Rewriting the World: Pacific People, Media, and Cultural Resistance

  • Sereana NaepiEmail author
  • Sam Manuela
Living reference work entry


This chapter explores how media is used both to create and resist hegemonic constructions of identity. Using Pacific peoples as an example, this chapter explores how media continues to portray colonial understandings of Pacific peoples and how Pacific peoples rewrite these hegemonic understandings using the same media that constructs them. This chapter considers various forms of media including poetry, film, blogs, online newspapers, and social media and how each is utilized to resist mainstream understandings of the Pacific.


Pacific Media Identity Resistance 


Media as a communication tool has the power to both resist and create hegemonic narratives about who people are. Media is used to tell stories about individuals and communities; these stories are then consumed and can be used to define an individual or community of people. When a single story is told of people over and over again, that story becomes them (Adichie 2009); it therefore becomes imperative that these stories are resisted through retelling or rewriting. Currently rewriting the world is seen as a social justice moment. When we write from the perspective of those unable to pass in the world, we diversify the narrative of this world (Ahmed 2012, 2017; Naepi 2018); we begin to tell multiple stories of the same people and communities, thereby resisting the hegemonic ideology. This resistance is necessary as those with more political power have used their power to not only oppress others but to also rewrite “the other.” Pacific peoples experienced a rewriting of their ontological and epistemological understandings of this world as part of the colonial project (Hau’ofa 1994; Jolly 2007). The colonial project defined Pacific peoples in relation to Europeans and found Pacific peoples as lacking in some way (Jolly 2007). From the very moment of European encounter, Pacific peoples have had to work to define themselves on their own terms as colonial powers used, and others continue to use media to define the Pacific and Pacific peoples with single stories.

Media provides gateways for the construction and deconstruction of hegemonic ideologies. A simple exercise to show the hegemonic construction of Pacific peoples is to read the front page of a newspaper in Aotearoa New Zealand. The single story that is told of Pacific peoples on the front page of the newspaper is that we play sport, we provide entertainment (consumption of Pacific peoples), we are underachievers in education, or the Pacific is a tourist destination. However, it is possible to resist these hegemonic constructions, and hegemony is not permanent. When hegemonic ideas are resisted and challenged, we create space for the hegemonic idea to be shifted or moved toward a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Pacific. We begin to create a diverse narrative of being Pacific with multiple stories. This chapter records current hegemonic ideologies of “being Pacific” and how these are currently challenged through the use of alternative media sources.

Pacific peoples in this chapter refer to both Pacific people located within the Pacific region and Pacific people who have migrated outside of the Pacific region. The Pacific region refers to Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Fiji, Rotuma, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Palau, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Wallis and Futuna, Hawaii, French Polynesia, and Rapanui. As such the identities of Pacific peoples are complex, multifaceted, and dynamic. There is no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be a Pacific person, as Pacific identities can be as diverse as the nations that fill the Pacific Ocean and as dynamic as the currents that flow within it. While it is important to recognize the uniqueness each nation brings to the Pacific, there are common threads of connection that speak toward a broader collective identity. These include an emphasis on family, spirituality, and views of the self as an integral part of a wider collective. In essence, the Pacific self is relational and defined in terms of relationships with people and places.

This chapter will map how media has played a role in the “writing” of Pacific ethnicities and how Pacific peoples have used media to resist hegemonic portrayals of Pacific peoples. First this chapter will explore the role of media in the development of identity with a specific focus on Pacific identity formation. Second, we will examine how Pacific people have been established as a people whose bodies and ancestral heritage can be consumed through the use of the dusky maiden, noble savage, and Disney’s Moana (2017). Third we will consider how mainstream media has constructed the Pacific as an empty space for Western audiences to escape to. Throughout this chapter we will explore how Pacific peoples use media to resist hegemonic ideologies of Pacific people in an effort to establish and reinforce a Pacific identity that affirms Pacific peoples view of themselves. It is only possible to tell this story of media misrepresentation and re-storying because of Pacific people’s own use of media to resist hegemonic constructions of the Pacific, and we wish to acknowledge the Pacific people who record our stories in order to ensure the world can see us.

Identity Development and the Media

Lived experiences of identity formation for Pacific peoples have been likened to that of a journey with many ups and downs, and the formation and development of what it means to be a Pacific person develops through a series of challenges to the self, when the self becomes distinct in varying social spaces, when physical differences belie cultural differences, and when challenges from the biased assumptions of non-Pacific others force one to define their self in relation to others both Pacific and non-Pacific. Before exploring the role of media in the formation of Pacific identities, a theoretical discussion of Pacific identities that has informed contemporary, colonial, and indigenous views of Pacific identity development is necessary. This will serve a basis on which to discuss the way media can influence Pacific identity development.

Drawing on psychology, ethnic identity has been understood from a developmental framework. Early theories on identity development have drawn on Erikson’s (1968) model of ego identity development, which posits that questions about who one is become more salient during adolescence. Identity development would occur over time as one observed and reflected on their own values, interests, and identifications, eventually reaching an achieved identity status which is based on a unified understanding of oneself. Marcia (1980) extended upon this and posed identity formation via a process of exploring identity issues and committing to an identity, both of which when considered together suggest four identity statuses. Phinney and Ong (2007) articulate these statuses in relation to ethnic identity where one could (a) not have a clear concept of their ethnic identity (ethnic identity diffusion), which could lead to (b) a commitment to an ethnic identity without having explored its content or meaning (ethnic identity foreclosure), or (c) engaging in a period of exploration of what it means to be a member of their ethnic group (moratorium), finally leading to (d) having a clear idea of what their ethnicity means to them and being committed to that ethnicity (ethnic identity achievement).

While ethnic identity development offers explanations of how one can come to understand their ethnic self, it does little to explain what ethnic identity consists of and the meanings it has for individuals. Ethnic identity has been understood from a social identity theory framework (Tajfel and Turner 1986) which posits that ethnic identity can be derived from one’s self-perceived membership with a group, together with emotional significance attached to that group. Extending upon social identities, Phinney and Ong (2007) proposed ethnic identity as a construct consisting of self-identification with an ethnic group, a sense of belonging to that ethnic group, positive/negative attitudes toward the group, and involvement in practices associated with an ethnic group. Essential to Phinney’s conceptualization of ethnic identities is how it is marked by its multidimensional and dynamic nature as indicated by discourses relating to ethnic identity development.

Psychological research on ethnic identity highlights two broad perspectives – one relating to the content of ethnic identity and the other on its development. Yip (2014) suggests these two perspectives have grown in parallel with each other. Within this broad narrative, some Pacific theorists have attempted to define what it means to be a Pacific person and how one comes to developing that self-consciousness. Anae (1998) examines identity through her personal journey in her study of Samoan identity. Her research draws parallels with Phinney and Ong’s (2007) articulation of ethnic identity development but furthers this perspective by offering how ethnic identity is developed in contexts that provide content for what it means to be Samoan. For instance, Anae discusses interactions with family, church members, and non-Pacific people that challenged an individual’s sense of self. Some of these challenges included the role of language as a marker of identity, discrimination in increasingly diverse contexts, and changing social networks. From Anae’s perspective, a secure identity is one in which the sense of self as Samoan is persistent and in which one has found a resolution between internal and external conflicts of what it means to be Samoan. In a similar vein, Tiatita’s (1998) early work positions Pacific peoples at the interface between two cultural worlds, where their involvement in one could be seen as denial of the other. Mila-Schaaf (2010) provides a description of polycultural capital for Pacific peoples in which experiences in diverse social settings are marked by feelings of inclusion, exclusion, similarities, and differences and provide an accumulation of cultural resources that allows people to engage with identities in relation to the contexts they are in. For instance, Pacific peoples would behave and react in particular ways to counter negative social narratives they perceived were being expressed by their non-Pacific peers. With a focus on the contents of Pacific identities, Manuela and Sibley (2013, 2015) put emphasis on family, relationships with society, a sense of belonging, positive attitudes toward Pacific others, the embeddedness of religiosity and spirituality, and engagement with one’s culture. In relation to this, Pacific ethnic identity development is seen as influenced by relationships in various levels of New Zealand society. These perspectives of Pacific ethnic identities also speak of sociohistorical contexts, experiences of discrimination, responses to stereotypes, celebrations of self, and affirmations of the self with similar others.

When viewed against this backdrop of ethnic Pacific identity development, the role of media in identity formation becomes quite complex. In this sense, media can serve a dual role. In one sense, media can be a broad social influence from which one can gain information about what it means to be Pacific as one explores one’s Pacific identity. In addition, the media’s representation of Pacific peoples also creates, constructs, and defines the content of Pacific ethnic and cultural identities. However, the content of these ethnic meanings differs as a function of who produces Pacific media representations: Pacific or non-Pacific. As will be shown in this chapter, non-Pacific people often produce media narratives and imageries that reinforce Pacific peoples as consumable objects, whereas Pacific peoples tend to produce media imageries that tell complex stories of who we are and what can be used to reinforce strong positive Pacific identities.

Consuming the Pacific

The Pacific is often framed as a place and people to be consumed by the western gaze and western experience (Naepi 2016, 2018). This is evident in centuries old depictions of Pacific people as dusky maidens and noble savages right through to this contemporary moment in the Disney movie Moana where Pacific ancestors are depicted in multi-million-dollar films in order to advance profits by corporations.

Dusky Maidens

The dusky maiden refers to a centuries old practice of “sexualizing and eroticizing the Polynesian female form through titillating visual representations of bare-breasted, nubile Polynesian wāhine (women), which functioned as soft porn for art connoisseurs” (Tamaira 2010, p,1). More recently the dusky maiden has developed to be a “simultaneous portrayal of Polynesian women as sexually receptive as well as distant and dangerous (as signified by the tattoos inscribed on their bodies), served to intensify rather than curb their exotic and erotic appeal in the Western imagination” (Tamaira 2010, p. 11). This problematic positioning of Pacific women continues. In a contemporary example, Netflix’s popular series, The Crown, Prince Philip is seduced by Pacific women while on tour. In the scene, Pacific women are dancing and beckoning to him over a fire, and he is then led away by a dancer with a knowing smile. The dusky maiden trope is designed to remove agency and power from Pacific women by presenting them as vulnerable maidens for men’s consumption as opposed to the genealogical descendants of powerful goddesses (Tamaira 2010). Naepi (2018) argued that this portrayal of Pacific women as consumable objects can be counteracted by building a more complex understanding of Pacific women, one that is built from Pacific people’s own understandings of the world.

This movement toward developing a more nuanced understanding of Pacific women is not only important for how the rest of the world sees Pacific people but also for providing alternatives that allow Pacific peoples to resist internalizing these problematic images (Jolly 2007). Poetry is one media device that is being used by Pacific women to dispel the myth of the dusky maiden. Pacific female poets such as Konai Thaman, Karlo Mila, Tusiata Avia, Courtney Sina Meredith, Teresia Teaiwa, and Katerina Teaiwa continue to share poetry that calls into question the hegemonic understanding of Pacific women as dusky maidens. Some Pacific women poets such as Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Statued (stat you?) Traditions (1997) directly refer and critique the dusky maiden trope so that it becomes possible to reimagine Pacific women from a place of strength. Karlo Mila’s poetry (below) speaks to Pasifika (people of Pacific ancestry in Aotearoa New Zealand) efforts to relocate themselves within the ancient beat of Pacific women, to find the grace and ease of movement that their grandmothers had. This poem of loss and reconnection is an important insight into how Pacific women experience the world outside of the hegemonic understanding of Pacific women. Pacific dance is not something that is done to allure (white) men away from their faithful wives and into the arms of a Pacific maiden (the narrative in The Crown). Pacific dance is something that reconnects us with our ancestors. Poetry is a form of media that gives Pacific women the opportunity to rewrite the world from Pacific perspectives disrupting and resisting the dangerous dusky maiden trope.

On joining Pasifika

When I first met you

we were learning to siva

wearing lavalava tied in awkward knots

our work clothes carefully folded away

both of us

learning a new dance

both of us

finding a different way to move

through life

We have hustled and bustled

and power-walked well


sacrificing the grace

and ease of movement

our grandmothers held in their hands

When we met

both of us

were trying to remember

that earlier beat

Both of us trying to reclaim

a new dance from old memories

both us standing shyly

in the back-row

trying to siva in our sports socks

both of us searching for a rhythm

we’d never quite

been able to find

within ourselves

All of us trying to find time

to ta’olunga

to meke

to tamule

to siva

into our truest selves.

(Mila 2005)

If we consider these two depictions of Pacific women next to each other, it is possible to see how different media sources can reinforce Pacific identities. Pacific produced media creates media that resists hegemonic ideologies of Pacific women and instead ensures that all the complexities of being Pacific are explored.

Noble Savages

Pacific masculinities have been constructed through the lens of “the other.” The construction of Pacific masculinities can be tied back to the “world historical processes of colonialism, Christian conversion, market penetration and urbanisation” (Biersack 2016, p.198). Of particular importance in the construction of Pacific masculinities is the noble savage trope. The noble savage construction can be tied back to European desire to experience a “state of nature” that can be found within the South Pacific. It is a complex idea which both celebrates Pacific peoples in a state of nature (Campbell 1980) and suggests that when Pacific people engage in civilization, they become ignoble as they are tainted by the modern world usually due to their “simple” nature (Taylor 2008). While Campbell (1980) noted that it is the tourism industry keeping the idea of the noble savage alive, it is possible to see the same narratives within mainstream media today. The narrative of the noble savage which began during early colonization of the Pacific continues to impact on how Pacific men are portrayed today. The concept of the noble savage and Pacific masculinities can be seen within sports.

Pacific influence in sports is growing. Prominent Pacific names can be found in NFL with the likes of Troy Polamalu, sports entertainment with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and in both Rugby Union and Rugby League codes internationally, particularly New Zealand and Australia. Perhaps rearticulating the noble savage trope in a contemporary age, Pacific men are seen to be displaying their raw and “savage” prowess on the sporting field. The increasing representation of Pacific men in rugby and league focus on the “natural athlete” stereotype and the “white flight” narrative (Cleaver and Napier 2018) – a movement of white players away from rugby because of the size and physicality of Pacific players. This positions white athletes as victims of the supposed natural athleticism of Pacific athletes, thus requiring the regulation of Pacific athletes in media narratives. The stereotype of the naturally gifted Pacific athletes is often paired with language that emphasizes their physicality and simultaneously downplaying their intelligence. Commentary on white athletes highlights their intellect, decisiveness, and leadership prowess, while Pacific athletes are generally spoken about in terms of their strength, power, and speed (Stevenson 2015). This is a common trope of athletes of color relative to their white counterparts (Gane-McCalla 2009; Eastman and Billings 2001). Similarly, decisions of Samoan rugby player, rugby league player, and boxer, Sonny Bill Williams, were met with derision by media outlets, where he was simultaneously praised for his physical prowess but chided about his personal agency (Meagher 2017). The same media regularly reinforces the idea that Pacific nations could not possibly participate in rugby tournaments most recently citing that Pacific men would not return from high-paying European teams to play for their own national teams (Napier 2018). In this narrative, Pacific players who are noble in the game of rugby (as the media acknowledges their natural ability) are seen as unable to resist the corruption of the civilized dollar; their natural athleticism has become a source of greed in the face of capitalism. The media also points to governance issues using the “corruption” of one Pacific nation as an excuse to exclude all Pacific nations, suggesting that Pacific peoples are not capable of managing themselves.

In spite of the mainstream media’s belief that the “noble savage” will be corrupted by the dollar, it has been proven otherwise. In the lead up to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, Taumalolo announced that he would be representing Tonga’s national team, Mate Ma’a Tonga. In New Zealand, the media were swift to characterize him as traitorous, having turned his back on New Zealand despite Taumalolo doing what the media now argues Pacific people will not do, which is give up a more lucrative contract to represent their home countries. Perhaps even more disheartening was how the mainstream media portrayed Taumalolo. The interplay between ethnic and national identities for Pacific peoples in the context of sport-related media places Pacific identities between competing patriotic loyalties, where they can be either New Zealand or Pacific, but not both. It is from this that competing narratives were developed – one by mainstream media that positioned Taumalolo as the anti-villain – one who displays heroic attributes in their quest for a goal but with questionable means on how to get there. According to media portrayals, it was admirable for Taumalolo to want to represent Tonga, but a slap in the face to New Zealand for doing so and perhaps an unwise decision for his future possibilities of national representation. This highlights an expectation by New Zealand media to see Pacific athletes as New Zealanders and New Zealanders only. It creates a sense that identity for Pacific peoples means surrendering their sense of Pacific-ness to the New Zealand national identity. However, their Pacific-ness is not viewed in terms of their culture, identities, and relationships with others but in terms of an essentialist physicality – the noble savage’s place is on the sports field. There are of course examples of Pacific athletes that have challenged this idea, showing how one can be both Pacific and New Zealander, such as Tana Umaga leading the All Blacks in haka, a role usually reserved for the indigenous Maori or tagata whenua (Teaiwa and Mallon 2005). When Pacific athletes exhibit any sense of personal agency, this runs counter to the narrative New Zealand media has produced, and the response is one of questioning loyalty to a New Zealand national identity – the “noble savage” has become morally corrupt. It is then when their Pacific cultural and ethnic identity becomes a centrally defining aspect of the narrative but in a way that is disruptive to NZ’s sporting goals.

Furthermore, Taumalolo was not the only target of negative media portrayals, but so too were Tongan fans. Media representations of Tongan rugby league fans presented an unruly, violent crowd, situating their place in South Auckland suburbs and highlighting the number of arrests made (South Auckland population has a high proportion of Pacific peoples and is stereotyped as a high-crime area). This presented three stories that all relate to Pacific identities as presented in media: one playing stereotypes of the Pacific criminal (McCann 2017) one in which Pacific success is tainted with problematic and antisocial behavior (“Tongan supporters well behaved despite 21 fans arrested” 2017). In instances where mainstream media outlets centered the Pacific voice, this was also shaped by dominant narratives. Centering of Pacific voices was a response to negative reactions by Pacific peoples of the unfair portrayals of Pacific players and fans who did not view themselves as the problematic images the media produced but as passionate and proud fans (New Zealand Herald 2017). While this could be seen as an attempt to challenge their own narratives, in essence it relied on them to provide a platform for the Pacific voice.

New Zealand media’s portrayal of the noble Pacific athlete and its construction of their identity presents a misunderstanding of what and how Pacific identities inform sporting endeavors and thus how they could be presented in media. Pacific productions and accounts of Mate Ma’a Tonga’s 2017 Rugby League World Cup campaign painted an image in which ethnic and cultural values were fully embedded in the teams approach to the tournament. Coconet TV’s summary of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup highlighted that these culture and ethnic behaviors were written as part of the normative behavior:

The Tongan team played their cards well in this tournament. They came in quietly and got down to the job of training and getting the basics right. Catch the ball and finish the sets. Off the field, they went to church, sang songs, ate well, and kept a humble camp. When tensions amongst Tongan and Samoan fans looked to spill over, they were on your facebook page telling their fans to calm down and increase the peace. The fans loved them, and they in turn played for their fans. All up, they had the perfect build up to this tournament and the results of good on field and off field training, became apparent on game days, where they muscled and then moonwalked themselves to the semi finals. (Kosokoso 2017)

In one paragraph, this excerpt highlights how a normative positioning of Pacific cultural values provides the construction of the Pacific athlete as a whole person – cultural, spiritual, professional, successful, and with a focus on relationships. This piece also referred to the problematic white gaze upon Mate Ma’a Tonga, acknowledging the problematic portrayal of Taumalolo’s agency, but not making the traitor narrative central, instead turning the narrative back on to mainstream media. “This is in no small part to the “defectors” (Taumalolo and co) who made themselves available to Mate Ma’a Tonga, earning the evil eyes of David Kidwell and the Kiwi team” (Kosokoso, ibid). This act of resistance both challenged the white narrative and asserted the Pacific narrative as one of equal and positive competition.

Consuming Our Ancestors

Disney’s Moana is a contemporary example of how Pacific peoples and their cultures are understood to be something that can be consumed. Disney a multi-billion-dollar media giant profited off the depiction of Pacific ancestral imageries. Disney utilized ancestral stories of Māui to create a Disney princess story that centered on a Pacific girl’s journey across the Pacific with the demigod Māui to save her people. Disney profited immensely from this retelling of Pacific navigational stories and its inclusion of Māui as a sidekick. Disney’s Moana was the second-highest Thanksgiving debut in America (after Frozen) making 81.1 million over the Thanksgiving holiday (Reuters 2016). Disney alludes to the significance of Māui in his song You’re Welcome:

Hey, what has two thumbs and pulled up the sky

When you were waddling yay high? This guy

When the nights got cold, who you stole you fire from down below?

You’re looking at him, yo!

Oh, also I lassoed the sun, you’re welcome

To stretch your days and bring you fun

Also, I harnessed the breeze, you’re welcome

To fill your sails and shake your trees…

…Well, come to think of it,

Kid, honestly, I can go on and on

I can explain every natural phenomenon

The tide, the grass, the ground

Oh, that was just Māui messing around

I killed an eel, I buried its guts

Sprouted a tree now you’ve got coconuts.

Māui’s exploits throughout the Pacific were designed to upset the universe the Gods had created to benefit themselves and instead shift the universe to benefit all of humankind (Luomala 1986). The inclusion of these deeds in Māui’s song shows that Disney is aware and understands the significance of Māui to Pacific peoples.
In order to understand the significance of Disney choosing to represent and profit off Māui on film, it is important to understand who Māui is to Pacific people. Māui is a Pacific ancestor who has been characterized as a trickster or demigod. Māui is found throughout the Pacific (Luomala 1986; Howe 2006). Tonga has three Māui, the youngest of which is Māui Kisikisi, son of Māui ‘Atalanga, son of Māui Motu’a (old Māui) (Mila 2016). In Samoa Māui is Ti’iti’i son of Talaga and brings fire from the underworld (Mila 2016). These may sound myth-like to people today, but they refer to stories of a Pacific ancestor. Mila (2016) outlines that many people consider that the hook Māui uses in so many stories to fish up islands refers to a set of constellations that were used to navigate to islands. Mila explains that:

All over Oceania we have named stars, cities, giant stone sculptures, landmarks, beaches, and islands after him. Our stories about Māui helped us make sense for centuries of morals, mortality, land, death, power, fire, mana, authority – and who and what you can be in this world, regardless of birth. He has featured in story, symbol and song. He is both demigod and ancestor. (Mila 2016, n.p)

However, this inclusion of Pacific ancestral tales within a Disney film was not without some controversy. The problem was how Disney portrayed Māui; he went from a powerful ancestor to a:

pot-bellied, barrel-chested man-baby, with eyes too close together, pupils perfectly aligned with his widespread nostrils in nice savage symmetry… …an oafish, neckless wonder with large lips and an ooga-booga mask-like mouth. Our great hero has more in common with the cartoon fare of the hunchback of Notre Dame, more affinity with the Beast than any Beauty. (Mila 2016, n.p)

Mila (2016) outlines how despite Disney’s protests that they were representing Pacific people on film, at the end of the day, they had created a Pacific male archetype that Pacific people did not identify with. Diaz slammed Moana as:

Disney’s 21st century imagineering of primitivist desire for noble savagery, now dressed up in a story of a would-be anti-heroine; a brave and amazing navigatress/princess (lets call her Moana 1) in synergistic touch with the power of nature, in particular with the ocean (Moana 2), in the company of a buffoonish, but ultimately lovable caricature (Disney Maui) of an actual pan-Polynesian demigod and revered ancestor (Maui the Real)… …The sad fact is, Disney is a capitalist culture-vulture that cannibalizes and then spits (or shits) out other people’s cultural traditions and birthrights, a domain into which it has no real business sticking its nose, especially in such seemingly sensitive, but actually crassly commercialized ways. (2016, n.p)

Disney’s portrayal of Māui and the Pacific is problematic because of the audience reach they have (Teaiwa 2016), they are able to create a hegemonic understanding of the Pacific and Pacific peoples. In spite of this, Pacific peoples were able to use online media outlets to protest this depiction of Pacific peoples and their ancestors (as shown above). It is clear that people are engaged in these alternative readings of Moana beyond a high-grossing film for Disney as shown in the YouTube video Beyond Disney’s Moana: In the Spirit of Maui which has over 7000 views (Iron Lion 2016).
However, not all Pacific peoples used online media to resist Disney’s representation of Pacific peoples in Moana. Thompsen (2016) argued that Moana could be good for Pacific peoples. Thompsen’s central argument was that Moana was a story of female empowerment that provides a counternarrative to the patriarchy which was installed during colonization. Thompsen notes that:

I feel comfortable riding Moana’s wave, because she makes space for us Pacific Islanders in global discussions. As adults, academics, activists, parents, aunts, uncles – we have the job now to reshape those spaces into something future Pacific generations will feel capable of claiming as their own. (2016, n.p)

Thompsen’s view seems to be reinforced within the comment sections of his online piece in e-tangata (a Sunday online magazine for Māori and Pacific peoples) where Pacific people from around the globe share that they too felt that Moana gave them at least one character in mainstream media that they could identify with.

The online debate of Moana among the Pacific community shows how media can be used to inspire complex discussions on identity and how we understand ourselves. The media gives us a platform to consider how we wish to be understood by the outside world and to also resist or agree with the depictions of our own people. This shows that not all hegemonic understandings of Pacific people can be considered just good or bad but that we should have a more nuanced discussion about what makes a depiction “good” or “bad” and if we see ourselves within this construction.

Populating the Pacific

The Pacific is often used as both a physical place for filming and as a plot device in film and television. Fiji serves as an example of how Hollywood both uses and frames the Pacific. Many movies have been shot in Fiji from Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), a film about a man living on an abandoned island; numerous reincarnations of The Blue Lagoon (1979, 1992), a film about castaways lost in the Pacific; to Castaway (2000), a film about a single castaway lost in the Pacific. What these films have in common is that Fiji provides the backdrop of uninhabited islands for Westerners to be lost in. This is taken even further in television where Survivor has filmed multiple seasons (four seasons) with plans to make Fiji its permanent filming home (Ross 2017). Survivor is a reality TV show predicated on the idea that American must survive being “abandoned” on uninhabited islands. In The Truman Show (1998), Truman famously talks about escaping from his manufactured life by fleeing to Fiji; in one particular scene when he is asked where Fiji is, he replies “FIJI, You can’t get any further away before you start coming back.” Fiji is understood to be a remote location where he can escape his life. This referencing of Fiji as a distant and remote place to escape trouble is common in Hollywood films and television.

In comparison feature films created by Pacific people show the Pacific as not only inhabited but also as a place from which life’s lessons can be learned. Three Wise Cousins (2016) written, produced, and directed by Samoan filmmaker Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa tells the story of a New Zealand-raised Pacific male returning to Samoa to learn how to become a “real islander” in order to win a girl’s heart. The theme is about the main character who learns from his cousins about the importance of putting family first while also tackling the difficult and complex issue of being Pacific when raised elsewhere. Three Wise Cousins is one of the few feature films created by Pacific people about Pacific people, and Vaiaoga-Ioasa said the best thing for him apart from the box office results was “the real impact is just the feedback that it’s cool to be an Islander” (Tapaleao 2016). This reflection shows the impact of creating Pacific films that reflect the Pacific, not as “islands in the far sea” (Hau’ofa 1994) but as islands with people, traditions, and knowledge.


Although this chapter has outlined very specific examples of Pacific peoples responding to negative portrayals of Pacific peoples, it is important to note that there is a significant amount of media out there that is by Pacific for Pacific and that honors the diversity within the Pacific. These include Truths She Wrote (a blog about successful Pacific women), The Coconet (a website that uses multimedia to connect Pacific peoples to their heritage through language, history, stories, etc.), and Fresh (a television show dedicated to Pacific-oriented pop culture). The media is a powerful tool for defining people, but as Pacific peoples in New Zealand have experienced, the media is also powerful as a tool to resist these definitions.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Thompson Rivers UniversityKamloopsCanada
  2. 2.University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Steven Ratuva
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and SociologyUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand
  2. 2.Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific StudiesUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand

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