Female Empowerment And Cultural Identity In Whale Rider

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The relationship between whales and people is a substantial theme of Whale Rider although the novel deals with it more elaborately. One aspect is the special connection between Pai and the whales; however, the entire village has a unique relationship with the animals due to their key role in its history.

Whales have an important meaning to all Maori through their contribution in the settlement of Aotearoa according to various myths. Paikea’s myth strengthens this importance concerning the locals of Whangara which is underlined by the statue on top of the marae. Since Paikea’s whale is seen as an ancestor strongly connected to the community, the locals honour whales to such an extent. During the crucial scenes, Pai explains the legendary whale has been sent as the village was in trouble. This is also why Koro greets the creature with Paikea’s chant (Caro 1:16:16). It does not become clear from the ancient whale’s perspective though why it feels so connected to Whangara since the myth is retold concisely.

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The close relationship between whales and people becomes evident when all the locals stay up all night to save the stranded animals and through Nanny’s best friend’s reaction to the “her” whale dying (1:15:50). The appearance of the whales results from Pai calling for help. They responded with the stranding as a test for Koro (Caro 1:17:55). The beaching also brings back a spark of unity to the whole tribe although the attempt to save the bull whale is not successful. As Koro realises, whether the animals can be rescued is crucial for the tribe’s future (Hepi 109). When the rope snaps, the locals react resigned as they know what this means: The connection with their ancestor has been cut (Forrester). Upon discerning this, they leave the whale alone to die at rest (Hepi 116). Pai self-sacrificing herself is, from her point of view, inevitable as she knows the rescue mission failing would entail the end of the tribe due to its strong connection with the bull whale (Fillingim 6-7).

Female Empowerment

Female empowerment is among the central themes which is not a surprise as it is one of Niki Caro’s favourite topics (Ka’ai 2). Females are often seen as the weaker gender which is planted in their minds from their birth (Zautner 22). They are neither expected nor provided the opportunity to become heroines and leading figures; instead, women are rather expected to support their stronger male counterparts and stay in the background when it comes to issues going beyond their designated role as housewives and mothers. Additionally, they are perceived as those needing to be rescued by men in emergency situations as they are too helpless and weak to help themselves. These societal standards and stereotypes keep many females from saying and doing what they want as they fear punishment for defying their gender role (Choy).

Unlike numerous other film directors, Caro reverses the societal notion of the weak female gender and portrays the male gender as weak, inferior, and helpless instead. Porourangi’s tears at 25:37 certainly contribute to this image. Under Koro’s male leadership, the community loses its identity and faces a future without perspectives as Porourangi does not care about leadership and Rawiri is excluded from this role as the second-born. Since the boys fail the tests of the school, they cannot save Whangara either so that despite trying everything, after the failed whale saving, the males are dead concerning their further opportunities for action (DeRoche). They need to be rescued by an external source that comes in the person of Pai as a female who saves both all her male fellow citizens and all the whales which, lying on the beach immobilised, parallel the males (Choy).

From the beginning, Pai is dissatisfied with assuming the traditional female role. During the concert in the marae, she is at the centre of the stage, and the boys orient themselves by her moves (Wald). She also leads them to Koro’s school with the traditional karanga (Caro 33:58). Despite being told to sit in the back afterwards, she refuses to do so as she does not want correspond to the female role and just sit still (Choy). Her passing all the tests of Koro’s school proves her suitability for the chief position. She knows Paikea’s chant by heart (Caro 1:11:53), demonstrates her taiaha skills by defeating Hemi, and retrieves the rei puta from the seafloor. This means she shatters the prevailing gender hierarchies on her way to the top of Whangara (Hepi 110). Pai accomplishes all these achievements despite all the spanners thrown in her works, especially by Koro who excludes her from the lessons, does not praise her skills and her curiosity about the old customs but constantly scolds her for being interested in male-dominated disciplines. Her seemingly unbreakable determination and persistence lead to Pai reaching her ultimate goal (Forester). In the end, by becoming the celebrated saviour and assuming the societal male role, she follows in her ancestor Muriwai’s footsteps who also “became a man” to save the men in her tribe’s canoe. The final scenes fortify this connection when Pai has assumed command over the tribal waka (Hepi 110, 121).

Nanny is another strong female although she sticks with her traditional role of a housewife and mother. By saying, “you are a man, you can handle” to Rawiri when he complains about being neglected as the second-born son by Koro at 7:11, she even demonstrates she does consider the male gender as the stronger one (Dodd 3); nevertheless, she stands up to Koro whenever she thinks he is treating Pai inappropriately which mostly results from his strong belief in male domination (Fillingim 10). An example of this is the school opening when Nanny makes her husband and everyone else wait until Pai has arrived after Koro has not picked her up from school without letting the girl know (Caro 33:02). She also defends her granddaughter when Koro breaks a plate out of anger at Pai and wants to leave the cleaning to the girl (Caro 40:01). Nanny overrules him by stating she is the boss in the kitchen and cleans the floor herself. She also reminds Pai of Muriwai (Caro 41:51) to ensure her granddaughter identifies with this famous female ancestor (Fillingim 11). This way, she supports Pai’s fight against the traditional female role which she also does by assigning the karanga to her granddaughter (Caro 33:41). Despite corresponding to her designated role herself, Nanny still challenges it by encouraging Pai, probably since she has realised her community needs a new leadership style to survive, a leadership style all the locals, not only the males, accept and support (Bronaugh 3).

Pai’s endurance eventually being rewarded is an ideal inspiration for all females worldwide (Forester) and maybe the key message Caro conveys with Whale Rider. The film underlines females do not wish to be suppressed as they do have skills and objectives and animates them to be confident about their abilities and to pursue them with all their determination, regardless of what their environment expects of them. With this attitude and mentality which corresponds to the stereotypical male role, the director suggests, females can achieve anything they want. Consequently, they have to follow Pai’s example and become men through their actions (Choy).

Cultural Identity

Cultural identity is a key theme since the locals’ identity shapes their lives. The old identity represented by Koro fails and is replaced by a new one introduced by Pai. The pretty negative depiction of the locals suggests something is wrong with their cultural identity since they do not value the Maori traditions anymore and appear as fragmented beings. Particularly through the two scenes involving ropes, the problems of Whangara are illustrated and hint at Pai being a potential initiator of a new identity.

In the boat engine scene, the rope stands for a Maori identity based on tradition and strength through ancestry (Hannah H 0:27), particularly as the occasion for Koro’s remarks is Paikea’s myth, the apparent reason for the existence of Whangara (Bisley). Tradition is established through Koro explaining the symbolic meaning of the rope to Pai in Maori (Caro 17:15). He makes a fist with his right hand at 17:25 which underlines strength is another core value (Hannah H 0:32); however, pulling hard on the rope and, thereby, causing its burst indicates strength leads to the rope being divided. Strength is, thus, a central component of both the creation and the demise of Maori identity (Hannah H 1:00). While Koro dismisses the broken rope, Pai pursues a different strategy. She takes the separated strings, takes a look, and ties them again before starting the engine which means she includes the broken strings in finding a solution instead of excluding them by looking for a new rope. This makes inclusion an essential part of her identity, just like strength since it takes some physical effort to start the engine (Hannah H 1:30).

The transition between the two identities is made during the whale saving. Pai succeeds by blending the “old” methods with new ones by again choosing a different problem-solving approach to the rescue mission (Hannah H 3:01). Despite all the passion and energy the others invest in pulling the ancestor around, they are treating it pretty much like an object. They just tie a rope around its fluke, pull on it without any further interaction, and leave the whale behind without any further comments after the rope has snapped (Caro 1:20:15). Pai, however, creates a physical connection and makes the animal feel like being included in its own rescue by making her way from the front to the back of the whale while continuously touching it (Hannah H 3:01). The whale even seems to reply by sending a water fountain out of its blowhole (Caro 1:21:36).

Saving the whale and Whnagara enables Pai to introduces a new identity tradition and strength are still central to. This is illustrated through her greeting the creature with a traditional hongi (Caro 1:21:52) and then vigorously kicking its flanks (Caro 1:23:08); moreover, Pai’s power to communicate with whales results from strength through ancestry since she is an heir to legendary Paikea. Her leadership and thereby the identity she implants onto the other locals is, thus, an effective balance of tradition and modernity (Hannah H 3:12-3:42).

Pai also addresses the theme of inclusion during her winning speech. From 1:11:15 on, she describes her idea of leadership as one shaped by democracy in place of the dictatorship currently exerted by Koro, the advantage being that power and responsibility are spread to avoid dependence on a single person. This vision of shared power includes several people rather than excluding them. Furthermore, Pai’s bright depiction contrasted with Koro who finds himself surrounded with darkness probably alludes to enlightenment since democracy is a major ideal of “enlightened” Western societies.

In the finale, the entire village accepting the new identity enables Whangara to look to the future. Everyone is included in the ceremony accompanying the completion of Porourangi’s waka, including a haka (Caro 1:31:27).

The first world influence also contributes to the old identity facing a crisis. The clothing of the younger locals, the lowered car driven by Hemi’s father’s friends, the music they are listening to, the cigarettes smoked by various characters, or the drugs taken by Rawiri at 42:52 indicate this. Some characters practice a hedonistic lifestyle which also originates from the Western world as Rawiri’s stay in Sydney in the novel illustrates (Ihimaera 52-53). Another aspect is the lost rootedness to one’s home as Porourangi’s example illustrates. Even Koro, the most tradition-conscious figure, uses modern technology, for instance when he orders Rawiri to use a tractor for the whale saving, or takes the boys for the final task on a speedboat (Caro 1:17:17, 53:20). Conclusively, while he is eagerly trying to preserve the traditional hierarchical system, modernity has become part of his life. The adaptation of Western influences suggests the natives do not mind if their culture is blended with impacts from another culture. This combination is illustrative for the relationship between the colonised Maori and the colonising Pakeha since their lifestyles do not differ entirely (Haenni 594).

In more general terms, the film demonstrates that even in times of globalisation, local traditions forming a specific and unique cultural identity can be maintained as long as small adjustments are made in reaction to the dynamic development of humanity (Zautner 22). Like all cultures worldwide, Maori culture is not frozen in time but undergoing a constant change (Zimmermann).

The new identity can also be seen as a statement by the locals. They are confident enough to create their own identity including modern influences and Western ideals like gender equality but also based on old traditions like performing a haka or rowing out to the ocean on a traditional waka (Whale Rider Mythology…). Whether an indigenous community can maintain its identity is a question of how it includes modernity in its identity. If modernity is excluded, the community will appear as frozen and backward, and if modernity is solely focused on, the indigenous people will forget about their traditions in their striving for being modern and end up as a culture without any specifics. In both cases, the identity will be lost which will lead to fragmentation, hedonism, and lack of prospects resulting from the lost sense of belonging. The challenge is to find a golden mean between tradition and modernity while constantly adapting it to the dynamic changes of humanity.


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