary La vahiné: entre mythe et réalité (Vahine: between myth and reality) (Poirier 2012), Teva Sylvain, called “the king of postcards” by the presenter, mentions that some of the models who pose for his ‘Girls of the South Seas’ collection come from many other places, such as Argentina and France. The explanation provided by the documentary for the use of non-Tahitian women is the disapproval of this type of photography in Polynesian culture. This echoes Samoan Reverend Mua Strickson-Pua’s claim in the documentary Velvet Dreams (Urale 1997) that topless Polynesian women are usually perceived as a palagi[3] sexual fantasy about Polynesian people, which clashes with the conservatism of some Polynesian communities. This was especially true during the 1950s. Indeed, Pritchard and Morgan point out that, for visual image-makers and foreign consumers of these visuals, “it is the aestheticized, imagined island woman who is desired, not the reality of contemporary Tahitian women” (2007, 175). Despite this, the pictures are used and marketed as ‘authentic’ representations of Polynesian women. On the Hinano Tahiti website, where the Hinano Calendar 2018 is downloadable for free, the calendar is promoted as follows: “exuding both authenticity and glamour, it treasures the Vahine pictured in spectacular surroundings that reflect the Polynesian women and Polynesia” (Hinano Tahiti 2018). This is why it is particularly significant to emphasise the fact that ‘South Sea maidens’ are representations rather than realities (Sturma 2002). In fact, by now, it should be clear that this paper is about fantasies: “imagined places rather than loci on the map” (Jolly 1997, 99) as well as imagined women, be they mermaids or ‘Girls of the South Seas’[4].

Visual representations of women contribute to the social, sexual and psychological constructions of femininity (Pritchard and Morgan 2007). A visual approach to representation is particularly relevant in the study of Pacific peoples because the tourist industry produces highly gendered images of ‘paradise’. These images assume an important role in the cultivation of the geographical imagination (Staszak 2006). Hall argues that “such images are an inherent part of the tourism phenomenon which, perhaps more than any other business, is based on the production, reproduction and reinforcement of images” (1998, 140). Fashion photographers[5] play a similarly significant role in the creation of visual meanings and individualities, especially with regard to femininity. In both cases, photography is a method by which myths about places and peoples can be created and reinforced. In the context of representations of Polynesian women, images of Pacific peoples and women in early professional photography have been qualified as “stereographic” (Nordström 1991, 275) in that they create the illusion of reality. Throughout this paper, I argue that some contemporary photographs of Polynesian women are not only stereographic but also mythographic in their similitude with mermaid photography and imagery more generally. In other words, these images are not only creating an illusion of reality, they are also using creatures and stories already present in the Western imagination, such as mermaids, in order to craft and reiterate myths about the Pacific.

The (hyper)sexual and exotic mermaid

Mermaids have been a popular European figure since the Middle Ages (Weinbaum 1999) and are commonly associated with Greek sirens. Today, sirens and mermaids are perceived as an incarnation of the femme fatale. This is notably symbolised by the popular perception of mermaids as dangerous seductresses who can be sources of both pleasure and lust (Di Biase 2012). Thus, although mermaids are nearly always female (Kokai 2011), they are not historically seen as representing traditional passive femininity. On the contrary, in paintings from the late nineteenth century, mermaids are represented as dangerous temptresses who lure men to their deaths. The mermaid’s hypersexuality can be interpreted as a signifier of (her) exotic femininity. Nonetheless, her sexual appetite does not prevent her from being objectified. This is particularly illustrated by her beautiful female torso (Mealing 2013) and the range of seductive poses that her kin strikes in visual imagery, from classical paintings[6] to the more contemporary mermaider photography. Additionally, as a temptress, the mermaid is an evocation of the pagan world (Sylvestre 1890, as cited in Dijkstra 1986). Indeed, in the Christian bestiaries, the mermaid represents a warning against sin (White 1993), a connotation that highlights her exotic status. The hybridity of the mermaid in being ‘half woman’, ‘half animal’ locates her in the world of monsters and animals, along with lycanthropes, cyclopses, centaurs and other races found in medieval bestiaries. Her monstrosity places her at the boundaries of the civilised world, “where nature becomes unfamiliar” (Steel 2012, 261). In fact, the mermaid’s literal animality (her fish-tail) and symbolic animality (her primal sexuality) indicate her nonhuman otherness and are also signs of exoticism. Studying mermaids is important today because of their ongoing relevance in the contemporary world. As Pearson (2009, 105) notes:

The mermaid is the sole survivor in popular culture of the great menagerie of hybrid creatures that inhabit the margins of the medieval world picture. We may recognize centaurs and satyrs, but only the mermaid can claim an ongoing life in the popular imaginationas witness her role in films, in advertising, an in the plethora of Internet sites devoted to her

The Western fascination with the figure of the mermaid is notably illustrated in the USA, where the ‘family friendly’ Weeki Wachee’s underwater theatre and show opened for the first time in Florida in 1947. The show displayed water-based performances capitalising on the exhibition of white, heterosexual female bodies dressed up as mermaids for a presumed heterosexual male audience (Kokai 2011). In 2013, Robertson identified three sites of mermaid performance in the Western, and particularly North American, landscape: the Weeki Wachee theme-park, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade of New York, and the “burgeoning global mermaiding subculture” (2013, 309). These sites are now spreading across the Atlantic. For example, the British seaside town of Brighton held its fifth ‘March of the Mermaids’ in July 2017. If the Mermaid Parade of Coney Island is a homage to the former tradition of the Coney Island Mardi Gras since 1983 (Faratin 2014), the ‘March of the Mermaids’ is promoted as “a celebration of the sea, mermaids and sea creatures of all kinds” and aims to raise awareness of marine conservation (VisitBrighton 2014). Robertson suggests that the resurgence of mermaids could lead to a “reawakening of the kinship between humans and the natural world”, especially since mermaids are seen as an “emblem for the majesty of nature, and the ocean in particular” (2013, 308–309)[7]. What is more, 2017 saw the organisation of the first ‘Bexhill Festival of the Sea’, also in the United Kingdom, which featured a mermaid gathering where “mermaids and mermen of all ages are welcome” in order to attempt the Guinness World Record for largest gathering of mermaids (Bexhill Festival of the Sea 2017) and France’s first ‘Festival des Sirènes’ (Mermaid Festival) (Le Festival des Sirènes 2017). These events testify to the re-emergence and significance of mermaids as cultural symbols in the West. While, for the purpose of this paper, I focus on ‘the West’ and not necessarily on whiteness, it is also worth noting than the vast majority of the pictures of mermaids I have analysed were of white women, which is representative of the whiteness of Western mercultures. Indeed, the most popular ‘mersonas’ and professional mermaids are white, the audience at mermaid festivals is overwhelmingly white and mermaid schools are attended mostly by white women. In an interview with The Guardian (Glenza 2015), Jennifer Kokai explains the whiteness of the mer-phenomenon as follows:

The deal is that culturally mermaids have been a safe way for white women to express sexuality because while the top half of the mermaid might be really pretty and attractive, the bottom half is a fish, so it’s the ultimate kind of look and don’t touch (…) I think it’s a way for women to play around with sexuality without being seen as impure or slutty.

 The Pacific Islands and Polynesian women

Western popular knowledge about the Pacific is mainly constituted of clichés about the islands, their peoples and the history of Western colonisation (O’Brien 2006). These clichés are partly informed by the journals of eighteenth-century voyagers such as James Cook or Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who told stories of “beautiful and uninhibited women” (Kahn 2003, 310) and created the Polynesia of sexual freedom that still exists today. Voyagers’ perceptions of Polynesian women played a major role in the romanticisation of the Pacific. They reported that Polynesian girls and women would publicly offer themselves to members of the crews. However, Tcherkézoff claims that European voyagers experienced a false sense of sexual hospitality (2004, 2005, 2009). In fact, misunderstandings were common as the interpretation of women and culture was conducted solely through a masculine, heterosexual lens and colonial narratives (Pritchard and Morgan 2007). Amongst the consequences of this false sense of sexual openness was the portrayal South Pacific women as temptresses. Indeed, to make sense of their experiences in the Pacific Islands, European voyagers compared the beauty of the islands and their peoples, especially women, to Greek Gods and Goddesses. Polynesian women were compared to Venus[8] rising from the waves (Sturma 2002) and Bougainville named Tahiti ‘Nouvelle Cythère’ (New Cytheria) after the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love (Tcherkézoff 2005; O’Brien 2006; Pritchard and Morgan 2007). The use of mythology to make sense of difference is evident in a black-and-white photograph taken by Lucien Gauthier entitled ‘Tahitian Beauties’ dating from the early twentieth century. The picture features a Brown Tahitian woman in a studio mirroring the pose of Venus in Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ (1485). Apart from shell necklaces in her hair and around her neck, and hiding her pubis with flowers, she is nude. Similarly, the pictures taken for LIFE magazine by American photographer Eliot Elisofon of a Tahitian woman bathing in a river (1954–1955) bears a close resemblance to the ‘Aphrodite of Rhodes’ (especially her back) from the Hellenistic period. The comparison of Tahiti to the realm of Greek Gods and Goddesses can be related to the perception that ‘native subjects’ operate in an unchanging, mythic past that is unrelated to Western realities (Nordström 1992). By portraying Tahiti as an ‘Island of Love’ and linking Polynesian people to nature, Westerners imagined Polynesia as being at an earlier stage of development than Europe. This also contributed to the infantilisation of Pacific peoples, who were seen as “childlike, libidinous, free and natural people” (Pritchard and Morgan 2007, 164), a perception that facilitated the connection with Antiquity’s early civilisations (Taouma 2007). What is more, scholars such as Sturma (2002) and O’Brien (2006) have demonstrated that The Odyssey inspired the tales that voyagers and wanderers used in order to incorporate Pacific people into Western culture:

A central theme of the Odyssean myth, which became core to Occidental colonization, is the travelling man’s exposure to sexual danger. Odysseus’ sexual adventures are telling tales that elucidate the persistent dualisms outlined above and that are axiomatic to understanding the construction of female primitivism. (O’Brien 2006, 41)

Amongst the tropes of primitive and supernatural women in The Odyssey were the enchantress Circe, the beautiful nymph-goddess Calypso, and the sirens. Their primitiveness was characterised by their erotic dangerousness, notably in their attempts to lure men to their deaths. In fact, O’Brien argues that “extravagant, dangerous sexuality and beauty were hallmarks of exotic femininity from this seminal story on” (2006, 42). She goes on to note that the primitivism and exoticism of these Odyssean temptresses (and specifically those of the sirens) were deployed in order to introduce Polynesian women to European audiences. The fact that beauty, childishness and aggressive sexual desire are common characteristics of mermaids[9] made them symbolically compatible with Polynesian women. The association of Polynesian women with mythical water creatures was present, for example, in the writing of voyagers such as Forster (1777), who accompanied Cook on his voyage around the world: “The view of these nymphs[10] swimming nimbly all around the sloop, such as nature had formed them was perhaps more than sufficient entirely to subvert the little reason which a mariner might have left to govern his passions” (as cited in Jolly 1997, 101). Moreover, supernatural women were also used to describe nature in the Pacific. For example, in Rarotonga, Beatrice Grimshaw (1907), an Irish ‘lady traveler’, writes about a “drooping of leafage fine as mermaid’s hair” and “that lovely ironwood, a tree with leaves like maiden’s locks, and the voice of a mermaid’s song in the whispering boughs” (ibid., 106). Thus, these allegories emphasised the connection between women, nature and divinities, especially those associated with water.

The late nineteenth century observed a proliferation of representations of ‘nymphs’, ‘sirens’ and ‘maenads’ in art. According to Dijkstra:

[These female figures were] the visual expression of a heady mixture of wish-fulfillment fantasies, fear, horror, hope, and revulsion crowding the nineteenth-century male mind. This melange of elements also spoke loudly through bio- sexists’ disquisitions upon the bottomless pit of woman’s sexual nature. At the same time, the painters’ pursuit of these mythical, sex-starved creatures legitimized the average male’s fantasies about “the wild women” who assumed a masculine, aggressive sexual role. (1986, 250)

Subsequently, by being associated with sirens, Polynesian women were also related to the iconic figure of the femme fatale, which dominated nineteenth-century art (Pritchard and Morgan 2007). This is notably illustrated and emphasised by the use of the figure of Eve in images of Polynesian women (O’Brien 2006). For example, Brooks (1990) demonstrates how the figure of Eve is a focal point in Paul Gauguin’s body of work. During the year following his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin painted his ‘Tahitian Eve’ (1892), rendering Eve ‘native’ by setting her in an exotic and fantastical paradise. Tahiti was also described as a ‘Garden of Eden’ in the writings of various travellers (Tcherkézoff 2005; Serra Mallol 2005). Eve joins Venus and the sirens in the trope of the powerful temptresses and femmes fatales (Pinson 2010). O’Brien summarises the relationship between the three figures as followed:

The young beautiful Venus wringing water from her tresses was a configuration of exotic femininity that was absorbed into the Christian tradition in a number of forms, as sirens and also as Eve, the paramount encapsulation of Christian fears of female sexuality. (2006, 49)

O’Brien (2006) further explains that Eve and Aphrodite are related because they were both created in Paradise as women and that Eve is also related to the iconography of mermaids by being connected to the satanic serpent. The threads that connect these female characters are their exotic femininity and sexuality. These features subsequently become representative of all Polynesian women during the process of the incorporation of Pacific peoples into the American and European imagination, and act as a way to mark difference between colonised Pacific peoples and Western subjects. In contemporary Western representations, the visual markers of the South sea maiden are long black hair, “a skin that is dark, but not too dark” (Ganser 2017, 158), dark eyes (Beets 1997), an alluring pose (Kahn 2003), and hei[11]-bedecked hair (Tamaira 2010) or a hibiscus blossom behind her ear (Khan 2003)[12].

Mermaids of the South Seas

Western visual representations of mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’ imagery clearly had similar themes and “their own visual vocabulary and grammar” (Mulvey 2009 [1989], 7). For example, images of ‘Tahitian’ women and mermaiders share narratives such as bathing scenes, underwater and swimming scenes, narratives of beached bodies, women and mermaids sitting on rocks or being caught in fishermen’s nets. Representing mermaids in the nets of fishermen or on rocky cliffs along the ocean was a common narrative amongst painters of the nineteenth century (Dijkstra 1986). These are clearly themes that have not only transcended history but have also been re-used to represent Polynesian women. For example, there is much resemblance between William Hodges’ ‘Tahiti Revisited’ or ‘Vaitepiha Bay’ (1776), a painting representing a group of ‘Tahitian’ women, one bathing in the lagoon and two others lying naked on the rocks, in front of an idyllic background of mountains and palm trees, and the mermaids of Peter Pan (1953), two centuries later, bathing in a lagoon and sitting on rocks in the midst of verdant hills and tropical trees. The same can be noted of the still of ‘Samoan’ children in Flaherty’s silent documentary Moana: A Story of the South Seas[13] (1926), sitting on rocks, in front of a waterfall that a Disney mermaid could have used as a natural shower thirty years later. One wonders: do they have fish-tails, or do they have legs?

Osborne notes that “the mythology of ‘the South with paradisal meanings” (2000, 107–108).  This is effectively the case for the pictures of ‘Polynesian’ women in the ‘Girls of the South Seas’ collection as many of them are taken in front of a waterfall, by a river, at the beach, or in the sea, and the backgrounds contain luxuriant vegetation and notably palm trees. This is also the case for images of mermaiders and mermaids more generally. In both cases, nature is a dominant key. The use of blue and green backgrounds and the mix of water and vegetation without buildings or men contribute to the impression of remote desert islands only populated by ‘Polynesian’ women and/or visited by mermaids. The close relationship between women, mermaids and water is emphasised by the aquamarine colours, the use of fishing nets and the direct contact between women’s bodies and water. Additionally, the shades of blues and greens, along with the bright colours of their fish-tails, bras, necklaces, flowers and hair accessories contribute to the colour saturation of the images. The utopian brightness and intense colour saturation of these photos promise a positive tourist experience and therefore contribute to the making of an effective tourist promotion (Osborne 2000). These islands of mermaids and women become paradisal utopian places into which the viewer can project himself. If the places in the backgrounds of the pictures of ‘Polynesian’ women are supposedly in Polynesia, when juxtaposed with images of mermaids, the similarity of backgrounds blurs the boundary between the ‘reality’ of geographical places (South Pacific Islands) and the fantasy of imagined places, such as the mermaids’ lagoon in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). In addition, the lack of markers of contemporary Western life, such as buildings, technology, or Western clothing, creates a gap between the feminine island/ocean world of ‘the South’ and the more civilised, masculine world of the West. This mise-en-scène, in the cases of both ‘Girls of the South Seas’ imagery and mermaid visuals, acts to confine these bodies to the realm of the natural rather than the cultural. In the context of images of Hawai’i, Borgerson and Schroeder (2003) have argued that paradise is packaged as ‘retropia’: a place that is stuck in the past. They write that the retropian representation of Hawai’i, along with its seductive premodern women, depicts the archipelago as arising “from oceanic depths as a Garden of Eden variety paradise offering premoral, before the all, guiltless existence” (ibid., 219). By appealing to ideas of fantasy, escape, primitivism and exoticism, these pictures are often nostalgic in nature. Given the histories of European and American colonisation of Polynesia, and the continuing occupation of Hawai’i by the USA and of Te Aho Maohi (Land of the Maohi)/Tahiti–Polynesia by the French, it is a specifically colonial nostalgia that is at the heart of these images and that is, more generally, used by the tourism industry to feed the Western imagination about the Pacific Islands and their women.

This divide between the worlds of the sea and land is made obvious in Murphy’s ecofeminist critique of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Murphy notes a distinction between the surface world and the world of merpeople. In effect, the fact that “merpeople just sing and dance, while humans work” (1995, 132) establishes the aquatic world as underdeveloped. Moreover, Sells adds that the underwater scenes in The Little Mermaid resemble Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, colourful and “rich with the female imagery of sea shells and cave openings” (1995, 178). According to Murphy, this creates a racist and colonialist first-world/third-world relationship between the humans and the sea, and reinforces

the human/nonhuman and culture/nature dichotomies by associating the merpeople […] with a closertonature, liveofftheland indigenous lifestyle inferior to the industrial lifestylebecause advanced humans make things, i.e., they transform nature to serve them rather than adapt themselves to cohabitate with the rest of their environment. (1995, 132).

The assumed adaptation of ‘Polynesian’ women to their environment is particularly striking in photographs taken underwater by Téva Sylvain and other photographers. Effectively, the women do not need any diving equipment; they seem to be able to breathe underwater and to be comfortable around sea flora and fauna, swimming among the fish and coral, much like mermaids. Sells goes further in her analysis and argues that “the human world can be aligned with the white male system and the water world situated outside this system” (ibid., 177). As a consequence, the visual resemblance between representations of mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’, particularly in the depictions of women embedded in mysterious and vibrant nature, accentuates the primitiveness of the feminine, but also of the ‘Polynesian’ body. The use of exotic and romantic landscapes as backgrounds to evoke the primitive life of these women and half-women reflects the idea of the fantasy land or utopia particularly used in tourist promotions. Thus, the display of ‘Polynesian’ nature and women “does not connote the realism of the image but rather its difference, its distance from European everyday life” as “exoticism is not a geographical phenomenon or one of a foreign body but, rather, a phenomenon of décor (Yee 2000, 44, emphasis in original, my translation). Nevertheless, these women and mermaids are never completely bound to the ocean. In many instances, ‘Tahitian’ women’s bodies are not completely underwater and, when they are, their legs act as a reminder of their connection to the land. Coincidentally, Mealing states that the mermaid “perpetually gestures toward possibility and change, positioned as she is between the oceanic dream world and land” (2013, 6). The emphasis on showing ‘Tahitian’ women as comfortable in the water, and almost intimate with it, suggests that they, too, are living and evolving between the oceanic dream world and the land. They are comfortable in both and can morph into water beings when necessary. Much like mermaids, the ‘Tahitian’ women in the ‘Girls of the South Seas’ collection live at the boundaries of the civilised world. Their legs and human form are reminders of their (half-)humanity, subjecthood, and capacity for civilisation, while the ease with which they swim underwater, the visual markers of exoticism with which they are presented, and their tanned skin and long dark hair, suggest an attachment to the natural and animal world.

Another trait that is shared between images of mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’ is the relationship between bodies and their environments, or rather, the environments and the bodies within them. I have mentioned earlier that bodies in themselves are not exotic, but act as a way to stage the exotic (Yee 2000): they are used as props, along with palm trees, fish, and waterfalls. In his study of two utopian texts published in England in 1741, Lewes underlines the intersection of pornography, imperialism and utopia. He particularly remarks that “the origin of females is never discussed: they are just there – like the earth itself” (1993, 68). This is the case in these visual representations of Polynesian women and mermaids. In fact, the viewer has no information about the women: we do not know who they are, where exactly they come from or what they do. If anything, these women and half-women are part of the fauna and flora: they are caught in nets and swim like fish, they are beached as though they were sea mammals, and they are perched on rocks like sea birds. The naturalisation of the ‘Polynesian’ body is a particularity when it comes to the broader repertoire of Western exotic representations, as the women are not required to wear attire that is deemed ‘traditional’ to their culture, nor are they displayed with ‘exotic’ objects. Brooks suggests that this is what sets these representations apart from orientalist representations:

The Club Med vision of paradise of course includes a warm brown body without much in the way of clothing. The ‘primitivist’ version of exoticism that so attracted Gauguin differs from ‘orientalism’ in its preference for simplicity, including a sensuality that is not alluringly hidden within seraglios but, with another kind of allure, placed in the open, naturalized. (Brooks 1990, 53 in Teaiwa 1998, 254)

The viewing of bodies as a part of the landscape is especially evident in the bathing scene. Indeed, the angle used by the photographers or painters places the viewer in a gazing and voyeuristic position. We are watching groups of women and mermaids bathing and interacting. We can see them, but they cannot see us, or, if they can, they are letting themselves be watched. This spatial imagery is reminiscent of orientalist nineteenth-century images of harems[14], “the sexual habitat of the dark woman”, which established the Orient as a place where Westerners could look for “sexual experiences unobtainable in Europe” (Said 1979, in Taouma 2004, 38). Drawing on the work of Lewes (2000), Pritchard and Morgan thus determine that such representations “map the sensual topography of land and skin so that the women and the landscapes of the South Pacific become analogous” (2007, 168). The analogy between women and the land and the visual absence of men allows anyone to take on this role (Yee 2000) and, consequently, the urges for sexual and imperial conquest. Indeed:

In this male tale, mysterious females and remote lands are alluring and sexual, offering men riches and pleasures but also unpredictable dangers. Men who are brave, strong, and smart enough to tame and control them can remove much of the threat and extract much of their seductive wealth. (Rothenberg 1994, 157)

This echoes the Odyssean myth and the tale of the hero overcoming wild temptresses, such as the sirens, in order to conquer. The sexualised conquest of women and mermaids is notably made obvious in the pictures in which they are shown being caught in the nets of fishermen. Indeed, if the ship can be seen as exclusively male territory (Stanley 2003), then nets act as the only signifiers of a male presence. This Western analogy between Indigenous women’s bodies and the land has notably been alluded to by Haunani-Kay Trask (2008 [1991]) in the case of Hawai’i in her essay ‘Lovely Hula Hands’:

Hawai’i – the word, the vision, the sound in the mind – is the fragrance and feel of soft kindness. Above all, Hawai’i is ‘she,’ the Western image of the Native ‘female’ in her magical allure. And if luck prevails, some of ‘her’ will rub off on you, the visitor.

Likewise, in ‘Girls of the South Seas’ imagery, Tahiti, too, becomes ‘she’. ‘She’, the ‘Tahitian’ woman’s body that is one with the land and water, ‘she’, the fauna and flora that take the shape of a woman or a mermaid, ‘she’, imbued with magical and mysterious powers that draw the heterosexual male tourist to the islands and inspire Western women to play the savage in mermaider photography. The relationship between mermaids, ‘Girls of the South Seas’ and tourism is evident in the fact that ‘Girls of the South Seas’ imagery tells stories about the Pacific, and so do mermaids. In her study of aquatic spectacles in the USA, Jennifer Kokai (2017) writes that:

Weeki Wachee is part of a longer story of water spectacles. It is a story built on fairy tales: fairy tales humans first told themselves to make sense of the mysterious underwater world, and fairy tales we later introduced to re-create some of that lost mystery. It is story of an improbable but real and direct line from a Hollywood mermaid swimming against the currents of war and the looming possibility of planetary destruction, to a killer whale drowning a female trainer with a long golden braid. It is a story about ‘nature’, of its destructive and redemptive forces, as packaged and commodified for human consumption. It is a story of tourism, which is also a story of when and how water is worth seeing. (2017, 3)

It is not so surprising then, to see the recent emergence of mermaiding as a tourism activity, in which “tourists don tails and ‘become’ mermaids either on the beach as a photographic opportunity or by partaking in in-water swims” (Porter and Lück 2018, 232). While images of the mermaid and ‘Polynesian’ women, as well as experiences as and with mermaids and ‘Polynesian’ women, are commercialised by the tourist industry, the power dynamics at play are different.

The objectification of women’s and mermaids’ bodies in these images and their link to nature and water as a marker of inferiority can be contrasted with the view of water as feminine power. In her analysis of mermaids in nineteenth-century paintings, Dijkstra (1989) argues that these women represented symbols of independence and freedom that men of the epoch feared. The elemental sense of freedom experienced by women and their connection to water is reflective of the classical idea that water compounds the power of women by accentuating the sexual difference between the two sexes (O’Brien 2006). For example, Hippocrates claimed that “the female flourishes more in an environment of water, from things cold and wet and soft, whether food or drink or activities” (as cited in O’Brien 2006, 46). Moreover, the link between ‘Polynesian’ women and nature could signify the resurgence of an ecological view of the globe, which appreciates nature as “something to understand, to value, to conserve for its own sake – something to enjoy” (Osborne 2000, 110). This is emphasised by the fact that, in the Western imagination, it is not only nature that needs to be conserved but also cultures and peoples. In the October 1919 issue of National Geographic magazine, readers could find an article entitled ‘A vanishing people of the south seas’ which featured a full-page photo portrait of a topless young woman holding a bouquet of flowers and wearing a long necklace of seashells over her breasts with the caption:

A daughter of a dying race – Beautiful, luxuriant hair, fine eyes, perfect teeth, a slender, graceful form, a skin of velvet texture and unblemished figure – these are attributes of the few Marquesannes who survive as worthy representatives of a people seared by the sins of the white man. (as cited in Rothenberg 1994, 166)

This idea of natural and racial conservation fits particularly well with the use of the mermaid figure as an emblem for marine conservation. In fact, some professional mermaids describe themselves as activists who are raising awareness of ocean pollution and encouraging the protection of cetaceans and sea mammals (Robertson 2013). As one mermaider says, mermaids “serve as a translator between the inhabitants of both sides; aquatic and land” (Turgeon 2011, as cited in Robertson 2013, 314). The use of ‘Polynesian’ women as objects to promote cultural and racial conservation and mermaiders’ activism go hand in hand with the ecofeminist idea that the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature are intricately connected in the history of Western civilisation (Murphy 1995; Gaard 2001).

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning the irony that lies behind mermaiders’ environmental activism while using visual signifiers of ‘exoticism’ and ‘paradise’ in how they present themselves. This is notably evident in Project Mermaids, a social media campaign that aims to promote ocean and beach conservation. The campaign frequently shares photoshoots of mermaiders that not only draw on the tropes of sexually available island beauties as well as naturalised femininity, but that are also taken underwater and on occupied islands such as Hawai’i. In this equation, Western mermaiders have opportunities to be agents of change, whereas Polynesian women are sexually and ecologically objectified. Indeed, if women are prone to be related to nature (Gaard 2001), in the Western imagination, indigeneity exaggerates this connection and confines Polynesian women to their primal state. Contrastingly, mermaiders, who are mostly white Western women, are offered more choices in the ways in which they can engage and play around with the relationship between the feminine and nature.

In promoting an exoticised and naturalised version of femininity, mermaiders also participate in the tourist promotion of the Pacific Islands, something Indigenous anti-colonial activists have opposed, and environmentalists have warned against:

Tourism is not here to sell haole (white) culture. It is here because we are the native people of this aina (land). It is our culture the tourists come to see. It is our land the tourists come to pollute. Without beautiful Hawaiian women dancing, there would be no tourism. (Trask 1992)

 The irony lies in the Western representation of ‘Polynesian’ bodies as closely connected to nature and the romanticisation of the primal state of humanity, while participating in the de-naturalisation and industrialisation of islands through tourism. This observation has also been made in the case of aquatic spectacles in the USA. Kokai (2017, 15) writes:

In every case study, the aquatic spectacles described have traded on ideas of exoticism and the other that often are concomitant with tourism. In performance, this means that many of the spectacles draw on aspects of the Polynesian, Asian, or South Seas cultures to dress their sets, design their costumes, or name their orcas.

It is worth noting that, as suggested earlier, the appeal to Polynesian cultures and bodies is based on the racial division of the Pacific Islands. It is not merely a coincidence that it is specifically Polynesian women’s bodies that are commercialised in such a sexualised way, nor is it a coincidence that there are many similarities between mermaiding visual culture and the way in which ‘Polynesian’ women are represented in the West. As Taouma (2004, 40) explains:

The Polynesian body was an easy target for exotic representation in many ways because not fitting into the ‘racial’ categories of white, black or yellow, the Pacific ‘belle’ especially could be manifested as being a ‘spiced up’ version of the white woman – close enough to be made familiar but distanced enough to be sexualised as an available exotic (see bell hooks, 1992). The lighter skinned accessibility of the Polynesian ‘belle’, as opposed say to her Melanesian or African counterpart, has signification for the different nuances of the colonial agenda when approaching these different areas.

Polynesian women are dark enough and distant enough from whiteness to be exotic (therefore desirable), but they are also distant enough from whiteness and fair enough not to be ‘ugly’ (and undesirable), according to racist colonial European beauty standards. This significantly determines the appeal that anything perceived as being ‘Polynesian’ has for Western women and people more generally.

In the context of the Pacific Islands, it is not only tourism but also militarism that need to be problematised. Teresia Teaiwa’s concept of militourism explains: “the phenomenon by which military or paramilitary force ensure the smooth running of the tourist industry, and that same tourist industry masks the military force behind it” (1998, 251). Teaiwa also highlights an irony in that “the power of the ‘Polynesian’ body owes much to the militourist complex even as that same complex disempowers Polynesian bodies” (1998, 250). In fact, the significance of markers of exoticism in the mermaiding subculture and, more generally, in mermaid Western visual culture, becomes problematic in that it both directly and indirectly participates in the marketing of the Pacific Islands in the context of militourism. A direct participation would be advertising that a mermaid photoshoot took place on one of the Pacific Islands. Teaiwa (1998) adds that the tourist industry in the Pacific often capitalises on the area’s military history and, therefore, the colonial history of the islands. Moreover, while the tourist industry uses the feminised, exotic, and natural body as well as romantic images of the Pacific, Teaiwa observes that this iconography also figures in some Western antimilitourist propaganda. This highlights the fact that antimilitourist and environmental activists, including mermaiders, may not necessarily be critical about their own complicity in the systems they advocate against and do not necessarily problematise the use of racist and colonialist (visual) narratives about the Pacific. As Lou Cornum (2018) suggests in her essay on nostalgia and white (North American) women’s obsession with witchcraft, “white women who take up the mantle of white magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play”. The same could be said of mermaiders recycling Western colonial and racial visual markers about the Pacific Islands and its peoples to create their mersonas. Given the effects of tourism on the physical, mental and emotional health of island bodies (dé Ishtar 1994; Teaiwa 1998), it is necessary to challenge the gendered, racialised and colonial stories that mermaiders tell about themselves and about the Pacific.


Visual representations of mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’ reveal similarities in the ways in which they are presented to foreign, mainly Western, audiences. In some instances, the same iconography is used for the mythical fish women and in representations of Tahitian women. In that sense, mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’ are part of the same repertoire of representation (Hall 1997). The use of similar representational practices and figures repeated with variations serves to reinforce (colonial) patriarchal, taken-for-granted assumptions about the connection between nature and (Indigenous) women in the Pacific. Combined with race and indigeneity, femininity and nature work as a way to confine Polynesian women to their primal, pre-modern state. In contrast, mermaiders, who are mostly white Western women, are offered more choices in the ways in which they can engage and play around with the relationship between the feminine and nature and fashion their identity. While ‘Girls of the South Seas’ are as mythical as mermaids in that they are colonial heteropatriarchal inventions used to tell stories about the unknown and the Other, the material bodies of ‘vahine’ on postcards, calendars, and adverts make them ‘real’ in the Western imagination, whereas mermaids are understood as myths. This was made particularly obvious to me when, the few times that I have presented this work at conferences in Europe, white European audience members enquire about and, sometimes, vouch for the authenticity of these representations of Polynesian women, something they would not do for representations of mermaids.

One of the most significant traits that is shared between representations of mermaids and ‘Girls of the South Seas’ is their emphasis on exotic, erotic and, thus, primitive characteristics. The fact that Polynesian women are still represented as sexual objects for the West suggests that historical perceptions of Polynesian peoples continue to shape the ways in which they are imagined and, thus, integrated into contemporary society (Pritchard and Morgan 2007), especially since “bodies are seen by tourists as repositories of real truth by virtue of their materiality” (Desmond 1999, xiv). Some have taken on the metaphor of haunting to explain contemporary Western representations of the South Seas as an exo-erotic space (Pearson 2005; Brawley and Dixon 2012). This understanding suggests that visual makers and industries are haunted by colonial and earlier representations of the South Seas. However, a haunting suggests the presence of a ghost or spirit, and therefore necessitates a death. There is little evidence to suggest that earlier representations of the South Seas have ‘died’. If these early representations of the South Seas are colonial, then contemporary (Western) representations are postcolonial. Since Tahiti–Polynesia is still ‘French Polynesia’ and Hawai’i is the fiftieth and most recent state of the United States of America, it is worth asking whether spectral metaphors are relevant to the Tahitian and Hawai’ian contexts, where colonialism is not yet (un)dead. This highlights the need to adopt postcolonial and Indigenous feminist perspectives when studying not only images of and about the Pacific but also Western images where the colonial may not be as obvious. Here, the use of ‘Polynesian’ nature and visual markers in mermaider photography, the romanticisation of Polynesia by essentially presenting it as ‘paradise’, along with the mythologisation of Polynesian peoples, particularly women, distracts and diverts the Western viewer’s attention from “the violence of colonial occupation and realities of Islanders’ resistance” (Jolly 1997, 117). In fact, the islands are reduced to imaginary places where beautiful mythic women live in harmony with nature. This narrative is a colonial inheritance that does not seem to be vanishing. On the contrary, the similarities between mermaider imagery and exo-erotic images of ‘Polynesian’ women, as well as the resurgence of mermaids as popular Western cultural symbols, reveal new manifestations of this colonial legacy.


[1] The book is published by ‘Taschen’, which also published a book on Paul Gauguin’s work in the Pacific, advertising its exotic character.

[2] The logo of the brand itself is a ‘vahine’ sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing a red dress with a hibiscus pattern, her long dark hair falling over her bare back. She is wearing a crown of tiare flowers or lei in her hair, as well as a red hibiscus behind her ear. Both flowers are Tahitian symbols. The ‘vahine’ logo can be found on all of Hinano’s primary and derived products, from beer cans and bottles to keyrings and clothing.

[3] ‘Non-Samoan’ or ‘Westerner’ in Samoan.

[4] In other words, this paper is not about Tahitian or Polynesian women and it does not aim to address the various and complex ways in which they see or fashion themselves. Instead, it is about the fantasy that the West has created about women from the Pacific.

[5] Pritchard and Morgan (2007: 162) note that fashion and travel photographers are often the same individuals.

[6] For a selection of nineteenth-century paintings of mermaids and sirens see Dijkstra (1986).

[7] For a discussion of the links between mermaiders and marine conservation activism, see Robertson (2013).

[8] The Roman equivalent of the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.

[9] This is made particularly clear in Essig’s analysis (2005) of the character of Madison, the mermaid in the film Splash (1988).

[10] According to O’Brien, nymphs were other classical figures which were commonly referred to in images of Pacific women. They frequently appear in myths which have an erotic dimension and generally personify the fecundity and gracefulness of nature. Although they are seen as less dangerous than sirens, when associated with water they are ascribed a predatory character (2006, 46).

[11] A hei is a garland of flowers in Tahitian.

[12] These stereotypes are not left unchallenged but it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore postcolonial responses and Indigenous resistance. For some examples and discussions of Pacific resistance to stereotypes see Smith (2017), Vercoe (2013), Fresno-Calleja (2010) and Teaiwa (1998).

[13] John Grierson (1972) claims that the Hollywood studio that produced Moana first issued the film with the subtitle ‘The Love Life of a South Seas Siren’ (as cited in Jolly 1997b).

[14] For an analysis of Orientalist images see Alloula (2008).

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Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Karin Espejo Hermes for her thoughtful comments on the first draft of this paper and to Gemma Gibson for her tireless and dedicated work for this journal and this issue.


Anaïs is a PhD candidate at Åbo Akademi University. Her research explores ‘mixed-race’ identity at a time of decolonization in Kanaky New Caledonia. She also teaches a Gender Studies course on “White Women & White Feminism”.