In the book Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, the conflict involving gender role is evident throughout. From the very beginning the idea of male dominance is presented with the description of the whale rider; “He was wondrous to look upon, the whale rider. The water streamed away from him and he opened his mouth to gasp in the cold air. His eyes were wide shining with splendor. His body dazzled with diamond spray. Upon that beast he looked like a small tattooed figurine, dark brown, glistening, and erect. He seemed, with all his strength, to be pulling the whale into the sky” (page 6). The description of the whale rider displays his character as a God-like figure. The main character in the book, Koro Apirana, will continue to further the idea of male superiority in society. Koro Apirana is a man of tradition and is not open to change. When his son’s wife gives birth to a baby girl, Kahu, Koro is disgusted. He wants nothing to do with the child and angrily states “she has broken the male line of descent in our tribe” (page 13). For a majority of the book Koro spends most of his time searching for a male to assume the inheritance of power in the tribe because he will not have a woman take on this task. He puts the men through a series of task but none are able to rise to the occasion. Koro Apirana is blinded by the strength and power of the one he has right in front of him, Kahu. It takes him until the final scene in the book to understand his faults and stubbornness.
The idea of gender roles in the book Whale Rider is presented ironically on several accounts. For example, Koro Apirana is a character that holds the belief of male dominance and superiority, but in reality he is inferior to his wife, Nanny Flowers, most of the time. Nanny Flowers is always one step ahead of Koro Apirana. When he tries to escape in the row boat, she chases him down in the motor boat. When he takes the motor boat out to sea to run from his problems, she leaves him with no gas to return back to land. Koro Apirana deep down knows the capabilities of Kahu, he just refused to make her strengths a reality. When he was instructing a lesson to the males in the meetinghouse, Kahu hid under the table and bit his toe, which symbolized the transfer of power to the one who performs this act. “Koro Apirana’s toes must have looked juicy to her, because there she was biting on his big toe and making small snarling sounds as she played with it, like a puppy with a bone. Then she looked up at him, and her eyes seemed to say, “Don’t think you’re leaving me out of this” (page 36). There were various signs that portrayed Kahu’s unique role later proven in the book. She had a special connection with the whales and the sea, she favors Maori food, she bites Koro’s toe, she is able to retrieve Koro’s stone from the bottom of the sea, and her name is significant as it comes from the tribe’s founder, who was male.
The second half of Whale Rider develops a change in the power of gender roles. Koro Apirana takes the young boys to the sea and threw a carved stone into the ocean in a depth that was not visible. He instructed the boys to dive in and bring the stone back to him; he did this as another challenge to find a male who was strong enough to handle the power of the tribe’s leadership role. The young boys failed to complete this task and the stone was left untouched at the bottom of the sea. Kahu went out to sea with Nanny Flowers and Rawiri, and without their knowledge leaped into the sea to retrieve Koro’s stone. With guidance from the dolphins, “she picked something up, inspected it, appeared to be satisfied with it, and went back to the dolphins…she picked up a crayfish and resumed her upward journey” (page 91). Kahu proved to be more powerful then the men, she was able to dive down and retrieve Koro Apirana’s carved stone and gave it to Nanny Flowers to return to him.
The most heroic moment in the book is performed by Kahu at the end of the novel. When the tribe loses hope I rescuing the whales, Kahu takes the job into her own hands, not to prove herself to Koro Apirana, but to save him and the rest of the tribe. Kahu had so much love and admiration for her grandfather, Koro Apirana, and all she could hear were his words “If the whale dies, we die, if the whale lives, we live” (page 124). Her self-less act and strength and connection to the whale proved females have an impact on society. She saved the whales and brought them back to sea as she rode on its back. “She was Kahutia Te Rangi. She was Paikea. She was the whale rider” (page 133). This quotation is especially significant because it takes the reader back to the beginning of the novel when the description of the first whale rider is revealed. It presents, Kahu, as a God-like icon and a character of strength and power. Kahu’s final act, proves to Koro his faults and wrong doings. When Kahu awakens Koro finally admits to her what she wanted to hear the whole time, “you’re the best great-grandchild in the whole wide world…boy or girl it doesn’t matter” (page 149).
In conclusion, gender is a conflict throughout the book Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. The gender role proves to be reversed from the beginning of the story to the end. At first it was male superiority, male passage of power, the male whale rider, but in the end it’s the female act that prevails and impacts the tribe.