After yet another successful Pixar film in the form of Finding Dory, Disney is preparing to release their 56th in-house animated feature, Moana. Influenced by Polynesian mythology, Moana tells the story of a young girl who, along with the heroic demi-god Maui, sets sail in search of an island of legend.
The first trailer for Moana debuted in theaters, attached to Finding Dory. In it, Maui (played by the latest Walk of Fame inductee Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) attempts to tell the story of his incredible history.
The trailer is pretty great; it's full of humor, beautiful animation, and a song that's sure to get stuck in everyone's heads for a long, long time! If this trailer is anything to go by, it looks like Moana will be yet another incredible and visually wonderful Disney adventure!
However, not everyone is happy with the film. Even though it hasn't come out yet, Moana is already the subject of controversy, specifically concerning the character of Maui. You see, there are some who feel that Disney's interpretation of the legendary demi-god is offensive. How so? Well, it is apparently a case of stereotypical fat-shaming.
The Stereotype Surrounding Polynesians
After the release of the trailer, many have been quick to point out Maui's size, and how it may be reinforcing a negative stereotype directed towards Polynesian men and women.
That stereotype is that all men and women of Polynesian descent are naturally overweight or obese. Polynesians in media are often portrayed as large, lazy and unhealthy. Like most stereotypes, this one is reductive, offensive, and an inaccurate portrayal of the majority of Polynesian people.
Some feel that Maui's appearance in Moana only adds more fuel to the fire. As Jenny Salesa of the New Zealand Parliament stated on her Facebook Page:
"When we look at photos of Polynesian men and women from the last 100 to 200 years, most of our people were not overweight, and this negative stereotype of Maui is just not acceptable."
A figure present in Polynesian, Hawaiian, Tahitian, and many other mythologies, Maui's description often changes depending on which mythology you're looking at. However, he is usually depicted as a tall and muscular man, which would explain why Salesa and others aren't very happy with Disney's version.
“The environment our kids grow up in and what they are exposed to have a role to play. Disney movies are very influential on our children. It is great that Moana is the lead. However, it is disappointing that Maui, one of our beloved historical ancestors from hundreds of years ago, who was a very strong man [and] a skilled navigator, is depicted to be so overweight in this kids’ movie.”
Salesa's comments focus mainly on the fact that Maui's depiction in Moana could affect how children view Polynesian people & their culture. This is a very real and serious concern, but the question stands:
Is This Backlash Warranted?
Is Maui's appearance in Moana enough to warrant all of the backlash and criticism it's garnered? To put it simply: no, I don't think it is. Let me explain. First off, I'd just like to say that I am in no way trying to downplay or ignore the fact that stereotyping for Polynesian men and women is very real.
Media often depicts islanders as obese and lazy people. Like the way we present many other races and cultures in our media, we have a serious problem with the way we depict Polynesians. But unlike others, I don't believe that Moana adds to this problem. In fact, I believe it spits in the face of it!
It's Not Shaming, It's Empowering!
I don't think that Maui's depiction in Moana is fat-shaming at all. Rather, I believe that his character is meant to inspire people of all shapes and sizes. How? Well, just look at him. Yes, he does have a large body, but that's not a bad thing.
Being large doesn't automatically mean being lazy, or unhealthy, and it certainly doesn't mean that for Maui! He's a powerful demi-god with a hook that can (apparently) grab hold of the sun; he's the very epitome of strength.
That to me is the message that Disney was going for; that you can be strong, no matter your shape or size. Maui himself isn't even obese, he's just muscular without abs. But even if he was, he'd still be being depicted as a strong and capable character, serving as a message to Disney fans (most of whom are kids) everywhere that you shouldn't judge someone based on their appearance.
As online Polynesian writer Leah Damm says:
“There’s a very clear difference between saying Maui wouldn’t have looked like that and Maui shouldn’t look like that [which sends the message that] big Polynesians are a disgrace to our ancestors and have no place being seen by young audiences,”
So no, I don't believe that Disney was trying to cause any harm with their depiction of Maui, far from it. But the words of Jenny Salesa and others who complained about his appearance shouldn't necessarily be ignored. There is a problem with the way we depict certain people in media, I just don't think it's present here.
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