in Raising People

Disney’s Moana: For The Kids or A Question of Race, Culture & History?


There’s been a bit of talk online about Disney’s upcoming animation, Moana. And for good reason. Disney doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to historic accuracy  or their sexist representations of women as damsels in distress in the form of Disney princesses (mostly and up until recently, exclusively, white). So it’s natural and reasonable for people to question the integrity of the coming depiction of an ocean navigating, Polynesian Princess.

I’m torn on this issue.

There are a number of concerns that have surfaced about the film, even though it’s still in the very early stages of production; a major issue being that there doesn’t seem to be any clear distinction about what Moana’s ethnicity actually is, other than Polynesian, which is an incredibly vague identity considering the ethnic diversity within the Polynesian group.

This grouping of all Pacific nationalities as a singular group is, generally speaking, problematic in its tendency to erase the vast differences in language and culture between Pacific ethnicities, and reinforces the stereotyping and racial profiling of all ‘Pacific-looking’ people. It also means that there’s very little accountability required for the story to be historically accurate – although this is arguably a positive thing, as it perhaps means that no one specific culture or history is targeted by misrepresentation or whitewashing. It’s also perhaps noting that Pacific ethnic labels as we know them today, are comparatively modern and perhaps more difficult to define given Moana’s time setting.

At best, I’m glad to see some recognition of Pacific people’s history as the first people to cross and navigate the ocean, about a millennium before Columbus did.

But the film isn’t for me. And it isn’t for the people who are currently sharing the same concerns. It’s target audience are far less aware of historic validity, gender roles and eurocentrism. The film is for children.

As a kid, Disney was huge to me. I was more of a Lion King and Peter Pan kid, but the influence of Disney and particularly Disney princesses, isn’t lost on me. The lack of diversity in Disney films has been an issue for well over half a century, and although in this time span little white boys and girls around the world have had a buffet of princesses and noble characters to admire and identify with, the rest of us were left to make do.

Of course few parents would actually choose Disney as a leading influence to have in their children’s lives, the reality is that we live in a world where we have little control over what our children are going to be drawn to. Sure we can choose to limit the exposure of certain things to our children, throw out the TV and as an extreme, homeschool our kids and only introduce them to the Internet when they’re of voting age, but that isn’t going to help my children deal with the realities of society as autonomous adults.

Being socially conscious is a burden. It has its liberating qualities, but the habit of being critically aware of a society so steeped in inequality and prejudice on all platforms is a heavy and emotional burden, and so often, just watching the news and reading the poor ways in which minorities are spoken about, is a stomach churning task.

I do hope that my children are aware of many realities about the world one day, but I also want them to be happy and free, and finding a balance sometimes means choosing our battles as parents. I want my kids to enjoy childhood and use as much imagination as possible before the reality of social constructs and history surfaces. Kids may not be aware of a lot about the world, but their ideas are incredibly romantic, idealist and fantastical. Sometimes that imagination just wants to be a Disney princess, and I just don’t have the heart to shut that part of childhood down yet.

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