Whale Rider Assignment

Rachael Ogilvie – 100651263

1. How is Paikea a female counter-stereotype? Use the “female gaze” theory to describe how the film and the character fit this model of the female perspective and female “voice”. Use the web links provided in Week 11 module on the Female Gaze.

“As women we need to run free with our desires to come to a place when and where we know who we are and what we desire.” -Rubaiyat Hossian

In Niki Caro’s film ‘Whale Rider’, Pai is a holistic representation of female counter-stereotype when compared to the women that are shown in patriarchal Hollywood. The character of Pai broke through her assigned gender role and prevailed in what would otherwise be an entirely male-dominated path of spirituality. In Rubaiyat Hossain’s article about female gaze theory, she begins by quoting Agnes Varda who states that she, as a film-maker who also happens to be female, “just [wants] to tell women’s stories about women”. While Whale Rider could certainly be identified as a feminist, groundbreaking film in regards to the male-centered universe that Hollywood has created, in a less gender-confided world, Whale Rider could simply been seen as a Varda puts it, a women’s story about women. The female gaze theory suggests that men and women observe and react to certain areas of life entirely differently due to the oppression and sexual objectification of women. While the male gaze continues to perpetuate the concept of women primarily as sex objects, female film directors are showing, what is obvious to viewers who have a feminist lens, that “a woman [has] a right to her own body, control over her reproductive organs, [and] choice over her pleasures and desires” (Hossian). Pai not only demonstrates her rights to the things listed above, but she does so against all odds. While real women are constantly having to prove their worth beyond procreation and sexual desire, it’s empowering to see something so real, honest, and relatable on the screen. Caro directed a beautiful story that many woman can identify with: the struggle for equality, the struggle for universal acceptance, and the struggle to eliminate gender-stereotypes. Because after all, “if the knowledge is given to everyone then we can have lots of leaders, and soon everyone will be strong” (Barnett).

2. How is Whale Rider a statement of empowerment for women and girls? How does Paikea challenge gendered expectations? Use scenes/characterization/dialogue from the film to give examples.

As I mentioned above, I find Whale Rider to be empowering because although it speaks on a grand scale, Pai’s struggle represents the struggle of women every day. To me, the most obvious way this that this film is empowering is simply because the main character is a woman, and that her struggles go beyond the limits that many heroines are often stuck in. Pai is not concerned the areas of life that a male-constructed Hollywood film may depict as sole importance to women, including physical image, material things, and finding a husband. This film digs much deeper into areas of personal discovery, maturity into adulthood, assigned gender roles, and understanding one’s place within one’s family, community, and the world. Whale Rider shows honest emotional depth and authenticity in respect to the female voice.
As a character, Pai is challenges gendered expectations in many ways, some more obvious than others. As the only female in a group full of males, she follows the traditions in which to become a leader, she teaches the young boys to use weaponry, and she is the only one able to find a whale tooth. But there are other, less obvious, scenes that I found to be highly empowering as well.
One in particular took place with Pai and Porourangi sitting on the boat. In the middle of a discussion about Pai’s brother’s apparent destiny of being the prophet, the conversation begins to focus on Koro… Porourangi even more emotional than Pai. A man crying because he feels he has disappointed his father? Surely Hollywood would insist that only women feel an emotion like this. But it is Pai who is seeming to comfort Porourangi. For such a young girl, she is able to confidently ask thought provoking questions and demonstrate her critical thinking.
“Your Koro made himself believe so strongly that [your brother] was gonna be the one”
“But what if he was?”
“And what if he wasn’t?”
“You know, your Koro, he did the same thing with me.”
“Is that why he’s so hard on you?”
“Yep. Pretty much. ‘Cause I can’t be what he wants.”
“Me either.”
It may be unconventional, but was during this scene where I felt most empowered as a woman. Very rarely are young heroines so full of empathy, maturity, and self-awareness.

3. How is Whale Rider an example of “counter-cinema” and the “female gaze”? Use the 1990’s Lecture notes in Week 11 Module to help with this answer and the “Hollywood” article by Kord and Krimmer in the course package.

“When at their best, movies give birth to new visions of female strength and freedom” (Kord).

Whale Rider is an example of counter-cinema for many of the reasons I listed in the previous questions which primarily boil down to Pai’s sense of self, her priorities, her confidence, her ability to ignore gender confinement and her societal views which all appear to be in the realm of feminism, ie: equality. Another piece I’d like to point out is how stand-point theory impacts the ability to categorize this film as counter-cinema. Although I’m unsure if the Caro self-identified as a Maori woman, her ability to direct a film in which the underlining concept deals with the universal female struggle, gives the film legitimacy and honesty.
In regards to Kord and Krimmer’s article, there are several defining characteristics that make Whale Rider a brilliant example of counter-cinema. Hollywood films in the 90’s are all about the big, flashy stuff: “big budgets, big spectacles, big stars, being releases, big corporations, big mergers” (Kord). In no way does Whale Rider succumb to these expectations. This film focussed on the content rather than the fireworks and million dollar hair and make-up crew. Albeit, it was beautiful, the modesty of the film’s feel played hugely into my focus on what was being said rather than being seen.
This film also stayed away from ‘genre bending’ and, I believe, it focussed more on the story-telling rather than defining itself and feeling forced to please a massive audience. This film speaks to women; all kinds of women, mind you, but it certainly didn’t appear to be contrived to fit a typical mould, limit, or expectation.


Barnett, John. & Caro, Niki (2002). Whale Rider. New Zealand: Pandora Films.

Hossian, Rubaiyat (2011). Female Directors, Female Gaze. Retrieved from http://rubaiyat-hossain.com/2011/06/13/265/

Kord, Susanne. Krimmer, Elisabeth (2005). Hollywood Divas, Indie Queens, and TV Heroines pp. 1 – 13. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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