Thursday, June 30, 2016

Comments From Polynesians About Disney's Depiction Of Their Demigod Maui In The 2016 Movie "Moana"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post documents some comments from Polynesians about Disney's depiction of their demigod "Maui" in the 2016 Disney animated movie "Moana". The movie "Moana" is scheduled for release November 2016. However, on June 27, 2016 Disney posted a teaser trailer of that movie on YouTube. That trailer largely featured the character "Maui" and not the teenage girl "Moana" for whom the movie is named.

Note that this post only tangentially meets this pancocojams' blog's criteria of focusing on examples of Black culture- tangentially because Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the actor who voiced the character Maui in that Disney movie is of Black (Nova Scotia, Canada) and Samoan ancestry. That said, I'm interested in the subject of how People of Color are depicted in movies, and that subject definitely fits into the perimeters of this blog.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and sociological reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of the videos which are featured in this post.

[These article excerpts are given in no particular order.)

Excerpt #1
From "Anger Over Maui God Portrayed As 'Half Hippo, Half Pig' In Moana", Ben Arnold, 27 June 2016
"Maui was the powerful Polynesian demi-god who used the jaw-bone of his ancestor to fish very [sic*] islands from the depths of the ocean.

But there’s growing disquiet over his portrayal in new Disney movie, ‘Moana’.

The character, being voiced by Dwanye 'The Rock’ Johnson, himself of Polynesian lineage, was revealed last week in the first proper glimpse of the forthcoming animation (itself criticised because Disney decided to unveil the male character before the female of the title).

And now Jenny Salesa, an MP for the Labour Party in New Zealand, and of Tongan heritage, has posted a withering take-down of the Disney character’s portly physique."...
* sic= indicates a typo or some other mistake

Excerpt #2
From "Disney depiction of obese Polynesian god in film Moana sparks anger
Portrayal of the god Maui has prompted debate over unhealthy stereotypes of Polynesian men on screen",
Eleanor Ainge Roy, 27 June 2016
"The depiction of a Polynesian character in a Disney film has prompted anger across the Pacific islands, with one New Zealand MP saying the portrayal of the god Maui as obese was “not acceptable”.

Jenny Salesa, who is of Tongan heritage, shared a picture on her Facebook account which said Disney’s rendering of Maui in the film Moana resembled a creature that was “half pig, half hippo”...

According to 2014 data from the World Health Organisation nine of the ten most obese nations in the world are Pacific Islands.

Samoan professional rugby player Eliota Fuimanono Sapolu also expressed his disgust at Disney’s portrayal of Maui, writing on Facebook that “Maui looking like after he fished up the Islands, he deep fried em and and ate em”.

In Polynesian mythology Maui is a heroic figure who created the Pacific Islands by fishing them out of the sea.

Will Ilolahia, from the Pacific Island Media Association, told Waatea News that Disney’s version of Maui did not fit with his heroic endeavours in Pacific creation myths.

“He is depicted in the stories that’s been handed down, especially in my culture, as a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature,” Illolalia said.

“This depiction of Maui being obese is typical American stereotyping. Obesity is a new phenomena because of the first world food that’s been stuffed down our throat.”

However, many people have commented on social media that Disney’s Maui looks strong and powerful, and that his physique is not unusual among Polynesian men.”...

Excerpt #3
"Critics Are Calling Out Disney for Fat-Shaming Polynesians With ‘Moana’ Character", Jenna Birch June 28, 2016
"Disney has come under fire for its depiction of a Polynesian character in the upcoming movie Moana. (Photo: Walt Disney Animation Studio)

When Moana is released on November 23, 2016, the title character will be the first Disney princess of Polynesian descent. However, the look of the heroine’s sidekick, the demigod Maui, is creating a firestorm of criticism months before the film’s release.

According to New Zealand politician Jenny Salesa, the body shape of Maui is cause for concern. “When we look at photos of Polynesian men and women from the last 100-200 years, most of our people were not overweight and this negative stereotype of Maui is just not acceptable,” she writes on Facebook. “No thanks to Disney.”
Salesa calls Maui’s depiction “obese,” and thinks children might get the wrong message about their bodies. “The environment our kids grow up in and what they are exposed to have a role to play. Disney movies are very influential on our children. It is great that Moana is the lead. However, it is disappointing that Maui, one of our beloved historical ancestors from hundreds of years ago, who was a very strong man [and] a skilled navigator, is depicted to be so overweight in this kids’ movie.”

Facebook user Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu posted this photo, comparing the body shape of the demigod Maui in the upcoming movie Moana to those of real-life Polynesian actors....

Polynesian writer Leah Damm thought about Maui’s onscreen persona for days and does understand where Salesa is coming from. The legendary demigod did not technically look like he does in the Disney film, and the filmmakers chose to deviate from his traditional stature. “Today, the negative stereotype of Polynesian people is that our size relates to our poor life choices,” she wrote for The Spinoff. “The ‘poor life choices’ argument is the crux of the racist justification of coloured people’s overrepresentation in negative social statistics, and the scapegoat for the taxpayer who doesn’t want their hard-earned dollars spent on poor decision making.”

At the end of the day, though, Damm does not see Maui’s depiction as negative. She’s not so sure that men like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Mamoa represent the typical Polynesian male, or perhaps reinforce a better model for the young men of her culture to aspire. “There’s a very clear difference between saying Maui wouldn’t have looked like that and Maui shouldn’t look like that [which sends the message that] big Polynesians are a disgrace to our ancestors and have no place being seen by young audiences,” Damm explained.
She thinks that in some ways parents should be happy to see a new body type onscreen for their children. “Personally, I don’t look at the animated Maui and think ‘unhealthy,’” Damm wrote. “I get more of a ‘strong, bodyguard-type’ vibe … a number of people have noted that Maui looks like their Dads and Uncles. Imagine what this might mean to Polynesian kids, to have a brief escape from their Dads’ likeness being limited to anti-smoking campaigns, and finally seeing an iteration of large, strong Polynesian men on the big screen, navigating oceans and bringing joy to young audiences.”

Example #1: Moana Official US Teaser Trailer

Walt Disney Animation Studios, Published on Jun 12, 2016

Watch the brand new teaser trailer for Disney’s Moana! See the film, starring Dwayne Johnson & Auli’i Cravalho, in theatres this Thanksgiving!
For comparison purposes, click for other examples of how the demigod Maui has traditionally been drawn.

Example #2: MAUI ISN'T FAT! - Isoa says...

iSoa23 Published on Jun 24, 2016

I hope I don't get sued for this. Lol. Trying to justify Maui's look from the upcoming "Moana" film coming out later on this year :)
Selected comments from this video's discussion thread:
1. Mario Teulilo, June 27, 2016
"You should read Lippi Greens write up of Disney portrayals for people of color. I think it will enlighten you to see this is not the first time Disney has conjured misconceptions of colored people. The issue is not how Maui looks it's how we as Pacific Islanders are represented to non Pacific Islanders and making those impressions last in the minds of a new generation. It's bad enough no one is addressing our islands battle with climate change affects and now to save our dignity from these kinds of films 😑 As my Gma says it, "OUA SIO LALO KI TONGA" therefore if you are going to rep Pasefika (including our Demigods) KEEP IT 100%!!"

2. Tana Umaga, June 27, 2016
"I've read it and can see good points but don't see how her article applies here. As the guy in the video explains, Maui is NOT obese. I can't believe people actually thought he was fat at all. Disney have portrayed fat characters in their movies before and it was different to how Maui is portrayed here. Even in early sketches of Maui, his body is described as "thick" i.e. a 'strongman' body type. Makes sense, since Maui has been described as supernaturally strong in Pacific mythology.

Actually, it is. Salesa and Sapolu specifically spoke of Maui's looks in the film. I didn't hear anything about representation from them. Anyway, I don't remember the Greeks getting all up in arms about that Hercules movie Disney put out years ago.

What does climate change have to do with a children's movie?"

3. Mario Teulilo, June 28, 2016
"I do agree that he get one "strong" figure. however, the figure of "strong" that i am used too are not feet ballooned to inadequate proportions. Climate change I bring in because the islands are the true source of knowledge about our people. Once they are lost to the ocean, gone too are the primary source of our people. Looking on to 100 years in the future, with children not speaking our traditional languages nor practicing our native customs, along with the lack of proper cultural preservation that needs to take place now to ensure our cultural identity survives, we have a generation that will look back to these mediums and believe this is how our people really are; this is what the masters of mass oceanic navigation hail from. All I'm saying is do not minimize the legends but glorify them to their proper value. Doing so in all aspects that not a single detail is lost.

If our ancestors spent thousands of years weaving these legends through oral traditions to mastery ensuring that they are passed on properly from generation to generation, who is disney to exploit the face and body of Maui?

don't know where you are from but here in the states our culture is not strong, it is being modified like this film uses a modification of Maui.

You have misunderstood everything I have been talking about so I will give you this illustration in hopes you get what I'm saying because I have seen this happen several times...

A non Pacific island child who has never heard nor met a PI person ever in their life goes to see this film. They have now an impression of what ideal Pacific Islanders look like... namely Maui who is the ultimate hero of our people. Many years later this kid finally meets a Pacific Islander and walks up and says "You must be Pacific Islander because you're big!" -yes they will say big, NOT STRONG, because that is the IMPRESSION they have of our people. We see it as STRONG but others no doubt will see it as BIG...

And climate change fyi - the island my great grandma was born on in Kiribati is uninhabitable Thank you very much. People from there have been evacuated to Tarawa and now await evacuation from there. When I have children I will never be able to take my children there to show them where their fathers mothers mothers mothers mothers were born. We never got to practice Kiribati culture as we were strong to our Tongan American upbringing and so where do I get to point them to begin learning about where they are from?

These type of films are what set the stage for all children (mine included) to begin forming their ideas about world views. I speak from experience because English is my second language and i learned it through Disney films and sesame street "

4.Tana Umaga, June 28, 2016
"+Mario Teulilo I'm from NZ and our cultures are VERY strong here. In the islands they are even stronger.

So? Islanders ARE very big on average. Here in Auckland, NZ we have more Pacific Islanders than any other city in the world. I've grown up in an area heavily populated by islanders and have lots of islander friends and family. Not necessarily fat but big like Maui as presented in this film.As I said before, he has a strongman physique, which is NOT fat. I don't know how many times I must say this.

Again, what does climate change have to do with this movie?"

5. Mario Teulilo, June 29, 2016
"It is a shame that in America where I am from and where Disney makes the films the same views are not shared. Here in America Pacific Islanders are not known to many at all. Thank you for validating that our walks and battles of injustices are TOTALLY different. Therefore me explaining anything to you would make no sense because you do not participate in our struggle of equality because you are from a majority where you are from.

If you are unable to connect climate change to this film even after I have explained it then that is for you to go figure out its connection. "

6. Tana Umaga, June 29, 2016
"+Mario Teulilo Back up, islanders and native Maori are still minorities here in Auckland and NZ as a whole. I don't know where you got the idea that we constitute the majority.

You never explained any connection at all. That's my point."

7. Mario Teulilo, June 29, 2016
"LOL you just said you come from a place "with the larger Pacific Island population in the world" and where the practice of "Pacific culture is strong" .... I come from a place where Pacific Islanders are literally invisible and the practice of our Pacific Culture is NOT strong.... Those are 2 very different experiences. So to me In your local community you make up the vast majority, where I am from we make up 1% statewide and local community wise .3% (that is > than 1%)

climate change: for people over here who do not have the luxury to immerse their children in the culture this film is what will aid in that. Because of affects of climate change, like in Kiribati where my mothers family is from this film could be used by my children as a point of reference to begin their world views of the Pacific having never been nor will they ever see Kiribati except through books and films.

Do you work with children or youth Tana Umaga? I do. Children mimic and emulate what they see and those lasting first impressions are what they carry well into adulthood.

I will agree to disagree with you since none of what I wrote makes sense to you. Come visit America sometime I hope you will see what I am talking about."

Editor: These selected comments from online articles and YouTube discussion threads are from persons who identified themselves in their comment as being Polynesian, or a Pacific Islander, or an indigenous Pacific Islander. I also included a comment from a blogger who wrote "our culture" when referring to Polynesian culture and a comment from a person who wrote that he or she is "from New Zealand and born in Samoa".

These comment sources are quoted in no particular order. Comments from the same source are grouped together with the oldest comment from that source group given first. These are the total number of comments from those particular sources that I read to date which were posted by people identifying themselves as Polynesian.

I've assigned numbers to these comments for referencing purposes only. However, these comments may not be in consecutive order.

[posted June 29, 2016]
1. Jerry
"I just want to clarify this for everyone who is not Polynesian/Hawaiian. Maui is drawn as a "fit" person in Hawaii. Not necessarily a chiseled body, but just a hard working fisherman's athletic type of body. This is a common depiction of him and is well known. The story is that Maui was the one who "fished" the Hawaiian islands out of the sea with his fishhook. This is why you will see local Hawaiians and some tourists who may or may not know the story, wearing these type of fishhooks around their necks. So the complaint by the original person in the article was originated because it is such an obvious incorrect drawing of a well known person in that culture.

Think about if Elvis Pressly or Hank Aaron (just picking some random well known people from two separate races) were drawn in this same manner. They are well known, but they do not look that way so everyone would make a big deal about that. Now add to that the fact that there is a stereotype about Polynesians being overweight and it gets even more offensive. It easy to criticize the argument by downplaying it as being an overreaction to the character's weight, but it is more than that when you are an actual Polynesian who may have experienced this type of negative stereotype.

BTW, it's a "negative" stereotype because it has become a generally believed assumption by other races as being true of the majority of Polynesians. It's true that if the person was drawn to look chiseled that it would also be a stereotype, but just be honest with yourselves, that would not be viewed as negative by anyone. However, it would still also be a stereotype if the majority of other races assumed it was true of all Polynesians."

2. Jeannie Fanene
"I am of Polynesian decent 100% samoan and we are proud people. At this moment I think Maui is a cute character. We Polynesians come in all different sizes and we are proud people filled with pride that's what makes Polynesians beautiful Disney is big and just to have a Polynesian character that reflects on us is something that we should be proud of. We all have a family member or two that have features that Maui does but that does not make them ugly as a matter of fact there are women from Polynesia that look like Maui (no offense) but only we the people stereotype ourselves. A lot of American friends that I have love our culture our people for what we stand for and I think its Pride and culture not the way we look. I know bodybuilders that diet hard to have the solid size that we Polynesians have and I know many whom are not the Rocks size are well loved for standing out looking like Maui but with the biggest heart!"

3. Nafa
"*eye rolling*
"As a former FAT Samoan child I call complete horse pucky on this. Maui's alright. There's finally a Disney character that looks like me, my uncles (a few aunties), and people I grew up with. Guess what, saying we all should be staring at The Rock, Jason Momoa, or Roman Reigns* does more to fat-shame a culture than having a chubby but mighty character like Maui. Everyone just chill out, take off your 'I'M OFFENDED OVER NOTHING' hats, and let's enjoy a (hopefully) fun film."
*Side by side photographs of "The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Jason Momoa, and Roman Reigns" are featured in a poster that is circulating the Internet which describes them as "three hot Hollywood stars. That poster then shows a photograph of Disney's Maui and describes him as "half pig half hippo".

4. bini
"As Polynesian we are naturally big bone so I dont see whats the big deal, Maui is 90% very accurate because that is how all the Poly men are built, I'm just glad theres a Poly animation props to Disney and relax people kids are most influenced with in their own family so there fore support it enjoy it and there is bigger problem in the world just saying One love Jah Bless"

[posted June 30, 2016]
5. Sheree
"As a Pacific Islander, I am glad we finally have a Disney movie portraying our culture and sharing us with the world.

What everyone commenting, who is not an indigenious Islander, is not understanding is that...."Maui, one of our beloved historical ancestors from hundreds of years ago, who was a very strong man [and] a skilled navigator." Therefore he is not being portrayed correctly. Our people were not built 100's of years ago as we are today. Before we were mixed with other races, before many of the foods and cooking styles were introduced to our culture such as rice and spam, before diseases were brought to our islands, we were lean, muscular, and very tall people. Yes, if he is a modern day Islander then his portrayal is more in tune with what you are seeing of us today.

All we ask is that if you're going to portray our ancestors you do so accurately and with respect. Then you can truly learn about where we came from and who we were as a people from a fun, loving Disney cartoon character."

6. Mel
"Really?, Polynesians cannot feel discriminated by this at all when this looks like an uncle we all have. This is one of the first Disney movies depicting Polynesians, lets just let it go and appreciate the fact their even showcasing Polynesia at all. Even Moana doesn't look stick skinny like the other princesses, lets just keep it real. Our stature is big and so are our hearts. Disney got it right."

"Moana's Maui too fat?! Ansel Elgort for Dungeons & Dragons Movie - Beyond The Trailer"
Movie Math, Published on Jun 28, 2016
[comments posted on June 29, 2016]
7. Jayde Kinkaid
"There are people in our culture of this size definitely, but Maui originally depicted in the legends is actually slimmer. Although I think Disney was trying to make sure he wasn't too similar to Hercules :)"
Note that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the voice for Maui, acted the part of the demigod Hercules in the 2014 American movie with that name which was distributed by Paramount Pictures
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Click for information about that movie and a photo of Johnson as Hercules.

Also, click for information about "Disney's Hercules: The Animated Series is an American animated television series based on the 1997 film of the same name and the Greek myth." Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wasn't associated with that Disney film or television series.

8. Kimber Benton
"The problem is not that he's "too fat" - the problem is that he's not how Maui is traditionally portrayed in Polynesian culture. We in Polynesia are brought up with Maui and are taught about him and shown picture books detailing how demi-god Maui performed heroic acts. He's described as young and fit. So when you see your god depicted as a larger size and comical, of course parole* are going to get upset. Put it this way, if you were a Christian and say Jesus was depicted as perhaps overweight and perhaps being made fun of in screen, you'd bound to have people get angry and upset. So that's how some of us in Polynesia feel about Disney's depiction of Maui."
*The word “parole” is probably a typo for “people”

"From New Zealand, born in Samoa and I really think this is tabloid as everyone here is just ecstatic for Moana. Love you grace Love Your Videos"

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1 comment:

  1. By far most of the online comments that I've read from people who didn't identify themselves as Polynesian or as Pacific Islanders were very critical of those who expressed their disapproval of Disney's depiction of Maui in that Disney movie.

    However, I think that the point that many of those commenters overlooked or dismissed was that in that movie, Maui wasn't just any man who could have been illustrated with the body build of a heavy set, very muscular male such as football linebacker. Maui is a beloved Polynesian demigod. Therefore, the way that Polynesians have pictured Maui has been established in their traditions, even if we (and perhaps many Pacific Islanders) consider him to be fictional.

    Here's a comment from someone who didn't identify himself or herself as Polynesian/Pacific Islander that speaks to that point and offers comparisons that Americans might be able to identify with:

    SD2, June 30, 2016
    "I don't think there is anything wrong with this depiction of Maui

    However I do understand why some people would be upset.

    Maui a demigod from legend. There have been many depictions of him. He is almost always shown as a very strong, athletic, ripped individual. I can understand why some people might be saying, "Hey. Wait a minute. That's not Maui. Why are you drawing him like that? Is it because you think Polynesians are fat?"

    Yes, he does look like a big strong power lifter/offensive lineman type of guy. But would we depict Hercules this way? Achilles? Hector? Ajax? How about Thor? The incredible Hulk?

    So why then did they suddenly make Maui - who when depicted in legend is ALWAYS ripped and muscley - a big, round, strong guy?

    Would you draw Superman or Wolverine that way? No. Because we know what they are "supposed to" look like. So why draw Maui this way, when he is "supposed to" look much different?

    Artistic license?

    Would it be okay to take the same artistic license and have a fat Bat Man? So why is it okay with Maui?"