Serving up the “Other”: Representations of Indigeneity in Popular Culture
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Through a critical engagement with the television show Jonah from Tonga, in this paper I attempt to address representations of indigeneity in popular culture in popular culture. Created by Australian comedian Chris Lilley, Jonah from Tonga is a mockumentary starring the white actor in brownface as Jonah, a young boy whose only attribute is his (mild) aptitude for break dance. By complicating notions of indigenous peoples as unintelligent, hyper-sexualized, and violent I attempt to unravel the show’s prevalent stereotypes that dis-empower indigenous people. As a dancer myself, I explore how movement and dance is linked to these stereotypes. I find that dance is indeed another mechanism for reproducing stereotypes of indigenous peoples as more connected to physical, rather than mental, capabilities. Alternatively, I examine how Jonah from Tonga opens up space for the production of counter-narratives about, and alternative representations of, indigenous peoples in the popular mass media. Through humor and viewer response, both indigenous actors and audience members exercise “visual sovereignty” that challenges stereotypical tropes in this problematic medium. By critically analyzing the show Jonah from Tonga and its viewer response, this paper explores the complex and often paradoxical intricacies of indigenous representations in mainstream popular culture.