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The official Disney Moana skirt
The official Disney Moana skirt

ParentsFebruary 1, 2017

How to dress your Pākehā child up as Maui or Moana without appropriating Pasifika culture

The official Disney Moana skirt
The official Disney Moana skirt

Disney’s Moana has been a smash hit in New Zealand. Children everywhere want to dress up as characters from the movie. So how do you let your child dress up as Maui without appropriating Pasifika culture? It’s easy – Emmaline Matagi, an indigenous Fijian born in Fiji, tells you how.

These holidays, Disney’s Moana graced the big screens all around the world. Around New Zealand, we sat in awe of the beauty of the Pacific, the strength of a young Polynesian woman, the magic of a strong, sometimes cocky, dry-humoured demi-god and the wonderful power of Polynesian voyagers. Moana has so far amassed US$4.4 million in New Zealand alone. It has been a huge hit in our corner of the world.

So, lets talk about something that could possibly be a point of contention for many New Zealand families this year.

What happens when your child asks to ‘dress up’ as Moana or Maui?

More specifically, what is the most appropriate response as a Pākehā parent when your child wants to dress up as a Polynesian heroine or hero?


Let me just put that out there first and in bold capital letters. Just don’t do it. It is wrong. Painting any fair-skinned child’s skin brown (regardless of their ethnic background) to dress them up as a brown character is never OK. We all are (hopefully) familiar with the term ‘blackface’. If you aren’t you can find a good summary here. I am in no way qualified to be explaining blackface as I am not a black American myself. However, I am going to discuss the reasoning behind why, as a Polynesian, this would be an offensive thing to do.

When you see our people in the media we are mostly one of two things: sportswomen or sportsmen or some sort of criminal living in poverty.

When people discuss Polynesian sportspeople in Aotearoa New Zealand doing something good, we are praised to the high heavens. We are looked at as heroes and our children idolise these people. However when our Polynesian sporting heroes do something wrong, we are put right back into our place, especially on social media. The “coconut” comments come out immediately, or my personal favourite: “send this one back to where they came from”.

When our people are portrayed in the media as struggling for housing or committing crimes we are vilified. No one bothers to consider the circumstances or how to best help the situation; we see comments like “dumb coconuts”, “typical over stayers”, “go back to where you came from” and other racist taunts.

The comments are usually made by a variety of people – including Polynesians themselves, which can be extremely hurtful (but that’s another piece of writing altogether, under the heading ‘Decolonise 2.0’). They are also mostly said by Pākehā.

Which is where we come back to why it is not OK to paint your child’s skin brown as part of a costume. Polynesians are intelligent, proud, beautiful and resilient people. We live every day within our skin. Our skin colour determines how we are treated in the media, the comment sections online, and in society in general.

We cannot take off our skin. We cannot change our skin colour.

So when people decide to paint their skin the colour of ours it is offensive. You can take off the paint and all of the negative connotations that come with it.

All of the horrible offensive comments that are thrown our way, the oppression that we feel from societal structures built for us to fail, surnames that prevent us from getting jobs, body types that put us in either the sportsperson category or the unhealthy poverty-stricken category, first names that people cannot pronounce and sometimes wilfully mispronounce – you can take all of that off and never have to deal with the emotion and violence behind it all.

We are in our skin forever.

All of the above is what we have to – in 2017 – deal with daily. Microaggressions because of the colour of our skin happen every day, yes even in little old Aotearoa. Especially in Aotearoa. Take for example the Auckland City Councillor whose family was directed away from the reserved seating because they were brown and the security people didn’t believe they were meant to be there.

Also lets quickly cover intent. Even if you have no malice behind your decision to paint your child’s skin brown it is still hurtful and offensive. Regardless of whether or not you mean to be, people will still be able to see your child ‘coloured in’ and will feel that same sense of oppression and pain.

#2 – Do not dress your child in Polynesian cultural attire or draw on tattoos

Do you understand the cultural significance of a Puletasi, Ta’ovala, Masi, Tabua, Salusalu, Lei, Valatao, Kiekie? No. OK then don’t wear them. It’s a slap in the face taking something so deeply loaded with cultural significance, chucking it on your child and letting them run around, jump in mud, and rip it to pieces. Our people have deep spiritual connections (even if they don’t understand them all of the time) with our cultural attire. Using it as a dress up costume for a fun party is not OK.

Tatau? Just don’t. Don’t attempt to draw a Taulima, Pe’a, Malu or Ta Moko tatau (tattoo). These too have deep cultural significance and are not up for grabs in the world of costume. Tatau have specific meanings dependent on specific patterns and these date back thousands of years to when our ancestors didn’t have a written language but had tatau and oral traditions. It is not OK to use something that our ancestors created as your entertainment.

This is called cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is, in basic terms, taking something from a culture which you don’t belong to and using it for a purpose which it is not made for, without knowing or understanding its cultural significance. It is turning it into an accessory for your own fun or entertainment and therefore changing the true meaning of the item.

I myself am guilty of cultural appropriation. Once I thought it would a good idea to dress up as a Native American woman and go to a sports event for the day. There was no ill intent on my behalf but it was still highly offensive and absolutely wrong. I cringe every time I think about it, but I read up about it, schooled myself and I learnt a lesson. Here’s a really good explanation – and it applies to all indigenous cultures.

#3 – It is OK to dress your child up in an official Disney/Warehouse/K-Mart/any other unofficial knock off Moana or Maui costume – minus the face paint, stick-on tattoos, and brown skin coloured bodysuit

DO IT! Buy that ridiculously overpriced piece of material and put it on them and take them to that Moana-themed birthday party or just let them run around singing “See the line where the sky meets the sea it calls meeeeee” or “You’re Welcome” or even “I just wanna be SHINAAAYYYYYY”.

#4 – Do it yourself! Make your own costume and keep it simple

Just have a red top and red sash and a yellow or sand-coloured wrap. Get a fake flower and put it in your child’s hair. They’ll love it. If you’re really feeling crafty, you could draw some hibiscus flowers. But don’t add extras – it’s not needed. Don’t try to do designs you think are “Polynesian”. Make it with your child.

While you’re at it, why not buy the movie’s soundtrack and support some Polynesian artists? Or better yet – buy some music from the actual band Te Vaka; you can find more about how awesome they are here.

If you’re Pākehā and feel uncomfortable doing something then it’s probably not OK to do it. The discomfort is your gut instinct telling you DOOOON’T DOOOO ITTTT! If you have to think twice about whether it would be OK, then it probably isn’t.

So I think it’s a good idea to teach your children how to respect different cultures and explain to them that whilst it may only be a store bought costume, it is important to be respectful and understanding of where the costume comes from. You could show them the Pacific on a map or look at some pictures online of traditional Polynesian attire. You could learn how to say hello in different Pacific languages together. Use it as an educational tool while also having fun with it.

Moana and Maui are characters in a Disney movie that our children absolutely adore, so it is only natural that like every other Disney character, they want to dress up as them. It is fine to let them do this – minus the body paint, tattoos, brown skin-coloured body suit and legitimate cultural attire.

Just remember our culture is not a costume.

Keep going!