Chris Lilley’s comedy ‘Jonah from Tonga’ follows the life of a rebellious 14-year-old schoolboy and his run-ins with family, friends and teachers.
Professor Helen Lee is the Head of La Trobe University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She’s spent more than 20 years researching Tongan society, with a particular focus on the youth diaspora’s relationship with the ‘homeland’. She believes the portrayal of Tongan youth as “stupid” and “thuggish” is not satire.
Presenter: Sam Bolitho
Professor Helen Lee, Head of La Trobe University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology
LEE: I was horrified, I just think it’s dreadful, it’s just awful, it’s creating a terrible stereo-type that’s just really deeply offensive to Tongans, particularly to older Tongans and it’s going to create. There might be some young Tongans who think it’s really cool and funny at the moment, but when they start being everyone’s expectations of them are that they’re going to be like that, they’re going to find that that’s not very pleasant.
BOLITHO: The show’s creator, Chris Lilley, he would probably argue that the program is a satire of racism. What’s your response to that argument?
LEE: Hmm, I don’t think he’s done a good enough job with that. I know, I’ve read interviews with him about this program and what he was trying to do with it, but it just seems like a deeply self-indulgent exercise where he just enjoys inhabiting these characters and he said that. He said he’s not even trying to make it particularly funny, he’s just trying to inhabit the character. And he said one interview I read, he said I’m obsessed with the culture. If he was obsessed with the culture, he would know that some of the things he did were incredibly offensive, the comments to his supposed sister, calling her fatty and talking about sexual matters or swearing in front of her is absolutely taboo in Tongan culture and it’s just horrible to see that being acted out on the screen there and people thinking that that’s what Tongan kids do.
BOLITHO: Can you elaborate on the stereo-types that are most offensive and why they are offensive to the Tongan community?
LEE: I think that the stereo-type that Tongan kids are dumb, that they can’t do well in school, that they’re troublemakers, that all they’re interested in is hip hop and graffiti and stuff like that and a lot of them are interested in hip hop. Certainly I’ve got a PhD student doing her whole PhD on Tongan Hip Hop, but it’s not the kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s actually intelligent hip hop, where the lyrics are almost like poetry and they’re all about identity and so. But yeah, it’s just a sterero-type of this kind of thuggish, stupid youth, which does not in any way represent what Tongan youth are like.
BOLITHO: Why do you think that it’s permissible to act out these stereo-types of Pacific cultures when there’s been examples, of say the black face incident on “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” on Australian television, which created a huge response and it doesn’t seem like this will have that reaction?
LEE: Well, it’s certainly having that reaction amongst Tongans, but nobody’s going to hear from them really. Ordinary Tongans aren’t going to be asked about their opinions.
I don’t think it’s permissible, I think it’s appalling, and I don’t think he should be allowed to do it. I think a 40 year-old white man, dressing up as a 14 year-old Tongan boy in brown face in just inherently creepy for a start. He got away with Ja’mie because it was sort of an extension of a whole tradition of drag. But the tradition of black face has as you say, I mean it’s not OK anymore. So I don’t think it is permissible and I think he’ll probably get something of a backlash, although I’ve been reading all the comments on various reviews about it and it’s clearly a very mixed response and there are some people who defend him as some kind of brilliant comedian. I don’t share their views obviously, but I watched it last night and I thought if they had an actual young Tongan guy playing this character, it might have actually got away with being reasonably funny, but because it’s a white man doing it, it just, it just goes over the line.
BOLITHO: This is in some people’s view a negative portrayal of Pacific Islanders, although it is a rare time when Pacific people represented on Australian television. Do you think there are better ways to give Pacific people representation on Australian TV and if so, how?
LEE: I think there’s plenty of opportunities for them, it’s just that all of the standard shows that employ Australian actors employ mostly white actors. I mean when has there been a Pacific Islander on “Home And Away” or “Neighbours” or any of the kind of standard dramas that there are the ongoing series. They don’t really get a look in there, except if they’re going to be drug dealers or security guards or that kind of character. Just having them as normal people who are just carrying on their regular everyday lives in Australia would be nice to see as it would be for a lot of different ethnic groups, but that’s not how Australian media works.