Boundary between cultures are perhaps more abstract than the highly abstract concept “culture” itself. But when the breach of such boundaries goes far enough to constitute cultural appropriation, the case often becomes quite clear. By definition, cultural appropriation takes place when one culture borrows or imitates values and embodiments of other cultures superficially (Rogers, 2006, p.475). In other words, one culture takes the appearance of other cultures without their substance. Cultural appropriation is a partial form of cultural communication, as it is undertaken on unequal playfield. While in cultural exchange interactions between cultures are reciprocal—meaning both cultures give and take, in cultural appropriation the dominant culture exploit the subordinate cultures without reciprocity, permission or even proper representation, to the degree that the subordinate cultures are provoked to protest (Rogers, 2006, p.477).
The recent Hollywood film Aloha is one such example. The film tells the triangle story between one white man, who is a military contractor and two white woman on Hawaii. With the narrative the native people seem to have no quarrel. However, when the untitled film completed its production and the crew decided to take the title ‘Aloha’, Native Hawaiians get really upset (Kellener, 2015). These natives are not Americans and Japanese who call Hawaii their home, but Native Hawaiians known as Kanaka Maoli, the native indigenous Polynesian people who inhabited the land before the Colonial Era. (Mock, 2015) Aloha is a word that possesses profound meaning in their culture. The first part of the word, alo, means the front of a person, and the second part ha means our breath; put together, the word connotes the exchange of breath of life when people meet and communicate in front of each other. (Mock, 2015)
But Hollywood has no care for such exchange. Aloha is taken away from the people who coined the word and hold it sacred, only to be disposed as the title of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Such act could be tolerated if the narrative actively engages with Native Hawaiian culture and delve into the significance of the word. Unfortunately, it did not. The three principal characters are all white, and Hawaii is no more than the exotic land where their love story takes place. The title and narrative and casting of the film shows Hollywood’s total disregard for Hawaiian culture’s substance while exploiting its appearance. Native Hawaiian writer Janet Mock (2015) comments incisively on the matter, “What’s difficult about being from Hawaii is that everyone has a postcard view of your home.” Indeed, for the mass the cultural image of Hawaii has long been that of a beautiful, carefree, almost otherworldly paradise. What Hawaii really is under that face, they care as much as the Hollywood wise guys do.
This is not Hollywood’s first offense of cultural appropriation on Hawaii. The 2011 The Descendants, like Aloha, cast all its principal characters with white actors/actresses and featured Hawaii as an exotic sight like its protagonist George Clooney. In fact, Hollywood made quite a habit of cultural appropriation ever since its existence. The acclaimed classic All Quiet on the Western Front(1930) tells the story of World War I on the German side with American actors, and without a single German word; likewise, the cultural monument Milk(2008) tells the story of the first open-gay elected official with a straight-straight cast. Challenging this tradition of cultural banditry are auteurs like Clint Eastwood, who made two films about the battle of Iwo Jima, one from the American side and the other from the Japanese side—and with a pure Japanese cast. This contrast renders both alarms and comfort. Hollywood knows how to rightly represent other cultures, and when it does it makes wonderful films. However, the problem that plagues the industry is that too many filmmakers do not care enough to portray other cultures authentically. It is the high time for the industry to realize that cultural appropriation is devoid of meaning and culture, and movies devoid of meaning and culture are bad cultures—in the end, people watch films because they communicate the experience of humanity, which is culture.
Rogers, R. (2006) “A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation,” Communication Theory, 16, 474-503.