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Taika Waititi’s Boy: Exploring Masculinity from an Indigenous Perspective

September 23, 2018 | By

New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama Boy (2010) that explores the complexity of familial dysfunction and hero worship through a Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) perspective. Boy challenges the conventional familial framework and questions the notions of power, intellect and responsibility that are typically associated with masculinity and fatherhood. The film utilises Boy’s imagination and the character of Alamein to comically reinforce and question dominant gender ideology.

Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama ‘Boy’ (2010)

Academy award nominated New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama Boy (2010) explores a myriad of complex and multi-dimensional themes, as the coming-of-age narrative follows a non-conventional 1980s Māori family in the midst of poverty. The Māori have typically been under-represented and/or misrepresented in cinema. Waititi, of Māori ancestry himself, effectively conceptualises familial dysfunction and other stereotypes of Māori culture, employing satirical nuances to convey the evolution of Māori portrayal on-screen, whilst analysing the subsequent interplay of gender within these ideas. The comedy-drama genre tends to appeal to a wider demographic, and hence is characterised by conforming to dominant gender discourse. Nonetheless, Waititi employs elements of humour to explore the complexities and tribulations of flawed family dynamics, providing a commentary on the deep-rooted stereotypes associated with Māori culture, seen largely through interactions between the protagonist Boy, and his father Alamein. This altered approach allows the exploration of the tension between non-conventional gender roles and dominant ideology.

From an internationally situated perspective, Sergio Huarcaya, specialising in contemporary Indigenous representation affirms that Boy reflects contemporary Māori lives, by contextualising the social problems and discrepancies experienced by Indigenous people, whilst simultaneously respecting Indigenous culture. Māori representation has conventionally been male-dominated, and portrayed individuals through the standard lens of “warrior masculinity” in a tribal setting e.g. Rewi’s Last Stand (1939). Indigenous media studies academics Smith and Mercier highlight that in a society fostering “a global increase in Indigenous film and media scholarship”, Boy effectively explores Māori issues in contemporary society without conforming to Indigenous stereotypes.

Familial dysfunction underpins the development of the narrative and is the ultimate impetus for Boy’s coming-of-age characterisation.  The mise-en-scène and various shots around the family home and shed connote the haphazard lifestyle and neglect often associated with a dysfunctional family. The shed is messy and unclean, reflecting the disorderly and chaotic circumstances of a non-traditional household restricted by their means. This further contextualises the premise of the film, which largely focuses on the economic and social disadvantages faced by Māori during this era. Critics affirm that Boy accurately explores the “anatomy of social forces that produce dysfunction in Māori families”, an argument valid largely because the film can be categorised as “Fourth Cinema”., In ‘Introduction to the Special Issue on Taika Waititi’s Boy’, Jo Smith and O. Ripeka Mercier explained in details the implications of “Fourth Cinema”, a genre conceived by renowned filmmaker Barry Barclay when characterising media made about Indigenous people by indigenous people.

Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama ‘Boy’ (2010)

Alamein on his throne in the shed wearing the “Shōgun” helmet

Waititi effectively presents an anomalous family dynamic, lacking affection and stability evident through Alamein’s inability to assume fatherly responsibility and Boy’s independence and authoritative nature over his siblings. These issues incite discussion concerning the conventional gender roles in a familial dynamic, as the noticeable lack of parental figures has affected the emotional development of the children. Traditionally, fatherhood is associated with notions of responsibility and discipline. However, critics such as Bianca Daniell, taking cue from Vivien Silvey, describe the character of Alamein as a “permachild”, meaning an adult who behaves like an adolescent. This characteristic is Alamein’s fatal flaw, and a source of immaturity and recklessness that ultimately leads to his final setback, where Boy shows him the shredded “treasure” following the violent interaction with the gang. This regressive behaviour and parental neglect is further reflected in Alamein’s rejection of the title “Dad” because “it sounds weird”. Instead, Alamein asks Boy to call him “Shōgun”, in a close-up of the best-selling 1975 novel about feudal Japan by James Clavell. This inter-textual reference suggests notions of absolute power and control, ideas not instinctively associated with Alamein’s flawed, facetious and immature character. Alamein’s rejection of parenthood is reinforced by his violent and careless mannerisms when clearing out the shed, symbolically indicating an absence of sentiment in his characterisation.

The primarily earthy colour palette throughout the film echoes the dull and subdued nature of the living situation, reflects the low socioeconomic context, and invokes emotion concerning the melancholic loss and emptiness associated with the household, that is also fundamental to Boy’s character. The absence of a maternal figure is not Boy’s central concern, particularly with the supporting characters of Nan and Auntie Gracie. Notably, the care-giving adults in Boy and Rocky’s life are trailblazing women; as Nan is independently raising her grandchildren whilst Auntie Gracie has monopolised all the businesses in town. Hence, Boy appears to challenge the traditional gender roles intrinsic to the family dynamics. Furthermore, films of this genre often conform to “safe” representations of gender roles to ensure a wide audience base. Regardless, Waititi challenges stereotypes to effectively present women in a powerful and economically independent light relative to Alamein, who embodies weakness and immaturity, which are characteristics independent of conventional masculinity.

Throughout the film, Alamein constantly reaffirms his masculinity through rough body language, reference to his strength and dominance over his subordinate gang members and Boy, and by continually referring to himself as a “man”. Native studies professor Brendan Hokowhitu argues the character of Alamein is experiencing “masculinity in crisis”, whereby there is a postmodern restructuring of the framework of typical masculinity.

The concept and practice of hero worship is fundamental to the premise of the film, particularly when considering Boy’s coming-of-age development to eventually accept the reality of his father’s shortcomings. Meanwhile, Boy’s characterisation indicates that he repeatedly rises above his age and matures to be equal with adults in order to compensate for these shortcomings.

It is evident that despite Alamein’s flawed character, Boy utilises his imagination to maintain a positive impression of his father. As the plot develops, Alamein’s actions undermine Boy’s optimistic and ambitious perception of him. Boy initially describes his father as a “master carver”, “deep sea treasure diver” and “captain of the rugby team”, a heroic perception that is dissolved immediately when another student mentions his imprisonment. Despite the characterisation of Alamein defying traditional gender customs, Waititi still engages imagery of the conventional “heroic father”, as it is conceptualised through Boy’s imagination. This reflects the impressionable nature of youth, as they become accustomed to societal gender ideals and aspire to conform to these scaffolds. Boy engages his idolisation of Michael Jackson into his imagination when Alamein reveals his immature and violent tendencies. Waititi employs elements of comedy to manoeuvre the difficult and uneasy complexities of familial tension, a reality of New Zealand society. Furthermore, these interruptions of reality in the sequence of the narrative censor the confronting violence and “warrior mentality” associated with crime and loosely with masculinity.

The “Samurai Alamein” of Boy’s Imagination

Boy explores issues of Māori poverty, gang violence, familial dysfunction/ abandonment and drug use, all of which are realities of contemporary New Zealand. In the film, Alamein nonchalantly discloses details of his “gang” with Boy through humour, thus trivialising the reality of gang presence and associated violence in New Zealand. Alamein’s explanation of “renegades” to Boy as “someone who lives outside the law, but they’re still cool” normalises violence and crime and associates these acts to Māori masculinity. Alamein avoids the negative connotations associated with the term by linking it with the A-team, the Hulk and Samurai. These inter-textual references are utilised by Alamein to normalise gang-related crime and position “renegades” as powerful and heroic individuals, as opposed to blatant criminals. Waititi characterises Alamein to adopt a comical and intellectually challenged nature, thus engaging humour and elements of the comedy genre to explore complex issues.

Furthermore, Alamein’s casual drug and alcohol misuse is symbolic of the issue of drug abuse in New Zealand, particularly among the Indigenous population. Whilst the film reflects the dichotomy of Māori and Western civilisation, critics argue that the character of Alamein simply reinforces negative stereotypes of Māori masculinities as violent and neglecting.

Certain cinematographic elements throughout the film, particularly in the opening montage contribute to the emphasis on Māori poverty, these include extended establishing shots of barren, isolated land and infrastructure. Shots of the children playing with the fence throughout the film symbolise the constrained and “trapped” notions associated with poverty and social immobility. These notions are alluded to throughout the film, as Boy regularly mentions “moving to the city”, wearing tuxedos regularly and purchasing dolphins for transport, all of which illustrate the pinnacle of success and masculinity to Boy, who is evidently infused with purity despite his maturity. This cinematic portrayal of inequality is a commentary on the disparity that exists across New Zealand in reality, in a non-confronting manner.

Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama ‘Boy’ (2010)

Alamein and his gang digging for treasure in rural New Zealand.
The earthy browns and dull green in the shot convey the somewhat dismal lifestyle.

Interestingly, in the past Taika Waititi has iterated that he’d rather not be known as a “Māori artist” but rather an “artist who just happens to be Māori”. Waititi’s oeuvre is extensive, including international blockbusters such as Thor: Ragnarok (2017). His work is not confined to Indigenous representation. The aforementioned inter-textual references to “renegades” and the motif of Michael Jackson references throughout the film reflect the evolution of Indigenous cinema to intersect with global genres and culture. This holistically contextualises the film as it accounts for the heavy Western influence in Māori communities in the 1980s and in contemporary society. Furthermore, employment of such references to global popular culture allows widening of the target demographic of the film, in order for a Pākehā/non-Māori audience to appreciate Māori cinema and appreciate “growing up” and the transition through adolescence as an experience that can transcend cultural borders. The inclusion of popular culture references in tandem with an emphasis on Māori culture and the rural New Zealand lifestyle effectively interpellates various niches within the wider audience pool to appreciate the semiotics of the film.

Boy explores the complexity of familial dysfunction and hero worship through a Māori perspective. Waititi employs a myriad of formal elements and cinematic techniques to convey these themes, as well as to ensure their significance in relation to Māori culture. Furthermore, the film elucidates the social and economic disparity between Pākehā and Māori peoples and attempts to diversify Māori representation in popular cinema. These themes and issues are largely intertwined with gender discourse, particularly masculinity. Overall, females are largely under-represented, nonetheless, the emphasis on male characters allows a coming-of-age exploration of masculinity. Boy challenges the conventional familial framework and questions the notions of power, intellect and responsibility that are typically associated with masculinity and fatherhood. Archetypal comedy-dramas often comply with dominant gender discourse, in order to engage a wide audience. This film utilises Boy’s imagination and the character of Alamein to comically reinforce and question dominant gender ideology.

Bibliography

Sergio Miguel Huarcaya, ‘A Commentary on Boy and the Indigenous Self’, MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand, Vol 13, No 1 (2012), accessed on 22 September 2018

Jo Smith, O. Ripeka Mercier, ‘Introduction to the Special Issue on Taika Waititi’s Boy’, MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand, Vol 13, No 1 (2012), accessed on 22 September 2018

Bianca Daniell, ‘Creative Narratives in Boy’, MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand, Vol 13, No 1 (2012), accessed on 22 September 2018

Brendan Hokowhitu, ‘Te Kapa o Taika: A Commentary on Boy’, MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand, Vol 13, No 1 (2012), accessed on 22 September 2018

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Raised in Sydney, Australia, Fatima is currently based in Dunedin, New Zealand and is pursuing her degree in Physiology at the University of Otago. She has a growing interest in cinema and gender studies. More broadly, she is keen to explore the Indigenous perspectives of both, Australia and New Zealand, as far as media representations of masculinity and femininity are concerned. In addition, she is enthusiastic about International Cinema, particularly Hollywood, and Indian and Pakistani media. She is an avid traveler and a musicophile.
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