The debates in Māori and Pasifika communities have heated up intensely (kind of like global warming!) in the lead up to Disney’s release of Moana, which they have touted as their Oceanic epic.
Since Karlo Mila’s e-tangata article here, there have been a slew of contributions to further thinking, including Vince Diaz’s article here, one from a blogger named Lauren, and counter arguments like these from Leah Damm, Madeleine Chapman, and Ngaiterangi Smallman.
I am someone who has no problem, like Madeleine Chapman, admitting I was once seduced by Disney. For me as a kid it was the Mouseketeers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo and Bambi on screen, and Donald Duck, Daisy, Huey, Louie, Dewey and Uncle Scrooge in comic books. And then, as an adult, it was the Lion King and Mulan and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The real confession I have to make is that, before the Lion King and Mulan and the Pirates trilogy were released, I had already had my eyes opened to Disney's insidious history and politics. That came from reading Ariel Dorfman's The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes do to our Minds.
I read this book a few years after it was first published in 1983. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Although I didn't need much encouragement to critically analyse The Lone Ranger, Dorfman had me reeling at how such seemingly benign cultural figures as Babar and Disney's Donald Duck — which is also discussed in the book, and is the subject of another of Dorfman's books How to Read Donald Duck — could be tied so deeply to not just the ideology but the economic history of imperialism and colonialism.
Cognitive dissonance — or conflicted and contradictory thinking — is a funny thing. Humans can put up with it for a remarkably long time. It's called denial. And I have been guilty of it.
The foundational British Cultural Studies scholar Raymond Williams coined the notion of a "structure of feeling" to describe a different process, but I find his phrase useful to think about Disney. And how Disney, as imagineering dream factory, like other mega-entertainment corporations, has something that most critical cultural commentators do not have: access to the means of mass (and I mean, MASS) producing ... feelings. Feelings which trump (ugh) ideas and careful critical thinking on any day of the week.
Even after reading Dorfman, I fell prey to the warm fuzzies of the Lion King. I repressed the deeply patriarchal narrative and gave Timon's hokey hula a pass — because, I reasoned, the greater lesson was about LOVE.
I looked past the problematic (faux) feminist and multicultural fantasies that Mulan inspired in me, and I sang along to Be a Man with gusto.
I even took my firstborn child with my mother to Disneyland on my hard-earned FJD$25k salary as a solo parent, and had a perfectly cinematic moment when my four-year-old gushed a heartfelt thank you to me after the fireworks went off at the end of his magical day.
There's no denying that Disney entertainment has allowed me to escape some of the other crap in my life, in my work, and in my head, and just helped me feel GOOD.
But ... bottom line: not everything that makes you feel good is good for you.
I have university students who, to this day, quote that powerful line from Disney's Lilo & Stitch: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
Disney has clearly given its audience-base both visual and verbal language that resonates. Disney validates feelings that we feel “authentically”. And my heart breaks at this colonisation because I now know, as a result of my exposure to the work of other indigenous Pacific researchers and activists, that part of Lilo & Stitch's production involved the appropriation of a mele inoa (name chant) that honoured both King David Kalakaua and his sister (and tragically brief successor) Queen Lili'uokalani (because: US marines assisted white settler overthrow) — and repackaged it as He mele no Lilo. Expressions of Hawaiian sovereignty blatantly co-opted, emptied out of their sovereignty and repackaged as cute and cuddly by Disney.
Lilo & Stitch, like Moana, had credible indigenous advisors and co-creators. My job as an academic is not to police indigenous artists or creatives, or tell them who they can and cannot sell their talents to.
My job as an educator is to help my students make sense of the world they live in, and help them understand how they can imagine and create a better world to live in if they wish. In Pacific Studies, that involves exposing our students to complex and messy histories of both colonisation and decolonisation — even colonisation negotiated by indigenous leaders, and decolonisation championed by foreigners.
A lot of my students tell me that what they appreciate about my approach to teaching is the way I engage their feelings as well as their intellects. That is a power I recognise I have, and I have tried to wield it responsibly.
But I am just a small David in comparison to the Goliath of Disney. (Ew. Feminist fail. Call me Bathsheba. Oops, is that another feminist fail? The Bible is another story altogether when it comes to the language and imagery that structure our feelings in the Pacific.)
I'm not in the business of dictating dogma to my students or anyone else. At university we are supposed to teach how to think, not what to think.
I would never tell my students that they should not see Disney's Moana. Other people may call for boycotts but it is my duty to offer a) different perspectives on the film's cultural as well as material impact, and b) point towards indigenous Pacific intellectual/artistic/activist sources of inspiration that can provide alternative structures of feeling — and thinking — to what's easily available through mass entertainment and consumer culture.
Indeed, many of our most important sources of inspiration as Pacific people come from within our own families and communities and from heritages that will never, ever, ever make it into a Disney or Hollywood movie or any mainstream media — and thank the Ancestors for that, because these are our gifts. They are not commodities. Not everything in life is meant to be for sale.
Across the Pacific, gifting is one of our most precious heritages. Disney has timed its Moana release with the American holiday of Thanksgiving (see Keala Kelly’s sobering take on this link here), and in perfect time for that most commercial of holiday seasons, Christmas.
While Disney makes some of the gifts some of us are looking forward to purchasing for our loved ones, Disney doesn't give gifts. Everything it offers has a price tag. And even if there is no consensus on the relative costs and benefits of having identifiable elements of Pacific heritage sold to Disney, there's no denying the ecological price tag of all its plastic and other non-biodegradable merchandise, as Tina Ngata has pointed out.
Can our Pacific ocean and islands afford this price tag? The empirical answer is no. But, hey: cognitive dissonance. I've started reducing my family's plastic consumption but we still have a long way to go ... because: denial.
One thing that I do recognise as a gift is any energy I have left over after I've fulfilled my responsibilities to my family, my employer and my students. I've been rather dismayed that the Disney corporation has unwittingly collected anything more than a smidgeon of my scarce residual energy thanks to the Moana debates.
But the gift in that is that I have gained valuable insight into other Pacific thinkers/academics/activists/creatives' processes for achieving decolonised and decolonial structures of feeling — and thinking. And for a teacher who is always also a student, that is a gift that keeps on giving.
Dr Teresia Teaiwa is Director of Va'omanū Pasifika at Victoria University of Wellington.