Universality

While one might consider the kind of exoticization and construction of an ahistorical cultural authenticity I describe in the previous section to be the opposite of a claim that the films are ''universal''—how can the films be both about a specific exotic/delicious/patriarchal culture and about all cultures at all times (i.e., universal)?—in fact these two different kinds of representations depend on and support one another. Once a culture is fixed into a static, ahistorical authenticity and thereby separated from any specificity of particular social changes that may take place over time (such as Castle-Hughes' use of the supposedly for-men-only taiaha sticks or Ihimaera's hugely popular critique of what he defines as ''the guy thing''), it is only one step further to claim that the experiences represented in that decontextualized culture can really apply to anyone.

Reviews often support their claim for Bend It Like Beckham's universality by associating it with My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). For example, one review claims ''the comforting message at the heart of these ethnic comedies is that parents are comically impossible in any language, faith or nationality, but they will love and support you no matter what foolish notion gets into your head'' (Bernard). Here, the specificity of a (fictional) Sikh immigrant experience in London, U.K., compared to a (fictional) Greek immigrant experience in Chicago, U.S.A., disappears and the story comes to be about ''anyone.'' We all, after all, presumably have a language, a faith, and a nationality. One review claims universality, but seems to limit it to children of immigrants: ''Jess, like children of immigrants everywhere, must figure out how to gain acceptance in two worlds'' (Bernard). In a U.S. context, however, where the vast majority of readers of this paper presumably are children (or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, etc.) of immigrants, the reviewer invites us to associate ourselves with Jess, to claim her story as a universal story, without having to address the messy specificities of any particular immigrant and/or colonial story.

Reviews of Whale Rider often quote Niki Caro (the director) as saying, ''The more specific you make it . . . the more universal it is. . . . We are all human and this film talks about things that are relevant everywhere'' (e.g., Calder). While some reviews provide more specific quotations from Caro about what the ''things that are relevant everywhere'' are (e.g., ''generational conflict'' and ''girl power'' themes [Munoz]), most often they simply reproduce her claim about universality. The reviewers themselves also claim the film is universal, saying things such as ''[the film's] familiarity is . . . part of the movie's power: here's a story from halfway around the world that somehow connects with the heart of viewers of almost any culture'' (Caro).20 While most reviews remain vague about the source of the universalism, some reviews are more specific about ''how'' the film connects with other viewers: for example, through a ''coming-of-age'' story (Anonymous; Hornaday) or ''a tale of tradition and evolution, or intractability and acceptance" (Pickle).21 Each of these more specific universal themes, however, remains dissociated from any specific cultural or national identity or experience. The films' supposed universalism, then, encourages U.S. audiences to associate their own experience with an abstract globalism that displaces the specificity of local and particular experiences in either New Zealand or the United States.

it's a girl power movie, but better!

Overall, the reviews' representation of these films as ahistorical, authentic, and universal tales helps to explain the larger comfort with the films in U.S. popular culture. They may tell stories about girls, those girls may be powerful and in control of themselves, and they may even confront racism, sexism, and the legacy of colonialism in their lives, naming and challenging it, but they do so outside of time, against an othered patriarchy and in a universal space that is neither uncomfortably here nor obtusely there. These films potentially could be read as offering a more confrontational and explicit feminist perspective than many of the other girl power films to which the reviews compare them. Nevertheless, the reviewers read the films more in the opposite direction, depoliticizing the films, paradoxically, through an explicit discussion of feminism.

To be fair, some of the reviews do simply claim and celebrate aspects of Whale Rider that either they define as feminist or can be understood to fit within a loose definition of feminism. For example, reviews sometimes quote Castle-Hughes as saying that ''the most important thing about this movie is that it shows girls can do anything. Every girl is brought up to think they are not good enough to do this or that, but I realized that girls can do anything" (Munoz).22 Many reviews see ''female empowerment" (Gire; Stuart; Macdonald, May 31, 2003; Kenny; Nuckols; Morgenstern) in the film.23 The film also apparently includes ''some lovely you-go-girl moments'' (Schwarzbaum). One review is titled ''Girls Just Want to Be Maori Tribal Leaders'' (Strauss), and yet another headline claims ''This Girl, She Goes!'' (Hornaday).24

Many more reviews, however, identify these elements of feminism or girl power only to claim that Whale Rider is somehow better than that vague thing called feminism. For example, one reviewer claims that ''while Whale Rider is a doozy of a female-empowerment fantasy, it's mercifully free of any feminist smugness'' (Ansen).25 One review mentions both Whale Rider and Bend It Like Beckham: "As did Bend It Like Beckham, Whale Rider pulls off its girl-power message without coming off as predictable or self-righteous"

(Gillespie). Another review is more specific about what exactly is wrong with feminism when it claims that "Whale Rider... transcends its standard structure [in which ''a girl tries to prove her value in a male-dominated society''] by plunging you into the lives of distinct, lovingly created characters" (Caro). Presumably that ''standard structure'' is both feminist and problematic for not providing those kinds of characters. For another reviewer, feminism is curiously separate from heroism: ''Although I came into Whale Rider assuming that it was a film in which a girl challenges the patriarchy and fights to become accepted as a leader, Caro's movie has not a feminist agenda, but a heroic one'' (Rickey).26

At least two reviews make the link between the ''it's better than feminism'' claim and the supposed deracialized universalism in the film. For example, one reviewer writes: ''Refreshingly, Whale Rider—much like the recent Bend It Like Beckham or Real Women Have Curves—takes a more elegant approach to its feminist salvo, raising its sensibilities above cheap hyperbole, thus allowing for deep universal appreciation'' (Weinkauf). Another reviewer writes: ''When [the grandfather] Koro instructs all the firstborn sons of the tribe in ancient warrior arts, or when the men and women of the village labor together to save a group of beached whales, or when cinematographer Leon Narbey simply lingers on the silhouettes of massive wood carvings against the clouds, Whale Rider emits a far deeper and more powerful pull than it does when it surfs the popular swells of chick rule'' (Schwarzbaum). In these two reviews, while the film itself may have feminist elements, feminism, presumably, is not universal. However, ''authentic'' girls of color, carefully separated from the specificity of the reader/ reviewer/viewer's present, are universal. In this way feminism remains lily-white (thereby allowing, of course, for an implicit critique of it for its whiteness and social disconnectedness). Furthermore, girls of color, such as the heroines of these films, remain more closely linked to their race and/or culture than to their gender. Thus, feminism is dismissed (including any feminism that one might actually read in the films), gender and race are separated (even though one might easily read Pai and Jess to be expressing intersec-tional feminist perspectives on the embeddedness of both gender and race in their lives),27 and cultural difference can be celebrated as nonthreatening.

Other reviews are even more hostile toward feminism and/or girl power. In these reviews, praise of Whale Rider as an exception works in tandem with—as if as a justification for—misogyny directed toward other films and other women or girl characters. For example, one reviewer writes that ''Castle-Hughes avoids the teeth-gnashing, righteous indignation of most adolescent-rebellion fantasies.''28 Another review claims that ''the lush re moteness of the landscape [serves] as an entrancing contrast to the sugar-rush, you-go-girl empowerment of programmed pandering like The Lizzie McGuire Movie, whose tweener heroine flails her arms and bats her eyes as if she were sending distress signals'' (Mitchell). These irritating girls who ''flail their arms'' in their attempts to be assertive are specifically from the United States. For example, one reviewer writes that Whale Rider is ''a far cry from American movies, where the soon-to-be-teen would be slamming out of the house and jumping on the back of a Harley.'' The review then quotes Castle-Hughes as supporting this point: '''I know a lot of kids act out, but honestly everyone in New Zealand is respectful to their elders''' (Pearlman). In this confused quotation, Castle-Hughes simultaneously admits that ''a lot of kids act out'' and claims that New Zealand kids never act out. Thus, while I would like to think this was not Castle-Hughes' point, the reviewer is able to insult U.S. girls (for being resistant, for ''acting out'') by praising Castle-Hughes, her character, and the film for general passivity, despite the fact that Pai is anything but passive.29

Reviews of Bend It Like Beckham are a little more comfortable with embracing the film as feminist, perhaps because this is a much milder feminism than the explicit ''girl power'' feminism many reviews find in Whale Rider. Much of the acceptance of the feminism in Bend It Like Beckham appears in one- or two-sentence descriptions of the film's narrative. For example, one review describes the film this way: ''The film, a romantic comedy, tells the story of a gutsy young woman, Jess, who has grown up in a loving family of tradition-bound Indian immigrants; though happy in England, they remain loyal to their culture of hard work and arranged marriages. But Jess . . . has other ideas'' (Alibhai-Brown).30 Making the presence, but ultimate irrelevance, of feminism explicit, another reviewer writes that ''a girl is no longer considered a tomboy for being interested in sports. . . . No, Jess' roadblocks come from her more traditional Indian parents who still have old-world expectations for their daughters—expectations that most definitely encompass school and marriage but not anything like sports'' (Baltake). Each of these examples softens the possible feminist reading of the film by opposing the idea of a girl's independence to cultural tradition. Thus, the reviews imply that the whole world—except ''Indian culture''—is already feminist, completely comfortable with girls playing sports; thus, this is a gentle film about an Indian girl bringing the already accepted feminism of the outside world into her tradition-bound household.

Several reviews talk about the metaphor of''bending'' as an explicitly mild version of feminism, often quoting Gurinder Chadha (the film's director) or Nagra to do so. For example, in an NPR interview Chadha says, ''I found

[bending the ball] to be a fantastic metaphor for my film because . . . with us, with girls and women . . . often we can stand at the end of a picture, we can see our goal and we, too, have to kind of twist and turn and bend the rules a little bit to get to our goal. And that works. And then also since the film is about an Indian girl... it was important for her to bend the rules as opposed to break the rules.''31 This is a safe, soft, painless feminism. And, importantly, it is safe, soft, and painless because of its explicit connection to that timeless, patriarchal, authentic Indian culture. Thus, in the U.S. context, the feminism is even safer in that it is only still necessary in "other" cultures. In the United States, as most of the reviews report, we already have girls' soccer and Mia Hamm. We are past a need for feminism, and thus these films are quaint ways for us to celebrate the fact that we have evolved, that we can take a story or two about a girl who defies patriarchal rule (in the literal sense of her father or grandfather) to achieve her own dream.

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