It's almost Halloween, which means the hot takes about accusations of cultural appropriation are starting to trickle out. The latest of these takes concerns Moana, Disney's newest princess-but-technically-not. Moana, the daughter of the chief of the fictional Polynesian-inspired island Motunui, sets off on an adventure with her mentally delayed rooster Heihei and the demigod Maui, and (spoiler alert) saves the people of Motunui from devastation by restoring the heart of Te Fiti. The movie was a smash hit.
As far as Disney's female heroines go, Moana is definitely on the better end of the spectrum. She's got the grit of Mulan, the kindness of Cinderella, the ocean skills of Ariel, and the independence of Merida all rolled into one. Her story is the antithesis of the "damsel in distress" formula, and there's no mention of romance whatsoever throughout the film. One would think that these characteristics would mean that Moana would be a no-brainer for Halloween, but one mom blogger has other thoughts.
In a now-viral post on the website raceconscious.org, a mom frets that her five-year-old brunette child wants to be either Moana or Elsa for Halloween. Elsa, from the fictional Scandinavian-inspired country of Arendelle, has white blonde hair.
From the post:
“Elsa is an imaginary or made-up character. Moana is based on real history and a real group of people…if we are going to dress up a real person, we have to make sure we are doing it in a way that is respectful. Otherwise, it is like we are making fun of someone else’s culture.”
Hearing me push back against her Moana choice, my daughter re-asserted her desire to dress up as Moana (for Halloween 2018!). I closed this initial “Moana” conversation by telling her: “We would have to do some research and figure out if there is a way to dress up as Moana that is respectful of her culture.”
Since her 2017 Halloween choice was, in fact, Elsa, I returned to this costume choice and shared: “There is one thing I don’t like about the character of Elsa. I feel like because Elsa is a White princess, and we see so many White princesses, her character sends the message that you have to be a certain way to be “beautiful” or to be a “princess”…that you have to have White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes. And I don’t like that message. You are White, like Elsa—if you dressed up as a character like Moana, who has brown skin, you would never change your skin color. But I’m not sure I like the idea of you changing your hair color to dress up as Elsa—because I think Elsa’s character could also be a short, brown-haired character like you.”
“No,” my daughter refuted. “I want you to make be a long, blonde braid like Elsa’s.”
“We can do that,” I agreed. “When we are dressing up as a made-up character who is White, it is OK to change how your hair looks, but I just want you to know that if you wanted to, you could dress up as Elsa and not change your hair.”
Golly. First of all, both Moana and Elsa are imaginary characters. Disney borrowed the idea of Maui from Polynesian mythology, but the actual character of Moana herself is a creation of Disney's writing team. Elsa is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow Queen."
What people like this mother seem to not understand is that context matters. Back when blackface was a common theater trope, it was meant to disrespect African-Americans. It was intended to be mocking. No child who is dressing up as Moana/Belle/Mulan/Merida/Elsa/Tiana/etc. for Halloween is doing so because they want to mock Pacific Islander/French/Chinese/Scottish/Generic Scandinavian/Southern African-American people. They're doing so because they like the film, the character, the dresses, or some combination of all three. Hence the author's child's insistence on being "Moana" and not "Moana's sister" (which as any self-respecting fan of the film would know...Moana is a very independent only child) and wanting to look exactly like Elsa, wig and all. Somehow a small child gets the point of a Halloween costume more than her mother does.
Also, the child in question is five years old. She has no desire to dress as a generic Polynesian woman for Halloween, which I agree would require some level of cultural sensitivity from the mom's perspective. She wants to be one specific character from an incredibly popular movie. This isn't mocking. It's literally a costume. It's the difference between dressing up specifically as Mulan versus dressing up in one of these costumes. One is fine. The other, not so much.
This kind of mentality is absolutely exhausting. It's just Halloween, and there are probably going to be a zillion little girls of all backgrounds dressed as one of the most popular characters of recent memory. The world won't end. Nobody is doing this to be disrespectful.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to the Moana soundtrack for the billionth time.