The Filipina Body as Imperial Continuity

Dublin Core


The Filipina Body as Imperial Continuity


By Heidi Kutcha

The Philippine Exposition’s Departments of Exploitation and Publicity used the distribution of photographs and promotional leaflets to generate revenue before, during, and after the 1904 World’s Fair.1 These materials included images of Filipinos used to promote the necessity of colonialism in lifting the “savages” up to Western modernity. This is exemplified by colonial aid Dean Worcester’s photograph series titled “The Effect of a Little Schooling,” which depicts a bare-breasted Filipina as the “before” image of colonialism, and a clothed Filipina as the “after.”2 This was Worcester’s colonial explanation that introduced Filipinas to U.S. citizens as child-like unfortunates in need of education and clothing, and used their bodies as a measure of success.

Anthropological photographers’ intentions hid behind a scientific façade to provide parlor room fantasies of sexualized savage women – unclothed and vulnerable to the discipline of American colonialism.3 Historian Nerissa Balce’s term “the erotics of empire,” describes how sexual conquest of the oppressed is an inherent part of the colonial experience and is considered erotic by the colonizer. Historian Jose Fermin discusses how Filipinas from the Visayan Islands were praised at the 1904 World’s Fair for being molded to the Western female ideal.4 Perhaps part of what made the Visayan women so alluring was the “romantic” notion Western men held of transforming savage Filipinas into properly domesticated and modest ladies.

The Philippine Villages at the fair introduced Americans to Filipinas as both commodities and laborers through exploiting their artisanal abilities and displaying their bodies. Continuity exists between the colonizing gaze of Americans in 1904 and the ongoing exploitation of Filipinas by U.S. citizens and others in the global economy. Colonial oppression resonates today through Filipina mail-order bride websites and resorts in the Philippines staffed entirely by Filipinas on poverty wages. In spite of this, Filipina resistance has been continuous in the history of U.S.-Philippine relations, which scholar Vernadette Gonzalez has cited as evidence for the potential of a growing labor movement in the Philippines.5

1 Jose D. Fermin, 1904 World’s Fair: the Filipino Experience (Quezon City, U of the Philippines Press, 2004): 8-10.
2 Mark Rice, “His Name Was Don Francisco Muro: Reconstructing an Image of American Imperialism,” American Quarterly 62, 1(March 2010): 70-74.
3Nerissa S. Balce, “The Filipina’s Breast: Savagery, Docility, and the Erotics of the American Empire,” Social Text (Summer 2006): 90-93.
4 Fermin, 115.
5Vernadette V. Gonzalez, “Military Bases, ‘Royalty Trips,’ and Imperial Modernities: Gendered and Racialized Labor in the Postcolonial Philippines,” Frontiers: A Journal of 6Women’s Studies 23, 3(2007): 43-52.


Left Image: Visayan Women, Jose D. Fermin
Right Image: "The Effect of a Little Schooling", Dean Worcester


Left Image: The University of the Philippines Press
Right Image: National Geographic


Left Image: No known publication restriction
Right Image: No known publication restriction



Left Image: Visayan Women, Jose D. Fermin Right Image: "The Effect of a Little Schooling", Dean Worcester, “The Filipina Body as Imperial Continuity,” History Corps, accessed June 18, 2018,