Visibility in Disney’s “Moana”

By Ruby Fa’agau, Staff Writer, 3L

Prior to Disney’s “Moana” release in theaters, critics charged the animated film with oversimplifying the Pacific region, its history, and its people.  The accusation is that Disney paints the multiple, rich, distinct heritages with one broad stroke.  Also, there was a concern of cultural appropriation because this was a Pacific story told by a non-Pacific organization.  When an outsider tells an insider’s story, it can quite often be cringe worthy to behold because the narrative and artwork may be dishonest and lack integrity.

Being a Samoan, Tongan, Fijian law student, I was hesitant to spend my money and support this film because it garnered so much negative attention from my community members.  Although there were many articles providing favorable reviews of the cartoon, I gave more credibility to the voices of Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian critics because, as members of the groups depicted in “Moana”, they have an insider’s vantage point.

Eventually, the criticism peaked my interest, especially when I read Richard Wolfgramm’s article, “Moana and Resistance Spectating.”  Wolfgramm shared the same reservations I had for seeing the film.  “[S]ome of us see Moana as an extension of the Disney moneymaking apparatus and evokes a painful ongoing pattern of colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, homogenization, cultural theft and appropriation in the Pacific.”[1]  Wolfgramm went on to put the criticisms and reservations into perspective.  “We live in a complex age of inevitable consumerism and capitalism”[2] which is imposed on Pasifika people.  “Engagement for many of us is out of necessity.”[3]

The biggest complaint about Disney’s “Moana” was that the story was too “mixed,” accusing the writers and directors of inappropriately mixing multiple Polynesian and Melanesian languages, clothing, and mythology.  Some complained that there was not enough research done, and not enough insight sought after from the elders back home.  Others complained simply because outsiders illustrated, told, and profited from our folklore, which was not for them to share.

After much deliberation, I finally went to see the movie because I wanted to see what the hype was about and make a decision for myself on whether I liked this islander tale.  I’m glad that I did because I loved it!

Here are the reasons why:

I enjoyed the “mixed”ness of the script especially because the setting took place in ancient Oceania, which means that the Pacific cultures were likely unified before we spread out to populate the rest of the Pacific.  It makes sense that many groups recognize their various island cultures in this crafted tale of ancient times.

I also read that Disney’s team did spend some time in the Pacific.  Oceanic Story Trust is a “team of Pacific anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers who served as cultural advisors on the film.”[4] When I saw the film for myself, I saw that Disney’s team did do their research as far as capturing the various garments, language, physical features, and dance movements of the characters.  Did they do enough research to create a documentary?  Probably not.  But did they do enough research to craft an Oceania cartoon, something intended to entertain families and children?  They did.

As to whether Disney’s outsider-ness disqualifies their position to tell our story, I am torn on that question.  On one hand, I don’t like outsiders telling an insider’s story – especially what feels like “my” story as a Pasifika woman.  Since I am indigenous to the Samoan, Tongan, Fijian islands, I am painfully familiar with the history of colonization and exploitation of the Pacific.  When a non-Pacific group tells my Pacific story and makes a profit, then it does trigger that stinging sensation of colonization in the Pacific because it feels like an outsider is reaching into my territory and extracting something valuable without permission or compensation.

On the other hand, I am first generation American living in the diaspora and I constantly yearn for islander representation in the media and in my career path.  Since I was not raised in the islands, and was not raised in a society where islanders are the dominant majority, I fight the issue of invisibility – the invisibility of my islander identity and culture.  So when I do see parts of my islander culture represented, even if not done perfectly, then I feel excited.  I’m excited for visibility of my islander culture even if that means an outsider must tell the story because it starts the conversation, the conversation about the Pacific.

Visibility creates a sense of belonging.  And a sense of belonging inspires participation.  As a member of the immigrant population, visibility is vital for me while I continue to live and create something for myself in this new land.

That’s what Disney’s “Moana” means to me.  It is a reminder of Pasifika talent to brave new waters.  After all, my ancestors were voyagers.  In that sense, I have all the pioneering tools and vision to travel far in law school and in my legal career.








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