Archive for April 2007
Before this week, I’d never seen an episode of CBS’s “The Unit,” a show about US special forces operatives and their families. But last night, I happened to flip past the channel, and something caught my ear. Was that woman speaking … Tok Pisin?
Yes, she was, or something like it. But soon, the local news station cut in to deliver a severe weather bulletin, which (thanks to a slow-moving thunderstorm over Fort Worth) lasted the rest of the show. So today, I watched the episode, “Outsiders,” online.
As the show begins, “Mendi, Papua New Guinea” appears over a shot of rainforest. Are we about to get a glimpse into the world I inhabited for nearly a year? I wish! Almost everything that could be wrong is wrong. From the opening scenes to the bizarre conclusion, the nasty surprises never stop.
First, Mendi is a real town in PNG. It is the capital of Southern Highlands Province, and it’s located in a mountain valley. Now, I haven’t actually been to Mendi, but I’ve been pretty close, and I’ve been to several towns like it. I can tell you that it’s nothing even close to the flat, lowland, crocodile-infested rainforest that “The Unit” portrays.
Sure, PNG has flat lowlands where crocs live, but Mendi is not one of those places.
The first “Papua New Guinean” we meet is a dark-skinned “priestess,” whose features, accent, and very long hair identify her immediately as an African woman or a Caribbean woman of African descent. There is simply no way this woman could be a Melanesian.
Things deteriorate further as she begins to speak what is supposed to be Tok Pisin, and one of the soldiers answers her. Tok Pisin, which I speak and understand, is spoken fairly rapidly and often sounds lively and animated. But the priestess and the other “New Guineans” speak with a slow, idiotic cadence reminiscent of Tonto (”That right, Kimosabe.”) or Tarzan. Some of the pidgin is actually accurate, but it is pronounced strangely throughout, sometimes with accents on the wrong syllables. Other times, though, the actors speak only partial sentences, or they do not say what the subtitles indicate they are saying.
The pidgin spoken by the “elder,” seems to be half pidgin (badly pronounced) and half gibberish. Some Papua New Guineans actually mix pidgin and tok ples (the local language) together in a single sentence, and so I wondered if that’s what the elder is supposed to be doing. The problem with that theory, though, is that the one soldier can understand him perfectly, and there’s no way he’d be able to understand the local language.
In Papua New Guinea, drivers drive on the left side of the road. Cars have their steering wheels on the right, the opposite of cars here in America. But when the two soldiers are driving along a dark road, guess which side the driver is sitting on? Yep, the left. Come on, folks! Thirty seconds of research could have cleared that one up for you.
Oh, and then there’s the kava that the elder and Jackie (a young woman who is also very clearly of African descent, not Melanesian) give to one of the soldiers. Kava is used as a recreational and ceremonial drug in many parts of the Pacific, but PNG is not one of those places. I crisscrossed the country for months and never once encountered it or heard it discussed. If you want to find kava, go to Vanuatu or Polynesia, but forget Mendi.
Irritations aside, it is the central plot that I find most distressing and outrageous. Partway through the show, we find out that the villagers are putting one of the soldiers through a sort of initiation ritual. They poison him, cut him, brand him with a burning stick, and send in a giant (where’d they get a giant??) to beat him up.
Then, they send him into a shack with a painted up woman who seduces him, muttering some nonsense about needing to become one.
I lack words to express how ludicrous and offensive this is. It is true that some Melanesian cultures have initiation rites that include drugs, torture, isolation, mutilation, and sexual acts. These days, though, such practices are much less common or have disappeared completely. Either way, the idea that the people would inflict such things on a stranger who stumbled into their village is beyond absurd. The whole thing appears to have been cooked up to to titillate a salacious and gullible American public.
Were there more things wrong? Yeah. The drums are wrong; the clothes are over the top. But I think you’re getting the idea.
Did they do anything right? Well….
Probably the truest thing this episode portrays is the fear that many Melanesians have of evil spirits. Once, Jackie refers to the missionaries who taught her English, but it is clear that the people of her village put their faith in sorcery, not the Christian God. In fact, they seem totally ignorant of the meaning behind the cross tattooed on one soldier’s breast. The people are afraid of their neighbors, and they are afraid of the spirits. They attempt to control circumstances with herbs, amulets, rituals, and hokey hand-waving ceremonies. Sadly, this gives at least a hint of the spiritual state of many Papua New Guineans, though usually there is some sort of syncretism with (rather than total ignorance of) Christianity.
Papua New Guinea is an amazing place. It is home to millions of people, each with a story to tell. Some would make you laugh, and some would break your heart. There’s enough beauty, drama, kindness, horror, intrigue, grief, and warmth to fill script after script after script.
But whoever wrote this show didn’t care about that. Instead, they served up a hodge-podge of stereotypes, misinformation, and total, complete stupidity. I thought we had moved beyond the days of gibbering South Pacific “natives” as portrayed in the otherwise-hilarious “McHale’s Navy.” Apparently, I was wrong.
CBS, you botched this one bad. Shame on you.