The Filipina Body as Imperial Continuity

By Heidi Kuchta 


The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair offers historians a microcosm in which to study the construction of the Filipina body as colonial possession and ethnic artifact through the processes of U.S. imperialism. Photographs have been an especially popular medium to perpetuate sexualized myths about Filipinas since before the St. Louis World’s Fair. Like the ethnic studies scholar Vernadette Gonzalez, I see the continued objectification of Filipinas as evidence that the Filipina body forms a crucial “bridge” between past and present in the story of Philippine colonization. Continuity exists between the colonizing gaze of middle-class Americans at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri and the ongoing exploitation of Filipinas by U.S. citizens and others in the global economy.[1]

Here, I show how the dissemination of Filipina photographic representations occurred in conjunction with the World’s Fair, creating desire and rationale for colonial venture in the U.S. The World’s Fair Philippine Exhibit introduced U.S. citizens to Filipinas as both commodities and laborers through their display in the Philippine Villages and use of their artisanal ability to create revenue for the fair. Over a century later, this colonial history still resonates through phenomena like Filipina mail-order bride websites and the availability of cheap Filipina domestic and service labor in the global marketplace. In light of the fact that the West has continually attempted to construct and reconstruct Filipinas as passive, consumable objects, I have chosen to conclude my essay with examples of Filipina resistance discovered through my research.

The Philippine Exposition Board and its Departments of Exploitation and Publicity used the distribution of booklets, handbills, posters, and programs to generate revenue at the Philippine Exhibit.[1] These promotional materials included pictures of Filipinos, some of which were publicized as wild or savage peoples. Historian Nerissa S. Balce argues that representations of naked Filipinas disseminated at the World’s Fair acted as demonstrations of imperial power. The photographers’ intentions hid behind an anthropologically scientific façade to provide parlor room fantasies of sexualized savage women – literally unclothed and also vulnerable to the discipline of American colonialism.[2] Balce discusses the “erotics of empire,” the idea that sexual conquest of the oppressed is an inherent part of the colonial experience, and is an aspect often considered erotic by the colonizer. Balce explains that nude images of Filipinas were used to show that colonialism is necessary in the lives of the savage – to lift them out of ignorance and into the modern, Western world (i.e., the White Man’s Burden). Colonial photography introduced Filipinas to U.S. citizens as child-like unfortunates in need of education and clothing.

Some Filipinas were seen as savages, while others were seen as ladies and attracted ample positive attention that was simultaneously patronizing in nature. Early twentieth century Americans evidently found it surprising and impressive that a Filipina could also be a lady. Historian Jose Fermin discusses how Visayan women (image 2) were praised as being “bright-eyed, laughing maidens, trained in politeness according to the effusive Spanish standard.”[3] In the photograph it is apparent that the women pictured were from a Hispanicized region of the Philippines because of their Spanish-style clothing and hairstyles. Miss Pilar Zamora (image 3) was brought to the World’s Fair from Manila to be superintendent of the Philippine Exhibit’s model school.[4] Miss Zamora taught indigenous Filipino children English and other subjects in front of fairgoers. When she led her class in singing “My Country Tis of Thee,” it caused President Theodore Roosevelt to remark on how “wonderful” it was for them to make such a “great advancement in so short a time.”[5] As a Filipina elite, Miss Zamora did not sleep in any of the Philippine Villages and did not consider herself racially or culturally similar to other Filipinas at the fair.[6]  Visayan Filipinas and Miss Zamora may have been ladies, but they were not considered white ladies by fairgoers. Nonetheless, their “polite” demeanors and Western dress gained them favor with U.S. audiences for their near-whiteness.

Photographic propaganda operates within a falsifying narrative frame that can be manipulated in a uniquely colonial process. In “Exploring Photography: A Prelude Towards Inquiries Into Visual Anthropology in the Philippines,” anthropologist Aloysius Cañete theorizes on the hybridity[7] of the photograph, describing it as a “complex overlay of the interactions among the photographer, the photographed subject and the viewer.”[8] Cañete also calls attention to the fact that gender remains a mostly unexplored topic in colonial photography, a comment that inspired this project.[9] Historian Mark Rice’s analysis of Philippine Exhibit anthropologist and colonial aid Dean Worcester’s work shows how Worcester was able to turn Filipinos into colonial objects by decontextualizing his subjects with blank backdrops.[10]

Worcester was able to use one image in two different colonial narratives by removing a bare breasted Filipina from her cultural context through his photographic lens. The first time the Filipina’s photo was published in 1906, it was accompanied by some dry text that detailed the woman’s adornments and appearance.[11] However, seven years later Worcester published the same photograph again, this time with the intention of showing the positive effects of American influence on Filipina women. The sequence was titled “The Effect of a Little Schooling.”[12] Here, Worcester presented the nude woman as a depiction of Filipina womanhood “before” U.S. colonialism and added a photograph of a clothed Filipina to be the “after” (see image 1).  Rice conjectures that the two pictures were intended to seem like the same woman, but were likely not. This shows that beyond any purposes of racial taxonomy, anthropological photographs of Filipinos were used in the early twentieth century to build a colonial narrative for U.S. audiences.

A view of the Filipina body as a decontextualized, colonial possession has endured into the contemporary era. Ethnic Studies Scholar Vernadette Gonzalez discusses how global capitalism creates labor flows[13] of renewable, cheap, laboring bodies from former or currently occupied countries to neocolonial states – such as the constant labor flow from the Philippines to the U.S.[14] A Google search for images of Filipinas reveals that the world’s leading search engine has three recommended groupings based on popular search words related to Filipinas: “Mestiza,” “Dark,” and “Facebook.” Filipina, like Latina, Asian, or Ebony, constitutes its own porn genre in the world of online smut. This exemplifies how technology continues to make the Filipina body more accessible than ever. Meanwhile, colonial attitudes like the tendency to group Filipinas into racial groups and sexualize their “otherness,” have remained unchanging.

The topless, savage Filipina of the early 20th century popular erotic imagination has been assimilated in some ways, today’s perception of Filipinas seems to characterize them as almost monolithic in their lady-like demeanor. A Google search for articles on Filipinas led me immediately to a page titled, “Men Weigh in on Filipina Beauty,” which explains why Filipinas are valued partners: for their self-sacrificing nature, for being “traditional,” “soft-spoken,” and “sweet.”[15] Aside from demonstrating how racism and essentialism are still presented as valid, self-affirming truths in media on Filipinas, this article echoes Fermin’s examples of lady-like Filipinas like Miss Zamora who stole the hearts of U.S. nationals at the World’s Fair over a century ago.

Male desire for Filipinas is based on more than just fascination with their so-called “exotic” beauty. Filipinas are considered desirable due to their perceived submissiveness and service-orientation, as Gonzalez reveals with her 2007 research at the Mimosa Leisure Estate in Manila.  This particular international recreation center provides luxury accouterments for American, Japanese, and Filipino male elites. Mimosa is located on a former U.S. Air Force Base and is an economic free zone, which is what attracts foreign business interest in the area. The workforce at Mimosa’s golf course has been feminized – the workers are primarily young, underpaid, attractive Filipinas who rely on tips from wealthy businessmen to pay their bills.[16]  Mimosa represents Western leisure and Filipina labor.

Although I have described over a century of oppression, Filipina resistance is also a historical continuity. In 1904, Igorot Filipina Inang Kinalang discussed the financial exploitation of Filipinas at the World’s Fair, “We were cheated, for we were paid only five pesos in salary even though at the end of the day we saw men dragging sacks full of coins from our village.”[17] Kinalang also revealed how she and other Igorot craftswomen made extra money by fooling Fair patrons. Apparently, the women wove bamboo rings and sold them to Americans at high prices by saying they were “ethnic wedding rings.” This shows how indigenous Filipinas at the World’s Fair outsmarted American souvenir shoppers through their knowledge of the value of ethnic artifacts and curios in early 20th century America.

At Mimosa Leisure Estate, a similar process is at work today with Filipina golf caddies and “umbrella girls,” whose job is literally to hold umbrellas over guests and look pretty. By knowingly playing the role of the submissive Filipina stereotype, these workers pad their incomes by reinforcing Western assumptions and expectations. Just as Igorot craftswomen were able to fool Americans into buying souvenirs by inventing cultural significance for the simple bamboo rings, Filipina workers at Mimosa regularly fool Western and elite men into giving them money by acting in their proscribed “Filipina” roles.  While this may not seem particularly liberating, some women reported feeling empowered by their conscious pretense, as if it was a secret rebellion. Gonzalez also mentions that Filipinas currently have the space and networking abilities to organize their labor. Gonzalez mentions how 25 groundskeepers at Mimosa organized safe rides to work when there was an outbreak of sexual violence, demonstrating the potential power of Filipina worker solidarity.


[1] Jose D. Fermin, 1904 World’s Fair: the Filipino Experience (Quezon City, U of the Philippines Press, 2004): 8-10.

[2] Nerissa S. Balce, “The Filipina’s Breast: Savagery, Docility, and the Erotics of the American Empire,” Social Text (Summer 2006): 90-93.

[3] Fermin, 115.

[4] Fermin, 174-179.

[5] Fermin, 177.

[6] Fermin, 70.

[7] Hybridity is what diffracts the image through time and space – each glimpse of a photograph creates a new experience of the image, so that Philippine colonial photography and World’s Fair paraphernalia in general is re-made and consumed anew by each viewer.

[8] Aloysius Ma. L. Cañete, “Exploring Photography: A Prelude towards Inquiries into Visual Anthropology in the Philippines,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 36, ½ (March/June 2008): 1-2.

[9] Cañete, 8.

[10] Mark Rice, “His Name Was Don Francisco Muro: Reconstructing an Image of American Imperialism,” American Quarterly 62, 1(March 2010): 50-56.

[11] Rice, 71.

[12] Rice, 71-72.

[13] Transnational scholars study labor flows to understand patterns of global power.

[14] Vernadette V. Gonzalez, “Military Bases, ‘Royalty Trips,’ and Imperial Modernities: Gendered and Racialized Labor in the Postcolonial Philippines,” Frontiers: A Journal of

Women’s Studies 23, 3(2007): 29-31.

[15] Krista Garcia, “Men Weigh in On Filipina Beauty,” May 19, 2014. Accessed October 9, 2014.

[16] Gonzalez, 43-52.






The Filipina Body as Imperial Continuity