Carol E Robertson’s article “The Māhū of Hawai’i”, discusses the identity of Māhū, a third gender with ancient roots within Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Through her evidence of the importance of the Māhū in Hawaiian society in both ancient and modern times, Robertson shows the issues with Western society’s preoccupation and obsession with heternormativity, and the naturalness of two genders.
Robertson explains that a Māhū is an individual who is believed to possess aspects of both the male and female spirit, which they may exhibit through their actions, dress, language, or other avenues. This identity was respected and revered in ancient Hawaii, with many Māhūs possessing positions in the court of Hawaiian royalty. Māhūs were respected for their creativity, and were often intimately connected to the art of Hula. When the missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century, Hula was discouraged, especially among men who were encouraged to be more masculine. As a result, the tradition was carried on underground by females and Māhūs.
Māhūs of the past also are often depicted as possessing traits which were highly valued in the Hawaiian culture. They were often large in stature and girth, and exhibition of the power they possessed. They also often dressed in gender neutral clothing, dancing hulas under the patronage of the ali’i. Māhūs are attached to the Hawaiian deity Laka through their association with Hula. Laka is perceived as either female or mixed gender. The strong association between hula and Māhūs throughout time is evident through artistic depictions in which most hula dancers are portrayed as androgynous.
In modern times, the connection between Māhūs and hula continues. Many Kumu Hula are Māhū, and still possess large and striking figures. Māhūs are for the most part readily accepted into Hawaiian society and the term encompasses many individuals. Men who dress and act as women, women who dress and act as men, individuals who are gender neutral, and those who Western culture would identify as “gay”. Many families will raise children as Māhū, in order to cultivate creativity and duality of spirituality within their households. Māhūs are seen as natural and often raise children of their own, many times through the Hawaiian system of adoption called hapa.
Robertson’s article provided an interesting and insightful overview of the identity of Māhū within Hawaiian society. Through examination of artwork and ancient depictions, she is able to show the highly revered status and naturalness which these individuals have possessed throughout time. Examples in modern times have shown that while Western influences have somewhat affected the views of Māhūs, they are still widely accepted and highly visible in Hawaiian society. Clearly, Western ideologies of the concreteness of two genders is purely cultural. Heternormative ideologies are deeply rooted in western culture, and lead to misconceptions about how a person should behave and be treated. Examples such as this one are so important in order to convey to individuals the diversity of humans and ideologies around the world.
What do you think of the concept of Māhū? Do you know any other examples of third genders around the world? Do you agree that it is important to spread cultural ideologies? Why or why not?
Robertson, C. E. (1989). The Māhū of Hawai’i. Feminist Studies, 15(2), 312-326.