Don’t Swallow (or be Swallowed by) Disney’s ‘Culturally Authenticated Moana’

Vicente Diaz

Disney imagineers have just rolled out a powerful anecdote, connected to the November release of its latest animation, Moana, wherein an elder from Mo’orea, in French Polynesia, is depicted as having asked one of them, “For years, we have been swallowed by your culture …; this one time, can you be swallowed by ours?”

The image of one of our revered elders humbly petitioning agents of the gargantuan media and merchandising conglomerate for just one moment of cultural attention against a historical wave of western acculturative forces makes it sound as if Moana the film is a gift straight from Disney Inc.’s golden heart. But make no mistake about it, any altruism associated with this latest commercial ad-venture will always be trumped by the proverbial bottom line, but more depressingly, by an enduring colonial legacy in the Pacific islands that is further animated in the 21st century by neoliberal and postcolonial desires for selling and consuming native culture of a very specific type.

Indeed the anecdote appears to be part of Disney’s push back against a small but growing movement of Pacific Islanders who are expressing outcry, mostly in social media, against the company’s trafficking on indigenous cultural heritage.

To date, charges of distasteful representation, cultural appropriation, and crass commercialization of Islander culture and tradition have focused on early roll-outs of merchandise, like a ghastly tattooed skin-suit of the Polynesian demigod Maui, or plastic figurines that demonize Pele as “the lava witch”, or evil coconuts dancing a thinly veiled Maori haka and on broader colonial discourses of cultural commodification.

Indeed, Disney does not seem averse to pitting Islander against Islander. For example, the gushing article – apparently part of a strategic targeting of Pacific Islander pop culture sites and networks, including special screenings to Pacific islanders in the diaspora — acknowledges “contention” by academics and activists like myself, but only to counter the criticism with the happy news of just how rigorous and dedicated the corporate storytellers were in doing their research, and just how lovingly accepted they are in certain, key islands of the Pacific.

The gist of the corporate storyline, and probably the company’s talking points, is that Disney really cares, that it really got it right this time because it did its homework, and that the final products – the film, the merchandise, any licensed spin-offs — vouched safe by the appropriate island authorities, will be the best thing ever for the whole wide world. It would seem as if Moana – the Ocean –truly beckons.

At the heart of this marketing claim and bid to silence opposition is the supposed blessing that Disney has received from what the article’s author dubbed as a kind of transpacific “village” comprised of the region’s cultural experts, talent, traditional chiefs, and especially “academic” experts. Before I return specifically to what’s problematic about this supposed indigenous certification of the disneyfication of Pacific-wide culture and tradition, it merits always repeating, when it comes to anything Disney, that there are a few other important backstories that need to be foregrounded.

First, Disney has a long and demonstrable track record of racist and sexist depictions of minoritized and colonized peoples as part of a larger and intentional social engineering project of escaping the real world. Cutting-edge historical context this motive would practically ensure that such films would be widely and wildly received by mainstream audiences, which would also render such depictions innocuous, indeed, innocent and positive.

Second, critical scholarship has shown that Disney’s response to charges of racist and sexist representations has not been to apologize contritely and desist, but rather to reinvigorate its commercial venture in visual storytelling, merchandising and entertaining advertisement (aimed at children) by invoking the “cultural authenticity” of its products in ways that white wash historical violence. This bleaching would be accomplished by seeking out influential spokespersons of the community or people whose cultural heritage was being mined for the next story. In this Moana, it would be bleaching by browning, and brown facing.

Third, in the face of what will surely be a wildly entertaining and even inspiring if entirely formulaic tale – you know, the one about a young and beautiful native heroine (dubbed as an “anti-Disney Princess”) and her lovable sidekick on a watery (as opposed to a frozen) quest to protect some common good by defeating evil villains and overcoming other formidable obstacles – the media blitz for Moana is also promising something new, and for which this film will surely be a box office smash and merchandising bonanza for a long long time. For what is new here is some of the Pacific’s most compelling and powerful cultural narratives, reaching into the realm of the spiritual if not the sacred, and bolstered by the some of the region’s finest and most exquisite talent. Unfortunately, all of this will be in the service of same old same old.

By all available evidence, this film is going to rock with some of the most awe-inspiring sights and sounds from and for which this magical place called “Polynesia” has long been famous. The real world, and any possible need to confront especially its ugliest realities, like what America is going through right now in the 2016 Presidential Election, stand no chance when the culturally-exotic enchantment of Polynesian style Pacific paradise colludes with the wonderful(ly technologized) world of Disney. And because of the likelihood of stupefying bedazzle, we also need to remember just how insidious it can also be when that indigenously–augmented form of imagineering itself colludes with old and new fashioned colonialism and postcolonialim in a neoliberal age of globalization.

For starters, in her blog, Non Plastic Maori, Ngati Porou researcher and activist, Tina Ngata has shown us the patented hypocrisy of Disney’s celebration of the power of the Pacific Ocean by pushing and profiting from plastic culture, which in turn constitutes one of the biggest actual threats to our ailing ocean.

Moreover, she has called out fellow Maori film-maker, Taika Waititi, for his role in writing the first draft of the film script. Ngata has also challenged the arrogance of Disney’s nerve to “whitesplain” traditions of Polynesian female figures of empowerment and traditions of Polynesian women storytelling. Also, in a dialogue with award-winning Kanaka Maoli filmmaker, Keala Kelly, Ngata argues that, just because white storytellers desire compelling Pacific narratives (the way colonialism covets Native land and resources) doesn’t mean they are actually entitled to them. Moana, the Disney film, originates not from Pacific Islander efforts to tell their own stories, but in white male writers actively seeking out raw cultural resources for the Disney machine.

Underpinning and continuing to inform this entire project is an enduring modern and colonial desire for romanticized primitivism and a colonial nostalgia for lost innocence. If romanticized primitivism describes modernity’s long-standing want for the supposedly pure and innocent way of life said to exist in places like Polynesia, colonial nostalgia is the same longing but in the form of a lament over having destroyed such purity and innocence through its own history of colonial encroachment and rule in the region.

If the indefatigable desire for noble primitivism is also a desire for the supposedly positive aspects of Polynesia, its distant cousin, colonial nostalgia, grieves over having done things in ways that pre-empt the possibility of actually possessing Polynesia completely.

Whatever else we can say about how colonial nostalgia works, and I’ll return to it shortly, Disney’s Moana can now be recognized as a 21st century reanimation of a romanticized longing for the powerful story of purity and innocence of native culture and nature. That the film is set in Oceania’s pre European past is the first dead give away. The second is the extraordinary attention paid to tropical beauty and island paradise, to exotic culture, to the mystical, and to the sacred. A third giveaway is a familiar cast of characters found in both the fantasy land of Disney and in the actual history of colonial discourse in the Pacific: beautiful young girls who are considered highly lovable for their spunk, a supporting cast of endearing, adorable, and highly entertaining but also menacing figures, and finally, the awe inspiring beauty and power of tropical islands and the ocean world.

At the same time, the nostalgia featured here is also not a lament but a self-congratulatory pat on the back that Disney gives itself for capturing what does survive of Polynesian and Pacific culture and kinship with the island and ocean worlds so that such a power can be harnessed and shared with the rest of the ailing world. But this, too, is colonial same old same old.

Hence, where Disney afficionados might find only good in noble representations of powerful island stuff for world consumption, it is also important to understand how colonialism continues to operate through benevolent narratives and practices. Indeed, if Pacific islanders have become stereotyped as among the worlds most friendly, hospitable, and entertaining of peoples, they may also well be the world’s most loved-to-death people. So, add to these colonial legacies that of Disney’s aforementioned track record and its strategic and lucrative use of “cultural authentication” and its historical sanitization effects, and then add to that formula (enchanting spell?) Disney’s other modus operandi of target-advertising children in the manipulation of family affect, and you will begin to see just how insidious is this whole Disney ad-venture in the Polynesian Pacific.

But all this is only half the story, for the Polynesia that is being projected so spellbindingly on the big screen and duplicated in merchandising is also not just western and modern colonial fantasy and longing. What’s especially powerful and compelling about this story derives from its stamp of cultural authentication – another highly fraught idea and process. Who gets to authenticate so diverse a set of cultures and so vast a region as Polynesia and the even more diverse and larger Pacific Island region that is also represented in this film? And what, exactly does it mean that henceforth it is Disney that now administrates how the rest of the world will get to see and understand Pacific realness, including substantive cultural material that approaches the spiritual and the sacred. Under these conditions, to criticize Disney and its indigenous cultural experts is to come dangerously close to criticizing the Gods and the Ancestors. Fortunately, many of us know still know the difference, the dismissive rhetoric of our Disney-supporting critics notwithstanding.

In fact, Disney’s latest bid to proceed through the glossy veneer of cultural authenticity involves the creation of a (woefully misnamed) entity called the Ocean Story Trust, whose members are said to be hand-picked cultural experts, elders, scholars, artists, and talent who hail from a handful of islands in Polynesia. With one exception, no other member of the Trust has stepped forth to answer questions or explain motives or reasoning behind any aspect of collaborating with Disney. Until then, we can only speculate as to who they are, how they were selected, what kinds of compensation, monetary or otherwise, was involved, especially when it comes to the highly politicized and contested process of authenticating Polynesian and Pacific wide culture and tradition.

From the rumor mill and from responses to criticism, it also appears that Disney has received the most (but not all) support from islands that also happen to be politically independent, like Samoa and Fiji, with lots of talent from New Zealand, as opposed to from the majority of islands that remain colonial possessions of, or are in some kind of neocolonial relationship with, the US, France, or nations of the British Commonwealth. If this composition is true, this makes it a post-colonial “Trust,” one whose members are not only rumored to have signed away rights of full disclosure to Disney, suggesting not just to whom its members owe allegiance and accountability when it comes to having to answer questions concerning the safeguarding of Pacific narratives and traditions, but also a political arrangement in which the elite of a relatively autonomous segment of a larger “nation” is able to continue to assert its authority by actively brokering the power of culture with the colonizing power. Such is the composition and architecture of the “village” that it took to make this particular film. Of course, none of this actually demonstrates that Disney in fact received proper consent to traffic on the materiality it does in order to tell a faux positive story, to commoditize islander culture and heritage into merchandising, licensing and trademark rights to sell to the populace and to other businesses in commercial and consumption acts that are actually damaging to psyches and the environment.

When our elder from Mo’orea pled with Disney’s agents to give Oceanic culture just one fleeting opportunity to reverse “swallow” the west, s/he knew exactly what she was talking about. Too much of the last five hundred years have been spent subordinated to western colonialism in our own islands. Our cousins from Mo’orea in French Polynesia in particular know what it is to be “swallowed” by colonialism, beginning with formal colonial rule continuing into the 21st century and featuring nothing less than the insidious effects of half a century of French underwater nuclear testing. Like plastic and other forms of man-made climate changers, nuclear testing also kills Moana the Ocean slowly but surely.

We know, then, that colonial predators like Disney will do what it must to take what it wants. While some Islanders have resigned themselves to capitulating, or mitigating some of the potential damage, and others find opportunity, handsome consultant fees and commissions, fame, fortune and glory, a growing number of us strive to see past the veil of enchantment and not participate in self-destruction. Far from seeing Disney as a gold standard for powerful storytelling, we are beginning to see the insidiousness of swallowing too much colonial toxicity, of ingesting too irradiated marine food, of uncritical buying into Disney’s happy fantasies. Why in the world would we now wish Disneyfied culture to swallow the rest of the world?

The tragedy in Disney’s culturally fortified re-animation of modernity’s romanticized primitivism and colonial and postcolonial nostalgia for purity and cultural alterity is that any real power that Moana the magnificent and life-giving ocean might still possess may be dangerously close to the point of no return in the hand-off from its original descendants and its first stewards to the beast that blinds with the most artificial of eye popping visuals and extinguishes life with the most breathtaking of sonics. So, please for the good of the world, don’t swallow, or be swallowed up by, Disney’s version of Moana.

Vicente Diaz is Pohnpeian and Filipino from the Micronesian island of Guam, and is an Associate Professor who teaches and researches comparative Native Studies in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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