The real life problem with body-shaming a cartoon Polynesian

The MPs and academics who’ve criticised the depiction of Maui in an upcoming Disney movie are helping perpetuate damaging stereotypes about Polynesian people, argues Leah Damm.

When my local Labour MP, Jenny Salesa, used social media to question the depiction of Maui in the Taika Waititi-penned Disney film Moana, I had to take pause. I read the meme’s caption, I looked at its images, and I processed it in the back of my mind for almost a week. Because surely my local MP – someone I had backed to take a place of power and representation of Polynesian people – hadn’t just given the thumbs up to an image calling a children’s character ‘half-hippo, half-pig’?  screencapture-www-facebook-com-jenny-salesa-labour-posts-1725389904403972-1466975230416

Over the last week, I’ve watched a number of armchair anthropologists converge with fellow armchair health practitioners, to condemn the robustly built Disney animation as an ‘obese’ character who is better described as some kind of animal who ate all the pies.

I’m curious as to how these critics can so confidently gauge this animation (whose proportions are purposely exaggerated – such is the non-realist nature of cartoons) as a gluttonous fat guy with poor health. Where did they get information about animated Maui’s obesity that doesn’t simply rely on his aesthetic size? Has Disney released medical histories of their animated characters? Has there been a Moana trailer that I haven’t seen yet, where the animated Maui consumes an entire island made of cheese? Considering that categorisation of obesity and health in relation to height and weight has become increasingly contested in health and social science circles, it seems like a shallow leap to jump to the conclusion that animated Maui is unhealthy simply because of his perceived scale.

“He is depicted in the stories that ‘s been handed down, especially in my culture, as a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature. This depiction of Maui being obese is typical American stereotyping. Obesity is a new phenomena because of the first world food that’s been stuffed down our throat.” – Will Illolohia, Pacific Media Association

Clearly, the issue at hand revolves around Disney’s Maui being a big dude. And that’s a problem because it’s not just historically implausible and inaccurate, but it’s also a stereotype of Polynesian people – both of which are legitimate concerns. But the troubling stereotype of big Polynesian people is rooted in our overrepresentation in poor health and mortality statistics; diabetes, heart disease, obesity. And yet as a social problem, there’s more to these stereotypes that Polynesians are ‘big’ people.

Today, the negative stereotype of Polynesian people is that our size relates to our poor life choices. The ‘poor life choices’ argument is the crux of the racist justification of coloured people’s overrepresentation in negative social statistics, and the scapegoat for the taxpayer who doesn’t want their hard earned dollars spent on poor decision making.

The controversy about Maui’s size only reinforces a very modern European concept of health and beauty, especially if the desired standard for Maui is that he should have been modelled on a European God like Hercules. Aside from the fact that even by European standards being large in size has historically been seen and used in art as a marker of beauty and fertility, why is it that the half-caste Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa are being touted as more appropriate models for Polynesian Gods?

I’ve yet to meet a single full-blooded Polynesian who resembles the light-skinned, green-eyed, Jason Momoa with the good hair. And somehow, Maui, the embodiment of prehistoric Polynesian ancestry, is supposed to have been animated in the likeness of these delicious, gym-crafted babes? There’s a very clear difference between saying Maui wouldn’t have looked like that, and Maui shouldn’t look like that – because big Polynesians are a disgrace to our ancestors and have no place being seen by young audiences.

Personally, I don’t look at the animated Maui and think “unhealthy”. I get more of a “strong, bodyguard-type” vibe. Which is interesting, given that a number of people have noted that Maui looks like their Dads and Uncles. Imagine what this might mean to Polynesian kids, to have a brief escape from their Dads’ likeness being limited to anti-smoking campaigns, and finally seeing an iteration of large, strong Polynesian men on the big screen, navigating oceans and bringing joy to young audiences. 

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The concern over the portrayal of Polynesian histories and stereotypes has brought out some fair debate but unsettling prejudices. It wasn’t that long ago a young Polynesian boy was taunted about his size by parents at his local league game, using the same kind of sentiments that has circulated in the Anti-Disney-Maui rhetoric.

Obese or not, the cruel memes and commentary going around may be about a fictional character, but like so many people keep saying – this character resembles (and therefore relates to) a number of very real people. Surely we can talk about health and the representation of our people without throwing the ones we hope to ‘save’ from obesity under the bus? And if representation is the endgame, why is it that only the well-proportioned deserve it, whilst the rest of us are infantilised as the public frets over our odds of dying an early and sickly death?

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An ilustrators’ breakdown of the characters’ illustration development for Moana. (Credit: Michel Mulipola, Facebook)

As Samoan illustrator, Michael Mulipola, recently said in a viral Facebook post on the issue, Maui has been animated and developed with reason and purpose for this particular story. This story is not about the Maui, in fact it isn’t about Maui at all. His character and size relate to his role as a comedic sidekick, which is why the film is called Moana, not Maui.

Polynesian people were the first people in human history to navigate oceans, reaching as far as South America, making these journeys thousands of years before Columbus or the Vikings made history. Whilst this history is often ignored by Hollywood, this animation gives nod to our history as navigational pioneers. Oh, and this particular story just happens to be fronted by a woman.

The most disappointing aspect about the controversy over this film is that it obscures the groundbreaking choice of a Polynesian ocean-navigating female protagonist – all because her male counterpart isn’t shredded enough.

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