I’ll admit that I’ve been a Māui fan-girl for a long time. What’s not to love about the archetypal trickster of Polynesia?
Despite colonisation and missionary moralising, the stories about Māui live on. In classrooms across the country, Māui still slows the sun, steals the secrets of fire, and continues to try to cheat death between the legs of a woman.
The odds were against Māui, right from conception. He was never supposed to survive. Māui was the youngest. The weakling. The runt. The stillborn who was given up for dead by his mother, and released into the ocean to his fate. I like to imagine that his mother, in absolute crisis, and bewildered by a premature and stillborn child, wrapped his remains in the most sacred and tapu part of her — her top-knot — and gracefully let go of something she had no capacity to fix, giving it up to the universe.
Inevitably, Māui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga (Māui of the top-knot of Taranga) is found, magically, by the perfect person to teach him all the tricks he will need to save the world, survive the onslaught of his murderous brothers, and fish up new lands. Including the one I live on, Te Ika-a-Māui, the great fish of Māui. Yes, it’s a wee bit more evocative and imaginative than its other name: the North Island.
Growing up in Aotearoa, we heard a bit about the exploits of Māui-Tikitiki. But I had to dig a lot deeper into old Polynesian Society journals and order books from the offsite storage units of university libraries to find out anything about Māui from my own Tongan culture.
In typical we-can-do-better Tongan style, I learned that we have three Māui. The youngest of which is Māui Kisikisi, son of Māui ‘Atalanga, son of Māui Motu’a (old Māui). In a country where humility, deference, and obedience to elders and people in power are prized as quintessentially Tongan, Māui Kisikisi remains an important stubborn and defiant exception. His very existence opens up a small window of permission to architects of civil disobedience and troublemakers everywhere.
In Samoa, Māui is called Ti'iti'i, the son of Talaga. He dares to wrestle powerful Mafuie in the underworld and emerges victorious, able to share the secret knowledge of fire with everyone, bringing all people the pleasure of cooked food.
Around the academic kava circles (and the kava circles where people just drink too much and talk) there are wonderful conspiracy theories afoot, especially about Māui slowing the sun.
The symbol of the sun has always been synonymous and interchangeable with the supreme rulers of ancient (and not so ancient) Polynesian kingdoms. Some armchair anthropologists, and some real ones, suggest that the story of Māui catching, beating up, and slowing the sun, so that people could have more time to work and rest from dawn to dusk, holds within it the mythologised memory of a great revolution — of Māui defeating a despot ruler, and orchestrating a rebellion that gives power back to the people.
In the story of how Māui fished up the island of Tonga, he caught the wandering eye of a wife who was so charmed by Māui’s attention she gave away the secret of the hook that could fish up land to please him. Bested and cuckolded, the great chief Tonga insisted that, in return, the first island Māui fished up be named after him.
Again, anthropologists — armchair and otherwise — suggest that the hook is a metaphor for the astronomical knowledge required to navigate an otherwise unknown ocean. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the constellation Scorpius has been known for centuries in this region as the great fishhook of Māui.
The point is, that for century upon century, a plethora of peoples — he appears in at least 17 different Pacific languages — have all given a collective crap about Māui. All over Oceania we have named stars, cities, giant stone sculptures, landmarks, beaches, and islands after him. Our stories about Māui helped us make sense for centuries of morals, mortality, land, death, power, fire, mana, authority — and who and what you can be in this world, regardless of birth. He has featured in story, symbol and song. He is both demigod and ancestor.
And, unlike the fictive character of Moana, Māui is not an imaginative blank slate for Disney to create.
So when the good folks from Disney serve us up Shrek of Polynesia as a comedic slapstick sidekick that talks to the tetchy tattoo on his nipple, there’s going to be a bit of pushback.
Here is this great more-than-a-man who has overcome so many odds, not by birthright, but by cunning, cleverness, and trickery. Someone who we have named stars after! And here is Disney serving up a pot-bellied, barrel-chested man-baby, with eyes too close together, pupils perfectly aligned with his widespread nostrils in nice savage symmetry. Here is an oafish, neckless wonder with large lips and an ooga-booga mask-like mouth. Our great hero has more in common with the cartoon fare of the hunchback of Notre Dame, more affinity with the Beast than any Beauty.
I’m watching the brown incredible hulk and his ginormous frame jump up and down with a club (or is that a fishhook?), spitting out a curiosity of familiar Polynesian words (did he just say “boo ya?”). And I’m left with the same reaction as the unimpressed Moana in the trailer. For real?
Some politicians have quickly jumped on the Māui-critique waka complaining that creating an obese character sends the wrong message to a population that is struggling in the 21st century with an obesity epidemic. Diabetic amputations, shorter life expectancy, these are very real problems that the Pacific population is battling with. The top seven fattest countries in the world are from the Pacific. In Aotearoa, almost one third of Pacific kids are obese and two-thirds of adults are. It’s a thing.
People close to me have dedicated their whole careers to trying to do something positive about obesity in the Pacific population. One of the strategies is to draw on a heritage where barely anyone was overweight, because they were so active and the diet was so healthy.
But that pride in the active past just got messed with. When Disney’s weighty character jumps on this waka, the balance is definitely tipped. Is it fair to make Māui look like he’s eaten too many cheeseburgers, when technically Elvis hasn’t even left the building yet?
One columnist came out spewing tacks that by raising concerns about obese Māui, we were in the perilous waters of fat-shaming a cartoon. To be fair, I think when it comes to a juggernaut like Disney putting the first PI male character on the big screen who isn’t a volcano, but a beloved demigod, and is still the size of a volcano, you’re allowed to complain out loud about this.
But, how weird to have us complaining about body size. The shoe is most definitely on an unfamiliar foot. And more than a little bit of my heart broke when I read this analysis from the blogger Louise Afoa: “I’m looking forward to seeing Moana on its Boxing Day New Zealand release, finally my own Disney princess. But judging by popular opinion, my fat brown body will never and should never represent a Pacific goddess.” Ouch. That hurt in the way that every little Pacific Island girl saw Cinderella and knew that shoe would never fit.
We in the Pacific have, against the tide, equated big with being beautiful for a very, very long time. But there is something so relatively healthy about the way we do big, that Japanese scientists coined the term “healthy obese” after studying Tongans. Using existing BMI standards, Jonah Lomu at his peak fitness would have been considered obese. When you think about the PIs in the All Blacks, Valerie Adams and her brother Steven, we can make it in triple-XL and it looks pretty damn attractive.
So, yes, we break the rules and the scales when it comes to size. Yes, it’s also a public health problem. And yes, we come from a cultural context that has very little practice at fat-shaming.
And yet, still, there is something that made us — not all of us, but enough of us — feel ashamed of Disney’s Māui.
Would it have been that hard to recreate a demigod that made its living descendants yell “boo-ya” just as loud as the Rock? A friend confessed to me, “Was it because I knew that Dwayne the Rock Johnson was voicing Māui that I expected him to be hot?” I, too, expected that Māui would be beautiful. Not a stick figure thin blond Prince Charming beautiful, but beautiful in the way that so many of our men effortlessly are.
The six-pack was not a requirement for my viewing pleasure, although every picture of every hero that I have ever seen my sons draw includes a strange lumpy little grid around the belly. “Mum,” my 12-year-old said in all seriousness. “Every story about Māui says that he is strong. He should have a six-pack and abs.” What can I say? They grew up in the Age of Ultron. It’s part of the superhero package.
What they didn’t grow up in was in the age of Māui on the big screen. Once, I would have thought that was sad. But maybe having him left to our imaginations was not such a bad thing. After Boxing Day, there will be no kid on the planet that imagines Māui without the Disney cartoon beating his coconut chest in the background.
Appearance matters. It matters that the Poly girls are finally going to get someone with more South Pacific sun on her skin than a Snow White English rose. So to create the first “Pacific Islander” male superhero character that my Tongan son eye-rolls about and disassociates from is not a win. He’d rather be Captain America.
All of us create stories of ourselves out of existing stories. We don’t make them up by ourselves. This is why Māui has always mattered. And it’s why Disney’s Māui matters. When it comes to children and young people, Disney is the Goliath of the big screen in every room of almost every house, shaping the hearts, minds and expectations of generations.
The white elephant in the room is that almost all the Disney characters are white. It doesn’t matter so much how you frame and name a character, when you’ve got a plethora of different to choose from and you are free to identify through who you want. None of them will stick to your skin, culture or identity in ways that you don’t want them to.
For us “ethnic minorities” though, the stakes are higher. A whole cohort of young Pacific people will grow up with the Disney incredible hulk Māui and his neckless Poly-Shrek representing the greatest demigod adventurer of our culture. They will get the super-savage that’s built like a Big Mac, shaking his big hook and talking back to his dancing nipple tattoo.
The Disney heavyweight Māui will cast a wide, long and triple-XL shadow over every image that’s preceded him and every Māui to come. And there is no doubt that he will become a part of the bits and pieces that our young boys use to make sense of who they are and what they are capable of in the world.
If there’s one thing I know from being exposed to my Pacific culture, it’s that beauty is found everywhere, regardless of size. Laughs go a long way. But mana trumps all. It’s not so much about whether Māui is fat or not. It’s also about whether he has mana — that’s smarts, courage, integrity, heart, and a little bit of cunning.
Given that we’ve only seen the trailer, let’s hope Disney’s Māui still has a few tricks up his sleeve.