(UPDATE: Sections marked with a
strikethrough were done because of new information, included at the end of the article.)
Face Off, the reality competition program of creature design and makeup is now winding down its All-Stars season. On April 11, 2017, they delved into a new subject material: Hawaiʻian mythology. The show remarked on how the culture was oft-ignored by audiences until recently with movies like Moana. This contest should have been the perfect opportunity to provide representation and exposure to mainland audiences.
Instead, Face Off fell victim to that very ignorance with its competition and artist designs.
The first failure lay on the production staff themselves, who failed to provide accurate information to the designers. Each contestant was given a choice of five tikis (about the only accurate cultural aspects on the show) representing a different Hawaiʻian god. The problem was, each tiki had a “God of…” explanation that was oversimplified at best, and outright inaccurate in one case.
They described Lono as the “God of Agriculture,” which is partially true. Lono does represent the falling rains that allow for fertile crops and peaceful living, but he’s also associated with clouds, storms, and health. Similarly, Kanaloa was just called “God of the Ocean,” another generalization; he’s also the opposite and compatriot to Kāne, known for his sorcery and antagonism.
Speaking of Kāne, this was the worst one as they called him “God of Earth and Stone,” which has nothing to do with the actual god. Kāne is the creator of everything, similar to the Native American’s Great Spirit or even Judaism’s Jehovah. He’s a sky god, associated with the sun and dawn, and the patron of the chiefs of Hawaiʻi. Other than creating the islands upon which all live, he is not associated with earth or stone.
This misinformation led to a second failure, this time at the hands of the artists.
Not even one of them questioned what they were told and researched their chosen god. They came up with their designs through their own Caucasian, mainland views, creating what mostly amounted to Western fantasy creatures with some Polynesian symbols.
Logan’s version of Lono was a “Green Man,” a plant creature made of earth and vegetation. There was no imagery of clouds, storms, or rain that evoked the majesty of Lono. George’s Kanaloa was even more ignorant, as he decided just to pick a random sea animal to incorporate into the design; he did this even though Kanaloa has an animal representation, the squid!
If he so much as Googled the deity, he’d have known this. Pele? She’s supposed to be terrifying and beautiful, yet Emily created a “lava person” with little attractive to her.
Kāne was the worst of all, as Tyler just rolled with the “God of Earth and Stone” nonsense. There was nothing royal about his creation. This make-up was a mishmash of earth elemental aspects that made him look like Swamp Thing, rather than a divine creator and ancestor to all Hawaiʻians. This makeup and design were probably the most offensive and ignorant, devoid of any proper representation.
Even Kū, the one god that was accurate in its description as “God of War,” missed the mark. While he was impressive and incorporated many Polynesian designs, they ignored the famous red and yellow mahiole (feather helmets) associated with him. The result looked more like a Mesoamerican Camazotz than anything Hawaiʻian.
Of all television series, you would think one that explores fantasy, science-fiction, and horror would know better about cultural accuracy and sensitivity. If you’re going to represent a living, breathing culture and faith, you should certainly try to do so with education and respect. Instead, they just took some random names, gave them inaccurate descriptions, and then had a bunch of haoles make up whatever came through their uninformed heads. Could you imagine if they’d treated representations of Jesus, Buddha, or Brahmā with the same lack of care?
This last episode of Face Off points out that, even in geek culture, ignorance and appropriation not only exist but are reinforced by geek media. As geeks endlessly debate whitewashing in films or blackface in cosplay, the creature design and makeup effects industry mindlessly takes the “exotic” and presents it without accuracy or sensitivity. With such ignorance considered normal, is it any wonder many who read this article will roll their eyes at how “picky” we’re being?
Face Off… we love your show. Your artists are amazing, your contests are fun, and you’ve created a hit. That doesn’t make you infallible, though, and you will be called out when you mess up.
Well, you messed up. Please make sure the next time you use an indigenous culture as your challenge material, both you and your artists learn about what they’re representing.
Mahalo nui loa.
UPDATE: After much consideration, I would like to apologize for any accusations or harsh language directed at the artists. From several sources, it is now clear that contestants do not have access to general research sources, including the Internet. They only can use whatever the production staff deigns to provide for that particular challenge. Artists cannot be held responsible for misinformation or lack of source material. This information was confirmed by the contestants themselves on Twitter:
I have notated the article above, particularly striking out the parts that blamed the lack of research on the artists. Any strong language regarding the final designs has only been left as evidence of my emotions and conclusions at the time; they do not reflect my respect for the artists, their talent, or the quality of their work overall. I’d like to thank all of those who provided clarity on what contestants go through, and this should hopefully inform audiences for future critiques.
Mahalo and maikaʻi pōmaikaʻi to those still in the contest!