Disney is no stranger to controversy. Some examples include accusations of racism in the 1992 animated version of “Aladdin;” arguments revolving around the offensive depiction of Maui in “Moana;” anti-Asian stereotypes in “The Aristocats” and “Lady and the Tramp;” the whitewashing and dehistoricization of Native Americans in “Pocahontas;” and the misrepresentation and distortion of Indigenous people in “Peter Pan.” As a Southeast Asian, Disney’s newest animated film set to release in March, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” really hit home.
Though there aren’t blatant indicators of racial caricature and stereotype in the trailer, there are already tell-tale red flags regarding representation, especially in a movie that claims to draw heavy inspiration from Southeast Asian culture. For one, the all-star cast features very few actors of Southeast Asian descent. Although Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya, is of Vietnamese descent, the other notable Asian celebrities like Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim and Alan Tudyk are not Southeast Asian at all; they are ethnically South Korean-Chinese, Scottish-Hong Kongese, South Korean and Polish, respectively. If the film had been advertised as an animated film that promoted an all-encompassing vision of Asian diversity, such casting choices would appear as more appropriate. However, this decision on Disney’s part appears lackluster, lazy, and, frankly, quite homogenizing.
Growing up ethnically Thai, I, along with many other Asians and Southeast Asians, struggled to see myself represented in the media. Therefore, I was elated when I heard about “Raya and the Last Dragon” for the first time. It seemed a film that sought to ensure my culture’s stories, as well as other Southeastern Asian stories, would be told. However, upon watching the trailer, I was quite disappointed with the melting pot phenomena that circulated within the clip. For one, I felt that we were not being thoughtfully represented and, rather, being assimilated into a stereotype that is considered as “holistically Asian.”
Southeastern Asian cultures, like other cultures around the world, are incredibly different and diverse. Instead of championing one specific Southeastern Asian country or nation and rather blurring the lines between our diversity, Disney remarkably erases the traditions and customs unique to each Southeastern Asian society.
This issue of Disney’s lack of specificity in Southeast Asian representation is even more upsetting, especially considering past Disney animated films have been set in specific European countries. “Frozen” canonically takes place in our world’s equivalent of Norway, “Brave” takes place in Scotland and “Beauty and the Beast” takes place in France.
And in the instances that a Disney film actually features a person of color, it is only because altering these stories would effectively warp historical events and folk tales. Mulan, for example, was largely based on the ancient Chinese folk tale, “The Ballad of Mulan.” And Tiana was animated for more time as a frog than as a human being in the 2009 “The Princess and the Frog.” Moreover, although Pocahontas’ ethnic origin was preserved, the 1995 film is gravely marked with historical inaccuracy. This is highly problematic for the release of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” especially when films like “Aladdin” and “Moana,” which feature heroes and heroines of color, take place in a fictional Disney world that combines and essentially homogenizes different cultures.
Disney’s inability to individualize non-white cultures also reinforces the importance of emphasizing and encouraging more diverse representation of “Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)” in the media. This way, audiences are not only educated about the differences in the people in our world, but also have a more substantive understanding that can encourage the dissemination of grouping stereotypes that are often harmful to BIPOC.
Said arguments also reflect the work needed to be done to reach BIPOC in various aspects in our society. From efforts to forge more historically inclusive education systems and to deconstruct the race-revolving aspect of our current criminal justice system, to how we view and promote BIPOC in our government and entertainment industries, these children’s films help to illuminate one of the many barriers that still need to be addressed nationwide and worldwide.
However, with education, greater representation and the celebration of BIPOC’s communities, values and traditions, a light will eventually appear at the end of the tunnel of BIPOC cinematic storytelling. Ultimately, the responsibility not only lies in the very people in our society, but also the industries and agencies that build and reinforce it. With Disney as one of the most powerful studios of the global film and entertainment industry, it is significant for the company to explicitly point out and address how the mixing of these cultures are essentially harmful to everyone who is exposed to it, and to set an example for model diversity in our society.
Andy Ketsiri is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.