Moana’s Escape From Cultural Stereotypes: Did It Succeed?
Se Eun Kim, ‘19
Disney has made significant efforts over the last few years (a period of Disney animation that is often called the “Disney Revival Era” or the “Second Disney Renaissance”) to eliminate much of its previous stereotypes. It had portrayed an African-American princess Tiana in its 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, and eliminated the “Prince Charming to the rescue” cliché of previous films in its 2013 film Frozen. And most recently, Disney has made its most progressive movement yet in Moana.
The most apparent change is the portrayal of the title character, Moana. Unlike the predominantly Caucasian Disney heroines that came before her, Moana is of the Polynesian tribe, and looks significantly different from the pale, skinny princesses that came before her. She is not afraid to find her own path to save her island, and does so without directly defying her people and their traditions. Moana is the perfect balance between the independent but radically nonconformist Elsa and the caring but passive Snow White, eager to live her own life while embracing her island’s traditions.
However, Moana is not completely free from racial stereotypes. When the character design of Maui, a powerful demigod sidekick, was revealed, critics condemned Disney for portraying Maui as overweight, which is another stereotype of Polynesian men. Disney was also criticized for disrespecting native Polynesian culture, although unintentionally; Ana Madigibuli, The Fiji Times journalist, reported that Disney had used a Korova camakau (the boat Moana first sails in) “without permission of the Korova community.” Samoan-New Zealand blogger Lia claims that Disney’s portrayal of the tuiga (the Samoan headdress Moana wears) is disrespectful and inaccurate, and the Maui costume received complaints for being culturally insensitive.
Despite such flaws, Moana has made a great effort to escape from traditional Disney stereotypes and to convey a message of racial diversity and independence. Moana, although imperfect in some aspects, is a significant step towards diversity and originality of Disney films, and promises a brighter future for both Disney and its audiences.