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Disney’s Cultural Appropriation in ‘Moana’

By Entertainment

Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

At first, Disney received high praise for its newest animated release, “Moana.” Not only would the film tell the stories of underrepresented people in Hollywood (Pacific Islanders), but it also featured voice actors of Polynesian descent (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother was Samoan; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, a Hawaiian native). Disney also employed other voice actors, a screenwriter, and composer, who were Pacific Islanders. Ultimately, though, it seems the film will fall short. Rather than taking a step forward, “Moana” (like so many movies before it) asks us to examine the thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.  

“Moana” is about an adventurous teenage girl who travels across the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to save her people. The CGI-animated tale will debut November 23, but already trouble has been brewing.  The few trailers that have been released, as well as a costume that was produced and quickly taken off the market, have caused many native Polynesians to take issue — particularly in the portrayal of the demigod Maui.

Maui is not a fictional character created by Disney; he is a revered figure in Polynesian oral traditions, and viewed by some Pacific Islanders as an ancestor to the exalted, ruling class of Hawaii. He is known to have both godly and human characteristics, and is a cultural hero. Maui has been credited with passing the secret of fire to humans, and making the days longer in summer and shorter in winter, by drawing the Hawaiian archipelagos together and slinging the sun. In some areas, Maui is even believed to have created the Hawaiian Islands, by catching the bottom of the ocean with his great fish-hook, manaikalani.

Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

There are numerous views of the particular origins and feats of Maui (from family to family), but it is generally agreed that he is a figure of dignity, strength, and intelligence. The Maui in the Disney trailer, however, appears to be frivolous, vain, and humorous. In one instance, Maui is seen talking to a dancing tattoo on his pectoral muscle, begging the tattoo to let him tell the tales of his accomplishments on his own. Intelligence and dignity have been sacrificed to make room for humor. It is unsettling that a demigod known for his magnitude is the comic relief of the film.

Many prominent Polynesians —politicians, media experts, and artists — have also voiced discontent with Maui’s physical appearance. He is seen as not just overweight, but obese. This is not how people were in ancient Oceana (where “Moana” is set), where traditional lifestyles were relatively healthy. Will Ilolahia, who is a member of the Pacific Media Association, wrote in an article to Waatea News that this depiction of Maui being obese is typical American stereotyping.” Disney should have been more focused on depicting Maui properly (based on folklore), so that he would not be degraded for future generations.

The Maui Halloween costume Disney created (and subsequently removed from stores) also raised eyebrows. The costume included a shark necklace, hula skirt, and, worst of all, skin. That’s right: This costume came fully equipped with brown skin covered in Maui’s signature tribal tattoos. The description of the costume described the skin as “padded arms and legs for a mighty stature.”

Shortly after the costume was released, outrage on social media ensued. Polynesians were understandably disappointed that Disney was literally selling their skin color as part of a costume. This creates a fantasy for children that it is ethically fine to wear another culture for fun. Native Hawaiian and college student Chelsie Haunani Fairchild was one of many to compare the linkage between the costume and blackface, in her YouTube video.

Disney has since removed the costume — along with sets of pajamas, sweatshirts, and t-shirts in similar styles — from store shelves. They offered an official apology stating, “The team behind ‘Moana’ has taken great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired the film, we regret that the Maui costume has offended some. We sincerely apologize.”

It seems that what first began as an appreciation for the beauty of the Polynesian culture has since turned into misrepresentation, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation. Perhaps with all the negative backlash prior to the film’s release, Disney will take further efforts and carefully consider how appropriate it is to use another culture’s folklore as entertainment for the masses.

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