Oh, joy, Disney’s turned it’s attention our way. In late 2016 we can look forward to the epic Disney tale of Moana – “Moana” is to tell the story of a spirited teenage girl and “born navigator” who sets sail in search of a fabled island in the ancient world of Oceania. Along the way, she teams up with a demigod named Maui and encounters mythical creatures and places” (LA Times). Awesome. Disney gets to play with our Atua now, as well. Taika Waititi wrote the screenplay, and the film will be directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog). So, Taika… let’s chat:
An Open Letter to Taika Waititi.
Tēnā koe Taika, I hear you’ve written the screenplay for Disney’s new film about the voyaging traditions of our tipuna, through the narrative of a young woman named Moana, and her adventures alongside our Atua, Maui. Naturally, you’ll understand, given the many, many ways in which our stories have been misrepresented in the past and how these misrepresentations have been used to justify the removal of our children from their communities, the denial and degradation of our language, the profiling of our culture as romantic savagery, or of our women as exotic and/or promiscuous, of our men as primitive, lazy and barbaric, the theft of our land, and in general, to legitimise the warfare against our people and ways – that there might be a little bit of concern about the placing of our stories in the hands of others to tell.
So do we have anything to worry about? Well let’s have a brief glance at Disney’s track record with storytelling…
I’m going to start with Pocahontas. Who wouldn’t. Particularly pertinent, Taika, given your public spanking of Trelise Cooper for her culturally inappropriate use of First Nation headdresses on the runway:
Was it the 70s that Disney was portraying Pocahontas as the hypersexualised Hollywood babe with the playmate face, tight buckskins and Caucasian-ised hourglass figure that gets saved by the white knight (twice), was it the 70s when they were portraying First Nations historical and spiritual characters in ways that diminished and trivialised the culture and their historical significance and strength? Err… nah it was 1995. But hey, water under the bridge, right? I mean it’s not like we’re still suffering the consequences of Disney’s global mass-communication machine and their rampant production line of western-centred social narratives.
Except they continue to roll out, and profit from, the same culturally inappropriate merchandise. Except for the countless times I have worn my own hair in braids, and, as a Māori woman (or girl), I’d get told “Oh you look so Pocahontas” or even called “Poke-a-ho”. Except for the annual Halloween roll out of the “Pocahottie” outfit and the continued media throwbacks to that stereotype. What’s the other culturally inappropriate outfit we see at this time? Oh yes… the war bonnet. But you hate that kind of cultural appropriation, right, Taika?
But ok, that was a different crew. Let’s check out Aladdin – similar time (early 90s). That’s the crew that will be working on Moana, so how’d they treat Arab culture in Aladdin? Oh – yeah – hyper sexualised women, Princesses dressed in slave attire (because harem chicks are hot, doncha know?), highly criticized racist undertones, culturally inept references to Allah, and responsible for a multi-billion dollar merchandise market that continues to this day to profit from the perpetuation of cliché, culturally inappropriate stereotypes. (and again, more Jasmine-hottie costumes).
Not looking good huh. So how about Disney’s last sojourn into Te Moananui a Kiwa? Lilo and Stitch (2002) – purporting to support culturally centered notions of “ohana”, and apparently, displaying their cultural sensitivity by using more appropriate and culturally respectful bodyforms.
Yeah… still didn’t do so great – in fact heavily criticised in indigenous reviews for it’s uneven storyline, misinformed cultural tropes, and resplendent with racist, patronizing, and colonial undertones. Not so surprising, and in fact it’s to be expected when asking too much of an inherently racist money-making machine.
But that was 10 years ago, things have changed, right? Wrong. Like I said… Disney still roll out and profit from merchandise from all of those abominations of stories. They continue to profit from the undermining of other cultures and the re-presentation of their stories in a way that disempowers the source and reinforces colonial and western norms. They continue to perpetuate clichéd gender and ethnic stereotypes at their theme parks.In fact, drop by Disneyland today and you’ll get treated to the kind of culturally offensive sensory assault that just might send anyone with the slightest sense of indigenous consciousness into a stroke-induced coma. Doesn’t exactly sing of commitment to indigenous rights and respect, does it.
Looks like your colleagues/contractor still find cultural insensitivity and racism super awesome innocent fun.
They continued, with their most recent film Frozen, to take from indigenous culture (Sámi), and make a cliche mockery of Scandinavian stereotypes, in order to appeal to US audiences and worldviews. The only thing that seems to be developing (sometimes) is the sense of agency and strength of the female protagonist – but scratch under the surface and you’ll see continued gender clichés, a systemic gender imbalance in the production of Disney films, and of course we’ve still YET to see any kind of challenge to the imposed norm of sexual orientation (who wants to put their money on Frozen 2 – Elsa marries Helga).
We already have our own rich storytelling culture, Taika. It doesn’t reposition itself to appeal to the racist humour and privileged wallets of our colonizer (as your chosen colleague has). It doesn’t perpetuate imposed stereotypical norms of gender, culture, or sexual orientation (as your chosen colleague has), or minimalise our kaitieki, or mock our ways (as your chosen colleague has). The story of our voyaging tipuna is not just yours to place into the hands of Disney – it belongs to all of our whanaunga across Te Moananui a Kiwa. It is rich, it is complex, and it is ongoing. The placing of this narrative in the hands of Disney is, at best, cavalier – and at worst a complete sellout. While we continue to promote and demand culturally appropriate platforms and relevant contexts for telling our own stories – the mass-consumptive power of machines such as Disney has the absolute ability to eclipse our voice and position.
I hope, I really hope, that we’re not going to find ourselves dealing with the same fallout experienced by pretty much every other culture Disney has cast their eye over. I hope you will be able to face the myriad of our whanaunga across Te Moananui a Kiwa who you are affecting with this story. I am quite sure the movie will be a sellout. I hope, sincerely, that you have not been.