Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
Raya, the Asian Nondescript Warrior Princess
As of this writing, Raya and the Last Dragon is just about to debut on Disney+ and in theaters in what will be a limited run due to COVID-19.
While the initial teaser trailer led animation enthusiasts to believe this was an Aztecan film (which would have likely placed it in South America), we now have the full trailer, showing that Princess Raya hails from the fantasy land of Kumandra, a place that Disney describes as a fusion of cultures from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, with sprinkles of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Hmong to even it all out.
If you just cringed reading that whole paragraph, congratulations! You either did very well in school or you've at least seen enough National Geographic to know that none of those cultures have anything in common except for randomly being located in the same continent. You absolutely can not just blend all of these cultures into one and expect people to not get offended. From cultural attitudes about women to food to clothes to just basic music, none of these cultures share enough in common to be haphazardly blended into one country.
Now some of you out there may have read this last paragraph and balked, "It's just a cartoon." If that ignorant mindset is what you choose to fight for, be advised, that's exactly what Disney wants you to think. You didn't even think this thought yourself. This corporate parroting for you may have even started with Aladdin.
Aladdin debuted in 1992, a Las Vegas-style take on the most popular story from the anthology book 1001 Arabian Nights. The movie follows a homeless thief on his way to becoming a prince by way of magical trickery after escaping from prison for hiding a runaway princess. During the film, we see the thief get thrown out of a brothel in song (rewind the One Jump number, those are ladies of the night) and then lie and scheme against the also scheming Jafar—who himself is trying to steal the throne by way of magical manipulation so he can marry and murder a high school aged princess—and a horde of stereotypical guards, complete with violent tempers and big lips.
But most people forgave all of that for Jasmine, the Gen X feminist-inspired princess of nondescript Middle Eastern/Indian descent. Jasmine wants to move out of her "boring" kingdom, go on adventures and pick her own path. She butts heads with her father because he keeps trying to marry her off to men far too old for the 15-year-old, she wears just slightly more than a camisole above her flowing pants, and she eventually chooses to marry the thief right after kissing Jafar in an attempt to help the thief save the day. Despite actively fighting gender norms of the day, she ends up becoming a damsel in distress, having to be rescued from drowning in sand by the thief.
As if turning Jasmine from a strong teenager into a prize to be won wasn't enough to annoy, her cultural appropriation was. Many groups since the film came out have criticized Disney for blending Jordan, Persia, India, and many Middle Eastern countries into Agrabah, despite none of those countries having anything in common other than a bulk of their inhabitants sharing large brown eyes, dark hair, and medium to dark skin.
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More angering to many was the fact that the only "good" Arabian characters in Agrabah seem to be the ones who act the most Caucasian. Jasmine does not have any distinguishing accents and behaves like an American Gen X'er. Aladdin however bears more ethnic features and is seen as a lying manipulator until the very end of the film. Jasmine's father takes on a Santa Claus appearance. The few beautiful women not named Jasmine are seen as sultry temptresses, and everyone else is fat, sloppy, ugly, violent, stupid, or greedy.
And fun fact, there are no actors in this film matching any of the fused cultures, and that Whitewashing is still haunting the film today.
And They Were Doing so Well
Now in recent years, the backlash for whitewashed characters has only gotten louder with the advent of the internet and with so many educated Millennials and Gen Z'ers speaking up in adulthood about the repercussions of growing up misrepresented by Disney. Because of this, two films ended up better than they could have been.
Moana managed to steer the boat away from most of the stereotypes against Polynesians and produce a summer staple of a film—if you look past the fusion of Fiji, Samoan, and Hawaiian cultures. Frozen 2 shed its "Is this Inuit or is this European" skin by accepting help from the real-life Sámi people in tweaking the script and in new clothes for Elsa and Anna. If you keep focusing on that, you won't notice:
- That Iduna changes from being a indigenous brown-skinned girl to Caucasian once she grows up.
- That Iduna is the only red-head and the lightest skinned person in the Sámi-based Northuldra tribe and is thus seen on a different level from the rest of the tribe.
- That Iduna hides her ethnic roots from her daughters and passes as being an Arendelle Caucasian and subsequently spends her life teaching Elsa to hide those same ethnic based powers until a post-mortem sorry-I-told-you-to-pass-let-me-fix-that-here's-a-new-dress song.
But hey, at least they tried, right? Some of the Polynesian heritage groups even praised Moana despite pulling a Raya here.
Will Raya Be a Slide Backwards?
Following less with the new traditions set by Frozen 2 and Moana and more in the vein of Aladdin, Raya and the Lost Dragon is already creating the wrong kind of buzz with it's wide-eyed princess and with two of her companions being a scheming 10-year-old and a thieving baby, playing up on stereotypes about Asian people that have plagued the Western world for more than a century state-side. And also following Aladdin's traditions, only two of the film's actors are expressly Asian, seemingly erasing all of the racial goodwill of the aforementioned Moana, which at least made more of an effort in casting actors from the same region.
Now time will tell how audiences will take to Raya. In a matter of weeks, I'm sure there will be panicked parents flocking to the Disney website to pre-order the toys before the holiday rush, and I'm sure some of you will be looking past the screamingly racist undertones of this film fusing so many cultures in order to have something new to watch during the pandemic, but make no mistake, this is more than a blunder on Disney's part. This is a giant leap backwards, and the repercussions will be felt for years to come.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard