Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"Moana" and Problematic Faves

I saw "Moana" last week.  I really liked it. I've been humming the music.  I look forward to owning the movie.  And, I recognize that there are legit concerns that people have raised. There was an episode of "Another Round" where there was a discussion about Tyler Perry movies, in that they both fill a gap that existed in the cultural landscape, and yet, provide a fairly narrow view of contemporary black women.  I believe they called it problematic but necessary.  And this is where I think both "Lilo and Stitch" and "Moana" fit. 
Prior to "Lilo and Stitch" you could usually tell who had been to Hawaii by who knew the word mahalo, which means thank you, and as such, is plastered across many fast food trash cans in Hawaii.  With "Lilo and Stitch" they were able to add ohana to their lexicon whether or not they had traveled.  I'm all for people learning new words in new languages, but it was a weird piece of data that people would pull out to prove that, I guess, they had learned things from a Disney movie. (And okay, a growing number of people know the word hapa, but very few acknowledge that it's Hawaiian.)
Travel is expensive, I'm not saying that it's anyone's fault that Hawaii is a hard place to get to outside of movies for many people. And certainly "Lilo and Stitch" did a far better job of representing Hawaii than "Pearl Harbor" or several other movies did.  But part of this diversity in media conversation that we're having is that when there is one, or two, or even three stories about an entire region, people over-assign importance to their representation. If I write a story about a blond girl who is a cheerleader, no one reads that story and thinks, well, now I know everything about blond cheerleaders, because the pop culture landscape is littered with them.  
Already, there was the issue with the "Maui suit" (which has been pulled) where you could don dark skin with tattoos.  Already, there are reviews like this one in the local blog where people assume Moana is Hawaiian.  Moana is not Hawaiian.  Nowhere in the movie is Hawaii referenced.  But because the god Maui shows up, there are people who are going to assume she is Hawaiian without any understanding that ships, tattoos, coconuts, and rhythmic dancing exist throughout the Pacific islands and just like the ancient Greeks and Roman had similar gods and goddesses, Maui exists throughout the Pacific because a lot of the same peoples traded stories. And yes, I know there are people from Hawaii doing several of the voices, but there are also people from New Zealand, (in fact by my count there are more New Zealanders in the cast than any other Pacific island). This doesn't make "Moana" a bad story, but it highlights the need for more stories about the Pacific so that people aren't so surprised to discover that Maui is a god for multiple places. 
Also, I want to note again, I've seen the movie, there is no reference to Hawaii and the other gods referenced are specifically not Hawaiian. So for a reviewer to assume that the movie is about Hawaii speaks to the power of the assumptions we bring in there with us.  That's why more stories are needed.