How Disney Ignores Racism, Imperialism and Polynesian Diversity in “Moana”

Disney’s 2016 release Moana is remarkable for many reasons. It shattered box office sales this past Thanksgiving weekend with sales of 81.1 million dollars. It features the first Disney princess to be Polynesian, falling within the Asian American Pacific Island cultural and political identity. The film’s title character is also a steadfast and brave girl who breaks the typical epic male hero storyline that has dominated Hollywood from decades. And though Moana is not Asian American, she is relevant to Asian American media because she is an Asian character created by an American studio and released to an American audience.  Moana has made history as a blockbuster film with a heartwarming message and stunning animation. In addition, as the movie’s directors are two white men, Ron Clements and John Musker, the Walt Disney studio took great lengths to try to not commit any social injustices by casting a largely Pacific Islander voice cast and even traveling to multiple Polynesian islands for research. However, despite a progressive and culturally aware production, Disney’s Moana still falls short of satisfying the main criticisms of Asian characters in American media.

Moana’s introductory scene is an old woman telling a mythological story of the Polynesian god Maui to a group of wide-eyed toddlers. Polynesia is a triangular area of the central and southern Pacific Ocean that contains more than a thousand different islands that share a mythology (with minor differences between each nation’s folklore.) The film takes place in an island paradise, rich with white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters and bright pink flowers and shells. However, the distinct nationality of the village is difficult to discern because there are many aspects of different cultures within it. As Moana grows up and learns about her people’s way of life, we see that the main cultural influence is Samoan through the styling of the characters. The black, geometric tattoos that the male characters sport on the sides of their midriffs and thighs are unique to Samoan culture and are called pe’a.

Demigod Maui’s Samoan Pe’a covers his entire chest and legs.

Moana’s Samoan headdress.

Moana’s grandmother dancing Hawaiian hula.

However, this is not the only culture present in the film. In one scene, Moana wears a Samoan tuiga (a headdress that features coconut threads and red feathers), and a Hawaiian haku (a flower crown worn for special occasions) in the next. Writer Izzie Martinez notes that “The soundtrack features the Tokelauan language. But there’s Hawaiian hula dancing in one scene and a Melanesian myth in the next. It would have just been better to pick one island and portray its culture faithfully.”

Per Lisa Lowe, the homogenization of different nationalities is problematic because the dominant representation of the larger group disregards and incorrectly defines the minority groups.[1] In the case of Moana, cultural aspects of all of islands are amalgamated under the umbrella term of “Polynesian” completely disregarding the individuality of each of these nations. In addition, the perception of Polynesian culture is mainly defined by Samoan practices even though the term describes a plethora of different nations and cultural customs. By including aspects of Samoan, Hawaiian and Tongan culture in the same village, Moana incorrectly portrays Polynesian culture as homogenous.

Another critique of Asian characters in American media is the tendency for their cultural identity to be presented as fixed rather than dynamic. Although “Moana” deviates from the typical male hero epic, the plot of the movie still follows a cliché heritage-identity crisis and represents her Polynesian identity as fixed, rather than dynamic. Like other Disney princesses, such as Cinderella and the Little Mermaid, Moana’s identity struggle is a main plot focus of the film. As the next chiefess, Moana’s father the advises her to focus on learning about village customs, instead of what she truly desires, which is to explore the ocean. When Moana defies her father and sails to return a magical stone to a goddess named Tefiti and initially fails, she almost gives up on her quest. In this pivotal scene, Moana’s grandmother directly addresses this identity crisis by asking her “do you know who you are?” Moana’s response to this question manifests into a song titled “I am Moana”, the lyrics of which are below:

I am girl who loves who my island

And a girl who loves the sea

It calls me

I am the daughter of the village chief

We are descended from voyagers

Who found their way across the world

They call me

I have delivered us to where we are

I have journeyed farther

I am everything I have learned and more

Instead of picking either her duties as a chiefess or her love of the ocean as her passion, Moana decides that both are a part of her identity by singing about these qualities in list form. However, departing from a typical identity crisis because these two identities do not oppose each other (though they initially seem to): the song states that her ancestors were originally ocean “voyagers” and therefore, the deep connection that Moana feels with the water is something that uniquely tied to her cultural identity as a Polynesian, and therefore her racial identity as an Asian. After this declaration, Moana saves her island from destruction with her sailing expertise and succeed her father as chiefess. The critique of this identity arch is that it depicts Moana’s racial and cultural identity as fixed: once she has accepted both parts of her identity, one that is cultural and the other that is not (the latter eventually becoming cultural as well), she is content and all of her problems are solved. Moana’s character is an inaccurate representation of racial identity because it is always subject to change depending on the circumstances.

While it is difficult to suggest what the filmmakers could have specifically changed to reflect the ever-changing quality of cultural identity, it is possible to pin-point the reason why it was so easy to ignore this issue. Scholar Stuart Hall describes cultural identity as a “matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power.”[2] Though Polynesian culture is rich with history, the movie reduces it to a vague past of maritime island colonization. In addition, Moana’s village and her people may be based on the real-life Polynesia, but they are relegated to a fantasy bubble of islands that has no connection to any other continents or other part of the globe. The “play of history, culture and power” that Hall speaks about does not exist in the movie because the characters are either Polynesian or inhuman (an animated chicken, piglet and giant crab god to name a few.) Moana’s cultural identity is not “subject” to a historical power hierarchy because Disney essentially erases it.

And even though the beautiful visuals of the animated Polynesia are similar to the real geography of the islands, the film romanticizes that one group of people happily live on each island as autonomous communities. Just as the film simplified Moana’s cultural identity, the film does the same to the islands and the peoples of Polynesia. When her community is threatened by a destructive black force that burns the trees and kills the fish, Moana is forced to quell the god Tefiti through a quest, which she eventually succeeds. This subsequently erases the pollution that has destroyed her village and restores the proliferation of lush vegetation that covers the island.

The natural environment of the Pacific Islands restored.

However, the reality of the socioeconomic status of those who live on the Pacific Islands is that there is high unemployment and their un-diversified economy is highly vulnerable because it depends so much on natural resources, especially fish. Though urbanization and global warming, there has been a negative impact on the environment of Polynesia as well as the rest of the world, but unlike in the movie these issues cannot be instantaneously erased. For example, experts have estimated that the economy of American Samoa is 80% dependent on the tuna cannery business. Moana’s Polynesia glazes over these fragile aspects about the real Pacific Islands and incorrectly represents Polynesia as a tropical paradise destination for American audiences.

Despite Disney’s choice to bring Polynesians to worldwide recognition and headline an Asian female as a title character in a blockbuster movie, the studio romanticizes the islands and ignores the reality of their poor socioeconomic situation, which could arguably be caused by the white colonialism that pioneered the society in which Disney has been flourishing for the past hundred years. So while Polynesians are faced with few opportunities for employment, poor infrastructure and possible natural disaster, Disney makes hundreds of millions of dollars from a film that would not have been able to exist without the Polynesian culture to begin with. Though Disney tries to ignore the intersection of Western culture with that of the Pacific Islands by failing to address any issues of racism or historical power structures, they must recognize that the intersection between the cultures is relevant because of the deep Pacific Islander influence in the movie and the mainstream American audience that is consuming it. To ignore this relationship and to continue the same errors in the media’s portrayal of Asian characters is a mistake for Moana despite its triumphs.


[1] Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

[2] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 225