For a long time, I never saw myself on television. Growing up, I avidly watched numerous shows, indulging in the fantasy that I’d one day “become” some of those girls I so admired.
Girls like Matilda, Wednesday Adams, the Olsen twins, Elle Woods, Daphne from Scooby Doo, Lizzie McGuire, Regina George, Megan Fox, Blair Waldorf, and so many others. The TV screen was a looking glass, but I only ever found fragments of myself.
Despite its largely fictitious nature, the cinematic world tells audiences whose stories are worth sharing and whose are not. Just as telling as those who get to be on screen, are those erased by the celluloid world. My closest, and probably only, reference point was Disney’s Moana. As cute as she is, the limitations of trying to “see” oneself in an animated child wearing a pandanus skirt, living some 3,000 years ago, are obvious. Despite Pasifika women being some of the leading figures in my life, I never saw their myriad, colourful personalities reflected on screen.
That was until Baby Mama’s Club, in 2016, and now, Sis, a sketch comedy show which debuted recently. Both are from director, writer, producer, and badass wāhine toa Hanelle Harris (who’s Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Tūwharetoa).
It’s the first series made by, and starring, a Māori and Pasifika cast on Comedy Central — an achievement that’s long overdue given how damn funny we are. The narrative anchor is the “writer’s room” sketch, a hilarious meta satire exposing the frustration of Māori and Pasifika creators when confronted by well-meaning but ignorant Pālagi producers who objectify brown bodies for their diversity-tick and prevent them from controlling their narratives.
This is an issue Hanelle Harris is no stranger to calling out, and rightly so. In a recent interview on The Hui, she made it clear that Sis is, first and foremost, by and for our people. Period.
Although Hanelle is the lead creator, she’s employed a team of predominantly Māori and Pasifika writers, co-directors, producers, and artistic talent across all the show’s facets. It’s incredible really, and reading the credits was like going through all the cool brown people I follow on Instagram.
Despite its shortness — the four acts aren’t longer than 10 minutes — Sis feels big. It’s singlehandedly creating a seismic shift in the media landscape, opening the doors for more Polynesian creatives to tell their stories on their terms.
The show dropped to considerable fanfare. Expectations were high and Sis delivers, and then some. It’s quirky, witty, sometimes strange, uplifting, confronting, heartwarming, and everything in between. The narratives are daring, capturing some of the nuanced experiences within the Pacific diaspora.
Its genius is how it addresses culturally weighty issues, such as sexual taboos, racial profiling, sexual orientation, cultural gatekeeping, sexism, and more, with unique comedic aplomb. The world is a rough place right now and it’s nice to open my phone and witness brown girls being goofy and joyous.
Admittedly, I was initially apprehensive about whether I’d like Sis, which feels odd to say, given how much I enjoy Hanelle’s other work. That anxiety came from knowing that Pasifika women are seldom given the range on screen. We’re too often relegated to sideline characters and inscribed with one-dimensional stereotypes. It’s either the Dusky Maiden archetype — a Victorian era fetish rendering Pasifika women as exotic, passive beauties appeasing the white gaze — or it’s the hyper modest God-fearing church girl. And when it’s comedic, it’s the sassy wife/girlfriend trope written with little nuance.
These stories eclipse the diversity of our lived realities, most often because they’re made by non- Pasifika creators who don’t see that there are too many parts and manifestations of us to be boxed into singular expressions. I was also worried that Sis might fall into the trap of trying too hard to justify their “Pacificness” to the audience, a characteristic that too often spoils many Pacific films and TV shows.
But my anxieties also illuminate the critical issue of the burden of responsibility put on creators of colour — that their work must be everything to everyone. Because our communities are seldom well-represented on screen, we unfairly expect these works to service us perfectly, which can have a chilling effect on our creative imaginations.
And, like all good art, Sis hasn’t been immune from criticism. Cecilia Sagote, the Australian-based former editor-in-chief of the now defunct SUGA magazine, criticised the show on Twitter, saying she’s tired of seeing “this brown girl, hyena loud-mouth, dirty jokes hahaha narrative”. She suggested instead that we should fund more “empowering” narratives of successful, career-focused Pasifika women, as lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, accountants and the like. There’s a lot to unpack here.
It’s colonised thinking to suggest that Māori and Pasifika women should only occupy a singular metric of success, largely premised on a corporatised vision of a “girl boss”.
While that’s a far cry from the “criminal” and “savage” tropes we’ve long occupied, this rhetoric feeds into a colonial line of thinking that we must only give audiences, Pasifika and Pākehā, a respectable version of brownness.
It also suggests that our hyena-loudmouth, dirty-joke-making wāhine are somehow less deserving of respect and representation. And what’s wrong with those girls, anyway? I know plenty who work in corporate spaces, loud laughs and all. And I’m here for all the dirty jokes, too, because Island girls are too often told we shouldn’t talk about sex.
Such rhetoric also errs dangerously into “pick me” politics, begging for representation that goes more to appeasing Pākehā sensibilities of the “good Islander” and “model minority” — rather than letting us exist as our full, authentic, and sometimes messy selves, free of expectations. It’s tiring that women of colour aren’t allowed the narrative range that, comparatively, white women are always afforded on screen.
And why can’t we have both? Let’s not fall into the trap of the scarcity mentality that it’s an either/or narrative binary. We owe it to our ancestors to dream far bigger than that.
I want to see 100 more episodes of Sis as much as I also want to see a Pacific-led horror film, a Poly-futurist sci-fi epic, a mythical fantasy saga, Oscar Kightley fighting aliens on Mars, a beautiful coming of age story about brown kids in the suburbs, some cheesy romcoms, and maybe a complex Sopranos-eque family drama.
And yes, a show about Pasifika lawyers, too.
We can have it all, and we certainly have the talent to do it.
I finally felt seen with Sis, not because the characters are necessarily the same as me, but because it affirms to us Island girls that we, too, can take up space and exist as our unapologetic selves. As someone used to seeing only fragments, Sis showed me, and many of our Moana peoples, in our fullness. I saw our struggles, our histories, our frustrations, our families, our joy, all in there.
This is not to suggest that all our people must like Pacific art. That’s nonsense, because art is such a subjective medium. If Sis isn’t for you, all good e hoa.
We’re not a homogenous ethnic group and we benefit from a diversity of thought within our communities. We do a disservice to our artists if we insulate them from real, constructive criticism, limiting their creative evolution. And certainly, there’s some Pasifika content out there that leaves a lot to be desired.
But there’s a fine line between criticism and cynicism. You could criticise Sis for maybe being a little OTT at times, but it’s wrong to suggest that it does a disservice to the culture. Let’s not forget that this is the first Indigenous-Pasifika comedy to reach the coveted Comedy Central platform.
That’s a big deal. In an industry that often gives our people crumbs, it’s important we give full credit to the hard mahi of even getting this on screen. On top of that, most of the team are emerging Pasifika directors, writers, producers, art directors.
There are enough non-Pasifika chipping away at our achievements — let’s not do that to each other.
When our people reach the big time, one might question if this is a one-off. There’s no use in being the first brown person at the table if you don’t create a pathway for others to also get there. But Hanelle and her team aren’t like that. Their achievements are a haere mai to the rest of us. An assurance that we, too, can thrive in creative spaces that have traditionally excluded us.
I know diversity is the overused term du jour in almost every industry, but Sis, both in front of and behind the camera, reminds us that diversity isn’t tokenistic representation but about trust and power-sharing — trusting our ability to tell our own stories and giving us the funding to do so.
And if we’re not given a seat at a table, screw it. We’ll build our own — and better.