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  • Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynold

The Dusky Maiden’s Search for Love

Shared by Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynolds (she/they)

It's no secret that Pasifika women have been sexualised since early European contact. Bougainville's diary entries describe the vāhine Mā’ohi he encountered as 'a naked Venus before the Phrygians'. Gauguin married a 14-year-old Mā’ohi girl, got her pregnant, then gapped to the Marquesas and got another 14-year-old pregnant. Mead studied young Sāmoan girls' sexual relationships for her research, describing Pacific women as sexually liberated beings. And Cook? I mean … do I need to say anything?


But before I get ahead of myself, let's break down the 'Dusky Maiden' (disembody it, if you will). 'Dusky' refers to a 'romantic' racial liminality (neither dark nor light), and 'Maiden' to the notion of Polynesia as pure, childlike, and untouched. This trope dominated early colonial portraiture of Pasifika, painting subjects in ways reminiscent of Greek mythology. Bougainville even named Tahiti' New Cythera' (Aphrodite's home) and frequently described vāhine Mā’ohi as 'nymphs' or 'Venus'. You may be inclined to think being described as a Greek goddess is an appreciation of Pasifika beauty. And sure, in a Shakespearean sonnet, I could get down with it. But when you portray a whole people as mythical beings living in paradise, you erase them of their humanness. Instead, they become 'untouchable objects' that you long to touch.


It'd be dangerous to think that the Dusky Maiden was relegated to the past — I promise you, she's alive and well. She's the exotic hula girl, sat on the dashboard with eternally wiggling hips. She's a pair of smiling veneers with a flower behind her ear, plastered on a billboard ad for a cruise. She's the tiny sequin bikini, inspired by the nuclear atrocities of Bikini Atoll. It's been over 200 years, and she still permeates the Western perception of Pasifika women, but perhaps now in more covert ways.


Because of the enduring legacy of the Dusky Maiden, sexuality and love have been deeply entrenched in colonial ideas of race, which have generated long-lasting stereotypes. And if we zoom in on the impact it has on heterosexual relationships (a limiting and boring scope, my apologies), some concerning ideas emerge.


Okay, so what happens when you internalise omnipresent stereotypes? What happens when they're all you're shown? You believe they're real. You believe your poly gf is a hyper-sexual object. And the poly gf believes it, too. Furthermore, if we're taught that our value derives solely from our sexuality or exoticness, we get into relationships that are rooted in these ideologies because that's just what we think is normal and right.


I first learnt that my exoticness was my source of self-worth at school. Roll call was my worst enemy, and I was its. When it came to me, the teacher would pause, sigh, and say some jumbled version of my name. When I'd say "Here", they'd respond, "What an interesting name, where's that from? It's beautiful!". I'd tell them, the whole class tired of hearing this for the 5th time today, "Tahiti". Their eyes shot open. "Oh wow! That's amazing! I wish I had a bit of spice in me. How exotic!". This happened every school day for 11 years. And so I'd internalised this idea that when people first met me, what they first thought was valuable was my exoticness. E tō mātou metua knows this was damaging.


On dating apps, I'd get countless responses asking me where I'm from, saying how cool my name is, etc. I got fed up, so I included a photo of me wearing a shirt that said "Not today coloniser", hoping it would deter any potential assholes. Instead, I had a massive influx of guys saying the exact same thing, "Let me colonise that ass". At first, it was kinda funny. And, in some sick and twisted way, I was grateful to have attention, even at the expense of cultural honour. I thought I'd finally gotten to the point where I could call people out for saying weirdly sexually, racist shit (especially after a few failed relationships that were littered with comments like this). However, my self-esteem still relied on my ability to be the Dusky Maiden. The worst part is that, even in my loving and nourishing relationships, there was still 'partner-objectification'. I found this happened with Pākehā and other Islanders because most people in Australia or Aotearoa have never met a Tahitian or Norfolk Islander before.  


And things get even more complicated when we look within our communities. With the introduction of Christianity in the islands also came a rigid culture of purity and, thus, a firm rejection of enjoyable, fulfilling, intimate sex.


To this day, many Tongans still participate in the White Sheet ceremony, where families test their daughter's virginity on her wedding night by ensuring she lays on a bed sheet while 'consummating' her marriage, catching the blood of her popped cherry. This ritual originates from ceremonial chiefly 'deflowerings', which were publicly performed. We must recognise that amidst these communities, the ritual holds great importance because it surpasses the individual's life, and is more concerned with how their ta'ahine embodies the collective's values. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that, even amongst our own people, our sex lives are still expected to be public and able to be monitored or controlled. 


We're stuck at a crossroads. Our loved ones tell us to spread our legs. Then they tell us to keep them shut. So, which path do we take? Do we listen to the coloniser, or the colonised? And how will that decision impact our relationships and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves?



LILO AND STITCH — MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, AUS

I thought my first ‘boyfriend’ was so cool. He had glasses, smoked weed, liked skating, and was never seen without his beanie — my type hasn’t changed much since then. We'd text each other on Snapchat every spare moment we had, plan our wedding, send each other photos of the sunset — all that formative cringey shit. I was obsessed with this guy, and he was obsessed with me too. One night when we were texting each other, he was telling me he’d just rewatched Lilo and Stitch. He said,


“It made me think of your thighs”.


I was 14. 


A FAKE WARRIOR’S HIPS — MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, AUS (AGAIN)

My first ‘real’ boyfriend was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 6’3” soccer player. We were driving back to his place after his weekly soccer practice, and were talking about very important hypotheticals: our future kids. If we were lucky, they might have brown hair and blue eyes. They’d be musical too, I decided. He said,


“Hopefully the sporty beast gene just skipped you, and will go straight to them!”


Later that night in bed, he raved about my wide hips.


“Perfect for having our soccer stars”.


I was 17.


POETUA’S PORTRAIT — TE PAPA, PŌNEKE

My first love; we were head over heels for each other.

It was the beginning of summer, and I’d come down with an awful cold. He stayed by my side the whole time and cooked me soup, cleaned up my snotty tissues, listened to me groan about my headaches, and watched stupid rom-coms with me. After nearly a week, I finally felt well enough to go outside. So we walked along the waterfront, and went to Te Papa. It occurred to me that, in the couple of months we’d been dating, I hadn’t shown him this very important thing. So I led him upstairs to the art gallery, and walked over to the big portrait, left of the centre.


“This is my ancestor, Poetua. She was a princess, held hostage by Cook. This painting was done while she was on the ship, probably fucking terrified. This was the first portrait of a Pasifika woman to circulate Europe, and kinda started the trope of the Dusky Maiden, kinda started the whole thing aye”.


This was a big moment for me; I was introducing him to my family.

He leaned back, really took in the painting, and said,


“You know, your tits kinda look the same”.


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