So Disney has pulled the most ill-conceived merchandise idea of the year (perhaps decade) — the Maui skin suit — and issued a “sorry-some-of-you-were-offended” non-apology.

While the decision to pull the suit was obviously the best one given the circumstances, the non-apology and the decision to run with that merchandise choice in the first place betray some important clues about mindset of the Disney machine.

Well done, Disney, for pulling your offensive merchandise from the shelves. But don’t get up to leave now, we’re not done yet. There are a couple of other important ironies that require further discussion.

Disney's Maui costume as it appeared on the company's online store website, until Disney pulled it Sept. 21.
Disney’s Maui costume as it appeared on the company’s online store website, until Disney pulled it Sept. 21.

First, let’s take a look at colonial subversion of storytelling as a statement of diversity. While scouting the Pacific for stories, director Joseph Musker came about a mystery that “historians have struggled for ages to solve.” The mystery being the supposed cessation of voyaging and its subsequent revival.

“The basis came out of a sort of fantasy of how they got started again,” says Clements. “What if it were all because of a 16-year-old girl?”

What if it wasn’t? What if the truth is much more complex, and most importantly, what if the truth is ours to unfold in our own ways and not Disney’s to assume?

Throughout the marketing, much has been made of the feminist nature of Moana, the protagonist. She is often pitted as Disney’s solution to a gender crisis in storytelling.

Let’s be clear: Actual Pacific storytelling has never suffered a gender crisis. We have always had a wealth of wahine and non-binary gender protagonists that have never suffered from lack of recognition in storytelling, except for where colonial lenses assumed the right to intervene and interpret these elements out of our stories.

That was Disney’s problem. In “Moana,” the company has merely used our collective culture as its stage for addressing itr own gender crisis. While they are celebrated for presenting a protagonist who will “not put up with mansplaining,” Disney is patently ignoring the fact that this entire film is an act of whitesplaining.

The truth of the matter is Disney was not invited. This is somewhat acknowledged by those who defend brown participation with, “Well, it was going to happen anyway, so we may as well have participated than let them get it wrong.” A rather defeatist attitude, but importantly that’s a position that recognises Disney as the unstoppable, unconscionable force that it is, one that certainly strips Disney of any moral high ground in this affair.

The feminist focus on Moana is troubling to a wahine like myself, who often finds herself defending her reality as a wahine from the assumptions of white feminists. Our strength descends down from divine ancestresses such as Pele, or as Disney likes to position her, “The Lava Monster/Witch.”

Women across the Pacific are not only the protagonists of our stories, we are also the storytellers. Disney’s superficial attempt at gender diversity did not extend to the production and writing team, which was still dominated by males and did not feature one Pacific wahine. The age-old tradition of white patriarchal colonisers defining faux feminist perspectives is a consistent theme mirrored yet again in this film.

Our storytelling traditions are complex, interconnected and inextricably linked to our political, spiritual, economic and environmental realities. Our storytelling is a part of a broader knowledge system that underpins our relationships to the world around us, and informs our value systems in relation to that environment.

Plastic Toys And The Moana’s Health

That brings me to the second, very important irony: plastic merchandise for a move called “Moana.”

In 2011 we were all witness to an extraordinary undertaking. The Mana o Te Moana journey saw seven ocean voyaging waka from across the Pacific carry a message across tens of thousands of nautical miles. A message that spoke of our inherited ancestral relationship to the moana, our dependence upon the moana, and at its core, a cry for our moana, who is very, very sick.

This theme was also strongly reflected in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress this year, which made a concerted and admirable effort to avoid creating plastic waste. Indeed, plastic waste poses potentially the greatest risk to the wellbeing of our moana, alongside rising sea temperatures.

Toys make up a considerable portion of this problem. Last year, on eBay alone, Disney’s Frozen toys sold at a rate of seven a second. Most will be thrown away within a year (the average shelf-life of a toy). So while Disney’s toy waste has always been a problem, the fact that they launch their “Moana” plastic merchandise amid such clear evidence of its harm to the oceans is head-spinning in its irony.

Cards on the table. Disney shapes young minds. They know this, hence their positioning of Moana as a strong, independent character. They want to teach a new generation that it’s OK not to look like Cinderella. But they’re also modeling that it’s OK to mindlessly consume plastic products that will wind up as ocean waste, and that it’s OK to plunder another culture for their storytelling.

These issues were thoroughly predictable from the outset, and more will continue to arise, because Disney, as a machine, has never been equipped to do anything other than colonize the storytelling landscapes of others. The appointment of an Oceanic Story Trust to “guide them,” and the marketing of certain cast and crew is merely another type of “polyfacing.”

Evidently, the Oceanic Story Trust was unable to “guide” Disney away from taking blackfacing to the next level in developing a skin suit or from presenting Pele as a lava monster. Oceanic Story Trust will not solve this problem. Polynesian cast members will not solve this problem. The only thing that will solve this problem is the immediate cessation of Disney’s colonial practice of rampant storytelling theft.

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About the Author

  • Tina Ngata
    Tina Ngata hails from the tribal nation of Ngati Porou on the East Cape of Te Ika a Maui, Aotearoa (New Zealand). She works for indigenous university Te Wananga o Aotearoa as a diploma- and degree-level educator in indigenous environmental leadership. She blogs underneath the name "The Non-Plastic Maori" about issues relating to indigenous rights and environmental issues.