Remember when Alec Baldwin quit public life? While others were dissecting the tone and psyche behind his alleged farewell, I got hung up in the piece’s intro, where he talked about phoning a gay-rights group in Hawaii and learning about their torment at growing up in "traditional Hawaiian families"—"Macho fathers. Religious mothers." Others wouldn't have stumbled there, but I was born and raised in Hawaii, and this is the kind of stuff that I notice.
Not to single out Alec, because nearly everyone makes this mistake, but a Hawaiian is a native Hawaiian, a descendant of the Polynesian people who first inhabited the Pacific island chain; generalizing all the people living in Hawaii as "Hawaiians" is disrespectful to the natives whose land was, you know, stolen. What Alec meant to say is "local families," local being the general we for those living in the islands. His second gaffe was using "traditional" to refer to the "macho fathers" and "religious mothers" in Hawaii who won’t openly accept their gay children. While I don’t doubt that he talked to LGBT kids with modern problems such as these, in traditional Hawaiian culture, mahu, third gender people, were a norm, embraced and respected, as were sexual impulses, both gay and straight. Religion and machismo were practices introduced by missionaries and settlers.
But enough with picking on Alec. Misunderstandings, stereotypes and hypergeneralizations are common when referencing the ins and outs of Hawaii in print, film and television. In the recent "Top Chef" finale on Maui, host Padma Lakshmi said that spam "is lovingly referred to by the locals as 'Hawaiian steak.’" Though it’s no joke that locals have a great fondness for the congealed pork cube and I’ll admit that "Hawaiian steak" does have a nice soundbitish ring to it, spam is known as nothing else but spam in the islands and is mostly served with fried eggs and rice, or wrapped in nori for musubi, like a sushi present.
Hawaii is an ocean apart from the continental U.S., in the margins of the coastal media outposts and the peripheries of social-justice Twitter monitors. The voice of Hawaii and its people (locals!) is often muted. But maybe the Hollywood-media complex doesn’t think it needs to be accountable in its accuracy of Hawaii because, for the most part, it depicts the islands as a mellow, chill, pina-colada-slurping, spam-barbecuing paradise where everyone wants to vacation forever, right?
Not exactly. Hawaii's had a big year. Four shows have aired in the last season that are 100 percent set in the islands—"Hawaii Five-O," four seasons and running; and "Hawaii Life," "Wild Hawaii" and "American Jungle"—with a fifth show currently being shot, tentatively titled "The Ark." And not all are glowing or accurate.
"Hawaii Five-O" most plays off the tropical fantasyland factor, except Honolulu looks more Miami in its saturated neons and bumpin’ nightclubs, and in reality, there are just about as many murders on the islands in a year than there are episodes in a single season. But none of this is worth getting too worked up over because the show is mostly your standard fictional-detective fare, essentially like the rest of CBS’s "CSI: Name Your City" lineup.
HGTV’s "Hawaii Life" is strangely more authentic, as (non-local!) people look to trade in the hustle and bustle of the mainland and live "the Hawaii lifestyle," which pretty much means buying a tract home in the suburbs of Kapolei, not in Honolulu or some lush, bamboo hideaway, because that is what real families (and families not living in Hawaii, where the median per capita income is $29,000 a year) can afford.
"Wild Hawaii," which just started airing on Nat Geo Wild, may be the most realistic of all, in that it’s your standard old-school nature show, a downsized "Planet Earth," filled with shots of bright-red lava flowing into the ocean, monstrous waves and predatory wildlife—and then to lighten the mood, the occasional slack-key guitar playing in the background. The series is actually pretty interesting if you’re into that sort of thing (learning), as I had no idea that Hawaii is the most remote island chain on Earth. You also get to see sea turtles snuggling.
The standout hate-watching event, however, is "American Jungle," which capitalizes on the reality-hillbilly phenomenon and rounded up some backwoodsmen (tanned ones!) and told them to ham it up in the jungles, otherwise known as forests to everyone else in Hawaii. (Think: The pig-hunting version of "Duck Dynasty" in a lush Big Island rainforest.) In the History channel reality series, seven hunting clans—yes, producers chose to refer to them as racially-charged "clans" ("sounds menacing!" I can hear the suits saying), not hunting groups or hunting ohana or simply hunters—are to live off the land, tracking and stabbing pigs, goats and cattle, like their ancestors did. Well, except it’s hard to tell how far their Hawaiian lineage goes; one guy is straight-up from Oklahoma. While many of the clans seemed grouped together for TV’s sake with names like Cowboy Clan and Ocean Clan, the most likeable of all the caricatures—the Honey Boo Boos of "American Jungle"—are the Correa Clan. However, unfortunately, the Correas are also the most traditionally podunk: Adult son Greg has a tattoo of "mom" on one side of his neck and "dad" on the other; his brother Duane has a bleached mullet, the party of which extends to his backside. And both, along with Pa Correa, are missing teeth and speak pidgin, a broken English mixture of Hawaiian, English, Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese and Tagalog that immigrants and natives made up to communicate with each other while they worked on the plantations together in the mid-19th century. Though you can usually detect at least the slightest hint of a pidgin accent in someone who has grown up in Hawaii—the severity of which runs the gamut—everyone, EVERYONE on the show talks like this: "Brah, it’s naw stupid, brah. We huntin’, brah." "Why you always grumblin’, brah?" "Because dis storm is unreal, brah." Even the Oklahoma guy. While many accents sound strained and exaggerated, the Correas’ don’t. Pa and sons seem like legit locals who don’t mug as much as red-headed Johnny Blaze, a former college football star, who at one point looks straight into the camera and says, "Only animals survive in the jungle—and I’m an animal." It’s pretty awful that the actual good guys of this show have to look like good ol’ boys. And make no mistake, this is the desired casting effect.
Then there is the premise of "American Jungle," which is also quite disastrous. No one’s technically competing over anything—there’s no prize for most boars and cattle slaughtered by the end of the eight-episode run. It’s mostly just footage of the clans trying to survive "the dry season," when it is harder to find animals to hunt, and getting in each other’s face when they cross paths. "I know you can hea’ me," Scotty of the Spear Clan screams after Johnny Blaze leaves pig guts on "his" trail. "I’m gone fine you, and wen I do, you guys coming up misseen’!" All of this primordial, territorial hullabaloo is serious misrepresentation. Hawaii is a regulated, measured state. While many of the scenes may be shot on private property, which itself is problematic (whose land is it then? And why are randoms fighting for trails on someone else’s property that producers probably rented?), some of the maps flashed on the screen are of public lands, in which you need permits to film. "American Jungle" producers were denied such permits last year. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources just wrapped up a six-month investigation of the show to see if the producers did indeed film on state land or if they had violated any marine or wildlife laws—and based on footage, they couldn’t prove that they had. But that doesn’t mean the show still wasn’t misleading and disrespectful. "There are people who take their hunting very seriously and will sleep out in the forest," said William Aila, chairman of DLNR, "but they come home eventually. They will subsist off other things besides the pigs and goats. I don’t believe that there’s anybody in Hawaii right now where their only source of food comes from hunting."
Aila also said that of the more than two dozen hunters who’ve called in or he’s spoken to, none are fans of "American Jungle." "They’re offended by this show," Aila said, "offended that it makes people outside of Hawaii think that people in Hawaii are barbaric buffoons." On a handful of local online forums and articles discussing "American Jungle," with the exception of those congratulating local-boy producer TJaye Forsythe, many hunters and locals condemn the show as "fake" and "so Hollywood." "I lived in Hawaii all my life hunted with my dad and friends," wrote one commenter of Hawaiiforums.com. "Did the whole process of killing to smoking the meat. I have got to say that this show is one big pile of B.S." Another on Outdoorhub.com wrote: "Most the actors on the show are the bottom of the barrel people who are always a thorn in police officers’ side. History should have done their homework before they picked this bunch of clowns."
Others who aren’t happy: the Hawaii County Game Management Advisory Commission, the Humane Society and Hawaii’s governor, Neil Abercrombie. "Portraying our local hunters as primitives demeans our people and their contributions to subsistence and wildlife conservation," said Abercrombie in a statement. "This appears to be a fictional 'reality’ production with no connection to actual hunters in Hawaii."
Stereotypes are nothing new to reality TV or television in general. Just about every show out there can seem offensive to one group or another: "Shahs of Sunset" to Iranian-Americans, "Jersey Shore" to Italian-Americans, every redneck show to everyone living south of the Mason-Dixon line. For argument’s sake, if a reality show’s best intention is to shine an anthropological light on a group of people, how would you describe the group you are watching in less-general, more-specific terms? You could summarize that "Shahs" is really a peek into the lives of spoiled, sometimes-likeable first-generation Persian-Americans who are caught up in the materialism of L.A.; the "Jersey Shore" a portal into self-described "guido/guidette" twentysomethings initially excited just to get shitfaced at the Shore before getting wrapped up in the obscene fame the show afforded them. While, don’t get me wrong, I find the term "guido lifestyle" absolutely absurd and derogatory, I also believe Snooki and Co. believed they were living it. It was hyped up but not a total act. You could say that "Hawaii Life" is about mainlanders fetishizing Hawaii because they like the sun or the outdoors or the idea of slowing down, but the only thing you can say that is true and representative of the "American Jungle" folk is that they have the desire to try their hand at hunting on a television show. It’s unclear if they all call themselves hunters when the cameras aren’t rolling and they sure as hell wouldn’t call themselves clans unless they were promoting "American Jungle" itself. "There's no truth to it," said Aila. "There’s no 'Blood Clan’ in Hawaii. It's family and friends that go hunting."
After 20-plus years of reality programming, we as viewers should come in with the knowledge that some of what we see is staged, even despite the advanced documentary techniques employed in show like "Jersey Shore," which monitors and films its cast around the clock. An element of spectacle is necessary for a show to get picked up by a network. But at what point should producers cut themselves off from molding reality? How accountable should we make them for showing us something real? "If the show was meant to be an accurate depiction of hunting in Hawaii, we would have created a documentary," wrote "American Jungle" producer TJaye Forsythe on his Facebook page, in a post that has since been deleted.
The problem with showcasing people from cultures foreign to most of America is that many could believe what they watch is true. I wouldn’t be surprised if "American Jungle" viewers thought this is what really happens in the rural stretches of Hawaii. Maybe they’d see through the fake rivalries and squabbles, but, just like how many still believe that "Duck Dynasty" is a portrait of how duck-call millionaires live because we don’t know any other duck-call millionaires and most of us have never traveled to West Monroe, Louisiana, much of the country is clueless about hunting in the wilds of Hawaii. In 2012, only 0.001 percent of the U.S. population visited Hilo, the closest so-called city to where the show is filmed—so why wouldn’t the general American public believe that pidgin-spewing backwoodsmen live off the land and spear bulls to get by in modern-day Hawaii?
Before the flawed and filthy rich, or the flawed and bumpkin-like, became TV’s bread and butter, there was the idyllic and the cookie-cutter. Hawaii was both the symbol of serene beauty and American-suburban escape. It was a safe exoticism, our country’s pit-stop paradise, saved for sitcom vacation episodes or tiki murder mysteries, packed with luaus, shirtless dudes saying "brah" and flirtatious hula dancers. In film, it provided the backdrop for a long history of easy-breezy surf movies—from "Blue Hawaii" and "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" in the 60s to "Blue Crush" and "Soul Surfer" in the aughts—because Hawaii is the place where you Hang 10, pray to the Big Kahuna and avoid the kooks. Hawaii didn’t become a national television staple until the original "Hawaii Five-O’"s 12-year run, paving the way for everyone’s favorite ’80s hunk, "Magnum P.I.," both of which were kind of hokey and not necessarily ethnically accurate but harmless nonetheless, and then there was my fave in high school, "Byrds of Paradise," starring a teenage Jennifer Love Hewitt as a Hawaii transplant, Timothy Busfield as her dad and a lot of young, local eye candy in between (fun fact: a friend of a friend took J.Love to prom). Then the reality shows arrived: "The Real World Hawaii," a.k.a. the one with Ruthie, which, like all the other seasons, no one expected to be real; MTV’s "Maui Girls," as vapid and phony as "The Hills"; and, of course, the original local-trash reality show, A&E’s "Dog the Bounty Hunter." "Dog" may be the least flattering to local life, but in some ways it was the most accurate of the bunch, as meth is no joke in islands; not every nook and cranny comes up desirable. But mostly, I give whatever sensationalism Dog provided a pass because any right-minded viewer could see that the most ludicrous things about the series were the non-natives—the overly tan, navel-bearing bounty hunter and his wife with the ginormous breasts. Compared to "American Jungle," "'Bounty Hunter' wasn’t that much better," Aila said. "But at least, conceptually, it employed someone who was bounty hunter mechanically correct."
I can think of only one mainstream film that has done a fair-enough job in portraying the complications of race, culture and how people live in Hawaii while capturing the islands’ natural beauty—2011’s The Descendants. Beneath a universal story of loss, there were the quiet politics between native Hawaiians, locals, local haoles who’ve lived there for generations but still don’t feel totally local, and the people who move there but never quite get the culture. Based on generation, time-and-place appropriateness and socio-economics, pidgin was spoken accordingly. Locals were cast as extras. Set designers added touches like Hawaiian sea-turtle quilts and shoyu bottles on restaurant tables. The whole thing was done quite thoughtfully because the director, Alexander Payne, worked closely with Kaui Hart Hemmings, the island-born writer of the book he adapted, to ensure accuracy in the details.
With that in mind, a simple solution to Hawaii’s misrepresentation problem would be to get a local, knowledgeable source on payroll for island-based projects. "Hawaii Five-O" has had a few; overall, the Hollywoodness of the show outweighs the urgency for accuracy. Even "American Jungle" has an authoritative consultant. Producer Forsythe, who lives on the Big Island and runs the hunting website Rustyboar.com, was actually one of the guys who pitched the show to networks. But in the end, he either didn’t have the power or the will to make suggestions like "No one uses the word 'clan’ in Hawaii" or "I’m not sure if it’s legal to spear a boar." And even when the show was still under investigation, production companies associated with "American Jungle" started filming a somewhat-similar reality program called "The Ark."
I’d be less insulted if shows like "American Jungle" went (don’t pardon the pun) whole hog on what’s fictional, while acting legally, environmentally and ethically responsible where it matters: Go ahead, cast teams of people in their natural speaking voices to go out into the forests of Hawaii and truly live off what they were given, "Survivor" style. But contestants would also have to learn lessons to respect nature and practice the ancient art of aloha to one another. I suspect that might prove much more challenging than trying to outdo each other’s pidgin accents.
Jessica Machado doesn't really like spam.