AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL U.S. Imperial Beauty Politics in Hawaii, from WWII to Statehood

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Haverford College. Department of History
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The History Department Senior Thesis Prize
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Using an archive of magazine images, advertisements, film, and oral histories, this thesis argues that constructed ideas of beauty were deployed as disciplinary technologies for the American imperial project in Hawaii. I trace how beauty aided American imperialism in Hawaii through four periods: annexation to the pre-military era (1900-1939), the militarization era (1940-1941), the World War II era (1941-1945), and the lead up to statehood (1946-1959). In the first era, American media presented Hawaii as a white woman's playground. White feminine beauty was used to sell Hawaii, while simultaneously, the depictions of Hawaii were being shifted to accommodate for white women. In 1940, white women disappeared from advertisements, making way for the islands to be represented as a mysterious site of primeval beauty that needed to be carried forward into modernity by a necessary US military occupation. The new constructed vision of Hawaiian beauty borrowed from the white beauty formed in 1930s advertisements, but diverged to be more sexually available for the incoming American military. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was launched into World War II. In this period, beauty politics were renegotiated to protect white womanhood in the context of war, to justify Hawaii and its women as a defendable part of the United States, and to set up Hawaii as a resource for beauty in the post war years. The U.S. government regulated women's bodies, solidifying a hierarchy of beauty based on weight and race that was used to divide labor. Under this hierarchy, white, ‘beautiful' women were assigned higher class work, and ‘non-beautiful' women of color to lower class work. Even as military work established this racial hierarchy, the war period was also a turning point for American perceptions of Hawaii's mixed-race population. Through images of young mixed-race women, American media melted down Hawaii's mixed-race identity into a white-like composite that would make Hawaii incorporable in the statehood era. At the end of the war, the campaign for Hawaiian statehood gained momentum. American media turned back to imaginations of the Hawaiian paradise to entice American support for statehood and reinforce the submissiveness of Hawaii. Whitened images of Hawaiian women claimed American beauty alongside sexuality and strength, offering Hawaii as a new frontier in which white women might be able to find sexual liberation, and freedom beyond the strict American domestic spheres. Through statehood, the extraction of beauty itself became the new impetus for, and tool of, imperialism in Hawaii. By tracing the history of U.S. imperialism in Hawaii through the lens of beauty, I reveal how beauty was a political field of social power constructed by, and mutually constructing, gender, race, and consumerism.