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Disney craps a cute grass skirt

Unpacking insidious colonial power and indigenous enabling in Disney’s "Moana"

Vicente Diaz

So, Disney “pulled” the costume. It’s good to see just how many people understand what’s wrong with the ghastly thing, which one critic referred to as “Polyface.” Oopsie!

Appropriation of Polynesian culture, manifested as Polyface, is the latest iteration of the racist and colonial violence inherent within western traditions of blackface minstrelsy, or its redface version when it comes to American Indians. Black, red and now Polynesian is the face of the historically uninformed who buys—literally and figuratively—into the entrenched white supremacy insinuated in the supposedly fun, innocent and, worse, purportedly positive embrace of Indigenous culture. What arguably distinguishes “Poly” from blackface (but is somewhat like red) is problematic claims of homage on the part of the colonizer; claims of “honoring” Islanders that, in historical and political contexts, turn out to be anything but positive.

And though it would seem that props to Disney would be in order for the “Polyface” skin suit’s recall, it’s likely that the culture vulture—whose modus operandi is pushing the bling of plastic and flame retardant things into the hands of children, to fiddle with and then dispose of when the next movie is released—only did so as not to distract from the lead up to the film’s release. When (not if) the film’s box office earnings explode—that’s when the caricatured Maui will return to store shelves. Can you smell what the Rock is cooking? Disney may be hoping to contain outcry at this time, but it won’t be able to resist cashing in on its recent and longtime marketing of American demand for stuff that, in this case, lets boys (and girls) Polyface. Or is it Rockbody? Disney has invested way too much in making the flaying of Polynesian and Island culture socially acceptable.

But too much of the criticism in mainstream media outlets has been lightweight in trying to uncouple the bad from the good about Disney’s latest venture. Take, for example, this op-ed piece by a Pacific Islander artist who—like too many Islanders posting on social media—remains excited about Moana despite Disney’s flapflop with Maui. The piece cites good intentions, cultural authentication and, perhaps most tellingly, an anguished longing to see Islander likenesses on the big screen. Along these lines, the leader of the Fiji vocal talent featured in Moana characterized Disney as the “Olympics” of entertainment, linking his group to the Fijian rugby team, which won gold in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this past Summer. The critical key questions for Islanders and others to ask themselves, instead, are when and how did representation in a Disney film become a prerequisite for Islander self-worth? How did seeing oneself in Disney become a gold standard for indigenous ideas about proper being, real growth and excellence?

So what? What’s so wrong with Moana? What’s so wrong with Polynesian and Pacific Islander desire to see “positive” likenesses of themselves on the big screen? I’ll tell you: It’s a false positive; a control that is actually quite insidious in the long run in how it allows Disney to manipulate history, whitewash colonialism and normalize its attendant violence and devastation of land, sea and tradition.

Tina Ngata has poignantly pointed out that Disney and its Polynesian collaborators have no real standing to properly represent mana wahine narratives, much less through flawed caricatures, storylines and plastics that actually hurt the real ocean. But there are larger and equally insidious political and cultural forces at work in this latest “imagineering” of indigenous Polynesian and Pacific heritage into cash and trash. 

Indeed, the more one learns of Disney’s real history of racist and sexist representations of colonized peoples in particular (Brode 2006; Giroux 1999); the more it makes efforts to cover over this history via self-serving, supposedly positive, storytelling and merchandising (Breaux 2010); and, most pertinent for us in Oceania, the more we learn about how colonialism in the Pacific operates through patronizing “benevolence” and shortsighted ideas about “authentic” culture—to the detriment of real Pacific Islanders and Native peoples—the more we encounter the true face of the disneyfication of Polynesia (Beyond Disney’s Moana; Dawson and Ka’ili 2016; DeSilva; Hoʻomanawanui; Ka’ili 2016; Kelly; McDougal and Nordstrom 2014; Milo, Karlo. 2016; Ngata, Tina. 2016b, 2016c, 2014. But see also Tamaira, 2015)

The problem is, it isn’t just “Polynesia” being represented here, despite the outward and celebrated claims to the contrary. Here, Disney traffics and trades in certain peculiar ideas about nativeness and nature, for which certain ideas of “Polynesia” have become stand-ins, and which bear little to no resemblance to actual people who have come to be identified as Polynesian, notwithstanding wishful thinking by some (or too many). 

Such proxies for what is in fact a diverse group of peoples and cultures, in Polynesia alone, also have the capacity to stand in for others outside the region—often in indirect and unmarked ways—beginning with other non-Polynesian Pacific peoples and extending, arguably, to any other “Native” of a presumed type (in the warped, colonial imagination). Because these ideas have real life and material consequences and effects on all of us—especially on children—we need to sharpen our ability to identify and confront these ideas, especially in their most alluring forms. That is what has been rolled out by the Disney marketing machine, and we can already see how some of these ideas play out in the Moana story, especially around issues of authenticating the claims of Polynesian-ness.

Ironically, though I am Micronesian (Guam, with lineage to the Eastern Caroline island of Pohnpei), I was recruited into this “Polynesian” fray by none other than The Rock himself. In the first trailer released this past summer, the very first thing I heard was his crooning voice over an image of stick figures dancing on red and black tapa: “Do you know who Maui is? Only the greeeaaaatest demigod in allllllll of the Pacific Islands!” Maybe that’s just supposed to be a boastful brag, but for all the hoopla about accuracy, it’s simply wrong. The truth is, Maui culture—or at least culture that is understood as such—isn’t found outside of Polynesia except with Polynesian outliers in Melanesia or Micronesia. Though, outwardly, the movie is about Polynesia, the Polynesia here actually doubles as a stand-in for the entire Pacific, and for a certain kind of Native: the kind that is enviable, domesticable, lovable. The kind that entertains and softens (if you don’t anger it). The kind that is imitable.

All of these characteristics are actually part of an indefatigable trope in colonial discourse: the “noble savage.” In a nutshell, it’s how colonialism operates materially through language and representation within a larger history of western desire for things considered primitive, but of the “good” kind.

Moana, by all available evidence, is Disney’s 21st century imagineering of primitivist desire for noble savagery, now dressed up in a story of a would-be anti-heroine; a brave and amazing navigatress/princess (lets call her Moana 1) in synergistic touch with the power of nature, in particular with the ocean (Moana 2), in the company of a buffoonish, but ultimately lovable caricature (Disney Maui) of an actual pan-Polynesian demigod and revered ancestor (Maui the Real).

The first giveaway of this film’s problematic nature was the decision to set this seductive story of Polynesian and Island power in ancient (read: pre-European) times. This is effectively meant to conjure an imagined paradise (defined in European terms) that was lost (on account of European colonialism), notwithstanding necessary conflict and villainy for narrative flow, resolution and character development. In place of bad bad colonialism and modernity, the story substitutes in an evil “lava witch” that may or may not allude to Pele, but comes dangerously close to it either way. In any case, the vast majority of viewers will link bad lava witch with actual and historical lava flow, as that which is currently erupting in contemporary Hawaiʻi, and which is in fact revered by Kanaka Maoli as the embodiment of Pele. Note how European agency remains in the driver’s seat, though unmarked and unacknowledged, in a story about “Polynesia” (a European term bequeathed to the region). In critical studies, the longing for such an imagined paradise is called colonial nostalgia; in this case, it is a desire to retrieve and possess what European and American colonialism destroyed of Polynesia. 

Moana is colonialism’s and post-colonialism’s Polyface. Here, Polyface is a stand-in for Pacificface, but mostly without the explicit markings of culture and tradition of the wider Pacific. Such “facing,” again, is about European fantasies and desires. And when the greater Pacific is acknowledged explicitly, it is actually an oopsie moment: like a Freudian slip. Thus can we begin to see how Moana not only conflates Polynesia with the wider Pacific, but—in so doing—also unwittingly alerts us to the way in which those older colonialist desires and fantasies that are invested in Polynesia are, in fact, in control of the film. 

In Moana, we see a similar oopsie in the narrative representation of seafaring cultural and technological prowess. This is a powerful tradition in Polynesia, like Maui. But, unlike Maui, this tradition has provenance in the wider Pacific. From what I can tell of the trailers and news releases, seafaring in the film is represented as an exclusively Polynesian thing. In other words, through its depiction of seafaring, the wider Pacific is unmarked and elided.

More specifically, it is ancient and contemporary Pacific histories that are elided. The actual and factual origins of seafaring abilities that would come to evolve and be improved upon by peoples who would come to be called Polynesian are omitted. The desire to honor seafaring heritage, as expressed in Moana, could not exist without the remarkable story of the contemporary revival of seafaring across, not just Polynesia, but the entire Pacific, as largely made possible by the survival of the knowledge sets in non-Polynesian islands like the Central Carolines in Micronesia. Yet there is no mention of this either.

To these elided, non-Polynesian feeders in the contemporary period, we must add the work of modern scientists and things like planetaria, and even corporate sponsorship, that also made the story of the revival of traditional seafaring in most of the Pacific, but especially in Polynesia, possible. All of these are the actual conditions of possibility that made the imagineering possible, but only after careful editing in the service of good, effective storytelling, since showing actual traces of modern, western influence on such an important element of the narrative would mar the image of purity and antiquity the filmmakers are going for; an imagined narrative that is shaped by colonialist fantasies and anxieties in the first place, no matter how well-intentioned a writer or illustrator may be. This is the actual Disney magic by which the pioneer of advanced visualization technology trades in Pacific cultures and histories to tell us a powerful story of “ancient Polynesia.”

But Disney can’t be blamed for all of it. Moana enjoys the stamp of Polynesian authenticity thanks to a highly secretive and seemingly free-floating body of agents remarkably misnamed the Ocean Story Trust. Nobody knows the who or the what or anything, really, about this entity beyond rumor. This is a trust whose members are also rumored to have signed away rights of full disclosure to Disney. So much for trust and transparency on so crucial an issue. So much for accountability to those of us directly and indirectly represented in this film, and to anybody else who seeks to guard revered and sacred, cultural traditions like Maui, or Pacific seafaring.

Furthermore, the misnomer comes from the rather odd decision to christen the group in English. Given the stakes in Polynesian cultural authenticity, why not call it Moana Talanoa Kuleana or something like that? That fact that it is named in English, coupled with the full disclosure thing, makes one wonder if calling it the Ocean Story Trust wasn’t, in fact, a sly way for its members—Polynesian to be sure (but one can’t be sure)—to deflect the scent of Islander complicity, the enabling side of western cultural appropriation and colonialism, from critical dogs sure to come a-sniffing for details. Perhaps that’s the genius of signing away rights to full disclosure: nobody in this whole production has to be accountable to living heirs of Maui, Moana the Ocean, or any other revered and sacred traditions that are directly and indirectly deployed in this film and its merchandise.

Disney’s trust-enabled Polyface, and its specific problem of speaking for the Pacific while also covering over colonialism’s realities, in fact, perpetuates colonialism. It conflates and, therefore, elides and erases real diversity in the Pacific, which only betrays Disney’s imperialist roots and longings. But in also standing for the Pacific in largely unmarked ways, the film also continues to unleash the primitivist colonial demand and market (which Disney helps create) for lovable, strong, happy, dancing, singing, hospitable, enviable natives upon the rest of us. These are the very ideas that the category “Polynesia” actually conjures in the minds of most people who know nothing about the real Polynesia, and this unleashing continues to strengthen itself as the gold standard for measuring all of us. No wonder the almost knee-jerk linkage to the Olympics. Real props to the Fiji Rugby team, but thanks, no thanks to Fijian enabling of the monster by infusing it with beautiful and powerful Fijian music. Can we stop feeding this monster already? 

The sad fact is, Disney is a capitalist culture-vulture that cannibalizes and then spits (or shits) out other people’s cultural traditions and birthrights, a domain into which it has no real business sticking its nose, especially in such seemingly sensitive, but actually crassly commercialized ways.

And so, when Disney made an oopsie with the faux Maui skin suit in the cute grass skirt, what it actually did was temporarily reveal the real shit behind the business of ingesting and digesting culture by inadvertently exposing its privates. As revolting as it was to see, I’m glad a lot of people got a good view.

To be sure, Moana will deliver the goodies that mainstream America and way too many Islanders desire. Viewers will be enchanted and inspired. Plastic products will sell like crazy before they are discarded, never to decompose. And yet, so much remains at stake precisely because this film will deliver on the stunning beauty and deep culture that has come to be expected from the Pacific. Lest we forget, it is also precisely in the celebratory power of such allure that colonialism has left an actual trail of destruction and dispossession in its wake across Oceania. If ever there were a place and a people so loved to death, it would be the Pacific and the men, women and children whose ancestors first made the region their home.

And until the historical and political reality of continued destruction is openly confronted and terminated, no amount of pixie dust, mixed-in with dirt by Disney’s happy mouseketeers to make it look brown, will be enough to cover over the shit inside, behind and beneath even the most enchanting moments of the film, and the most darling of grass skirts.

Additional references:

Breaux, Richard. 2010. “After 75 Years of Magic: Disney Answers its Critics, Rewrites African American History, and Cashes in on its Racist Past.” Journal of African American Studies. Published online 16 July, and accessed via Academia.edu

Brode, D. 2006. Multiculturalism and the mouse: Race and sex in Disney entertainment. Austin:University of Texas Press.

Giroux, Henry. 1999. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. New York.

McDougal, Brandy Nalani and Georgeann Nordstrom. 2014. “(Re)Placing Kanaka Maoli at Disney’s Aulani Resort.” Huihui: Navigating Art and Literature in the Pacific.

Vicente Diaz is Carolinian (Pohnpeian) and Filipino from Guam, and currently teaches and researches in comparative Native Studies in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.