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Chris Lilley and Jonah from Tonga

*First, thanks for posting privileges! I will try to use this power for good. Second, I feel like I need to apologize for my first GT post being so heavy, but I saw this today from @IndigenousIdeas on Twitter, and I thought you might have some thoughts on it.*

When Chris Lilley's Summer Heights High premiered in 2007 and then made its way online, I was a freshman in college and all of my friends were immediately obsessed with it. They loved Ja'mie the most, followed by Mr. G, then Jonah, the maladjusted Tongan student, in that order.


As a Native American, Lilley's portrayal of Jonah bothered me, but I didn't say anything. I pass as white and I was doing my best to fit in. I didn't say anything.

When Private School Girl came out, I watched it, I'll admit. Ja'mie was Lilley's best character, and the show came with a lot of harsh satire on the rich.


Now Lilley's premiering a new show, Jonah from Tonga.

Chris Lilley is white. As Jonah, he spends the entirety of the trailer misbehaving, acting out with violence and profanity, as well as sexual harassing Tongan women.


He also does it in brown face.

Sione Latu, of Nuku'alofa, Tonga, has started a Change.org petition asking HBO (US and Canada), Melanie Brunt, Laura Waters, and Chris Lilley to stop the US and Canadian airing of Jonah from Tonga.


From the petition:

First, Jonah is played by a Caucasian, 39-year-old Australian in brown face make-up and a curly haired wig. Brownface in 2014, really?

Second, Jonah is clearly identified as 'Tongan'. The name of the show is Jonah from Tonga. The series starts in 'Tonga'. The logo is a caricature of of a 'Tiki' carving. Etc. We get it. You want us to think it's about a Tongan. And for Americans, most of whom have little previous knowledge about Tonga, this series will shape the way they think about the nation, its culture, and its people. So what will they learn?

1. All the teenage 'Tongan' boys shown in the series are low achievers, gang members, or in jail. The school's high achievers are Caucasians.

2. Much of the 'comedy' is derived from this blackface/brownfaced 'Tongan' character's acts of violence, sexual aggression, ignorance and profanity. This is problematic not only because of the show's astounding inherent racism, but because much of his behavior is deeply counter to Tongan culture. He swears at his sister and his father. He is extremely disrespectful to teachers. He makes sexual edvances on his cousin. He is sexually suggestive to his Aunt and a Nun. And much, much more. All this is deeply offensive in Tongan culture. Tonga is a devoutly religious country, very family-oriented, with one of the highest PhD rates per capital. None of this is reflected in Jonah from Tonga.

3. In another nod to the racism of minstrel shows, Jonah's only saving talent is presented as dancing, and his brother's as singing.

4. The excuse given for all this is 'lighten up, it's only comedy'. First, even reviewers who liked it thought it was not that funny. A typicalreview is: "the documentary truth of the situation and the people seems more important than the laughs here" (Julia Raeside, The Guardian). Which captures the problem — many viewers will assume there is a 'documentary truth' in the series that teaches them something about Tonga. And it will be equally unfunny when a Tongan boy, already doing his best to fit in an American high school, gets taunted with a variation of 'Hey Jonah - show us your dXXk tattoo!'


How is it that this petition is even needed to stop a program that derives its entire storyline from a grown man in brownface? I realize that race relations in Australia are different than in the US (no apology to the Lost Generations of kidnapped Aboriginal children until 2008, for example), but is it so different that Jonah from Tonga isn't seen as a racist depiction of young Tongan men, and a negative representation of Tongan culture as a whole?

Unfortunately, I feel like Jonah from Tonga will likely air as planned. Lilley's shows have consistently appeared on HBO in the US and Canada in the past, and the show's primary defense is that it's satire, it's just comedy, it's supposed to be offensive, et cetera.


I, for one, will not be watching. What about you, GT?

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