Walt Disney Studio's next animated film, Moana, which is inspired by the mythology of Oceania and the Pacific Islands, has recently been subject to fierce criticism centring around one particular piece of merchandise used to promote the movie. The merchandise in question is a costume of one of the protagonists, Maui. In both the film and the Oceanic/Pacific Mythology which inspired it, Maui is a demigod with the power to create continents and move the sun. In the film, Maui has very little clothing, but instead wears a number of tattoos recounting his exploits. The costume of Maui aims to provide children with an opportunity to dress as the character who will likely be the most memorable in Moana, as it consists of a brown bodysuit designed to replicate Maui’s muscular body, complete with “the demigod’s signature tattoos, rope necklace and island-style skirt”. However, the costume has been accused of promoting racism and cultural appropriation.
The most obvious complaint against the costume is that getting children to dress in the skin colour of a minority figure invokes racist tropes such as “Brownface”, which have been used to belittle minority people throughout history. In addition, Body Art is sacred to many Oceanic/Pacific cultures, so using Maui’s tattoos as the basis for merchandise has created further offense. The controversy surrounding the costume has become so intense that a spokesman for the Human Rights Commission has issued a statement saying that:
"Right now Polynesian people from across the Pacific region are voicing their views about this costume and it's their voices that are important right now. We hope Disney listens to the views of the communities and people whose cultures their movie is based upon."
As someone with only a basic knowledge Oceanic/Pacific culture, I am not particularly qualified to talk about many of the specific issues here, and there are other people who have provided more sophisticated analysis on the issue. Two particularly nuanced and interesting articles have been written by Nathan Ross and Becca Dague, and I urge you to read them. However, here is my opinion on the controversy.
First of all, I have to say that I understand a lot of the anger surrounding the costume. The one of a number of recent controversies surrounding the concept of “cultural appropriation”. Out of the numerous angry comments on Twitter when the costume was unveiled, one of the most insightful said that “We are not a costume”, and this sums up why people object to “Cultural Appropriation". Complaints about “Cultural Appropriation” stem from the fact that many depictions of minority cultures can often rely on stereotypes which are frustratingly simplistic at best and offensive at worst. If costumes of Maui are the only access people have to Oceanic/Pacific culture, they create a simplified perception of Oceanic/Pacific people which focuses on their skin colour and tattoos, and not their personality and values. Furthermore, stereotyping minority cultures can often ignore the history of persecution that they have suffered. This persecution was fuelled by a lack of respect for a culture regarded as alien, and if minority cultures are still treated with insufficient respect, it can create a climate which leads to further prejudice. I generally don’t think that Walt Disney Animation Studios aim to promote racism (Many recent Disney Animations, from 1982’s The Fox and the Hound and 1989’s The Little Mermaid to the recent smash Zootopia, have contained strong anti-prejudice messages) but the decision to make merchandise out of Maui is pretty insensitive. I think that there are numerous ways of appealing to children’s interest in Maui which don’t involve making them wear costumes which seem to trivialise a complex and often misunderstood culture.
However, to use a problematic piece of merchandise to condemn the film itself is incredibly misguided. Moana is not merely the product of a corporation, but a work of entertainment created by a wide range of people. From the early stages of development, numerous Pacific figures have helped contribute to the making of the film. Several experts on Oceanic/Pacific culture were consulted, and they helped set up an “Oceanic Story Trust” to ensure that their mythology would be depicted as faithfully as possible. New Zealand filmmaker Taikia Waititi, whose recent film Hunt For The Wilderpeople is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, wrote the first (and probably the most important) draft of the script. The Oceanic musician Opetaia Foa'i helped write the songs, and out of the eight members of the central Voice Cast, six (Dwayne Johnson, Auli'i Cravalho, Temuera Morrison, Rachael House, Jermaine Clement and Nicole Scherzinger) are of Oceanic or Pacific heritage. Of the other two Voice Actors, one (Disney “Lucky Charm” Alan Tudyk) is only voicing animals. To judge the output of so many prominent Oceanic/Pacific people based on one piece of merchandise is unfair, and before we rush to condemn Moana, we need to hear their opinions on the matter.
The debate about Moana’s merchandise highlights the thorny issues surrounding the use of a specific cultural mythology in a mainstream blockbuster. One one hand, Moana will introduce the stories of Maui to millions (or even billions) of people with little knowledge of Oceanic/Pacific mythology. One the other hand, in trying to appeal to a mass audience, major companies such as Disney need to be especially careful to honour the heritage of their stories. When a big corporation like Disney releases a film, it can often be hard to tell whether they aim to provide an interesting piece of entertainment or a product which they can make money out of. When they seem to place too much emphasis on making merchandise, as they did here, it can fuel negative perceptions of their work. Ultimately, whilst I believe that the Maui costume should not have been released, I don’t think it affects my opinions on the film as a whole. Therefore, whilst I acknowledge most of the concerns upon which this issue has shone a light, I still think that people should see Moana when it is released to cinemas. This would allow them to make a more complete and satisfactory judgement on whether or not the film waters down and trivialises Oceanic/Pacific culture or treats it respectfully.