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Disney Moana’s Portrayal of Maui Culturally Insensitive?

Gaylord Garcia - A Special to Maui Now · July 12, 2016, 1:19 PM HST (Updated July 12, 2016, 2:39 PM) · 5 Comments
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In October 2015, Disney selected Auliʻi Cravalho of Mililani as the voice of the very first Polynesian Disney princess, Moana. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been cast as Maui, a Polynesian demigod, and Moana’s sidekick. The film is about the voyage of a young girl across the Pacific in an ancient mission to save her people.

However, the depiction of Johnson’s character Maui has generated a firestorm of criticism from the public, including comments from prominent Polynesian politicians and public figures.

On June 22, Jenny Salesa, a New Zealand Labour MP shared her concerns on a Facebook post about Maui’s body shape and Disney’s influence on kids. Salesa said that Polynesian men and women from the last 100-200 years were not overweight, and Maui’s depiction is an unacceptable stereotype.

“The environment our kids grow up in and what they are exposed to have a role to play. Disney movies are very influential on our children. It is great that Moana is the lead. However, it is disappointing that Maui, one of our beloved historical ancestors from hundreds of years ago, who was a very strong man and a skilled navigator, is depicted to be so overweight in this kids’ movie,” Salesa’s Facebook post said.

Image credit: Michel Mulipola, Samoan artist.

Image credit: Michel Mulipola, Samoan artist.  Sourced from Disney Images.

On June 23, Samoan illustrator, Michel Mulipola shared his thoughts in a viral Facebook post, defending the depiction of Maui in the 2016 Disney film.

Mulipola argued that in animation, the shape of a character is not simply a way of determining who is who but also an effective illustration device to portray personalities through their physical appearance.

“I’m not phased by the way Maui is designed in this film. In Polynesian mythology, Maui is the demi-god who inspired many myths and legends. In this film, he would of done a lot of those amazing feats but he’ll be a blow hard braggart who can be a bit of an idiot.There’s a reason the upcoming film is called Moana and not Maui,” Mulipola concluded.

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In an interview with MauiNow, Oriana Leao, a graduate student in American Studies currently writing her Master’s Thesis on the “Misrepresentation of Kanaka Maoli Women in American Cinema” at University of Hawaiʻi, said that Maui’s physical appearance in the film’s trailer visually struck her.

“I cannot imagine a god who snares the sun or is capable of scooping up entire islands would be flabby. Not to mention, Kanaka Maoli diet and activity habits were cause for a generally healthy lifestyle prior to the introduction of diseases,” Leao said.

According to Leao, Hollywood perpetuates stereotypes concerning indigenous people like how Polynesian male characters are usually depicted as unintelligent, lazy, comical, absent or fun-loving.

“They are depicted in this way so that they do not pose a representational threat to white male superiority and the heroes that symbolize this notion,” Leao added. Leao also pointed out that there are little to no indigenous agency and authorship to the script of the film, and that cultural participation does not equate to cultural validation.

“Economically speaking, it matters little if the film produces a dollar or one billion dollars in profit as it can be assumed that little to none of that capital and societal “interest” will be allocated toward the practice of fostering indigenous producers and directors in Pacific communities,” Leao concluded.

The film is set to hit theaters on Nov. 23, 2016, around Thanksgiving Day – a day that is still painful for many indigenous communities to recognize, according to Leao.

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