Put away that bright Aloha T-shirt- Pacific Islander Representation in Pop Culture

Over the course of this class, I have taken in deep consideration of the pieces that make up who I am. It is no surprise to me that the strongest thing I identify as, is being Hawaiian. Now, more than ever, you will come across a Hawaiian or Pacific Islander in your classroom or daily life. Like other races, the chances are, you have a few stereotypes that you immediately thought of.  I won’t be able to tell you everything about a Pacific Islander or Hawaiian throughout this blog post, but that isn’t my goal. Throughout this blog post, I hope to inform you of the current stereotypes that are being portrayed and make you aware that not everything we see, even if it’s from a known source, shouldn’t be taken without thought.


As a Pacific Islander (PI), I have developed critical lens about how my race is portrayed in Popular Culture. There are many popular movies of the Pacific Islanders that are based on their cultures and traditions both accurately and stereotypically. I have decided to closely evaluate the popular culture artifacts Blue Crush, Johnny Tsunami, and Lilo and Stitch. As you see the following covers of the movie, you can notice that they all take place at the beach and with surfboards. The beach is a important aspect of all of these movies, as they are to Pacific Islanders, they are not all they have to offer.

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On the cover of Johnny Tsunami, you can see Johnny Kapahaala, a local Hawaiian, surfing on his bright board while he wears a floral blue swim shorts along with a bright orange floral “Hawaiian T-shirt”. As someone who knows nothing about the Hawaiian culture, you would think that this an accurate aspect of our culture– not necessarily the case though! You would rarely ever find a local wearing that clothing combination, unless for Tourism Day during Spirit Week.

Although these films may be based in Hawaii, the accuracy of these portrayals is very slim. I think the safest way to approach a situation that you may not know a lot about regarding the person or cultures involved is by asking questions and entering that situation with no assumptions. I’m well aware of the movie industry forming their films to satisfy the needs of the audiences, but I don’t think there is any harm in portraying these ideas in a matter that is appealing to the locals as well as the people who have no idea what to think.


There are a number of basic stereotypes of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders that are developed when viewing these movies such as:

  • All Hawaiians know how to “do the Hula”
  • All Hawaiians grow pineapples and coconuts
  • All Hawaiians LOVE to surf and,
  • All Pacific Islanders are naturally gifted musicians that can play the ukulele.

Yes, there are many Native Hawaiians and locals that can do all of the above and yeah we almost all can agree to at least one of these things, but it doesn’t make it right to generalize the entire culture entirely.


Before this project, I viewed my three primary sources as movies that were made for pure enjoyment. After observing these films with critical lens, I asked some of my friends that aren’t from the islands to tell me about their feelings or some stereotypes that came to mind when they viewed it and they all mentioned the ones above. I wouldn’t say these stereotypes are negative thoughts, but it doesn’t make them alright nonetheless. The movie industry should be more careful about the way they portray things because there are cases that can directly affect a cultural group by the way they are portrayed in the “big lights”.

I also noticed a few other patterns regarding Pacific Islanders and the way we are represented in Popular Culture. These patterns consist of issues such as:

  • When Pacific Islanders actors and actresses are casted for a movie, they are completely stripped of their Pacific Islander characteristics.
    • This could include straightening or “taming their hair” or covering our traditional tatau, or tattoos, with stereotypical tattoos.
  • In movies about the Pacific Islander cultures, the actors/actresses that are playing the “local” is usually a person that has little to no knowledge of our culture or traditions. This pattern that I noticed is supported by the following movies and actors/actresses.
    • Daveigh Chase, voice of Lilo, born in Las Vegas, NV.
    • Brandon Baker, Johnny Kapahaala in Johnny Tsunami, born in Orange County, CA.
    • Kate Bosworth, Anne Marie in Blue Crush, born in Los Angeles, CA.

I think this problem has a lot to do with the movie industry not reaching out to the Hawaiian and local community when doing casting along with Hawaiians and locals not being suited enough to complete the job. This issue also ties into the presence of Pacific Islanders in the classroom and work environment. Despite the increase of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) presence as students and faculty, we are still at a low representation (under 1% of total population) (Goodwin, 2000). The movie industry has been showing improvement and they have heard our requests. They have recently conducted a casting in Hawaii to find the star voice of their new movie, Moana, a story of a Polynesian princess and her epic adventure across the ocean. This is the first movie of the star of the movie, being a local that is knowledgable and respecting of our cultures and traditions.hqdefault

In Paradise remade the politics of culture and history in Hawai’i, “the problemization of the liberal progressive view of the islands– that Hawai’i can retain its beauty and charm and at the same time become the center of Pacific tourism and development” (Buck, pg. 32). Tourism in Hawaii is at an all time high and getting more tourists in a day compared to the other Pacific Islands in a year. The tourism industry in Hawaii is often faced with the dilemma of satisfying the tourists and their stereotypes or breaking those stereotypes in hopes that tourists would appreciate our true culture.

Pacific Islanders are facing a lot of issues regarding our identity and portrayal, along with the control and representation of the stereotypes that have developed over the years. I couldn’t find a direct topic to focus on because ever issue is related to each other. The only way to solve one topic, we have to use our critical lens and evaluate the picture as a whole. Through this project, I was able to identify issues that are most dear to me and develop possible solutions to help this identity as a whole. I think a common and very important skill that we learned in this class is the ability to see a popular culture artifact and evaluate the purpose and motives the author created. I wasn’t aware of the issues my identity has faced and I definitely didn’t take into consideration that people took the movie representations so seriously. We are all unconsciously making assumptions and judgements based on people’s appearances, I believe it is a natural thing to do as humans. I think that if you are able to enter a conversation with those assumptions and judgements and still be open-minded and willing to accept that your thoughts may be incorrect.

Learning Moment

With all the social media and interaction with popular culture on the daily basis, I have realized that I do not evaluate it nearly enough as I should. This class has taught me that every post, article, advertisement, and more, went through a process to make sure it would reach the correct audience and leave them with a feeling that the producers wanted you to be left with. This class also taught me a lot about myself and the way I view things, things that interest me, and things that I identify as. These types of decisions that are made unconsciously are usually left unevaluated and sometimes even unacknowledged. It was really nice to be able to identify these things and evaluate the reasons I feel that way. There were many “ah-ha” moments throughout the class discussions because of the ideas that were brought up that I wouldn’t normally think about. An example of this moment was during Week 5, we were evaluating “The News”. I found it very interesting how news is one of the most important aspect to some peoples lives but in our society, I find it that the news broadcast things that we want to know rather than the things we need to know. To think that there are crimes, incidents, breakout moments, and a bunch of other news worthy events happening around the world, to only be informed about Justin Bieber’s new tattoo on his face, it baffles me.

Overall, I am happy to be able to take away critical lens from this class and utilize this feature in my daily life class. I always lived my life as a “go with the flow” type of mentality, where I would only care about the things that directly affected me. This class taught me that the things that have nothing to do with me, have an impact on me, even if indirectly. As a business major, I am often required to present things in a formal strict formatting that has no wiggle room as to where I can be creative. I struggled with this aspect at the beginning of class because I had to stray away from the way of writing I have been drilled with over these past two years. This was a great learning moment for me because it showed me how much I am capable of, and that with a little practice, it can’t be that hard. I appreciate having this skill now and I hope that I can continue practicing this and developing a more creative mindset. I can see myself using the online skills that I learned through this community in my future endeavors. I feel like online classes are a “hit or miss” in the sense of whether or not there is a strong community sense and the students interact successfully. I really enjoyed this class and the relationships you develop throughout the weekly discussions and blog posts. When we first started our comments, we used the usernames that were provided but as the weeks went by, I noticed each other getting comfortable with each other and using our first names or nicknames and I thought that was very interesting to see unravel. It was an amazing experience to be able to grow in my learning alongside my “Workshop” while still being able to check in with the wider class with our blog posts.

Thank you all,


Works Cited

Boyum, Steve, dir. Johnny Tsunami. Film Roman Productions, 1999. TV Movie.

Buck, Elizabeth B. Paradise remade the politics of culture and history in Hawai’i. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Pages 31-49. Web. May 23, 2016. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/9437

DeBlois, Dean and Sanders, Chris, dirs. Lilo & Stitch. Walt Disney Pictures, 2002. Film.

Goodwin, A. Lin, “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Teaching”, Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education, New York, NY. January 20, 1995. Web. Accessed on April 28, 2016.

Stockwell, John, dir. Blue Crush. Universal Pictures, 2002. Film.

Sun, Amy. “3 Myths about Hawaiians You Ought to Know Before Visiting Paradise”. Everyday Feminism. Blog Post. May 24, 2016. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/myths-about-native-hawaiians/


This entry was posted in Spring 2016 by zkonohia. Bookmark the permalink.

About zkonohia

I am from the Island of O'ahu and moved to Oregon two years ago. I am majoring in Accounting and started considering double majoring in Finance with a minor in Communications. I am also the Treasurer of The Pacific Islanders Club and Vice President of the Women's Soccer Club.

6 thoughts on “Put away that bright Aloha T-shirt- Pacific Islander Representation in Pop Culture

  1. Zee,
    I really enjoyed reading your post about the stereotypes of Pacific Islanders and Hawaiians. I have gone to Hawaii numerous times and noticed the discrepancies between the media’s depiction of the locals and the actual locals themselves. Shows such as Hawaii Five-O and movies like you have chosen for your blog post provide viewers with a false sense of what Hawaiians and Islanders are like. Like you said, yes, some of these stereotypes do hold true for some individuals, but as a whole these stereotypes are not accurate. I can see why this could be quite annoying when trying to describe what life is really like on the islands to people who are have preconceived notions based on popular culture references. I think you did a great job of utilizing your personal opinions and analyzing various pieces of evidence in order to strengthen your post. I also liked reading about what you have learned from this class. I’m glad that you had many “a-ha” moments and have a deeper understanding of popular culture and its effects on everyday life. Great post!!


  2. Hi Zee!
    I thought you had some really interesting findings from your research project about Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. I have never been to Hawaii but reading your post about how people dress in floral and bright colors for tourist day, reminded me of our high school spirit days when we had Hawaiian day. I can now see that popular culture does not portray Hawaiians correctly as we would dress in bright floral shirts with grass lei’s and coconut bras. Being from Colorado, a land locked state and not having a lot of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders around, we get the misconception that popular culture displays. Do you think that have native actors in popular culture would actually help this wrong portrayal or do you think that maybe the directors and writers need to be native? I really enjoyed reading your post because I can tell that you are very passionate about this subject and I think that popular culture should try and get more of an accurate portrayal before producing for a mass audience.
    Great Job!

    • Hey Katie,
      Thank you for your reply! Some of your questions are questions that I was also left with at the end of this post. I definitely think having a native Hawaiian as the director of these movies could be beneficial but the sad truth is, it would take a lot for them to gain the credibility and establish their grounds. It is something that I hope for native Hawaiians but I would be most happy with our stereotypes being addressed and getting locals to start playing these native Hawaiian and locals in the movies scenes. Grass skirts and coconut bras are all a modernized idea of the islands and we can only do so much to get rid of them. Many of the things stereotyped about Hawaii are very traditional aspects of our culture that people took and gave it a twist.
      (Sorry for the additional islander information, but thank you for your interest!)

  3. Hi Zee,

    It’s nice being able to read about the another side of stereotypes of people in Hawai’i, especially from someone who actually is a Pacific Islander like yourself. I like the point that you made at the end of your blog post. Not many of us realize what the media is doing, especially how it is representing our different identities. We usually only notice once things are extremely exaggerated or when we are put into a position to analyze them, like in this case with our blog post projects. I definitely think this project was beneficial to all of us and being able to explore our identities.

    Enjoy your summer back home! 🙂


  4. Hello Zee,

    Being a person who has absolutely no idea about Pacific Islanders culture as well as Hawaii, this post is really great. Having some insights from another person from the other side really helps me broaden my views. This type of generalizing people from a specific race/ethnic happens very often, especially in movie and not many people realize this. Only times when the stereotype getting notice is it gets over exaggerate. I think you did a very good job at relating your experience with this stereotype which in turn makes it very powerful for readers. Overall, it was a great read and I really enjoy it!

    Thong Nguyen

  5. Hey Zee, your post was a great read! My best friend is from Hawaii and he couldn’t be further from typical Hawaiian stereotypes described in your post. Knowing him and being taught more about his culture I have been able to look past stereotypes represented in pop culture that he’s had to face moving out of his home state. Great connection to how the pop culture representation has affected peoples everyday life.

    All the best,

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