Disney Pulled That Offensive 'Moana' Costume. Here's Why It Matters.

People shouldn't wear brown skin as a costume without understanding the experience of brown people.

Less than a week after Disney debuted kids’ costumes for their upcoming film “Moana,” the company has pulled several products from their website after the items sparked outrage for appearing to promote “brownface.”

Representatives from Disney told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that the decision to pull the items came when it was brought to their attention that they were viewed as offensive.

Among the removed items were a Halloween costume and pajama set for kids, both representing the demigod Maui, the fictional co-star played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“The team behind ‘Moana’ has taken great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired the film, and we regret that the Maui costume has offended some,” a Disney representative told HuffPost on Wednesday. “We sincerely apologize and are pulling the costume from our website and stores.”

Both the Maui costume and pajamas are essentially brown skin bodysuits, adorned with Polynesian tattoos and a faux-leaf skirt. Also listed on the Disney store site: two sets of wigs with thick, dark hair to top off the Maui and Moana “look.”

"Handsome Voyage," the product description reads. The costume features "the demigod's signature tattoos, rope necklace and island-style skirt. Plus, padded arms and legs for mighty stature!"
"Handsome Voyage," the product description reads. The costume features "the demigod's signature tattoos, rope necklace and island-style skirt. Plus, padded arms and legs for mighty stature!"
These pajamas are labeled, "Body by the gods."
These pajamas are labeled, "Body by the gods."

In other words, the Disney Store’s newest “Moana” items appear to be a case of “brownface” and cultural appropriation ― and the internet didn’t hold back on calling Disney out after the initial release over the weekend.

And while many will argue, as they have on Twitter, that it’s just a kids’ costume with good intentions, the film’s initial trailers and images have already raised concern about cultural appropriation within Oceanian communities in the Pacific and around the world.

After Disney released the first trailer for “Moana” in June, people expressed frustration with Maui’s larger-than-life portrayal, claiming it was a form of fat-shaming that perpetuated a stereotype that all Polynesian people are obese.

The film’s depiction of Maui aside, the official Disney “Moana” costumes, pajamas and wigs are, by definition, a form of cultural appropriation, according to Tēvita O. Kaʻili, an Oceanian sociocultural anthropologist at Brigham Young University Hawaii.

“Cultural appropriation,” Kaʻili told The Huffington Post, “is when a dominant group takes on the symbols, rituals and practices of another culture ― especially a less powerful minority or marginalized group ― and uses it with little understanding of those symbols or culture.”

So it’s problematic when a powerful group ― like Disney, for example ― literally sells the dark skin of a less powerful group ― let’s say, Pacific Islanders ― to consumers to wear for fun, while the less powerful group gets very little in return.

“I understand that Disney is trying to be inclusive and also trying to show that their characters are diverse, but there’s an imbalance of power here,” Kaʻili told HuffPost prior to the announcement that Disney had pulled the items from their stores. “A dominant group is getting to wear and become part of a marginalized group without any sense of its history, culture or even its struggles.”

Those struggles include whole Pacific communities whose existence is threatened by rising ocean levels and climate change, the negative impacts of colonialism on indigenous communities and discrimination against Pacific Islanders.

Without understanding these issues, Kaʻili said, “people will be able to put on the brown skin and be somebody brown without understanding the experience of someone who is brown.”

Disney Store

Kaʻili admits, however, that “Moana’s” filmmakers did their cultural research when producing the film and also did their best to employ actors of islander ethnicity.

The film’s star Moana is voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a 15-year-old part-native Hawaiian actress from the island of Oahu, Maui is played by The Rock, who is part Samoan, and Moana’s mother Sina is voiced by singer-turned-actress Nicole Scherzinger, who is part Hawaiian and born in Honolulu.

While developing the film, Disney even assembled a team of experts in Polynesian and Oceanic culture and arts known as the Oceanic Story Trust to consult with the filmmakers and ensure that the film, though fictional, is as authentic as possible, according to MoviePilot.com.

Still, Kaʻili says that Oceanian scholars like himself that take issue with the upcoming film are more concerned “about the commodification of Oceanian culture” ― that is, Disney using another group’s culture to rake in big money.

With its dreamy imagery, all-star cast and inspiring female lead, “Moana” is already expected to reach “Frozen” levels of success at the box office.

That’s why Kaʻili and his colleagues petitioned for Disney to start a scholarship fund to “support the education of children of Pacific descent,” in hopes that some of “Moana’s” financial success would benefit the communities from which it is borrowing.

But when it comes to the now-removed costume, Kaʻili maintains that it is never, ever OK ― and he applauds Disney for listening to his communities’ concerns.

“I think it’s good for people to challenge Disney,” he said. “Disney has evolved over the years to become what they are today because of people critiquing them. It’s good that they are listening.”

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