Disney has a lot of problems. At this point, I doubt anyone’s going to argue with this. While ranging from the topics within their films (such as the possible glorification of Stockholm syndrome in Beauty and the Beast) to issues spanning across many films (most notably the fact that characters of color end up spending a majority of their movies in animal form), many have come to understand that big name animation studios are not infallible, no matter how many wishes on a star they make. Recently, Disney has come under well-deserved scrutiny once more as more information comes to light on their upcoming movies, Coco and Moana. While there are many who are rightfully excited to see Disney branch out, adding a more diverse cast of characters to their repertoire, the machinations behind the scene paint a much more problematic picture—one that they themselves need to take a step back from and recognize is kind of fucked up.
Arguably, thus far the problems with Moana are less steeped in out and out ignorance/pigheaddedness, and more in laziness. Though slated to release in 2016, Disney revealed the plot of the film as following the adventuress Moana as she sets out to claim her spot as a master navigator and sailor all across Polynesia. As far as Disney princesses go, she sounds pretty damned cool, and there isn’t a prince in sight. Additionally, the cast seems fitting so far too—Moana’s sidekick (a god) will be voiced by the one and only Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a man proud of his Samoan heritage, while it’s rumored that Moana will be voiced by Fifth Harmony’s Dinah Jane Hansen, a woman who also can boast a Polynesian heritage. However, while the casting is surprisingly diverse (should rumors prove true), it appears as though the cultural aspect of the film itself may be lacking and potentially insulting. According to a message on a Tumblr called reverseracism, which posts tidbits exposing privilege in the U.S., the following points were brought to light:
These are very serious accusations to bring against the film, to be sure. Upon reading a short interview that the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, did with the Huffington Post back in October of last year, there is a legitimate fear in those accusations. Musker mentions his initial interest in Moana‘s story came from his childhood love of “…the novels of [Herman] Melville and [Joseph] Conrad. And the South Seas, the exotic world that a lot of their stories are set in…” In the same article, Mesker comments on finally getting to the point where he and Clements were able to set up two large trips to the South Seas in the name of research. While both directors seem very interested in the culture, eagerly telling the interviewer that they were “especially interested in meeting people who lived on islands where they had grown up surrounded by an ocean,” this doesn’t exempt them from producing a piece of work that could ultimately be problematic. As well-intentioned and faithful as they wish to be, even from this it does sound like they’re exotifying the culture. Additionally, while they have the support of the cast—or, Johnson so far, since he’s the only solid cast member of color we really know thus far—and the musical input of Opetaia Foa’i (the main vocalist for the South Pacific fusion group Te Vaka), the story still is ultimately being overseen and written by white men. So while Tumblr does have a penchant for turning issues up to eleven immediately, the issues brought up here need to be examined and critiqued. Representation is excellent, and people should be excited for this movie, but lazy representation shouldn’t be given a free pass.
There are similar recently publicized problems with Coco, a movie about a young boy meeting his deceased family members. You may remember last year when a little movie called The Book of Life swept up many in its colorful tale of whimsy. While opinions on the movie itself were somewhat mixed, no one could deny the importance of having such an traditional Mexican holiday being brought to life on the big screen by someone who knew the cultural intricacies behind it, nor could people ignore the almost entirely PoC cast (looking past some of the voice actors). Disney, too, wanted to put out a movie celebrating the Day of the Dead. However, rather than doing the logical thing and researching, or hiring on someone with an intimate knowledge of the festival, they instead tried to trademark the entire thing. Whatever fever dream convinced them that was a good idea passed—most likely because there was no way in hell that such a thing would ever happen—and director Lee Unkrich pressed on. While Unkrich and his crew have, admittedly, done some research, they seem to be bypassing the most vital aspect: talking to an actual person from the culture.
Obviously, there’s some sort of disconnect here, so what can Disney (or any other media creator) do to avoid problems like these? Well, I have a two-step easy process that might not immediately solve the problem, but can help things get on the right track.
The first step: listen to the people who belong to the culture you’re writing about. Just fucking do it. Don’t ask other white people that may have moved there, don’t rely solely on notes you yourself take or things you find online: while these things can be useful on a surface level (for instance, if you want to write a two-page report for school, this is probably fine) there is no possible way you can get the intricacies and the details correct without the help of someone more closely entwined with the culture. We, as white people, need to embrace the very, very real fact that we can be wrong. We are often wrong, especially about other cultures. If we’re writing about something that isn’t ours, it is vital—mandatory, really—to consult and bring on people who do know. We shouldn’t only be trying to paint a pretty picture of other cultures and the people who come from them, but to also give them a voice while we step back and listen. If we don’t do this, we run a high risk of speaking for others and presenting a beautiful and entirely inaccurate depiction of others’ cultures, which helps no one in the end.
The second step, given that the first step is followed: don’t stop creating. You’re going to be wrong. Fucking deal with it. Push onwards, and collaborate to make something truly great and most of all, faithful. However, creating doesn’t always mean creating a product. Sometimes (a lot), we have got to take a step back and sit down. We can’t believe that white people are the only ones qualified to tell stories about people of color, we need to create opportunities where people of color can tell their own stories with the support that any white person would have. While the market may dictate this as an “unsafe” business practice, we need to pull on our big kid pants and come to terms with the fact that if the market is so racist/sexist/etc., maybe the market should change, and maybe it’s about damned time. And by maybe, I mean “absolutely”.
While it’s clear that Disney is trying to give the people what they think they want, they’re only listening on a superficial level for the most part. Creating movies that feature minorities will always be important, but having white people tell them is not always the best way to go. By laziness and an undeserved gall, Disney may have drafted some diverse, but also offensive films. With a little more diversity in their own employee base, and a willingness to admit that they might not actually know everything about a country after visiting it during very limited research excursions, their films can only improve. As long as they only care about box office numbers and their bottom line, though, I doubt there will be much improvement. We can always wish (upon a star), though.