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We Need To Talk About Moana And What It Missed

Moana Source Disney

Moana was released in theatres on the 26th of December in Australia; I was able to watch it on the 27th. The whole world got to watch Moana earlier on and because of this I was able to read articles and reviews on Moana before watching it myself. However, all these reviews and commentary on Moana were in fact disappointing. Most of the pieces and commentary were written by non-Polynesian people and didn’t even ponder on critiquing the film for what it was;

a movie that treated Polynesia as a monolithic race and culture and watered it down.

Recently, we had published an article on how Moana was an important Disney character, but no where in the article did it critique the problems of the film or state that Moana was Polynesian. As someone who’s Polynesian, this article felt like another form of erasure. Even if it wasn’t meant to come off this way, it’s still textbook erasure.

Reason for saying ‘another form’ is because months before Moana was released I was terrified. At first I felt joy and excitement at the news of finally being able to see myself on the big screens, because Moana could have be Tongan. But weeks passed and more news revealed Moana was just a mixture of Polynesian cultures. This meant my newfound excitement of being represented quickly turned to fear as I could be erased and be served a mixture of cultures instead and be told, “that’s all the representation you’re getting”. I had to explain to many people who were excited about Moana that Polynesia is made up of different nations and that Hawaii wasn’t the only Island that existed there. I also had to explain that there were multiple languages used in the film, not just one. The name Moana also holds meaning in both the Maori and Hawaiian vocabulary.

Trying to figure out where Moana was from was also very confusing. After watching the film I discovered that she was predominantly Samoan, even though her name is Moana. The film also exhibits more Samoan culture than any other Polynesian culture Disney had stolen from and included in Moana. In this article titled ‘The true origins of Disney princess Moana’ I also discovered that she’s most likely from American Samoa as well (It was discussed that she was either from Tonga or Samoa but the article concluded she was from American Samoa).

See, with Moana being problematic by basically mixing cultures together and treating them as a whole entity, I still got to see a glimpse of me in Moana, but that doesn’t make it okay. Disney would have made a better film if they’d made Moana Samoan. The main reason being is that they wouldn’t have to steal things from other nations that hold cultural importance and make it seem that everyone who is Polynesian is the same, when we aren’t. Polynesian is a blanket term for anyone who lives in Polynesia, being Polynesian doesn’t necessarily mean I’m the same as the next. I can however see why Disney had chosen to mix the cultures together, to somehow represent us all in one movie and also for money. The more people the movie targets, the more money, so that’s probably why they did what they did. I mean Moana’s nationality is ambiguous to the world but she’s definitely Polynesian.

We must acknowledge that Moana is Polynesian, because if we don’t we erase representation for so many people.

We can’t put her under the PoC umbrella if we can’t acknowledge where she’s from.

Disney shouldn’t have made ‘Polynesia’ seem monolithic as well because in reality, people think that we’re all the same but we’re not. We’re similar but not the same. I’ve met people who have confused Tonga with Samoa, said Fiji wasn’t apart of Polynesia and have said that there’s only 4 Islands in Polynesia. These are all false.

Disney really had an opportunity to educate the masses by educating people on Polynesia and the numerous Islands but they chose not to.

In response to the recent article, I also wanted to discuss how Women of Colour (WoC) are continuously desexualised and not given romantic partners. Sure it’s great to see independent women in media but we deserve love too. I mean you can also be a feminist and have a love interest, you don’t have to be independent to be a feminist. Having no love interests for Polynesian girls also reinforces the idea that we don’t deserve love or it’s something we should be ashamed about. If you aren’t Polynesian and you’ve stated that it’s great and feminist to have no love interest for Moana, why is that? Fangirl Jeanne, a Polynesian woman and writer, asks the same questions and provides commentary in this twitter thread.

 

 

Creator of NerdyPoc and my colleague, Han (@hanxine), has also written an exceptional article called ‘Does Not Having A Love Interest Make A Film Feminist?’ where she further discusses what really makes a Disney film feminist.

The last point I’d like to make is that Moana wasn’t written for me, it’s about me, but it was written for white people and PoC in America. It’s cool that PoC can see a brown girl be strong and somehow relate, but she’s Polynesian, you should state that she is in articles. It’s all very odd seeing a film where there are a couple of Polynesian accents and the rest are American (hence the observation of it being written for PoC in America). It would have been amazing to have a whole cast of Polynesians with their Polynesian accents. For me it would have made the film more authentic or better phrasing, bringing what ‘home’ sounds like to the big screens. Non-Polynesian people also need to understand that everything we have has meaning, holds value, like the mat Moana is wearing and the tattoos Maui has. Do not ‘cosplay’ as Moana or Maui if you’re non-Polynesian. I didn’t sign up for my culture to become a costume or for it to only have the purpose of consumption. I live and breathe my culture, it’s the way I live, don’t claim it as your own. Polynesian people are already discriminated and subjected to racism and we are constantly expected to live up to negative stereotypes (i.e. Jonah from Tonga, Gang Relation generalisations).

 

I’m doing everything to reclaim Moana. Doesn’t it speak volumes that a Polynesian woman has to reclaim a Polynesian film? I’m going to protect this film. It wasn’t written for me but it’s about me and I will protect that. Plus Polynesian children adore the film, they deserve representation.

I am not here to give Disney a pat on the back for not being overtly racist and actually doing the work to produce a great film. I’m not here to give Disney a gold star for what Polynesian creators have been doing for years, giving me representation. I’m not here for people thinking we don’t deserve love. I’m not here for non-Polynesians wearing Polynesian attire as ‘costumes’. My culture is not a costume. Sure non-Polynesian people can see themselves in our strong brown girl, but remember, Moana is Polynesian, she isn’t just brown. Let us have our representation, don’t start claiming her as your own. Don’t be like Laura. You sure do deserve a Jewish Princess but don’t claim Moana, she’s Polynesian and believes in her gods.

 

Article from Forward.com

So Moana doesn’t just celebrate PoC excellence and girls, it celebrates Polynesian girls through a fogged up glass. Lastly yes, everyone can connect with Moana but cannot entirely claim her as theirs whilst being non-Polynesian. While I thank Ria on her commentary on Moana, do not erase the fact that Moana is Polynesian because you erase me and so many Polynesians in the process.

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Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi

Meleika (Mel-air-ee-kah) is a Torres Strait Islander and Tongan woman living in Australia. They're a writer, activist and intersectional feminist. Meleika is also the founder of The Aus. Library and is apart of the Nerdy PoC family. Find them on Twitter @yomeleika and @theauslibrary on Instagram to talk about things from the latest injustices to the need of more diverse representation in books.

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