Kenny Fisher and Jonah Takalua: A Look at Non-white Culture Portrayed by White Actors.
Can’t Hardly Wait turns 20 years old in 2018. A teen comedy that was fairly well received at the box office in its day. The film incorporates a number “teen” issues — romance, awkwardness, partying — while also addressing some social issues with a light PG-13 touch.
Summer Heights High is an Australian television show which ran for one season in 2007. Written by and starring Chris Lilley, this is one of his mockumentary pieces which lead to his success and popularity at home, while garnering no shortage of critics and detractors both in Australia and abroad.
Hall (2002) uses a process he calls, “Interrogation of the image.” This Medium will attempt to interrogate images in the media relating to an educational setting in a postracial world. “Scholars trace postracism to the late 1980s, when The Cosby Show hit primetime, ushering in ‘postracial’ politics that mark our present-day media texts” (Dubrofsky, 2013, p.84).
Our subject characters will be Kenny Fisher from Can’t Hardly Wait played by Seth Green and Jonah Takalua from Summer Heights High played by Chris Lilley. We will be viewing these characters as they are portrayed by the actors in satire referring to non-white culture and behavior. Please Enjoy.
Claim 1: Satire: “It’s all a joke, and people should just get over it.”
Let us begin by looking at the characters themselves starting with Kenny Fisher. Throughout the film viewers will be given ample clues that he comes from a wealthy family. He just graduated high school but still manages to show up to the party in his brand new over-sized SUV. Besides the display of his white upper-class privilege, the image you are most directed to when he is first introduced is his non-white behavior.
Similarly, Jonah is characterized as displaying non-white behavior, but there’s a twist. Jonah is non-white. He is supposed to come from the island of Tonga. He is Polynesian, or “poly” as he and his friends refer to themselves.
So, let’s be clear. Kenny is a white character, emulating a certain type of non-white behavior, played by a white actor. Whereas Jonah is a non-white character, emulating a certain type of non-white behavior, played by a white actor. Can we interrogate our claim further? Let’s see.
A quick defense for images like these in the media is that people are being too sensitive. This is satire, theatre, free expression. It’s all done in a way to make people laugh with no harm intended. So, is anyone truly hurt by these images? Jones (2015) writes about the way Muslims are portrayed in the media stating, “Even if the intentions of the photographer are benign, the result is a reinforcing of a Palestinian other” (p. 108).
There’s a scene at the end of Can’t Hardly Wait where one of Kenny’s thuggish friends approaches a group of African American students and exclaims, “What’s up my n****s!” only to be chased in a cartoonish fashion by the students. This seems interesting because it appears to signal to the audience that this behavior is funny and somewhat acceptable, but there’s a line that can’t be crossed; where actual harm can be done perhaps.
There’s a scene in episode 6 of Summer Heights High where all the Polynesian boys perform a tribal dance complete with flowers and grass skirts for the entire school. They’ve been coerced into this by a well-meaning white guidance counselor. After the performance Jonah is allowed to show a rap video entitled “Being a Poly” which features the boys looking tough and performing their break dancing moves. The scene keeps cutting to the crowd where two white students, who Jonah often bullies, are laughing at them, to the point where a teacher interjects to stop them from carrying on.
The Polynesian boys are cast as outsiders. Dalton (2004) writes how media can create environments that have, “Perpetuated an us-them dichotomy” (p. 110). Chris Lilley might have been signaling to his audience that while these images can be entertaining, whenever satire is created at the expense of the other, harm can be done. Jonah is cast as a bully, but the series ends (spoiler alert) with himself being bullied right out of the school.
We can look at our interrogation of these characters and view that the directing forces behind this satire seems to acknowledge a disconcerting trend. The idea that if something is offensive, it should be overlooked if the intention was satirical, should be considered debunked.
Claim 2: The media promotes cultural appropriation.
Varga-Dobai (2013) writes about ‘giving voice’ to particular groups which, “often promoted biased and simplistic representations and reinforced binary oppositions” (p. 144).
Cultural appropriation takes place when elements of a minority culture are adopted by a dominant culture. This happens in real life in many ways. We are focusing on the use of a comedy platform to showcase said adoption and whether it is appropriate.
In Can’t Hardly Wait there is a moment where Kenny is confronted by his old friend Denise who remembers him from grade school. She says, “There’s a mirror right there. Why don’t you take a look ok? You’re white.” The audience is being signaled that Kenny is not really being himself. He is adopting the image of the other, and it really isn’t the person Denise knows him to be.
Samsel & Perepa (2013) write about media representations that, “Perpetuate stereotypes” (p. 138). Where we can really observe this as a factor, is in the character of Jonah. If you’re not from Australia or New Zealand, and not familiar with Polynesian culture, watching Summer Heights High will leave you with a clear image: Polynesian youths in schools are slackers, poor readers, bullies, and generally a problem for staff and administration.
Chris Lilley has received quite a deal of push-back on his Jonah character. One issue is the makeup he uses. Indeed, he is acting in ‘brown-face’ which has led to some understandable criticism of his work. Also interesting, the character was rebooted in 2017 in a new program entitled Jonah from Tonga. The series was cut from Māori Television in New Zealand after protests made by the Tongan community.
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Despite some push-back, Chris Tilley remains a beloved and successful comedian in his home country and abroad. The idea that media promotes the appropriation of culture seems fit and robust, even as cultural norms continue to shift.
Wright (2013) cites a fact: “In the last ten years, control of U.S. media has shrunk “from fifty competing companies, to five”” (Miller, 2007, p.16) There is an evolution taking place.
In this Medium we have observed how satire, even when well intentioned, is not always fun for everyone. We have also seen how the media promotes cultural appropriation. The media in the instance of both characters is reflected in a high school environment, with real life high schoolers and young adults being the target audience.
One reflection we can further investigate is the evolution of these media representations. Something that is discussed in the Guardian article above is the concept of shifting culture. What may have been innocuous in 1998 or 2007 can be received quite differently in 2017 and beyond. As I write this, there is a media issue that coincides with these characters and their appropriateness in our timeline — the character of Apu on The Simpsons, but that interrogation will have to wait for another day. [#1195]
· Hall, S. & Jhally, S. (Director). (2002). Representation & the media [DVD]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
· Dubrofsky, R.E. (2013). Jewishness, Whiteness, and Blackness on Glee: Singing to the Tune of Postracism.Communication, Culture & Critique, 6, 82–102.
· Samsel, M. & Perepa, P. (2013). The impact of media representation of disabilities on teachers’ perceptions.Support for Learning, 28(4), 138–145.
· Varga-Dobai, K. (2013). Gender issues in multicultural children’s literature — Black and third-world feminist critiques of appropriation, essentialism, and us/other binary oppositions. Multicultural Perspectives, 15(3), 141–147.
· Jones, R. B. (2015). (Re)thinking orientalism: Using graphic narratives to teach critical visual literacy. New York: Peter Lang. (Chapter 5: Muslims in the American Media: The Muslims I Know, All-American Muslim, and Graphic Representations).
· Wright, R. R. (2013). Zombies, cyborgs, and other labor organizers: An introduction to representations of adult learning theories and HRD in popular culture. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 25(1), 5–17.
· Dalton, M.M. (2004). The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. Chapter 6: Here but not Queer. (pp. 104–102).
· Miller, T. (2007). Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitan, Consumerism, and television in a neo-liberal age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
· Godfrey, M. (2017). Jonah from Tonga was withdrawn for good reason: it’s Chris Lilley’s satire at its worst. The Guardian.