When my friend Rick asked if I'd speak at the event, I agreed - but also went into a (quiet) panic. I do a lot of things in my research, but are any of them explicitly feminist? Are they focussed specifically on women? And if I'm not focussing on women, does my work not really 'fit' this theme? Or this day? (Do I?)
I did end up writing something after all, and I enjoyed it. It was good to tease out a few thoughts and draw on the amazing mana wahine scholarship produced by Maori women. I got to think a bit about projects I've been involved in, and projects to which I feel really committed. I wrote 6000 words, so won't share the whole thing here, but I will give you a little taste... you know, something to think about for International Women's Day 2012.
On September 11 2001, the NZ govt announced the first feature film which would be supported by a new pool of money which hoped to support some really great NZ features to be finished. Whale Rider the film was released in mid-2003 and became a bit of a smash hit worldwide. I first watched it in New York City with my Tuscarora friend & grad school buddy Alyssa Mt Pleasant, the night before I flew to Hawaii to spend a year writing my PhD thesis. The film is a screen adaptation of the Witi Ihimaera novel The Whale Rider, and the transition from book to film involved more than losing the ‘The’ at the beginning of the title… it also kind of lost the point.
I started to like the film even less when I talked with people who’d seen it often loved it! And while there’s a lot to love, I began to be disturbed by the bits that struck a chord with many of these audience members. I found myself being the stink grumpy person, raining on one of the only Maori feature film parades ever. Why?
I recall talking with one white American man at a campus event and he bluntly disagreed with me about gender in Maori society. “No, you come from a patriarchal culture,” he insisted, apparently unable to read the single-eyebrow-raise which was an early warning sign that something was going to take place. I asked him how much experience he had with Maori people – “I saw Whale Rider,” he said.
“But that’s a movie.”
“But it represented the culture accurately.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I saw the movie.”
“So I’ve been Maori all my life, and you’ve spent less than two hours watching a movie, and you’re telling me that I come from a sexist culture?”
“Yes, you do – you know, you should really watch the movie.”
Not a great conversation… and I’ll admit that I couldn’t help but inform him that yes it’s probably true that films are truth and that I’d seen American Beauty and his culture is the one with the strange ideas.
Of course, the reason the man felt that this representation of us was ‘true’ (to the extent that he knew more about myself than I do) is that the film absolutely maps perfectly onto the ideas about Indigenous women he’s been receiving his whole life. Indigenous people prefer sons over daughters, Indigenous women are like white 50s housewives (the line “you may be boss out there but I’m the boss of this kitchen” was memorable), leadership is passed down from fathers to sons. Niki Caro, the white director of the film pointed out in an interview “This young girl is fighting over 1000 years of patriarchal tradition.”
The film rings true for this white American guy because, within his deeply held assumptions about the world that sit so deep they are impossible to fully consciously know, he already knew about me before he knew I existed.
Brendan Hokowhitu has written about the film, and talks about the problem of indigenous films that tell the story other people want to hear:
WR satisfied the global audience, not because of its depiction of an alternative indigenous culture, but rather because it bastardised Maori culture to resemble the universal language of a transnational third culture.
Not long after Whale Rider came out, I read a review of the film in a glossy American magazine. The reviewer had loved it. “Finally,” he wrote, “a film that shows that feminism doesn’t have to be screechy.”
I didn’t know whether to be outraged as a feminist or be outraged as a Maori, so I just laughed. Laughing, you now, that thing you do when someone says something awful.
There are a number of things to do with the reviewer’s claim: argue that feminism isn’t always screechy. Argue that characterizing feminism as ‘screechy’ is sexist and actually therefore gestures towards the need for feminism and the value of feminist critique. Argue that women – let alone feminism - are so rarely portrayed in any film in any meaningful way that it’s a stretch to use the word ‘finally’ as if feminism is something that’s been screechily accosting him every time he goes to the movies.
To me, the really dangerous argument the reviewer is making here is that this is a feminist film. There’s no question in his mind that it’s feminist – he’s just interested in how it’s feminist. For him, it’s not a Maori film, not an East Coast film, not a film about Whangara. Because, well, it shows a girl (and perhaps her grandmother) triumphing over patriarchy. That it’s a film about Maori is lost on him – it’s irrelevant. Maori are brown (and sometimes beige) cardboard cutouts, performing a new kind of feminism for an old kind of world. And no, I’m not talking about the Maori world.
Does it matter if he doesn’t think it’s a Maori film? Is being a cardboard cutout better than nothing? When invited to talk to some literary people in the US, Patricia Grace decided to argue that ‘Books Are Dangerous’ – drawing attention to the extent to which visibility is not necessarily any better than invisibility. 'Books are dangerous,' according to her: when they do not reinforce our values, actions, custom, culture and identity; when they tell us only about others and so are saying that we do not exist; when they write about us they say negative things which are untrue; and when they write about us but say negative and insensitive things which tell us that we are no good. For Hokowhitu and Grace, ‘invisibility at any cost’ is too expensive. This past weekend in New Zealand, visibility commanded a very high price indeed.
Last Sunday at home, a white politician and radio commentator who has a high profile in NZ for being ‘outspoken’ published an opinion piece in The Sunday Star Times. Michael Laws’s ‘opinion’ is titled “The inevitable result of a boy born bad” and ostensibly responds to the recent prosecution and imprisonment of a young Maori man, Raurangi Marino, who at 17 years of age committed violent acts which do not bear repeating on the 5 year old daughter of visiting tourists staying in a holiday park near his family home. This is the kind of crime that makes anyone stop and feel a bit sick, and feel very sad, but the deep and confident hatred in Laws’s published piece goes well beyond the beyond. It's still a little shocking.
It is important to conduct an analysis of Laws’s racist eugenicist discourse and the mainstream media in a white patriarchal heterosexist colonising settler state. That’s important work, but it’s not the whole picture. We do we talk about abuse and crime, talking not only about the reasons we have ended up this way but also the things we need to do in order to sort this stuff out. How can we think about what led to Raurangi Marino's decisions that night without forgetting to ask other questions... We need to talk about how incredibly hard it is to be a Maori man in 2012, why gangs provide more tangible social structures than tribes for many of our whanau, and what all of this might have to do with how things turned out. We need to have an opportunity to mourn the shape of Raurangi’s life as much as his victim’s, and I’m going to go right out on a limb here and say that spending our time deliberating whether or not we are feral isn’t going to be a priority in those conversations.
I've put off writing about the Laws piece all week, and tonite I've only really made a little gesture towards it. There's so much more to say.
Why don’t I want to talk about my opinion of Michael Laws’s opinion?
Because I'm *sick* of talking about colonial representations of Indigenous men and Indigenous communities.
Why have I never published on The Whale Rider even though it’s been all written up in part of a chapter of my PhD which I finished a few years ago?
Because I’m *sick* of talking about colonial representations of Indigenous women.
We could spend our lives talking about this stuff. And that (if you’ll pardon the non-scholarly phrase) kind of sucks. Who wants to spend the rest of their lives talking about this stuff, when there’s so much more to say?
There's So Much More To Say.
Let's get onto that for the other 364 days aye?