"Come see Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths!" and how National Geographic is like the circus

The boobies in National Geographic have always bothered me. The magazine's founding creed is based on "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge," and has certainly aimed to share the world with its readers since the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888. (Its more recognized creed is to share "the world and all that is in it.") The magazine is a cultural icon whose logo is widely recognized, and the organization has expanded to include the television channel, magazines specifically for travelers and children, and a film production company, in addition to the society-funded projects by scientists and explorers that it has supported for decades.

But in many popular culture references, what people associate with the magazine are tribal women, scantily clad in natural clothing, with sagging breasts fully exposed. It is nudity, meaning people tend to look closely out of a combination of fascination with the human body and intrigue over this person so unlike ourselves. What has bothered me for years, ever since I began to read the magazine regularly and every time I have a conversation about the organization's work, is that most people don't even know the immense diversity in the reporting that is published in NGM. I remember a conversation with one of my classmates several years ago: when I told her I thought it would be an awesome job to write for the magazine, she advised me to learn "some African languages, like South African [Afrikaans]," so that I would be prepared for the kinds of assignments they fund. Beyond the obvious ignorance in thinking that this is the most important region or language in Africa, it infuriated me that this is still the perception of the publication.

The documentary film that accompanies the book Guns, Germs, and Steel is another educational victim of this exposure. I've had to watch it in two different classes (one a sociology and the other a historiography class), and both times I have been driven nearly mad by the amount of time in which Papua New Guinean women are chopping trees, breasts flopping all about. It distracts the viewer from the narration in the film, since it is such a cultural difference that it is still foreign and somewhat strange to watch these women do their daily work, enough so that it comes across as a distasteful amount of female nudity-- even if they are foreign to us, and in their natural environment.

And this week I had a significant revelation about these boobies, these irksome stays of cultural difference. For one of my classes, we read The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, and it is worth buying for the historical images of circus advertisements and performers alone; however, it is also an amazing exploration of the societal underpinnings that were both reinforced and challenged by the rise (and then decline) of the Circus Age--including gender norms for men and women, human-animal relationships, industrialization and the railroads, and--most critically--imperialism and the creation of an American (read: white) identity.

You cannot talk about the circus in history without facing the sideshow tendency of finding "weird," "Oriental" and "savage" men and women to put on display, for the very fact that they had distinct physical or ethnic differences. The author, Janet Davis, actually has a background in South Asian studies, and is familiar (to my delight!) with Edward Said's theory of Orientalism (click that link, please--it's a video), which argues the simple point that they way we acquire knowledge about other people and cultures is not objective and is the result of larger realms of influence--like political or national interests, for example. We assume things about people in a certain country or region without ever having been there, or indeed, perhaps never having met anyone from there. Whole cultural identities can be created from several bits of information or by the skin color or appearance of a foreign person, and this built up notion of the "Other" has its foundations in an unconscious formation of "Us" as well. (I spent time with these theories while studying South Asia and India in particular-- see this post.)

This is the most important part of Davis's work on the circus to me, as the danger of putting "Oriental girls" on display, or making a showcase of the African women who practice the custom of stretching their necks, is that we "essentialize" entire cultures and civilizations into the one or two strange or mystifying things we know about them--and rarely are these representative of the larger culture. "Chinese people eat dogs": essentializing. "Hindu women are sexually overt": essentializing. "Muslims are religious fundamentalists": essentializing. Even the clothing worn by other people is enough to create an essentialized version of India, or of Vietnam, or Sudan. It blocks our ability to see beyond any of these sometimes obscure, usually misinformed "traits."

Never had I put the two things together: "native" breasts and Orientalism. Never, and it seems so obvious now, had I thought about the fact that the National Geographic Society began its study of the world in 1888, during the very era when Americans were embracing the notion of the "white man's burden," that the world was full of savages who, through a "proper" education could be "civilized" and made (willingly, of course) into modern men and women, like those in the United States. But the Society was very much a product of this larger interest in all that is foreign and curious outside our borders.

Just like the circus shows, National Geographic used the appearance of foreign--often tribal--women as spectacles for the expanding American consumer society. From Davis's book:

World's fair organizers, the publishers of National Geographic, and circus impresarios alike used nonwhite women's bodies to make educational claims. Racial "color" defined the degree of nudity that was deemed appropriate for display. National Geographic, for one, in 1896 first published photographs of bare-breasted black women. Euroamericans easily accepted such photographs of women of color as edifying, while topless white women were found only at seedy carnival cooch shows and nascent strip joints ... National Geographic first photographed topless white women in the 1980s--and then only from behind! (92-93)

I turned to my own copy of the tiny book of NG Society history that I purchased at their store back in '07 during a visit to Washington, D.C., and low and behold, there was the picture, from November 1896, of a Zulu bride and groom on their wedding day, the bride with fully-exposed breasts. The caption reads: "Flouting prudish conventions of the day, National Geographic dared to publish photos of cultures 'as they are.'"

I am not condemning the National Geographic Society and its efforts towards the "diffusion of geographic knowledge." While not perfect, it has also allowed millions of readers to experience a world beyond their armchair that they never would have seen otherwise; curiosity continues to draw readers, like myself, and has been a vital part of its success. So I am not denouncing its merit, nor will I cancel my subscription. I am simply finding an answer, in the social norms of the era of its inception--as well as the normative values that have continued through the twentieth century--to the question of the tribal boobies that have haunted my relationship with this piece of American popular media over the last seven-or-so years. The editors' decision to publish Zulu nudity was as much influenced by their desire to break social norms and push the envelope as it was by the desire to spread knowledge and educate their readers. But their decision was also fueled by the up-and-coming position of Americans in a world that was suddenly shrinking, where elephants might pass by your home as the circus came to town, and everyday families were faced with "Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths" and "Oriental India: Living Groups of Strange and Curious People" and "The Most Startling Discovery of the Century: Princess Mu Kaun, Royal Padaung Giraffe-Neck Woman from Burma."

In a very significant way, topless tribal women in the magazine are still part educational, part human of "Other" who we gawk at. The way our world has continued to shrink, such groups are no longer as strange to our eyes, nor as numerous in disbursement, as the modernized world has crept into these civilizations, for better or worse. The point we've reached now, the publication's leaders will have to make a decision soon about whether it is the color of the skin that permits them to publish breasts; that is, if tribal people can be published topless because it is educational, at what point is the line drawn? Many women who look very like those in the pages of the magazine live in the modern world, yet at what point do they become modern enough to be removed from the "educational" list? It is not that I am a prude; rather, it bothers me that outdated essentialized views of permissible nudity have continued to be the standard long after racist ideologies of nationality have been condemned for their ignorance--at least on the surface. Those Papua New Guinean women are still considered foreign enough, and in their natural atmosphere, to fare on the side of education. But both times I've watched the documentary, I didn't agree.