saaniaa (saaniaa) wrote in racebending,

Racebending and appropriation in Hawaii 5-0

Part of the appeal of the new Hawaii Five-0 for me was that it seemed to hold a promise of a more racially diverse cast than standard TV fare. So even though I'm not a fan of CBS or of police procedurals, I wanted to check out and support the show. I'm still watching, 7 episodes in, but not because I want to suport it, but because I simply can't avert my eyes from the gross cultural appropriation and racebending going on.The show has numerous problems, a huge one being holding the spotlight on the two white characters and sidelining Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park. But this has been highlighted by many online and even in the MSM. I want to write about something that seems to have gone unnoticed - the racebending.  I'm talking about Grace Park in the role of a mixed Native Hawaiian woman. It's important to note here that Native Hawaiians are NOT Asian, but Polynesian. I've been extremely surprised by the number of people who don't seem to be aware of that.  So, this is not just like a case of a Korean playing a Chinese person, or an Irish person playing a French one. This is racebending, pure and simple. 


Now, yes, Park's character is supposed to be mixed. And, even though she looks very much Asian and not at all Polynesian, there are people who look completely Asian but identify with their Native Hawaiian heritage. But Grace Park is not one of them. Grace Park has no Native Hawaiian heritage and no involvement with Native Hawaiian culture. And the thing is, this happens to Native Hawaiians all the time - on the rare occasions there are Native Hawaiian characters on TV or film, they very rarely seem to go to an actual Native Hawaiian. Just as examples, there's , a mixed Japanese/Native Hawaiian character from Baywatch Hawaii played by a Japanese/Caucasian actress. And  there's  , a movie about an extremely important woman in Native Hawaiian history, played by a Native American/white actress. 

In the whole context of Hawaii Five-0, this is especially egregious. Grace Park's character, Kona "Kono" Kalakaua, was in the original series Kono Kalakaua, played by Gilbert Lani Kauhi aka Zulu, a Native Hawaiian. He was probably the first actual Native Hawaiian actor on mainstream US television. Before that, Native Hawaiians were mostly known to the manistream public through images of simple, noble-savage-like overly-sexualized, titillating hula dancers in Hollywood movies, and most often were portrayed by white actresses (male Native Hawaiian characters were mostly nowhere to be found - it was almost always a story of the white sailor's "sexual exploits" with the "simple-minded, openly sexual" Native Hawaiian women). The oiginal Hawaii Five-0, for all its faults, was the first to present a different picture of Native Hawaiians, one that didn't strip them of their humanity. Giving the role to a non-Hawaiian in the remake is sad and ironic indeed. What we basically have in the new Hawaii Five-0 so far is a lot of Native Hawaiian extras walking around, or ocassionaly getting to utter 2 or 3 lines, and two Native Hawaiian characters with speaking lines - Grace Park's Kono and the shaved ice salesman, who gets a couple of lines every 3 or 4 episodes. So the only important Native character is played by an Asian actress. Meanwhile, the name of every episode is in Hawaiian, Hawaiian music is played in the background, Hawaiian sayings quoted, traditional Hawaiian rituals performed - in short, every aspect of the "exotic" Native Hawaiian culture is milked, without an actual Native Hawaiian actor with lines in sight. It just screams appropriation. 

But the worst came in the 6th episode, Ko'olauloa, which has some Native Hawaiians in guest roles. As suspects, of course, and members of a gang of sorts. It's a gang with a code of honor, granted, but the characters are still portrayed as rough, shady and aggressive. The white protagonists, McGarrett and Danny, put them in their place, of course. It's not that the show shoudn't feature any Native Hawaiian criminals or villains or whatever - it's that these are the only Native characters that the show allows actual Native actors to portray. Like so many native populations worldwide, Native Hawaiians are marginalized and stereotyped as lazy, aggressive crooks with a chip on their shoulder. Hawaii Five-0 is most definitely not helping. It could have provided an incredible opportunity for a Native actress, and finally given the public in general and Native Hawaiians in particular a kick-ass Hawaiian character on TV. Instead, the show went for appropriation and racebending.

But what really gets me is how easily people dismiss this whole mess. It seems most people are prepared to tolerate appropriation and racebending of native characters and cultures, even if they'd never put up with this happening to black, Hispanic or Asian characters. I'm not talking about the mainstream, which doesn't care about any of the mentioned goups, I'm talking about people who blog about racism and appropriation in the media, people who care. All have seemingly stayed quiet about Hawaii Five-0. The show has been mentioned a lot in such circles, but always in the context of "yay, more Asians" or "give the Asians something to do, damn it!". Both of these sentiments I agree with, btw- it's great to have more Asian characters on TV. It's just a shame it has to be at the expense of another marginalized minority. And an even greater shame that so few seem to mind it.
Tags: racefail
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