Even with the best intentions, it's not right to wear someone else’s skin, writes Leah Damm.
Perhaps I’m overly naïve, but I had presumed that I would get to enjoy Moana without having Disney try to hawk an imitation of my ancestors’ ‘skin’ i.e. a onesie for my kid, designed to replicate the character Maui’s brown, tattooed skin. Who would be creepy enough to want to wear someone’s skin à la Silence of the Lambs, right?
But apparently that is a big ask, because lo and behold, a Maui skin suit is part of the official Disney merchandise for Moana.
[UPDATE: Disney has apologised for the costume and pulled it from its website and stories. Read more here.]
There’s a few ways to take this particular situation. On the one hand, perhaps it is a form of flattery that kids might want to emulate us and our ancestors; appreciation not appropriation! Because hells yeah, Maui is awesome. And yes, our cultures are amazing and rich and beautiful. At the very least, the costume is for children who hold no malice – only excitement, a curiosity, an admiration for the costume.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing Moana for a while now. Some valid criticisms and concerns have come up about the film, but for the most part, it just looks like a cool cartoon that I want to watch and enjoy with my kid.
And so I’ve been trying to roll with the jovial intentions at play and find a way to be OK with it. I was OK with the news that there would be a Polynesian Disney princess movie. When the first visuals of Moana depicted Maui as big, strong, barrel-chested, some called him obese and ugly and an offense to the dignity of our trickster ancestor. I heard the criticisms and considered them valid to a point, but ultimately, I remained cool about it. I love big men and it’s a pity so many other people don’t. Big Maui was OK by me.
But I’ve tried to be OK with this skin-suit and it just isn’t happening.
I can’t find any comfort in the thought of a pakeha kid walking up to my beautiful brown-skinned daughter on Halloween like “Hey Sadie, look – I’m you!”. The idea of my girl getting to grow up with the first Disney princess in her likeness is cool, but I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly sad that she also gets to see the skin of her ancestor – our skin, sitting on the shelves for sale at a costume shop right alongside Pikachu and the Hulk. As well intentioned as these costumes are to bring joy to kids around the world, it fails to avoid being a super creepy reminder of the leisurely colonial practice of trophy-collecting scalps, heads, and other assorted body parts of indigenous peoples to fulfil.
Sometimes we like to tell ourselves that skin colour doesn’t matter. Ideally, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, it so regularly does matter. It matters in the way it affects us brown folk and our ability to navigate a westernised world, where brown skin automatically ties you to an ethnic group and their stereotypes. Perhaps your brown skin makes you a potential terrorist as you board a plane. Perhaps it makes you a thief when you walk into a store. We’ve spent centuries being reduced to the colour of our skin and unfortunately the Maui skin suit continues to do exactly that.
Maui is not who he is because he is brown and tattooed – this is most certainly not what makes us Polynesian. Maui is who he is because of his cunningness and adventure, his hook and his hair. There’s a raft of characteristics that make Maui unique and identifiable – being brown and tattooed being only a part, not an integral, part of who he or any of us Polynesians are.
But what about the children who just want to be their favourite Polynesian superhero? Why shouldn’t we just let kids be kids?
I take no pleasure in calling something that was meant to bring joy to children racist, and I’m hardly going to be out patrolling streets on Halloween ripping Maui costumes off random kids. But the fact that it was intended for children and happy times doesn’t undo the discomfort of the long history that this costume is a part of, nor am I convinced that childhoods will be ruined by parents who decide the costume is too inappropriate for their offspring.
As a parent, it’s up to me to teach my kid the boundaries about what is and isn’t off limits in this world. I don’t believe there is ‘too early’ a time to start understanding how to respect the cultures and bodies of other people. So I am more than comfortable for even the littlest kids to learn that it is not OK to wear someone else’s skin even with the best intentions.