Why WHALE RIDER is Just as Relevant as Ever

Originally published on January 22, 2017

WHALE RIDER. This is a title that you may have heard before, but might not be completely familiar with. Just to give a brief rundown of what this story is about, WHALE RIDER is about a young girl who aspires to become the future leader of her Maori tribe. Unfortunately, her grandfather, strongly routed in tradition of how it is a man’s job to be the chief, dismisses her on the regular, seeing no use for her whatsoever. However, this does not stop her from training herself in the ways and customs of her ancestors; and that even includes, at one point, helping her ancestor Paikea’s whale find the will to live.

This year holds special significance for WHALE RIDER; both the novel written by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, and the Niki Caro-directed film adaptation. 2017 marks 30 years since the novel was published and 15 years since the film was released. These anniversaries should be acknowledged for this very special story, especially one that is still just as relevant today.

If yesterday’s events prove anything, we still have a long way to go before girls and women – along with people of color, LGBT people, and so on – are viewed and accepted for nothing more than the human beings we are, and be judged by solely on the context of our characters. The story of WHALE RIDER does a beautiful job of highlighting how we can exceed any doubts and restrictions placed upon us. Despite the story deriving from the Maori legend of Paikea the whale rider, and features a young brown girl from a remote community in the North Island of New Zealand, both the novel and the film have appealed to readers and viewers alike all over the world.

WHALE RIDER’s thematic relevancy was prominent in my mind when I re-read it two months ago, ironically as I traveled to and from seeing the documentary, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS; whose story also follows a similar journey of a girl overcoming traditional boundaries. It made me think of young girls and women out there who feel nervous for what is to come with the Trump presidency. We’re already in, what is clear to see, a whole new wave of feminism. I just hope that in the time we’re in now and with WHALE RIDER’s novel and film anniversaries this year, people will consider checking out both. After all, part of what motivated author Ihimaera to write the novel in the first place is to provide his daughters a female character who wasn’t a damsel in distress.

As we go forward into this uncertain future and begin listing off books and films with strong female characters, I encourage everyone to keep in mind the story presented in WHALE RIDER. The protagonist may not be what we would idealize as a “bad-ass” through her perseverance and quiet determination, and the story is set in not an apocalyptic future in North America, but a contemporary Maori community. However, just note how the novel has been touching lives for the past 30 years (15 years for the film) for a reason, and I hope that same sentiment and value in the story can touch many more lives in the years to come.

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