A few days ago, my friend and I had happened upon a television series on National Geographic called Taboo. This particular episode explored a few culturally based perceptions of death, including beliefs of the afterlife and appropriate funeral practices to honor the life and death of the deceased. It was interesting, so I decided to explore some other topics the series has covered. The one that immediately caught my eye was Sexual Identity (go figure). Unfortunately, not having the National Geographic channel myself, I settled with a 3 minute clip online (posted, fittingly, through the NationalGeographic youtube channel) that talked about a group of Samoans called fa’afafine.
Fa’afafine are generally involved in sexual relationships with other males who are socially identified as heterosexual. Without the possibility of a child, however, these relationships are considered much more casual than those between one male and one female. Rarely do two fa’afafine become romantically involved, and relationships between a fa’afafine and a female are virtually unheard of.
While the National Geographic program, or rather a small piece of that program, had originally sparked my interest in what is often recognized as the “third gender” of Samoan culture, I found a minimal amount of information regarding the topic elsewhere. After some digging I happened upon an essay written a few years ago about the fa’afafine and how Western influence has come to redefine what exactly that word means.
Western notions of gay and transgendered are not interchangeable with the social role of the fa’afafine (there is, apparently, no specific Samoan term for “homosexual”). Gender in Samoa is defined by certain roles. Domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning, for example, are generally assigned to women. Your labour is what defines you, both at home and in your community.
Interestingly, the overt sexuality and physical emphasis we see in modern fa’afafine, the essay argues, is largely the result of Western influence. Images of femininity through film provided a gender-specific physical ideal that many fa’afafine, and biological females, could use to advertise their sexuality. But also injected into the culture were Western concepts of homosexuality. Distinction between gay and straight were not an issue until recent years for Samoans, and in a nation with a resoundingly conservative Christian populace, ‘deviance’ in sexuality can be particularly frightening. So while the identity of the fa’afafine was once multifaceted, under the outsider lens it became almost exclusively sexually-based.
Does this strike anybody else as a little bit sad? These new terms threaten to marginalize the fa’afafine, who consider themselves firmly rooted in their community. Furthermore, filing fa’afafine under the same category as transvestites or transgendered persons because it is the closest our culture can get to “understanding” what they are is an unfortunate and misleading oversimplification.
It is strange, but necessary, to think about the ways in which language falls short. After all, our understanding of the world goes only as far as words can take us.