A social media firestorm that forced Walt Disney Co to withdraw a movie costume amid accusations it represented “brownface” shows Pacific islanders will no longer accept their culture being cheapened for profit, experts said.
Polynesian culture has proved popular in recent years, sparking fads for island-style tattoos, hipster “tiki” bars in the US and numerous imitations of New Zealand’s famous All Black rugby haka.
The latest attempt to capitalize on the trend is Disney’s animated feature Moana, a retelling of ancient Pacific legends that is due for release later this year.
Photo: Disneystore.com via AP
Critics have lambasted the entertainment giant over tie-in merchandising that included a Halloween costume allowing children to dress up as the demi-god Maui. The full-body, zip-up outfit featured brown skin with traditional Pacific tattoos, a grass skirt and bone necklace.
A trickle of outraged tweets from Pacific activists soon turned into a flood, with Disney accused of cultural appropriation and lacking respect. Global media coverage followed, with the story finding particular resonance in the US, where the costume was likened to the “blackface” makeup once worn by white performers.
Within days, Disney pulled the costume from outlets worldwide, offering an apology for any offense caused.
New Zealand’s Maori Party, one of the costume’s harshest critics, said the controversy could have been avoided if Disney had consulted properly.
“They’re obviously not making any approach or having any deep engagement with the people of Polynesia, to whom that intellectual property belongs,” a party spokeswoman told reporters. “They’re not talking with the people from that culture, the guardians of that culture, so they’re not getting it right.”
There have been similar, although less vociferous, complaints about other Pacific cultural faux pas in recent years.
Haka parodies have been used to sell everything from gingerbread men in New Zealand to soft drinks in Japan — all without permission from the war dance’s traditional owners.
Samoans were also unimpressed in 2013 when Nike Inc released a pair of women’s leggings mimicking the pe’a — a sacred tattoo design reserved only for men.
New Zealand Maori have also objected to depictions of Polynesian deities being used to sell alcohol, a substance that has ravaged some indigenous communities.
It is not the first time the Pacific islands have found themselves in the spotlight of Western popular culture.
In the mid-20th century, troops returning from World War II helped popularize the notion of the relaxed island paradise.
The result was a bastardized version of Pacific culture where traditional dancers became hula girls and ancient tapa cloth designs transformed into the gaudy Hawaiian shirt, marketed as a “wearable postcard.”
There was also a craze for Polynesian-themed tiki bars, featuring bamboo furniture, kitsch imitations of island gods and sugary cocktails served in coconut shells.
Such tiki bars have recently experienced a revival in the US, prompting National Public Radio (NPR) to ask the question: “Harmless fun or exploitation?”
Owen Thomson, the owner of tiki bar Archipelago in Washington, told NPR that such establishments had always been “three steps removed from anything actually Polynesian.”
“It’s more about recreating a piece of Americana, of that 1950s, 1960s style,” he said.
The difference between now and the 1960s is that even a relatively small ethnic group such as Pacific islanders can use social media to point out cultural offenses.
“Social media is holding a lot of these big companies to account, there’s more eyes and ears on their product,” the Maori Party said. “It’s raising awareness around these issues.”
It also means companies riding roughshod over cultural values could now find themselves on the wrong end of a social media frenzy.
“Polynesian people from across the Pacific region voiced their views about this [Disney case] and it’s their voices that are important,” Christine Ammunson, of New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission, told reporters. “We encourage businesses to keep talking and listening to the communities whose cultures and ancestors they seek to portray.”
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