Film class — week 14

26 November 2006, 2150 EST

Film #14 “The Whale Rider” (2002). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading: Ann Tickner, “Man, the State, and War: Gendered Perspectives on National Security,” Chapter 2 of Gender in International Relations; Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (NY: Columbia University Press, 1992). (CIAO subscribers only)

Ann Tickner’s book is perhaps the best-known feminist treatise in the field of international relations. In the assigned chapter, she describes how classic levels of analysis studied by scholars in the field — man, the state and war (for individual, national and systemic) — reflect and reinforce gendered notions about security politics.

For example, Tickner discusses the importance of the so-called “warrior citizen” in classic realist theorizing:

In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau describes “political man” as an individual engaged in a struggle for power. In my book I take this construction of “political man” and link it to a militarized version of citizenship which has a long tradition in western political theory and practice. Feminist political theorist Wendy Brown suggests that for the Greeks, manly virtue was linked to victory in battle. The association of manly behavior and war was also important in Machiavelli’s glorification of the warrior prince. Machiavelli’s concept of virtu was equated with might, energetic activity, effectiveness and courage — for Machiavelli, these were all explicitly masculine characteristics. Virtu must struggle against its opposite, fortuna, described by Machiavelli as female. Machiavelli is quite explicit in his belief that women posed a danger to soldiers and therefore to national security more generally.

Today, citizenship continues to be tied to soldiering….The privileged position of citizen warrior carries over into civilian political life where politicians with war records are especially valorized.

At the national level, Tickner argues that states are essentially warrior states, which require warrior citizens.

The ultimate purpose of Tickner’s work is to suggest and advocate for an alternative concept of security — dependent upon the elimination of unjust social relations (including gender inequality) as well as physical violence. Ideas and identities are socially constructed, so prevailing ideas and identities have to be re-constructed if they are to be transformed.

“The Whale Rider” is a film about a 12-year old girl named Paikea, the only living child in the line of a Maori family that directly descends from a heroic figure named Pai, who rode atop a whale from Hawaiki. Paikea’s mother and twin brother died during the childbirth and her grandfather, the current chief, is desperate to find a successor. By tradition, the tribe’s leader should be a first-born son and his own first-born son has abandoned the tribe to become an artist in Germany.

How feminine, eh? Ultimately, the grandfather decides to instruct all the tribe’s boy children so as to identify a potential successor. He teaches them sacred chants, use of a fighting stick, and other important skills. By Tickner’s reasoning, he is teaching them to be warrior citizens. Paikea is not welcome in these classes.

Secretly, however, Paikea observes many of the sessions and trains herself. She readily learns the chants and her uncle teaches her to use the fighting stick. She even defeats one of the most promising boy students in an impromptu fight.

From the title and my description, you can probably guess what happens in this film of female empowerment. The interesting academic question, of course, is whether Paikea succeeds only because she becomes a warrior citizen — or does she offer something genuinely new and transformative?

In other words, does Paikea destroy old myths, or simply reinforce them in a subtle way — like “iron lady” Margaret Thatcher?

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