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Dominant Discourses of Power Relations and the Melanesian Other: Interpreting the Eroticized, Effeminizing Gaze in National Geographic

By Hyndman, David; Naithani, Sadhana; Stone, Janferie
Cultural Analysis , Vol. 1

Article excerpt

The effeminate and sensual idealization of the Melanesian Other stems from National Geographic's gaze, which in turn is broadly linked to themes in Western cultural history. Race and geopolitics become organizing backdrops for narratives told about the Melanesian Other, and exemplify the "noble savage" theme as fetish. To travel in space is to travel in time. The fantasmagoric presentation of nude Melanesian men and women is for the consumption of Western white reader's back home. Immoderate sexuality and the uncontained body of black savage's poses a tangible threat to Western male viability in Melanesia. Mourning the passing of traditional Melanesian society and imperialist nostalgia makes racial discrimination appear innocent and pure in National Geographic, which masks the West's involvement with processes of domination. It is an eroticized, effeminizing gaze that reestablishes existing power relations in the imperialist scheme.


Reading National Geographic by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins (1993) is an evocative portrayal of a "world brightly different" (Lutz and Collins 1993:87). According to Lutz and Collins, National Geographic has devoted 35% of its coverage to Asia, 22% to Latin America, 15% to the Middle East and North Africa, 12% each to Africa and the Pacific, and 6 % to Polar regions (120). As an anthropologist whose focus is Melanesia, I was intrigued to learn that photographic representation of Pacific Islanders is 50 times higher in National Geographic than would be anticipated given the region's small proportion of the global population. Hollywood movies and World War II photojournalism (Lindstrom and White 1990) have been important contributors to the West's postwar depiction of the Pacific region. However, in creating an audience for images of cultural difference in the Pacific, National Geographic has an unrivalled worldwide reach to over 37 million people per issue. The contribution by Lutz and Collins (1993) to postmodern discourse and representation is taken as the main theoretical point of departure to critically examine the postcolonial depiction of Melanesians in National Geographic. When I started anthropological fieldwork in the eastern half of New Guinea in 1973 it was still an Australian colony, and did not become the State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) until 1975. In the western half of New Guinea the changeover from Dutch colony to Indonesian recolonization occurred just over 30 years ago. Data analysis in this paper is based on the 146 photographs of postcolonial Melanesians from the island of New Guinea that have appeared in the pages of National Geographic over the last three decades (see Table 1).

Dumont (1988) relates fashions in the exotic Other to shifting emphases in Western political and economic foundations, with the kind and amount of coverage vacillating according to prevailing international relations between the West and the rest. For Melanesia, race acts as a more significant backdrop constraining camera access than geopolitical interests per se. Backdrops, according to Appadurai "can be interpreted as sites of epistemological uncertainty about exactly what photographs seek to represent" (1997:1). Rydell demonstrates that the scale of evolutionary progress that placed the black-skinned Other (e.g., Africans, Melanesians) at the bottom of the human scale, the brown-skinned Other (e.g., Asians) midway and Whites at the top not only informed nineteenth-century explorers and home consumers of their images but has continued to operate in the West (1984). Race becomes an organizing principle of narratives told about Melanesian peoples.

Racial attitudes control cultural ideas about the nobility of the Melanesian Other. Melanesians exemplify the Noble-Savage theme as fetish because they display "the kind of pathological displacement of libidinal interest that we normally associate with the forms of racism that depend on the idea of a 'wild humanity' for their justification" (White 1978:184).