By Professor Corey Lee Wrenn
Hugo and Debra Naturals is a high-end vegan soap company that touts food-grade, ethically sourced, cruelty-free bath and body products. To promote their new Creamy Coconut line, which it describes as an “exotic blend” of oils, exfoliants, and scents, the company has been posting a vintage image of three Hawaiian hula dancers (pictured above) on its Facebook promotional page.
Sociologists have noted that the hula girl is a symbol of western imperialism. She is the accessible ethnic woman ready to serve and please the colonizers. In fact, the hula dance as we know it today is an adulterated version of a men’s storytelling dance. Colonizers morphed it into a sexualized dance for “exotic” women to perform in front of white tourists.
When Hugo and Debra Naturals draws on the image of the sexualized, tokenized, and colonized brown woman to sell “exotic” products to wealthy (and primarily white) customers, it is drawing on a history of white imperialism and the “othering” of the oppressed. Dr. Breeze Harper has often commented on the “whiteness” preserved and protected in vegan consumption and the concealment of human suffering behind many so-called “cruelty-free” vegan products. The white-dominated vegan community has largely failed to welcome people of color, often alienating them and tokenizing them when convenient.
Using a symbol of racial colonization and sexual domination to sell “cruelty-free” “exotic” soap demonstrates the white normativity of veganism. Obviously, products that are free from Nonhuman Animal ingredients and testing are a major improvement, but we should be cognizant of how human suffering often goes overlooked in ingredient sourcing and, in this case, product promotion. The intention seems to be to romanticize luxury soap items by drawing on Hawaiian imagery. In many ways, however, it is colonization, sexual conquest, and systemic racism that’s actually being romanticized.
Dr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).