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The presented documentary explores the concept of “mahu” people through the eyes a hula teacher in Hawaii. The concept is a traditional Hawaiian idea that there are male and female genders, as well as a third gender that shares characteristics of both. This concept was deeply repressed by the colonial government that Hawaii was under and only relatively recently, traditional cultural values were allowed to be taught and practiced. This film captures the unique perspective of a person who represents a traditional culture in a modern world and succeeds. This paper will attempt to apply Judith Butler’s gender performativity theory to the main character of the film, and provide my personal thoughts on non-binary gender identities.
Performativity and Mahu
It is difficult to apply Butler’s theory due to the unique origin of the Mahu culture. The preconceptions of the western world do not apply to traditional Hawaiian values, and the performativity that occurs is very different in nature. It can be seen as Hina’s drive to preserve and promote traditional Hawaiian culture allows her to shape her mahu identity because it is an intrinsic part of the Hawaiian society. To follow western views on gender would be directly opposing her cause and identity. If Butler’s theory that performance of the gender creates the individual is correct, then Hina is performing an ancient role that was almost forgotten due to the oppressive colonial regime. While Hina has a more dominant feminine side to her personality, the role of mahu equally applies to those people who have a stronger male personality, which is important to consider when applying such a theory. Hina wants to be a loving wife, but she does not always agree with the traditional views on gender roles in marriage, which creates a conflict with her partner. Nevertheless, she firmly stands by her identity and is working to promote traditional Hawaiian culture in the country.
I was very pleasantly surprised to see an example of non-binary genders in pre-colonial cultures. The difference in the construction of traditional Hawaiian society is fascinating, and it is a tragedy that it was repressed for so long. This repression made me feel wrong while trying to apply a very western theory of gender to a person who represents an almost direct opposite of western culture. Moreover, the role of mahu was developed without any presence of western thought, and to analyze it through a lens even of modern western gender theory seems inaccurate and even partially disrespectful.
Kumu Hina is a fascinating film. It presents an idea that is much older than the majority of gender debates, but its existence goes against traditional western views on gender. It is very reassuring to see that the original Hawaiian culture is experiencing a slow revival and that in the future, the concept of mahu would be much more common in the region. Hopefully, this will happen sooner than later.