Representations of polar bears in tourism: Exploring power relations through discourse analysis
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Historical and contemporary relationships between human beings and polar bears are dynamic and complex, and the lives of these two animal species continue to be intimately intertwined in the tourism context. The polar bear viewing industry increasingly relies on the (re)creation, dissemination, and maintenance of particular meanings and natures of polar bears and human-polar bear relationships for economic benefit, raising concerns about how power is circulated and negotiated through representations of polar bears in tourism promotional materials. This paper explores how the polar bear viewing industry constructs or portrays polar bears, and the social effects of these portrayals, through an examination of tourism promotional materials associated with Churchill, Manitoba, the self-proclaimed “polar bear capital of the world.” Informed by ecofeminist theory, the author explores how tourism supports and/or resists the gendered exploitation of polar bears—a social issue that intersects gender and species studies. Employing Foucauldian discourse analysis, three “kinds” of qualitative and visual texts were discursively analyzed, along with the socio-cultural context within which these texts are embedded: websites of 17 tour operators offering polar bear related tours or tourism activities in Churchill; polar bear tourism related online marketing campaigns of two (crown) tourism corporation, Travel Manitoba and the Canadian Tourism Commission; and promotional materials (e.g., postcards, souvenirs, brochures, signage, etc.) collected or observed during the author’s nearly four week stay in the town of Churchill. The author’s reflexive engagement with her own Churchill researcher/tourist experience informs, and is weaved into, this discourse analysis. The paper shows how various representations of polar bears and the depictions of human-polar bear interactions are not impartial, but embedded contextually and within an intricate web of power relations. The author reveals how these representations express highly objectifying messages, the marginalization of polar bears and their subjective experiences, the imposition of hegemonic gender roles onto the lives of polar bears and a gendering of their environment, and an exploitative attitude toward these animals. Analysis further reveals an interspecies relationship that engages limitedly (if at all) with the notions of care, connectedness, kindness and compassion espoused by ecofeminist philosophy. The author argues for the importance of addressing the issue of species inequality, power abuse, and domination when envisioning sustainable and ethical engagements between human and other-than-human animals in wildlife tourism contexts.