Pacific Postcards

George Freeth and Hawaiian Portrayal in the Media

Throughout this essay, I am going to be going over the introduction of surfing in California by famous Hawaiian surfer George Freeth and surfing’s subsequent journey of adaptation in the United States. With Freeth’s introduction, there was significant discussion on Freeth’s race as a Hawaiian, and that changed the discourse of how surfing was advertised,  received and adapted by people in California and the rest of the United states. A lot of this discussion and presentation of Freeth’s race was done in the media, and done in ways that made surfing more accessible and approachable for white Americans. Freeth eventually became a promotional tool in California to attract visitors to its beaches and to surfing, and the way he was promoted was always in a racialized manner. White American stereotypes on the Hawaian race and their capabilities was at the core of the way Freeth was portrayed in the media. Race was a significant factor when the first Hawaiians introduced surfing to California in the way people viewed, altered or portrayed Hawaiian race in regards to surfing and water sports in order to capitalize on and spread surfing to the rest of the United States.  

George Freeth was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1883. Freeth’s mother was part Hawaiian and his father was Irish. Freeth’s lighter skin created discussion on his race when he traveled to California, but his connection to surfing and the ocean is said to have made him “more” Hawaiian to white Americans. In 1907, Freeth boarded the Alameda to travel to Southern California to introduce Hawaiian surfing to California beaches. The reason for Freeth’s travel to California is not exactly clear, but most believe he was first there working for the Hawaii Promotion Committee. Freeth could promote cultural activities like surfing and canoeing that were specific to Hawaii in order to try to attract Californians to Hawaii and increase the amount of tourism for the Islands. Eventually however, Freeth and another Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku became exotic promotional performers in California. Both Freeth and Kahanamoku brought large numbers of people to beaches like Redondo, Venice and Santa Monica, where they were seen swimming, diving and surfing. Through these performances, Freeth was able to publicize surfing, and as his popularity grew, so did the discussions on his race in newspaper and magazine media. 

In my primary source, you can see George Freeth in the middle surrounded by four white American kids that he was supposedly teaching how to surf. The context behind this photo is important, as the portrayal of Freeth in the media is what “qualified” him as a Hawaiian that was approachable and available to white Americans. In “Southland Surf” by Margaret DePond, she explains that Freeth “appeared in the news most often for doing things associated with being Hawaiian: surfing and swimming.” (DePond). Freeth’s entire identity in the media was surrounded with the fact that he was Hwaiian, he was seen as the most masterful Hawaiian athlete and the “pinnacle of his race” (DePond). Freeth’s skill was always being associated with his Hawaiian heritage, portraying it as something natural or as a birth-right to him. DePond mentions examples of this in media, where Freeth is referred to as “The Hawaiian boy” and the “Hawaiian swimming expert”. At the same time, DePond explains how the media tried to give Freeth some sort of royal or “ancient Hawaiian” connection, stating for example that “ one of the old surf boards given [to] him by a native prince had been handed down from the early days.”. One account from the media states that Freath had learned to “ride the breakers in a standing position as he had heard of from the old natives’ stories.” (DePond). All of these quotes show that the media was trying to make it so evident how Hawaiian Freeth was, but in the ways that were positively received by white Americans like being an exceptional athlete or having connection to royalty or wise native Hawaiian elders. The media at this time used these stereotypes on Hawaiian culture to categorize Freeth as a “safe” Hawaiian, and that is important to my primary source because it’s what allowed him to teach surfing to kids and women. Freeth’s complex identity was stripped down to these general positive attributes, and as Margaret DePond puts it, he became a “tourist attraction himself”. All of this media portrayal was to turn Freeth into the most effective promotional tool for the media and beach promoters in California. It is much easier to advertise and popularize surfing when the person who is the face of the sport is this friendly Hawaiian stereotype that the media portrayed him as. 

On one hand the fame and popularity that Freeth received could be seen as a very positive thing. He was a Hawaiian man being praised and celebrated for his exceptional skill in the water, and he most likely was able to promote more tourism to the Hawaiian Islands. However the fact that Freeth had to be portrayed in a certain way in the media in order to be safe for him to interact with white Americans show’s how they really felt about Hawiian people. It show’s that Freeth as even only a quarter Hawaiian had to be one of the best surfers and swimmers at the time for him to be considered safe to be around white women and children. It also shows a pattern of a non-white person being accepted by white American’s when they are a benefit to them. Freeth was used as a promotional tool, and his Hawaiian heritage was not only a part of that but it was exaggerated and overplayed for him to seem more exciting, safe and receivable by white Americans. This primary source is a result of how Freeth’s race was used in a way to make him a better or easier promoter. The event seen in the photograph may never have happened if Freeth wasn’t shaped and portrayed the way he was in the media. 

Freeth’s image was altered and portrayed in a more friendly, passive and approachable manner, which was a common practice at this time also directed at the entirety of Hawaii in order to attract more tourism to it. Since Freeth was supposedly first in California to attract more tourism to Hawaii, there are parallels to how Hawaii, Hawaiian men and him were portrayed in media in order to make Hawaii more appealing to the rest of the United States. In Waves of Resistance by Isaiah Walker, he explains that “In the process of selling Hawai‘i as a paradise, the tourist industry (and supporting venues) appropriated and changed Hawaiian cultural forms” in order to “make itself look neutral and innocent and in the process, to naturalize human relationships of power and domination.” (Walker). So for Hawaii to seem more appealing and acceptable to white Americans, much of its essence and cultural aspects were changed or modified when it was advertised for tourism. This is exactly what happened to Freeth in California, where any real or “unsatisfactory” element of his identity was masked by the stereotypically friendly and naturally athletic Hawaiian that he was portrayed as in the media. And again, all of this is seen through my primary source where Freeth, as he was shaped by the media, is allowed to be used to teach these kids and be a promotional tool for Hawaii and California beaches. 

There is also a connection between Freeth’s experience promoting surfing in California and the representation of Hawaiian men in entertainment such as films during the same time period. This is also true for how men were represented in Hawaiian tourism advertisements, but films showed a certain image of the relationship between Pacific men and white Americans.  Walker states in regards to Hawaiian men in American films that “the stereotypes generated in such representations produced a kind of discourse about Pacific Island men in general and cast them as inconsequential and nonthreatening Natives.” (Walker). At the same time, in movies Hawaiian men were “depicted as the polar opposite of the iconic American: subordinate and passive.” and always “played subservient roles of little significance.” (Walker). Many times the roles that Hawaiian men played in movies either directly served the white male or emphasized by contrast the importance of the white male’s role. This connects to my primary source in that it’s the white people in charge of the media portraying Hawaiian’s like Freeth in this manner. Freeth didn’t have little significance in the media, but the way his character was portrayed was similar to that of Hawaiians in movies. Also, just like Hawaiian men in movies were there to serve or emphasize the white American, Freeth was there to serve American promoters. Finally, Hawaiian’s in movies couldn’t play a role that wasn’t obviously and stereotypically Hawaiian, which is how Freeth was portrayed, where everything he did was based on his race and heritage. 

Overall, the way in which Goerge Freeth was portrayed in American media during his time in California shows how white Americans viewed Hawaiian people at the time. A Hawaiian person could not exist in the media if they weren’t doing something directly connected to Hawaiian culture on white American’s terms. Freeth’s Hawainness had to be modified for him to be acceptable into California culture, and for him to even be able to interact with the kids seen in my primary source.  

Works Cited: 


DePond, Margaret. “SOUTHLAND SURF: Hawaiians, Surfing, and Race in Los Angeles, 1907–1928.” Southland Surf, pp. 45–78.

George Freeth Teaching Kids How to Surf. Los Angeles, California.

“Unmanning Hawaiians: Producing ‘Ideal Natives’ via Tourism, Hollywood, and Historical Writings.” Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawaiʻi, by Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, University of Hawaiʻi Press, Honolulu, 2011, pp. 83–104.

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