Dysfunctional Sexuality in Once Were Warriors

by Elora Lee Raymond '99 English 27

In showing how the inhabitants of Pine Block have corrupted their Maori heritage of travel, love, and family, Duff's Once Were Warriors reveals the oppressive brutality encoded in Maori gender roles and the failure of the community to express physical and emotional love and uses them as metaphors for all the problems that the community suffers.

For example, Grace observes the corruption of the Maori tradition of strong family ties into violent, dysfunctional relations:

Put it here man. I fuckin love ya. You're my cuzin, you know that, eh? You and I are related. Here, put it here, brother. On my mothers side, eh, thats the connection. And here wer are fighting with each other. Here, shake, cuzin. And don't let us, -- blood related -- be fighting eash other again.

On and on and on and on into this lovely night, this lovely night and lovely children corrupted, ruined, raped, and all you can say is shake? Put it here brother? And next week, next month, next year, for all the years of your terrible existence you lot'll be doing the same. (20)

In this passage, Grace also makes the connection between the Pine Block Maori lifestyle and rape, one of the main metaphors in the novel, and throughout the novel, dysfunctional sexuality acts as a marker of the problems in the Pine Block community. Maori failure, Duff argues, stems in part from oppressive gender roles. Jake, for example, believes that in order to be a man and not a "cunt," he has to prove himself with violence. He forbids himself from feeling love for Beth. In his conversation with Dooly, it becomes clear that his fidelity is a sign of his love for Beth, and yet he refuses to admit that he has any feelings for her. Furthermore, Jake believes that women should not be aggressive or equal partners in sex, and he even seems to prefer that Beth receives no pleasure. Tania similarly believes that a woman cannot receive pleasure in sex, and she makes Nig play the role that his father does. These brutal gender roles prevent either loving relationships or healthy expressions of sexuality.

Duff gives various examples of dysfunctional sexuality that are signs of the Pine Block Maoris' dysfunctionality. Beth observes a young boy masturbating in a abandoned car, a sign both of the Pine Blocks Maoris' inability to travel mentally and physically outside of the ghetto as well as a sign of loneliness and neglect. Beth herself feels the same isolation.

Beth's heart thumping just a little more than normal. And a tingle, just a little one, down there, of sex. Of wanting sex. Oh wow. Far out girl. You're thirty-four and you're getting turned on by a few photos of naked women. Are you around the twist? But it wasn't just latent lesbian desire suddenly brought out of her, she knew that. Just sex. She quite liked sex. With my husband. When he feels like it and I don't mean feels like doing it for himself.) (5)

Like the child masturbating in the wrecked car, Beth's arousal is a sign of her loneliness and the lack of love from Jake and the people around her. Finally, Grace's rape and suicide, which are impetus for change, show how deeply wrong is the Pine Block way of life.

In these examples Duff uses the inability of the Maoris to achieve mature, loving sexuality as a measure of their failure and dysfunction as a community. Duff not only documents the problem of the prevalence or occurrence of rape, masturbation, and latent homosexuality as a substitute for loving heterosexuality but also uses it as a powerful (though problematic) metaphor for the corruption of Maori culture in general. The substitution of what Duff holds to be inferior forms of sexual expression for heterosexuality is akin to the fall of the Maoris from a proud warrior culture to an alcoholic, poverty stricken community.

Duff uses examples of dysfunctional sexuality to show the problems of the Maori community and to lead the reader to accept his solution, which embraces stable definitions of Maori culture and a return to the past. Unlike characters like Imtiaz in In Custody, who criticize the validity of constructions of authentic native identity, or Sara Suleri, who questions the possibility of being truly native, or the Chinese immigrants in Sour Sweet who are willing to adapt and change custom, to fit new circumstances, Duff's responds to the corruption of the Maori traditions of family, travel, sexuality, and warrior hood by calling for a return to an authentic Maori culture that reaffirms or redefines the values that have been lost and corrupted. Duff's solution comes in the form of Beth and the pinstriped Maori priest, Te Tupaea. Te Tupaea draws on Maori history, and the Maori leader cites great warriors, poets, navigators and lovers as his Maori heritage. He appeals to "the heart of every true Maori" (118). He criticizes the Pine Block community's alcohol habit by placing its inhabitants outside of his definition of Maori. Te Tupaea also utilizes pakeha symbols of power; he wears pinstripes and gold cufflinks, and uses western concepts like contracts to hold the pakeha accountable for colonization.However, he primarily calls for a return to old traditions.

Perhaps Duff's solution is prompted by the severity of the cultural crisis that the Maoris face. The Chinese immigrants in Sour Sweet have the option of returning to China, or knowing that it is there. Deven can move to New Delhi or Pakistan in search of Urdu language and poetry. Sara Suleri questions the existence of true nativity knowing that even if there are no true Pakistanis, she as close to being one as anyone else. These situations contrast with the Pine Block Maoris, whose homeland, way of life, language and customs have been largely obliterated when colonized by the pakeha.


Overview New

Zealand Once Were


Last Modified: 15 March, 2002