The film Whale Rider is a story of leadership, sacrifice, family, and the role of women and the culture of the Maoris. The movie is depicted through the eyes of Paikea, a strong and intelligent female with the potentials of a leader, a view not shared by other characters in the early part of the film. The story starts with the birth of the twins and the unfortunate death of the male twin, leaving only the female who was later named Paikea. Without a male heir to the tribe, such was the disappointment of Koro, Paikea’s grandfather as his son, Paikea’s father, did not want to lead the tribe. Koro loves his granddaughter however, he dismisses Paikea as the future leader of the tribe based on her gender although the opposite is felt by Nanny Flowers, Koro’s wife and Paikea’s grandmother as she sees Paikea’s potential. The main themes of the film include leadership and the role of women in a changing society which is depicted thorough the character of Paikea.
Paikea’s grandfather, Koro, is determined that a male lead the tribe although it is plainly evident to viewers that this does not need to be so. Women Koro is blind to the abilities of Paikea who continuously exhibits characteristics of a great leader. This is depicted through Paikea’s comments regarding smoking to her friends and to her nanny. Another example is when she learned the chant by listening at windows as she was not permitted to learn at the school since it was created for the males of the tribe. When her grandfather taught the boys of the tribe the taiaha and excluded her, she learned through her uncle and defeated most of the boys. Instead of feeling pride for his granddaughter, this further angered Koro seeing it as Paikea’s act of defiance and still remain unconvinced of her ability to lead. Although she was deliberately excluded by her grandfather, Paikea still shows her love for Koro and prepared herself to become a leader of the tribe someday. She exhibits a strong character as she was able to bear the hurts and hardships in her life without losing hope and her will remaining just as strong. In her speech at the school, Paikea suggested a tribe with several leaders, not just one. Through her speech, Paikea exhibits wisdom and understanding beyond her years as well as the determination to succeed in her endeavors. Near the end of the film, it was also revealed that Pai was able to recover Koro’s whale tooth from the ocean, proving that she is indeed worthy to be the tribe’s leader. The ultimate evidence of Paikea’s ability to lead is her willingness to commit sacrifices for those she loves. As the whales were stranded in the tribe’s shores, Koro placed the blame on Paikea. After trying unsuccessfully to coax the whales to the ocean, Paikea climbed on the back of “Paikea’s whale” despite of the imminent danger. She encourages the whale to return to the ocean along with the rest of the pod and she almost drowned in the process. It was only after this ordeal that Paikea’s grandfather was able to realize his granddaughter’s true worth and courage and admits that Paikea deserves to become the leader of their tribe.
In the traditional Maori society, women have several obligatory duties and restrictions, one of which is inheriting the title of tribal chief. Paikea goes against this specific restriction and serves as a model of the woman today. Her personality and attributes casts off the stereotypes usually attributed to females such as being fragile and helpless. Her strong character as a person is continually depicted in the film, making her worthy of being the next leader of the Maori tribe, thereby rebuffing years of tradition.