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Māhū: Triumph over Western Gender Dichotomy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1475 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Māhū: Triumph over Western Gender Dichotomy

      The understanding of gender is in itself, a Western construction based on a dichotomous gender binary system that includes the separation of gender and sex. Gender varies from society to society and its conceptualization can change. In the notable documentary, Kuma Hina, a self-identified mahu and transgender women is portrayed. Her prominent position in her Hawaiian community as a kanaka maoli activist acknowledges her identity as both a cultural practitioner for the mahu identity for kanaka and the rest of the world. In traditional Hawaiian culture, mahu were able to exist and did not reflect an oppressive binary gender identity falling outside of gender expectations. In Western culture, where gender is dichotomous, mahu are not recognized as a gender binary and are bound with other transgender identities from other cultures. Although Hawaii became a Westernized state, the kanaka were forced to adapt to Western structural changes to maintain sovereign legitimacy against Western hegemonic powers. Through Western contact and settler colonialism, the kanaka sense of gender identity and sexuality today is influenced not only by the conceptualization of gender and sexuality in a post-colonial society, but also by the infliction of Western cultural values that prescribe what is masculine and feminine.

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           The documentary highlights various scenes with Hina’s experience as a mahu within her role as an instructor for a dance performance. One scene in particular captures Kuma’s true spirit of dignity and pride as a mahu in her position as a teacher. One of her students, Ho’onani, is a young girl in sixth grade, who Kuma Hina describes as a “middle person”, is getting ready to lead a traditional Hawaiian chant with a group of boys. This act of leadership by Ho’onani gives Kuma Hina great pride and reminds her that when she was young, the “middle people” did not always get the same respect as she did now. Hina did not get the same respect for her mahu identity while she was growing up.  Prior to Western contact, Hawaiian society embraced mahu as “healers, visionaries, spiritual leaders, mediators, teachers, and guides (Towle and Morgan 673). But colonization and Christianity led to many changes, including turning mahu from an honorific to a derogatory term.

     From an anthropological lens, Towle and Morgan argue that gender has become too Westernized and is stuck in a primordial past where “hatred of sex and gender variation is not rooted in human nature” (Towle and Morgan 675).  According to kanaka culture today and the documentary, mahu are alive and well. Previous generations of kanaka learned to understand the mahu identity through a Western model of knowledge.  While kanaka culture recognizes the mahu identity as “sexual practices rather than internalized gender identities” (Towle and Morgan 674), the Western framework of gender has failed to view other culture’s notions of gender as different and unique to that culture. Transphobia is a White Supremacist legacy of colonialism which acts as a barrier to access full understanding of non-Western gender identities. As such, the full understanding of the mahu identity was inaccessible because it is a concept only accessible through a kanaka framework.

         Since gender is determined by socially constructed characteristics of what is masculine and feminine, each society differs in its perception of what constitutes masculine or feminine characteristics. In ancient societies like Hawaii, transgender individuals were valued as special beings, given special roles as healers, spiritual leaders, teachers, and guides. However, as Hawaii has transformed into a state “where mass tourism thrives on the commercialization of every aspect of Hawaiian culture” (Trask 42), the dome of Western influence has dominated the true understanding of mahu identity. The invasive nature of Western gender dichotomy has become deeply entrenched in Hawaiian culture so that “ancient history lives in the contemporary lives of non-Western peoples” (Towle and Morgan 675).  This questions the fact that it is not society itself that is changing how transgender individuals are seen. Rather, it is the evil of cultural imperialism that is shaping how Western culture views gender and sexuality, implying that there is a “single pancultural genealogy from which all humans evolved” (Towle and Morgan 675). The presence of cultural imperialism in Hawaii and Kuma Hina is evidenced by American influence on gender conceptualization, gender norms, gender performance, and gendered interactions in contemporary kānaka maoli culture that differs from its traditional understanding.

       Another character that appeared in Kumu Hina was Hina’s husband, Hema. As an immigrant from Fiji and a newly married man, he worried about how others would perceive him, and that people would think he was homosexual since he married a mahu. Throughout the film, Hina struggles with her identity both as wife and mahu. During an argument, Hema speaks angrily to Hina, swearing and using derogatory names when he finds Hina on the phone with a male friend and gets jealous. Hina portrays a more submissive role during arguments with Hema, questioning her role as a mahu and as a self-identified trans woman. Hina’s husband’s Tongan origins presents an interesting dynamic to his marriage with a mahu; his life as an “outsider” shapes his understanding of how a Western marriage should be. The presence of mahu could not fit into the Western construction of the nuclear family and resulted in the exclusion of mahu in the framework of society.

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   Towle and Morgan critique this notion of “West versus the Rest” through the understanding that non-Western gender systems have “have the unfortunate effect of essentializing other cultures and keeping us from examining other conditions of possibility” (Towle and Morgan 680). Therefore, Hema’s personal interpretation of mahu comes from his non-Westernized understanding of marriage and applies it to what he believes as “Western”. Tongan culture is tied to Christian origins, which may have influenced Hema’s idealization of marriage.  Though their marriage is not a normal heterosexual marriage, Hema applies his understanding to their marriage and thus, does not see his marriage in context with the new culture he has become a part of. This is seen through the portrayal of gender norms, such as how Hema believes how Hina should act because she is his wife. The Western understanding of transgender identity is    “the descendent of the cross-cultural examples and is the standard bearer for worldwide transgenderism” (Towle and Morgan 680). This implies that because of Hema’s Tongan roots, his understanding of trans identity is poisoned with a Western understanding rather than within the context of the kanaka cultural conditions. With their unique marital situation out of context, mahu becomes “over westernized” and distorts the complexity of gender identification that is present in kanaka culture and Hina’s life.

  The active demonstration of Western gender dichotomy resistance is undoubtedly represented in Kuma Hina through the presence of practicing traditional kanaka culture and preserving the native understanding of mahu identity. Although Western colonialism is forever imbedded in Hawaiian culture, the constituency of Hawaiian natives still work to preserve pre-colonial gender identities such as the mahu and to resist the repressive nature of “third gender” definitions from the Western framework. The reclaiming of ancient kanaka culture is exercised through Hina’s identity as a mahu, which is a conscious act of foundational respect for gender dynamics in a non-Western society. In order to draw away from the ignorant practices of “recreating the worlds of other cultures to suit our own intentions” (Towle and Morgan 681), the West must begin to view the contexts of gender within specific cultural settings.


  • Towle, Evan B. and M. Lynn Morgan . “Romancing the Transgender Native .” The Transgender Studies Reader (2006 ): 666-682.
  • Trask, Haunani- Kay. “Politics in the Pacific Islands: Imperialism and Native Self Determination.” From A Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii (n.d.).


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