There’s an image cropping up in diversity in literature presentations that describes culture as an iceberg.
People love this graphic. It’s of a massive chunk of ice floating in a deep blue sea with labels stuck to places above and below the waterline. On the surface, there’s the readily seen ten percent experienced by foreigners, things like food, dress, language, music, art, and festivals. A little below the waterline are layers labeled body language, personal space, etiquette, and gender roles. Deeper still are sections labeled attitudes toward elders, authority, religion, and work. Down in the depths you’ll find spaces reserved for things like approaches to marriage, death, child raising, and problem solving. It’s a slick visual that’s often used to segue into the dangers of cultural appropriation.
Too bad it’s wrong.
By their very nature, icebergs are frozen and adrift, traveling only by the whims of ocean currents and breezes. They’re constantly eroding, shrinking, melting into a sea of conformity until one day they just disappear.
It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring metaphor for cultural sensitivity.
That’s why I like the metaphor of culture as a lotus growing in a pond.
Think about it. A lotus is integral to an entire ecosystem. On the surface are beautiful flowers. Out of sight, hidden but known, is a long stem tethering the lotus to the bottom of the pond where it grows, nourished by the bones of lotuses gone before. A lotus isn’t simply acted on by currents or eroded by waves and heat. Lotuses have both roots and branches; seed pods slip from the mother plant, drift a little, settle, and eventually form their own flowers—similar, but not the same. There is an interconnectedness to lotuses in a pond, a dependence on shared resources, a history and lineage.
From a boat, it’s easy to observe lotuses in relationship to the other—the landings of frogs and dragonflies, the effects of light and wind, how fish shelter in the lotus’s shade. Grounded on shore, observers intuitively know that no matter how they try, they are not lotuses, no more than a bear or a sparrow or a pine tree is a lotus.
Basking in the beauty of a lotus pond is cultural appreciation. Writing as a dragonfly or frog about your lotus experiences is cultural appreciation. Plucking lotuses, regardless of good intentions of bringing blossoms to the pondless masses, is cultural appropriation. Unmoored from all that nourished and supported it, separated from its purpose in life, a lotus in a vase is just a dying flower.
Now that’s an image I can get behind.
It’s Disney’s Moana. That’s really what it comes down to.
A couple of years ago, when Disney announced that in the tradition of Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Frozen, they were bringing to the screen Moana, a Polynesian princess tale, I was excited. When I learned that the story involved the demi-god Maui and ocean voyaging, I thought here was a movie I could take my kids to where we could talk about ancestral knowledge and what it means to be a literal descendant of the historical Maui and his sons.
And then I saw the trailers. Maui didn’t look anything like what I imagined the real Maui looked like—frankly, he didn’t even look human. And he was kind of an egotistical jerk. And a buffoon. And what was up with the nonsensical bits of crap around his neck and the random leaves for a malo? None of the sets and costumes seemed to belong to any particular island culture. I saw elements of Maori, Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian cultures—and precious little that was clearly Hawaiian. It was like someone had taken Pasifika and mashed it into a blender and—
Moana is no more an authentic reflection of Polynesian culture than Mulan reflects China, Aladdin reflects Arabia, Pocahontas reflects Powhatans, or Frozen reflects Scandinavia. All of these stories are set in an alternate world—let’s call it Disneyland—that borrows heavily from real-world cultures to tell very classically western stories in the archetypical hero’s journey or mono-myth form. These stories follow specific patterns that start with a call to adventure, followed by an ordeal, a transformation, and an eventual return.
Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion King, and Disney Princess movies like Moana and Frozen all follow the same basic hero’s journey storyline. Like most mono-myth stories, they are set in a world that is similar to, but slightly askew from the real world. Sometimes this new world has magic or talking animals or objects that are cursed. Most of the time the audience simply goes along with the fantastical elements because they are part of this kind of story tradition. Do we really know how the Force works or if House Elves exist? No. And when the goal is entertainment, it doesn’t really matter.
That’s another key: entertainment. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, children and adults go to these kinds of movies to be entertained, not educated. Disney knows this.
The unfortunate disconnect was that so many people with deep Oceania roots wanted something different, something that was an authentic reflection of indigenous island culture and storytelling. What we got instead was a western pop-culture mono-myth story set in Disneyland’s Polynesia. It’s like going to a luau and being served rice and teriyaki chicken instead of kalua pork and poi—really disappointing, I know.
I still took my kids to see Moana.
I thought the story was amazing, even though it’s not Polynesian in form or content. I liked that Moana’s gender wasn’t a limiting factor when it came to being a leader, solving problems, or persevering when it was easier to quit. I liked the ideas about the importance of self-sacrifice for a greater good, the love and influence of family that stretches beyond this mortal plane, and the conflict between following your heart and fulfilling what you think is your destiny.
Above all, I liked the way the ocean was animated. The colors, shadows, currents—all beautifully articulated. And while the voyaging canoes didn’t look very much like the great wa‘a I knew, my heart did leap to see them soar across the ocean. I loved the brief moments about wayfinding by stars, currents, water temperature, and marine life.
Moana did start conversations with my kids.
We talked about the elements in the architecture, traditions, clothing, etc., and which island’s cultures probably sparked the designs. We talked about the great trade routes, ocean currents, social and political factors, and migration patterns that settled Polynesia from Asia and the Americas and back again, and how new genetic evidence is proving that ancient people traveled farther and more frequently than we realized.
Well, than western scholars realized. In Pasifika we have our own stories, genealogies, and histories. More on this in another article.
But the most important things my kids and I discussed were the concept of stories. It’s very simple.
Our stories define us. Moana is not my story; it’s Disney’s. It doesn’t define my Hawaiian heritage any more than Frozen defined my Scandinavian ancestors. Nothing Disney does defines me or changes one iota of who I am.
Despite all the uproar over cultural appropriation, I think the average person knows Moana is set in Disneyland—not living, breathing Oceania. Cultural appropriation is not a western thing; it’s a human thing. I’ve experienced it all over the world. Every culture in contact with another borrows what appeals. Like Tamatoa the crab says in Moana, it’s glam, it’s shiny, so I’m going to stick it on my shell and make it a part of me.
The big take away is this: If we do not write our own stories, we cannot be surprised when outsiders attempt to write them. With no other voices in popular culture, these stories become the truth for the majority, and we soon find ourselves living in a world enamored with Bobby Brady’s tiki curse, hip-hop hula, and coconut bras.
If we want to change the popular cultural narrative about what it means to be Hawaiian, Samoan, Maori—we need to tell our own stories in our own voices. It means supporting our Pasifika artists, musicians, dancers, and writers with more than our applause and appreciation.
Otherwise only those with Disneyland resources will fill the void—and the narrative—with what appeals to the masses.