top of page

Whale Rider  





           Paikea, the protagonist in Whale Rider, is an eleven year-old girl asked to make difficult decisions and deal with obstacles beyond her age. With a loving but absent father and a rejecting and rebuking grandfather, Paikea demonstrates surprising cognitive and emotional development, not usually in keeping with her age.

            Under Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning (Snowman & McCown, 2015), Paikea is in Stage Five of Level Three. She has understanding of the moral principles that underlie the conventions of a society. Paikea realizes that the world of the Māori has long been governed by males; at least on the surface. She has developed a belief in her ability to learn the same skills and obtain the same knowledge as the boys. She struggles to induce her grandfather to acknowledge her abilities. Paikea has recognizes of the need for social order, but not at the expense of blind obedience to authority. She loves and respects her grandfather, but stands firm in her desire to learn the lessons he denies her.

            In Erik Erikson’s theories of Psychosocial Development (Snowman & McCown, 2015), Paikea falls into two categories. Paikea continually demonstrates capability in feats Koro deems conquerable only by males illustrating Erikson’s Industry. She defeats a male peer with her make-shift taiaha, effortlessly retrieves a whale-tooth necklace thought to be lost at the bottom of the ocean, motivates her slacker uncle to do more than smoke pot, writes and recites an award-winning speech about her culture, and, climactically, she returns a beached whale (and pod) to the ocean. Clearly she demonstrates her value through unrelenting industry.

            While battling for acknowledgement it is apparent Paikea is searching for her place in the community. Erikson’s (Snowman & McCown, 2015) Identity and Role Confusion occurs in children are unable to establish a sense of stability in various aspects of life. At a fork in the road she struggles to find her place and her value.

            Given her particular vision of what could be, Paikea is classified under Jean Piaget’s Formal Operational stage of cognitive development. Under Jean Piaget’s Formal Operational stage of cognitive development (Snowman & McCown, 2015) adolescents are preoccupied more on possibilities than reality. Paikea relentlessly works to learn more, master more skills, and gain the acceptance of her grandfather. She never accepts his belief that women are not meant to learn or to be restricted to traditional female tasks. When given the opportunity to leave the island, the whales recall her to her future. Even her frequently-absent father defers to her need to achieve within her community. Additionally, Paikea’s ability to provide context seems beyond her years. Paikea states Koro didn’t mean it, after he makes a particularly hurtful statement. Very few eleven year olds would be able to dismiss hurtful comments from a respected and admired family member.

            In terms of maturity, Paikea displays traits of James Marcia’s Identity Achievement (Snowman & McCown, 2015). She is clearly able to plan, acts rationally and logically, and works effectively under pressure. Despite her grandfather’s rejection and occasional moments of doubt, Paikea demonstrates characteristics of high self-esteem, too. Her perseverance, persistence, and drive seem to stem from her confidence in her ability to learn. It is clear that Paikea has a strong sense of purpose. She tells the older women of the community to quit smoking, publicly challenges Koro, and is unafraid of adversity. As a gift infused with profound respect Paikea’s essay outlines a path forward involving her whole community.

            Carol Gilligan argues that adolescent females care less about separation and independence and more about remaining loyal to others through expressions of caring (Snowman & McCown, 2015). This statement creates an interesting dilemma, for Paikea has a strong independent streak, but her every action is an expression of her care for her family and her community. She is independent in the sense that she does not accept the old way of doing things, but very closely connected to the community. Paikea shows adolescent girls can be both independent, yet intimately connected to the community.

     One of the only ways in which Paikea seems an average 11 year old is her physical development.  She is marked by the pre-pubescent structure of most females that age. She has muscle mass and bone size in keeping with her age. She is of a similar size and possesses the large muscle skills of all her peers; male and female (Snowman & McCown, 2015)



           Koro, grandfather and chief, is a complex individual whose mood and mindset fluctuate. At the hospital, Koro seemed more concerned with her deceased twin brother than with his living granddaughter, yet in the next scene is has come to love her. He is a man torn between tradition and his heart, and ultimately he learns to adjust his values so that his powerful love for his granddaughter does not conflict with his obligations as chief.

            As the story unfolds Koro displays Lawrence Kohlberg’s Level 2 of Moral Reasoning; specifically Stage 4, the Law and Order Orientation (Snowman & McCown, 2015). He is committed to order and fixed rules. He is inflexible in his belief that the next great leader of his people will be a male, and does everything he can to avoid recognizing Paikea as the only youth with the potential to become the next chief. Faced with resistance Koro stands firm in his punishments, oftentimes attributing problems facing his community to the birth of Paikea rather than his inability to recognize and encourage the next leader. Once Koro is forced to see Paikea as the next, rightful chief, he moves to Level 3, Postconventional Morality. Shifting away from his inflexible rules, Koro now adopts a new interpretation; one that allows for Paikea as their leader. 

            According to Erikson, Koro could fall into two different categories of psychosocial development. Erikson discusses the “productive and creative efforts in which adults take part that have a positive effect on the younger generation (Snowman & McCown, 2015, p. 30).” Koro founds a leadership school to prepare and test the young males for possible chiefdom. Koro desires to do right for his culture and his people by setting up the school. Unfortunately, all of the boys are lacking. The only person able to succeed at all of Koro’s tests is Paikea. Yet Koro refuses to recognize her obvious skills as she is not male. So Koro’s refusal to accept Paikea highlights his developmental stagnation.

           After doing his best but failing to train the boys of the community to become leaders Koro seems to give up. He becomes bedridden appearing nearly catatonic. In these moments, it appears that Koro has given in and resigned himself to a personal defeat and a defeat for his people, illustrating Erikson’s theory of Despair (Snowman & McCown, 2015).   Struggling with a sense of despair he attempts to attend Paikea’s school presentation. On the way he encounters the beached pod of whales. Even after Paikea returns the whales to the open ocean, Koro can’t yet see Paikea as the chosen chief right away. Once he can see, Koro is able to fully embrace her as the great leader capable of feats beyond his abilities.



           Helping Paikea and Koro make sense of each other is Nanny, the grandmother and wife caught by the many rigid obligations and rules established by Koro. Due to her husband’s inflexible rules, their oldest son has escaped to Germany and their younger son, Rawiri, spends his days engaged in idle, useless activities. Nanny can offer Paikea the perspective and resilience to succeed despite Koro’s oppressive tenets.

           Throughout the story Nanny remains much the same person. She begins as a calming influence able to recognize Koro’s need for rules, his need to find a solution in keeping with their culture, true to his understanding. But she is able to make adjustments, to be flexible. In Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning, Nanny begins and ends under Postconventional Morality (Snowman & McCown, 2015).  She understands her husband’s beliefs, but she also realizes that there are times when adjustments are required. She realizes she is able to be boss of herself, her home, and her life while permitting Koro to think he is always the boss. Nanny allies herself with Paikea challenging her husband into a new way of thinking. Nanny demonstrates, and Kohlberg states, that “Moral decisions should be made in terms of self-chosen ethical principles,” (Snowman & McCown, 2015, p. 61).

           Nanny’s dedication to her children, her husband, her friends, and the community place her in Erikson psychosocial stage of Generativity rather than Stagnation (Snowman & McCown, 2015). Throughout the film, Nanny functions as a bridge builder; bringing people together for the betterment of the community. There is no doubt that her concern for all members of the community lead her to make decisions, and at times sacrifices, for the prosperity of all.





For More Information




Snowman, J.  and McCown, R.  (2015).  Addressing cultural and socioeconomic diversity.  In Psychology Applied to Teaching (pp. 150-190).  Stamford, USA: Cengage Learning.

bottom of page