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Appreciative Or Appropriative? A Look Into Disney’s Representations Of Pacific Islander Culture

No stranger to the scandal spotlight, Disney has long been incorporating a variety of cultures into their films with different degrees of success. Films like Moana and Lilo and Stitch reflect different aspects of the Pacific Islander experience, but both rely on that rich culture to provide exposition to the story, further the plot and ultimately convey the main message. Especially after Moana, however, we have to wonder: is exposure and the simple recognition of Pacific Islander culture enough? Or must we hold big production companies like Disney to a higher standard and ensure that they are representing these cultures correctly?

Sky Ocean Palm Trees Rainbow Nature Vacation
Tessa Pesicka / Her Campus

It’s not rare for Disney to take artistic license when refurbishing old tales to make them more entertaining and accessible to children. However, in the case of Moana (and other culturally specific stories), the history is oversimplified to the point of inaccuracy. In ancient Hawaiian folktale, Maui is portrayed as a young man who goes on adventures and performs heroic feats for the sake of mankind. In Moana, the character design of Maui appeals less to the actual descriptions of the demigod and more toward the stereotype that Pacific Islanders are loud and large. 

That’s the other thing—what culture is Moana actually representing? The fictional island of Motunui is clearly somewhere in Polynesia, but the legend of Maui is a Hawaiian one. At the beginning of the movie, we can see the village has Samoan fale houses and the people have traditional tribal tattoos, but the name of the fiery goddess Te Kā comes from the Maori language. Despite these cultural inconsistencies, though, Moana still manages to tell an inspiring story that celebrates voyaging and way-finding, which are integral parts of Pacific Islander history and identity. 

surfing big wave
Photo by guille pozzi from Unsplash

Similar to Moana, the film Lilo and Stitch feels like it depicts the Pacific Islander experience through the lens of someone on the outside looking in, rather than from the perspective of someone who knows what it’s like firsthand. It’s almost as if Disney added every single stereotypical cultural marker that could potentially evoke the thought of Hawaii in someone’s head: surfing, hula dancing, fire dancers, luaus, rainbows, leis, Elvis Presley, you name it. 

As someone who was born and raised in Hawaii, though, I can appreciate the film’s attempts to relate to local people. For example, in the movie David speaks pidgin English, a version of English that combines Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, and several other Asian languages to form a new dialect that usually only people from Hawaii know. Nani’s unhappiness working as a waitress at a luau, feeding into the tourism industry, is also very relatable for many Hawaiians, especially when she loses that job and struggles to find another one in her small neighborhood. Most notably, while it may seem that Lilo and Stitch was set in Hawaii for arbitrary reasons, the film’s main message of family and love lines up exactly with the emphasis that the local community places on ohana and aloha, making Hawaii the perfect location for the story to take place.  

colorful \"action\" sign being held up by the hand of a director in the center of a desert
Photo by Jakob Owens from Unsplash

The line between appropriation and appreciation can be hard to define, and Disney is known to straddle that line. Pacific Islander culture is still largely missing from the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean we will settle for inaccurate, lazy exposure. As more public attention is directed toward places like Hawaii, it’s important that media and film maintain the authenticity of our culture and, by doing so, encourage others to learn about it and respect it.

Audrie is a third-year student from Honolulu, Hawaii, majoring in Human Biology Society and minoring in Anthropology. Her key interests include environmental sustainability, reproductive health, and education. She also really loves the beach and anything matcha flavored! In her free time, you can catch her shopping for records, books, and Trader Joe's snacks.
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