“The difference that I see between perhaps our comedians and the quality that they use and what we see here [Jonah from Tonga] is that there’s a lot of profanity with Jonah and you don’t see that generally with our Pacific comedian who appeal to that family audience and enable us to laugh at ourselves.”
Carmel Sepuloni, Labour MP
I remember when Summer Heights High came out. I liked all the characters, but I loved Jonah.
I was working at Wainui then and the story that unfolded around Jonah was powerful and perceptive and incredibly sad. That’s why the students loved his story too. They thought he was funny, but also something of themselves. Lost kids with the net of real life closing in tighter and tighter as their time at school ran out. Sometimes a parent would come in and you would see that relationship. You would see how differently the student behaved. Another part of the puzzle of their lives where their parents seemed to have a different set of beliefs and sense of identity from what the children had grown up with. Unless the parents were broken too. All set within a system in which expectations were low, racist, and unhelpful, and delivering a compounding interest rate in marginalisation.
Racism, as my students now tell me, is about power. In the case of Jonah and the actor playing him, where is the dramatic power? In Summer Heights High it was with the character of Jonah for any sympathetic viewer. Jonah’s acting out is funny, and becomes less funny as he plays out against systems and teachers and family that he is out of synch with. That message is powerful.
What else is powerful? The kind of oppression that Carmel Sepuloni is describing. The oppression of “family entertainment”. That kind of entertainment that the whole family can enjoy like The Cosby Show which proved you don’t have to be a white man in black face to perpetuate racial fantasy. The kind of show which is ok for the “whole” family but doesn’t speak to that other world the teenage children walk in, the one where people swear, and come to doubt their faith, or wonder who they are. Whole family entertainment in this meme means: entertainment your parents approve of.
How do you, a young person, maybe Tongan, separate out the classroom where I teach about the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and then go to the church in the weekend? Being gay and Tongan? Or learning about colonisation and wondering about where Christianity really fits into Tongan identity. Those kind of awkward questions.
The draft document, which has been shared between Māori Television’s current board members, says they “regret not being made aware in time to prevent the first programme from going to air”.
It said Māori would “feel insulted if non-Māori painted their face and proceeded to belittle our people”.
“We unequivocally apologise to our Tongan whanau,” said the document, which added that the broadcaster would never play the show again.
Regret? Belittle? What I see when I watch it is brutal commentary on cultural and social dislocation and racism. A boy who really, really wants a place to fit in a situation that has left him the wrong shape. It talks about race incredibly directly and that is uncomfortable. It’s a nice idea to do a campaign about racism. Taika’s speech is funny and cutting and accurate. As usual he is brilliant and I agree with him. Like misogyny, it’s not one little thing, it’s the hundreds of little things accumulating that lead to a race or a gender or a sexuality or a religion feeling attacked and denigrated.
A million oppressions daily to maintain the power structures. The problem is that policing the little external signs of power maintenance, the racist or homophobic or sexist or Islamophobic comments doesn’t fix anything. It pushes the hate inside where it can deepen with resentment and fester and spread inside people. Policing the outside statements, or taking awkward shows off TV, does nothing to combat the roots of racism. The roots of racism of course are much, much harder to deal with because, once again, it leads back to power.
Moonlight. Every Nigger is a Star. If you’re uncomfortable then it might be better. How does race and sexuality intersect? In that toxic masculine world of rap. In that tightly-defined world of gender roles locked inside many Pacific cultures. When we watched Amanaki Prescott struggling with herself as a transgender Tongan wanting to perform traditional female dances in Both Worlds with Year 9 it was pretty challenging. Being Fakaleiti, as a Tongan student in my class assured us, was REALLY bad. Jonah’s constant use of homophobic slurs, and strutting hyper-masculine caricature is part of that too. Just like when Malakai Fekitoa posts this:
And All Black Lima Sopoaga responds: hah gayyyyyyyyyyye. Still, Sir John Key called things “gay” and when he did some modelling he made sure to mince as, you know, a joke. So, yeah, Jonah and the show he is in is very complicated.
Do we not do complicated?
It’s complicated to listen to Taika’s speech about how laughing along perpetuates racism, and then laughing along at Jonah From Tonga. Laughing is complicated. Sometimes it is complicated laughing at Billy T. James too. Sometimes silence is complicated. On the message of Police Ten 7. Or this:
This week, the Government announced it’s putting 1800 new beds in New Zealand prisons at the cost of $1 billion.
Over half of these will end up being filled by Māori men.
Māori make up only 14.6 percent of New Zealand’s population, but a staggering 51 percent of its prison population.
Can I make an uncomfortable joke?
In the last 25 years, Māori and Pacific home-ownership rates fell at a faster rate than for the total population, Statistics New Zealand said today. The biggest drops were in the upper North Island, particularly the cities, where the fall was 25 percent or more.
It’s a joke about the National government’s housing policy. Did you laugh? I did. It was a laugh with a bitter, bitter aftertaste.
Fuck Todd Barclay. Fuck the Lions Tour. Fuck the America’s fucking Cup.
Never Expect Power Always.
Māori TV canned the show. They apologised to their Tongan whanau: not the Pasifika teenagers though I guess.