Western culture consumes others however it wants. Often times, this is done with great disrespect and appropriation. It is important to realize that this has been a problem in Hollywood. Movies that feature a specific culture might misrepresent the people who identify and live within that culture. This can happen through whitewashing a character or changing a small detail that has a greater importance in that culture or society that the newcomer might be unaware of. The natives might not have been talked to about the context of the story in order to dispel stereotypes or assumptions.
What 'Moana' Got Right
While researching in Polynesia for #Moana, the directors — John Musker and Ron Clements — met a man by the name of Papa Mape who said,
"For years we've been swallowed by your culture. One time can you be swallowed by our culture?"
In order to respect the request of Papa Mape, Musker and Clements involved the Pacific Islands locals in every step of creating the Oceanic Story Trust. This team was made up of local anthropologists, historians, tattoo artists, dancers and people who wanted to help #Disney represent the Pacific Island people and their culture in the most authentic way. They achieved that with Moana.
The deep relationship with nature, particularly with the ocean, is powerful at a time when the environment is becoming less and less protected. You can feel how important their livelihood depends on the symbiotic relationship the village has with their island. Each islander has their role to play, built in by the history of their ancestors. The community between the villagers and their familial bonds are such an important aspect of the Polynesian culture.
Moana also shows that Polynesian women are important figures in their family, with Grandma Tala being the storyteller and history keeper. They're leaders and are not relegated to the background.
Obviously, there are aspects that could have been explored, such as gender dynamics and sexuality. There is also the idea that Maui's story in the film was crafted from the islands of Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Maori culture.
Why Cultural Representation Is Important
Stereotypes stem from caricatures of a culture, which marginalize a minority. That can create a bias or a distorted view of someone from a non-dominant group. These tropes are perpetuated by the media, and are often the first judgment upon interaction with someone from that group. It's important to recognize that this behavior is problematic and that cultures should be equally represented.
The Pasifika community was apprehensive at the start of Moana, as there has been a history of misrepresentation in the media. Every Polynesian will have a different experience with Moana. Everyone has valid feelings for how they feel Disney represented their culture. Disney has received praise and backlash. Historically, Disney has misrepresented other cultures — not just Polynesian — or featured racist depictions in their cartoons and films. Without being critical of this problem, we're letting it continue.
I've struggled with friends unfamiliar with the Polynesian culture who disliked Moana's story. They see it as a visually stunning movie with great music, but nothing else peaks their interest. Cultures need to be equally represented in film because it helps newcomers understand even a tiny bit more the profoundness of this film and the conversation it's generating about media representation.
Anyone in the Pasifika community can look at Moana and see a hero in their skin. They can finally see someone who looks like them and talks like them, portrayed far beyond a stereotype.
Why I Care About Cultural Representation
As someone who has grown up in a Polynesian household, it makes me teary seeing aspects that I grew up with represented on screen. I could see my grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and my mom in Moana. That's an experience I didn't think would ever happen. This is my culture in movie theaters all over the world (and now on DVD), and not in a "tourist destination" way. This is more respect and reverence than I've ever seen. It is easy to be consumed by this movie and everything it has to offer.
I grew up on the mainland near the sea, with pride for the culture I represent in my blood and name. Moana represents the direction that I want Disney to continue: deep research into a culture that crafts a story that consumes its audience. I want other people of color and minorities to have the privilege to see their culture fully represented on the big screen. The tiniest details faithfully captured on screen will bring a smile to their face like Moana does to me.
I hope they continue to make Papa Mabe proud with future films.
Check out the video below for the real-life inspirations behind Moana and head over to Movie Pilot Video to watch more:
What other films do you think faithfully showcase the minorities they mean to represent?