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Whitewashing and 'Moana'

by Megan Mulligan

Photo Courtesy of Facebook

Disney’s upcoming release, Moana, is an animated film about a young woman who goes on an adventure with a demi-god, and along the way, according to Disney, “discovers the one thing she always sought: her identity.”

The film, which hits theaters November 23, is based on Polynesian legends about how Polynesian people first reached and populated the Hawaiian Islands. Disney has loosely based its films on fairy tales and cultural legends before—and Moana’s story will likely be no different.

Previous Disney films that included characters of color either relied on stereotypes, or even turned the main characters into actual animals.

“Although [Tiana from Princess and the Frog] was the first black princess, she was still a frog for three-fourths of the movie,” said Dana Zircon (COM ’20). “Her natural hair was always concealed within a bun, and so much of her blackness that I wanted to identify with just wasn't there.”

Preview videos and images from the movie appear to show Moana as a human for most of the film, but the writers have also been criticized as depicting Maui, the demi-god Moana is traveling with, as “fat” or “obese.” Critics claim this is a common stereotype of Polynesian people.

The “obesity” stereotype is one of several drawbacks that critics have observed in the promotional material for the film.

Disney has also been accused of a form of blackface by selling a Maui bodysuit, intended to be a Halloween costume for kids. The costume is made with dark fabric to match Maui’s skin, and is covered with his tribal tattoos.

Bodysuit costumes are not original: there are fake-muscle ones for The Incredibles, The Avengers and even Woody and Buzz from Toy Story.

Maui’s costume is centered on his tribal tattoos, a sacred trait in most Polynesian cultures. That is very different from a spacesuit.

This cultural appropriation should not be ignored. However, the premise of Moana should also be celebrated as a leap forward for more inclusive material directed toward children.

Moana will be one of the first Polynesian princesses, and the script was written by a New Zealander of partially Maori descent. The cast also consists mainly of people of color, and the directors spent time in the South Pacific to ensure a more accurate presentation of their culture.

Moana will be another step toward inclusive media, but like most changes, this will take time. There are successes and failures, and, sometimes, more failures, but it’s always a process.

“I still enjoy Disney movies but they definitely need to step their game up,” Zircon said. “Moana is a good start.”

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