One of the earliest representations of Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in the media that I can recall is the depiction of a Hawaiian family in Lilo and Stitch that came out in 2002. I was a big fan of the film at that time but thinking back on the it now, I notice small nuances, both positive and negative, that I did not pick up on at the age of 11.
First the negatives. The main character Lilo, a young Hawaiian girl, comes from a broken and dysfunctional family where her parents are not present and she is raised singularly by her older sister, Nani. This ties into the negative stereotypes associated with Native Hawaiians that depict their culture as one in which substance abuse and broken families are common occurrences. This is an example of essentialism, in which these broad generalizations of family dysfunction are believed to be inherent to a population, in this case Native Hawaiians. Another negative depiction I noticed in the film was Lilo’s position within her school and community. She was often mistreated and ostracized by her classmates, many of who were from Caucasian tourist families. This reemphasizes themes of racial hegemony in which Hawaiians and people of color are believed to be ‘lesser than’. Finally, I almost felt as if the representation of the Native Hawaiian people and landscapes could be considered an example of implicit yellowface. Every character spoke with a very thick and cliche Hawaiian accent and the town they lived in was overwhelmed with leis, hula dancers and other forms of exhausted Hawaiian imagery.
Now the positives. There were themes throughout this film that I believe show the true essence of the Hawaiian spirit. The characters often expressed the importance of ‘ohana’ or family. Nani and Lilo along with their pet alien, Stitch, were determined to stick together through all difficult circumstances because family is of the utmost importance in life. They also displayed a toughness of sorts, that has been necessary for the preservation of the Hawaiian culture throughout its history of colonialism. Lilo, through her intense sense of determination taught young viewers that attempting to conform to outside pressures can only cause heartache, staying true to yourself, your culture and your family is what is important.
To my knowledge, there have not been many more Pacific Islander representations of this sort since Lilo and Stitch, but if the comments we have heard in class from individuals such as Bill O’Reilly are any indication, we still have a long way to go in freeing ourselves from stereotypical representations in the media.