Canadian polar bear tourism reinforces gender stereotypes

Friday, May 25, 2018

A new study by researchers at the University of Waterloo reveals that Canadian polar bear tourism imposes hegemonic gender roles onto polar bear bodies and reinforces heterosexual gender stereotypes and the patriarchy.

A Polar Bear

The study, co-authored by Waterloo researchers Bryan Grimwood, Lisbeth Berbary, and Heather Mair, along with first author Olga Yudina (MES 2014), specifically examined how, as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” Churchill Manitoba’s wildlife viewing industry relies on the creation, dissemination, and maintenance of particular meanings attributed to polar bears, as well as human – polar bear relationships, for economic benefit.

“In polar bear marketing materials, we see the construction of norms distinguishing between powerful, majestic masculine bears from domestic, motherly feminine bears,” said Grimwood. “Tourism promotions invoke the physical strength and size of male bears as traits underpinning their supremacy within the tundra environment, while ascribing domestic and affectionate qualities to female polar bears.”

The research team’s study analyzed tourism-related websites, along with postcards, souvenirs, brochures, and signage at Churchill gift shops, hotels, restaurants, and airport. Gender, in the scope of this study referred to the system of culturally constructed identities, expressed in ideologies of masculinity and femininity, interacting with socially structured relationships in divisions of labor and leisure, sexuality, and power between women and men.

“The representation of the polar bears is not based exclusively on how they actually exist within the Arctic landscape, but also on how tourists might be able to project their own identities and meanings on them,” said Grimwood. “This fits a broader pattern of gendered representations in wilderness tourism that have been effective at driving profits in that industry.”  

The full study, The Gendered Nature of Polar Bear Tourism can be found in the journal Tourism, Culture & Communication.

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