It's not often you see a new form of racism being created. But, if HBO goes ahead with its planned screening of Jonah from Tonga, that's exactly what's going to happen. And the lives of a whole lot of good people will get that much worse.
Jonah from Tonga is an Australian 6-part 'mockumentary' so brimming with a peculiar sort of deep Australian racism that's hard to even know where to start. So, let's go with the main character. Jonah is 14 and 'from Tonga', though living in Australia with family.
Jonah is in trouble with the law, is a horrific bully, homophobic, and regularly sexually harasses women teachers, his aunts and even a nun. Academically, he is failing and is being parked in a remedial education unit known in the show as "spaz" house (thanks, Australia, for breathing new life into that almost forgotten derogatory term).
And the thing is, get this, this racist teenaged pastiche is being played by Chris Lilley, a 39-year-old white guy, in a permed wig and brownface. Yes, brownface. In 2014. Really. Take a look at the promo shot. Even the logo is some sort of faux-'Tonga' tiki.
What are you thinking, HBO? This is not cutting edge. This is not a modern All In The Family. This is not, as the original broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) described it: "comedy and satire... with a sharp edge -- notions that extend back to Chaucer and Shakespeare."
The reference to Chaucer and Shakespeare is apt only in that this sort of 'comedy' is so old-fashioned as to be medieval. This is barely post-colonial racism. This is a middle-aged white guy putting on brown face paint and a curly wig and pretending to be a sexually aggressive, moronic, criminal, brown guy whose only saving grace is singing and dancing (or in this case, rapping and break dancing -- I kid you not). I thought the days of minstrel shows were over.
Oh, there's more. Jonah's all 'Tongan' school dance group is called Fobba-licious (from FOB -- Fresh Off the Boat). When Jonah inevitably gets sent to juvenile detention he forms another group: Juvi-licious -- helpfully showing the viewers the smooth transition from immigrant to criminal.
In lock-up, Lilley introduces us to another Australian racist stereotype and term. The violent criminal "Abos" (for Aboriginal Australian). The brown Islanders and brown Abos fight each other while the kindly white guards try to keep the peace.
Just as a bonus, the show also introduces a new slur that will make life hell for redheads. In the show redheads are violently bullied for being "rangas" (for orangutans). This largely Caucasian-only stereotype is the only one that Lilley has said he feels a bit bad about: "I get angry letters from rangas. And letters from parents whose kids are rangas. So I feel a little bit guilty, but it's funny and that overrides everything."
Really? According to ABC's defense of the show: "Our editorial policies provide a solid framework for this sort of programming: if there is harm and offence it must have a clear editorial purpose and be signposted." The editorial purpose here seems to be Lilley thinks it's funny.
Team Lilley is getting used to trying to come up with excuses for the inexcusable.
ABC's head of TV comedy, Rick Kalowski, said: "Jonah from Tonga plays with stereotypes but it's doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah's own." Let's start with the basics. Mr. Kalowski is blithely saying that, in his mind, there is a preexisting stereotype of Tongans as sexually aggressive, profane, dumb and criminal for Lilley to 'play with'.
That tells us a lot more about Mr. Kalowski than it does about Tongans. Who is he hanging out with? Certainly not the Tongans who are excelling at Harvard. Or the Tongan Marines who are serving alongside us in Afghanistan. Or the Tongan academics in Japan. Or Tongan religious leaders posted all over the world. Or the thousands of quiet, hard-working, devout, family focused Tongans living across Australia.
ACTUAL FACTS ABOUT THE KINGDOM OF TONGA
- A chain of islands in the South Pacific, near Fiji. Population 106,000. Large Diaspora in the US, mostly in California and Utah.
- Literacy 99%. One of highest per capital PhD rates in world.
- Practically no starvation or homelessness. Very safe.
- No traffic lights or chain fast food outlets (No McDonald's KFC, etc) in the whole country.
- Very family-oriented and devout Christians. No flights in or out of the country on Sundays.
- Former capital of a large Polynesian Maritime Empire.
- Never Colonized. Last Polynesian Kingdom.
- King Tupou I Wrote and signed one of first Constitutions in the region in 1875.
Mr. Kalowski's racist stereotype of Tongans does not (yet) exist in the mainstream American consciousness. Just for a nanosecond accept Mr. Kalowski at face value. Why in the world would HBO want to create a new racist stereotype, affecting the lives of thousands of Pacific Islanders in their schools, their communities, and at work, just for an Australian actor to 'play with'. What the hell?
And if anyone thinks creating a new derogatory stereotype won't have an effect, please watch PBS's classic Frontline Documentary A Class Divided about Iowa school teacher Jane Elliott's famous 1970's blue eyes/brown eyes racism experiment (or any of the thousands of scientific papers on the effects of racism and bias).
Tongans, Pacific Islanders, and those who understand racism know the attacks will come if HBO broadcasts, are they doing what they can to defend themselves, including writing articles, taking to Twitter (#MyNameIsNOTJonah), Facebook and urging people to cancel their HBO subscription if it broadcasts. Many of the comments on the change.org petition asking HBO not to broadcast the show are deeply touching pleas to save communities, especially the children, from the inevitable targeting. As Tevita Tapavalu wrote:
This perpetuates stereotypes beyond Tongans and makes a mockery of the migration experiences faced by every ethnic group. This narrative is more common than you think and by making a joke of these lived experiences, Mr. Lilley--moreover, HBO, makes it okay for open discrimination and racism under the premise that 'it's just comedy'.
It's worth making one thing clear. Throughout the series, Team Lilley shows it really doesn't know anything about Tonga and Tongans, and really doesn't care. For example, in the show, when a boy from Jonah's family becomes a man, he gets the 'traditional' family tattoo -- 'Tonganized' male genitalia. Jonah gets his done on his chest. His father's is on his butt. Hahaha, Lilley seems to be saying, Tongans are so stupid, they think they are being a man by getting traditional tattoos, but really they are just big dicks. Geddit? Where is the sophisticated "observation about the narrow-minded attitudes" in that segment, HBO?
Tongan culture is old, deep and complex. Social relationships, especially within the extended family have intricate but clear (to Tongans) parameters. The hardest Tongan Crip would never say the sort of thing that Jonah says to his sister (just two examples: "I'll punch you in the vagina" and "eat shit... bitch"). He just wouldn't. It wouldn't be Tongan.
In a letter defending the show to a concerned Tongan church group, ABC claims that "Jonah's clear lack of respect toward his family and ignorance about his culture is in stark contrast to those around him." This is complete nonsense. His father, sister, other relatives also do things no Tongan would do, including swearing at close family members of the opposite sex, and during prayers.
Another excuse given by Mr. Kalowski was: "It's also worth noting that while Jonah himself might be a heightened comic character, virtually every other Tongan or Islander character in the series is presented as a well-rounded, believable person without comic traits: Jonah's brother, sister, cousin, aunt and his social worker 'Kool Kris'."
I watched the whole series. All I know about Jonah's brother is that he has learning difficulties, was also in 'juvi', and his one saving grace, in true racist tradition, is that he can sing. The most defining characteristic of his sister is that, as Jonah repeatedly says to her, she is "fat." The cousin, whom Jonah lusts after, ends up being pretty lustful herself and dates the local 'Tongan' gangbanger. The aunt is an unmemorable benign non-entity with no backstory. 'Kool Kris' is another stereotype: the decidedly uncool, saving-himself-until-marriage, religious do-gooder (i.e. the only 'good' Tongan male character is self-emasculating). These characters are well-rounded only in the context of a two-dimensional universe.
Anyway, in an interview, Lilley himself said something completely different: "I had the example of the other boys that were Jonah's friends and that was intentional as I wanted to surround him with kids that were just like him in order to help the illusion and you could place him." Which is closer to the truth.
The 'Tongans' we see most, Jonah's gang, are a Greek chorus reinforcing and echoing Jonah's violence, profanity and disruptive behavior. And Jonah's father is dumb, foul-mouthed and abusive, frequently beating Jonah and shouting at him in public: "I'm gonna smack you in the asshole." Kool Kris calls him a typical Tongan dad.
As for Lilley's character research, he says: "I met Pacific Islander kids and just naughty teenage boys, those types of kids."
Which is possibly (one of the many reasons) why it went wrong. Cultures are not mix-n-match. A Tongan 'naughty boy' will not do things an Anglo-Australian 'naughty boy' will do. And vice-versa. As Kolini Fusitua put it: "we tongans view Jonah as a white teenager characteristic with possible disability that is not address by people in his environment." The core point is, if Lilley was interested in just 'naughty boys', why single out someone from a very specific culture, Tonga, unless he also wanted to make a point about Tonga?
Which brings us to another line taken by Lilley defenders, that he 'offends everyone'. Not like this. His only other stand-alone character series, in which he plays an obnoxious teenaged girl, was Ja'mie: Private School Girl.
Imagine if in Ja'mie was from another country and the show was called Ja'mie from China. Or Ja'mie from Mexico. Or Ja'mie from Jerusalem. Pretty ugly, right? It also limits the show's 'social commentary' as her characteristics can be dismissed as not referenceing a certain sort of girl, but as reinforcing/creating stereotypes about a certain sort of Chinese, Mexican, etc... Well, apart from the sex change, that's exactly what Lilley did with Jonah from Tonga.
Richard Finlayson, Director of TV at ABC says Jonah: "is not intended, nor should it be seen to represent all Tongans." Then why specify Jonah is 'from Tonga' (in the title no less) and surround him with similar criminal and disruptive 'Tongans': the Tongan ganbangers, the Tongans in jail, the Tongan boys in 'Spaz' House. In the context of the series, Jonah is not an outlier; Jonah is a bridge character between the disruptive 'Tongan' teens at school and the dangerous 'Tongan' gang members (the show's core question is whether or not he will end up in a gang). And it's not the soppy Kool Kris who gets the girl, it's (in the context of the series) the actually cool Tongan gang member.
Mr. Finlayson says Jonah's journey is "redemptive" and ends with him having "a sense of pride, direction, self-worth, spiritual awareness and greater purpose." Did we watch the same show? Because in the one I saw, the series ends with Jonah using Photoshop to trick his father into thinking he is doing well at school so he can go to Tonga to get his family dick tattoo.
Australian racism towards Pacific Islands is a major problem, at many levels, especially for Australia itself as it tries to find its place in the 'Asian century'. There is, in many Pacific capitals, the perception that Australia is an inept, condescending regional bully -- and that Canberra looks at national governments as little more than Jonahs in better suits. That deteriorating relationship has the potential to change geopolitics.
Jonah from Tonga has been a ratings disaster in Australia and the UK. This is not a 'good' sort of controversy. Apart from the effects on Pacific Islanders, it is bad for HBO. It is bad for the producers, Melanie Brunt and Laura Waters from Princess Pictures. And it is bad for Chris Lilley. With Jonah, Lilley jumped the shark. And the sad thing is, his friends didn't warn him.
Please, HBO, I get it, you like Lilley -- this isn't about the quality of his other shows. You may even think he is Australia's Shakespeare. But it's not the 16th Century. Nowadays, friends don't let friends wear blackface. Period.
There is a debate going on now about whether white Australia is still racist. Those in the 'yes' camp point to the treatment of Aboriginals, the series of attacks on Indian students, the assaults on Asians and more. Now they can also say Australia's establishment racism is so casual the national broadcaster will commission a brownface series trashing the reputation of a specific immigrant community while saying it's in the tradition of Chaucer. Australia, you are better than this. Aren't you?
And HBO, doesn't the US have enough divisions without having to import new ones? Don't be a hater. If you drop it, Lilley will be fine. If you run it, good kids will get hurt. And that is not funny.