Moana and me: how much is my culture worth to you?

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

This is not the first piece I’ve written about my feelings towards Moana, but it’ll be the first that I’ll have published and shared with others. The essays that preceded this one were filled with a lot of rambling and I don’t think my thoughts flowed too well. It felt really stagnant and void of feeling, which I think is dangerous when I’m trying to present my thoughts on a very personal level and convey just how deeply this film, and the things surrounding it, are affecting me.

Please keep in mind that I speak for myself. I can’t parcel these feelings and thoughts and count them towards other Pacific Islanders. If they agree with me, that’s cool. If they disagree, that’s also fine. I simply found myself a safe space where I was encouraged to freely express myself as a young Pasifika woman who  is interested in the concept of identity and authentic storytelling. I want to share the aspects of this project that I don’t agree with and feel merit further discussion. I also wanted to offer other Pasifika peers who maybe feel the same way a reference point, and to facilitate a sense of security for those who wanted to make their thoughts known as well.

I was born and spent a good portion of my childhood on Oahu in one of the many small towns that dot the island’s shores. I was always surrounded by Pacific Islanders like myself. I felt secure and comfortable. We moved to the mainland states when I was fairly young and I have since been living in Utah which is... honestly... really damn white. In a way I lucked out though because Utah has a high number of Pacific Islander immigrants so there has always been a community, in one form or another, for us to latch on to. However, in this same environment, I have always been made acutely aware of my skin color, ethnicity, and race. I have had my fair share of racist and discriminatory interactions that I would never wish on anyone. That’s just the way things work if you’re a person of color living in the US, especially in predominantly white spaces you can’t afford to challenge: you learn to adapt, navigate, and keep moving.

I’ve always loved reading and storytelling. Being verbally inept, writing has always been the best way I can express myself and I’ve often been told I’m pretty good at it. Like many Oceanic peoples, Samoans have a long history of oral storytelling. Stories are not just a creative outlet for me and my imagination, they’re part of my heritage. It’s my innate, indigenous inheritance to share, interpret, and craft tales. I think that’s why in my Junior year of High School I got really interested in films and television.

These mediums allowed me to explore new worlds from multiple points of view, a wealth of new stories and storytellers. I would visit the library frequently, checking out any film that caught my eye, most of which were from the foreign category. I was able to see the influence many non-white filmmakers from different nations and time periods had in shaping the vision of many popular Western/American filmmakers. Those different filmmakers, the likes of Kurosawa and Ozu to name a few, helped strengthen my decision to not only write my own stories, but to direct them as well.

As time went on, I grew more confident in aspects of my identity that been called into question and used against me. I took courses in and outside of my college and joined organizations that had an emphasis on Pasifika empowerment. I had learned, unlearned, and came to conclusions that wouldn’t have otherwise happened without serious self reflection, having the necessary resources, and interacting with other marginalized folk. These were all key in allowing me to see the downside to my newfound pursuit.

I started to see things differently than what was widely perceived. I saw women being relegated to cheap roles, used as props instead of fully realized beings. I saw the ways in which characters of color were continuously poorly treated and depicted by the hands of their white writers. I saw how actors of color were treated by audiences in comparison to their white counterparts. I saw how people of color were only portrayed in stereotypical roles and conveniently missing from the casts of major blockbusters unless serving as a means to propel their white co-stars further. I saw exactly how these “harmless” microaggressions manifested themselves in an industry, that proudly touts a false image of inclusivity and acceptance, continue to miss the mark when it came to serious change in regards to diversity and representation, both in front of and behind the camera. Not only did I witness these things, I was adversely affected by them.

To think about the countless number of movies and TV programs that have been released throughout the years and how Pasifika people are painfully absent from all of them is very eye-opening. Never has there been a major Hollywood blockbuster that was comprised of an all Pasifika cast. We are absent from Thursday Night sitcoms and weekday soaps. We don’t have our own versions of Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. So how can we get those happy endings when we don’t even exist to begin with? If you take into account all of that, you can only imagine how excited I was to hear about the announcement of Moana.

I watched with rapt anticipation as more news of the film slowly churned out over the following months. I was so excited to see casting calls being made that specifically called for young Pacific Island women to audition for the voice. I was excited to know that Taika Waititi, a Maori filmmaker I greatly admire, had a hand in the script making. I watched footage of the D23 Expo where the first images for Moana were presented as well as the news that Pasifika music powerhouse Te Vaka, a long time personal favorite, would be contributing to the film’s soundtrack. Shortly afterwards, I too got teary witnessing the reveal of Auli’i as Moana. Here was this bright, adorable local island girl with an infectious smile and way about her, who was being told she’d be spearheading the next Disney movie and she was ecstatic. It was overwhelming in the best way possible.

Through personal exchange where Pasifika peers and I shared new information and brought their own experience and knowledge, we debated the ways this movie would impact our communities. I think that’s what is most perplexing and damaging to me, personally; is to think about the real conversations that are being had about Moana and how unwilling the Pasifika community is to participate.

The best example of this so far is the Maui costume debacle. I know to market this movie they’re going to have to sell merchandise and products pertaining to it, I get it. My own niece is looking forward to the Moana doll and being able to have a toy that looks just like her and is wearing clothing that is already familiar to her. But how much is too much? The Maui Costume, that has since been removed with an apology issued by Disney, opened up a line of dialogue that I think was much needed.

I draw the line at a costume that literally allows someone to dawn brown skin. Children don’t know any better until they are taught better, which is why I’m uncomfortable at the thought of comfortably slipping in and out of skin color, especially a skin that’s been modified to include our symbols, being normalized. My skin color is not a costume. My culture is not a costume. People can go around touting the “it’s cool that kids want to be brown!” message, but I disagree with framing appropriation as appreciation. You can appreciate my skin color without putting it on as a costume. You can appreciate my culture without mass producing it and selling it at $44.95 a pop. Yes, there are costumes available with white skin and muscles, but the bodies of white men don’t have a history of being hypersexualized and dehumanized for their size and skin color. There is no correlation between, say a Thor costume, and the now defunct Maui costume. To try and compare the two is moronic and insulting.

Another layer to this complicated affair is the concept of Maui himself. A lot of those who think that this characterization of Maui is harmless don’t currently prescribe to any religion or belief that upholds his image, his mythology, in a reverent manner. They don’t see this as a disrespect simply because they don’t believe.  Maui is God and an ancestor. That is a fact for many. You cannot expect those who do follow and who do pay homage to this figure to be silent when not only has he been transformed into Disney character, but the perceived image of him had been turned into something wearable and washing machine safe.

What aggravates me most in this new arena of hypervisibility that Pacific Islanders find themselves in,  is the notion that we should be thankful. We should simply be happy that people thought highly enough of our culture to make it into a movie. But I’m a capable, cognizant adult. I can be happy for this film and acknowledge the impact it will have on young Pasifika children, Pasifika girls specifically, and how they’ll be given a heroine that looks like them. I’m not downplaying that in the slightest and I refuse to take that away from Auli’i. But I also think we should be allowing this to facilitate talk about true representation and authenticity. You can spare me the “No one goes to a Disney movie for historical accuracy” because that’s not my point. My point is that other Pasifika people who are telling me and those like me to be quiet and to be grateful, are more damaging to the conversation moving forward than the outsiders trying to silence us. This is an opportunity for us to be vocal about our communities and ongoing struggles, why would you invalidate the feelings of your Pasifika siblings just because they differ from yours? Why would you make them feel as if they have no room to speak, when in fact they have every right to speak on something that so deeply involves their heritage? That’s what is divisive. That’s what is harmful. We don’t need to be united in our views, but there needs to be common ground and mutual respect. That seems to elementary to have to point out, but I have seen such inconsiderate and uneducated retorts among Pasifika people, that I feel tired and disappointed.

I’m not asking for a lot from Moana. In fact, I’m asking for the bare minimum. I don’t expect for the film or the creators to touch on the many issues plaguing the Pacific. I wouldn’t place that responsibility with them because it’s not their fight to take up and those issues quite honestly don’t exist in the universe they’re presenting in which Moana inhabits. But what is present, what is being marketed as another character, and what is their duty to do right by, is the ocean. Not just the ocean, but the relationship between the waters and the indigenous island people who navigated those seas and have sustained themselves for centuries because of that strong bond.

I think Disney owes it to organizations such as the Pacific Climate Warriors to elevate their voices. Moana will undoubtedly move many hearts, but it needs to also move people to action. Climate change is such a back burner issue for so many. I don’t blame you. In fact, I envy you. It just doesn’t plague the mind of the average everyday person who doesn’t notice any changes except for summer maybe being a little hotter and winter being a little shorter. But imagine watching your home disappear right in front of your own eyes.

Olympic Kiribati athlete David Katoatau doesn’t have to imagine.  A weightlifter in more than one way, he took his 5 minutes in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics spotlight to plead the case for his homeland and the very real threat global warming presents to his home, his family, his people. The Pacific feels the increasing side effects of climate change like no other. Our people have such strong ties to our land and we don’t deserve to be chased out. We don’t deserve to be displaced. Islands have already started to disappear and it seems as though the Pasifika people who inhabit them are the ones who are fighting the hardest and yelling the loudest. If people leave the film truly loving and enjoying Moana, they’ll help in any way they can to ensure that the islands she calls home don’t continue to disappear in this lifetime.

My identity has been shaped by the experiences I’ve had, positive and negative. I can’t divorce who I am as a person from how I’ve been treated as woman, as a Brown woman, as a Samoan woman. I think it’s wholly unfair to ask someone to separate themselves for their experiences and it’s definitely a microaggression practiced daily: forgive and forget, live and let live. I am not only my culture, I am not only my skin color, but they are part of me. I shouldn’t be defined by these things, but I find it flippant and dismissive to tell me that you “don’t see color, you see humans” when your experience so drastically differs from mine and what I’ve endured. You will acknowledge it. You will watch me be unapologetically brown, and Samoan, and a woman.  Because how long do the marginalized have to be the ones to bite their tongues? Why must we continuously take the higher road and spend our energy educating others on our history and oppression? When will others start to take the initiative to genuinely care about us as a whole?

I know I’ll love Moana. I know that I’ll probably see it more than once in theaters. I know that at the heart of this film, despite the many misunderstandings, there is love. I truly believe that the creators invested real time and effort to make this a story that will be widely cherished across all cultures, ages, and circumstance. I’m certain that the Pasifika artists  involved want to see our people reflected in an uplifting and positive way, and I could not be more supportive of that endeavor. But I also know that I don’t need to be told by Pasifika and non-Pasifika alike to be blindly content. This is my heritage and my history. I am more than entitled to speak up when I feel there is neglect or disrespect.

What I’m asking for is tact from non-Pasifika people when Pasifika people are discussing this film in a critical way. I’m asking for Pasifika people to be open to the differing opinions within our community and not shut each other down in such a haste just because you can’t fully align yourself with what they feel and believe.

I’m not asking anyone to boycott Moana. My intent is not to sink this film, because I’ve been looking forward to this particular moment where I could watch someone who looks like me up on the big screen. But I know that I can also partake in meaningful discussion and take the discourse that comes with this territory. I felt prompted to speak up on this because it was weighing down on me to know that the overall consensus of the Pasifika community was “meh” and “be grateful”. We owe it to ourselves to be vigilant and involved in all representations of our people. There is no such thing as “just a movie” or “just a character” because we don’t exist in a vacuum. You’re welcome to think in that way if you’d like, but I won’t allow myself to be appeased and bullied to feel flattered when I have such a complex history that is worth being treated with respect, and a voice that should be recognized as legitimate.

I know that others might feel the same way. That’s okay. We are entitled to be conflicted. We’re entitled to explore and dissect this new front of representation that we haven’t had to address yet in whatever way we see fit because there’s no set rubric where Pacific Islanders are concerned, but we need to start somewhere.

There’s so much more I’d like to say, but I want to wait for the film to come out. I owe it to my 15 year old self, who had been deprived of representation. I owe it to my 22 year old self who has a firm grasp on her identity and wants projects that involve Pasifika people to succeed, to see this film, and ensure it carries out a favorable message to those who are interested in our culture. It’s a courtesy that I am glad to offer because I believe Moana will open up many new doors and we cannot afford to be passive about a film that could be influential in the way young minds are molded and taught.

I’d like to close with an excerpt from Dr. Epeli Hau’ofa’s selected works We Are The Ocean titled The Ocean In Us that helps me to express just how important the Oceania origins of Moana is to me and why I want to see it done in a positive and respectful way:

"...the ocean that has been our waterway to each other should also be our route to the rest of the world. There are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home. We seem to have forgotten that we are such a people. Our roots, our origins are embedded in the sea. All our ancestors, including those who came as recently as sixty years ago, were brought here by the sea. Some were driven here by war, famine, and pestilence; some were brought by necessity, to toil for others; and some came seeking adventures and perhaps new homes. Some arrived in good health, others barely survived the traumas of passage. For whatever reasons, and through whatever experiences they endured, they came by sea to the Sea, and we have been here since.”


LAUREN is a Samoan visual artist + writer with plans to go into filmmaking. In her spare time, she takes photographs and helps run Pasifika Film. Just your typical island gal who likes tending to her plants, the moon, romantic comedies, and listening to podcasts about the occult. She does not like pickles, driving, or waking up before 9am. Twitter // Instagram // Pasifika Film