Stereotypes In Mainstream Animation

Moana Disney Animataurus

Moana is the world’s new favorite princess! The new Disney mainstream wonder is a story about a brave Polynesian princess who ventures out on an adventure to save her people. The 56th Disney’s animated feature film directed by Ron Clemens and John Musker (who had achieved fame with their work on Alladin and The Little Mermaid) features Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Scherzinger and other popular media personas. The story was inspired by ancient Polynesian mythology and art. Disney has once again managed to capture the world’s attention, the internet is full of fan art, reactions and reviews of the popular movie, and toy stores are once again overwhelmed by cartoon mugs, school bags, dolls, pencils and countless other toys with the image of the new it girl.

moana stereotypes in animation


What can you say about Moana (Vaiana) that hasn’t been said already?

It’s success is best pictured by numbers. Moana has cashed in almost as much as Frozen after the first five days in theatres which is unbelievable. It’s the biggest earner this year, followed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Marvel’s Doctor Strange. After Brave, this is another Disney’s wonder girl that people seem to like.

After numerous debates on whether the movie is “socially acceptable” or is it too “offensive for Polynesians” (and their belief system), and the fact that the lead character’s name was forbidden in Europe (it’s Vaiana in Europe) because it’s shared by an Italian porn star, something should be said about the stereotypes in character design (so clearly visible in Moana).

Polynesian Paradise

One thing that’s inevitably true about Moana is that the makers have given their best to authentically represent the culture. The clothes, the songs, the dances and the customs are really wonderfully shown, making the movie almost educational in a way. The character of Moana also has a very strong feministic feature. She is strong, and wants to become a true leader of her people, who looks beyond the limitations of her predecessors, which is significant to what the movie represents.

Make People Like Your Characters

The entire concept behind character design is actually based on skilled stereotype manipulation. It’s in fact the only time when transforming characters into caricatures and over-exaggeration are more than welcome. Mocking of human traits is fun and it just feels right when it comes to animated characters, and literal representations are often times the ones that seem exaggerated.

Everybody Loves Homer Simpson

When Moana started spreading through the web like wildfire, there was a group of Polynesian people who were against many images of their people shown in the film. One of them is their demigod Maui for example. He is shown as a chubby, funky, almost comic character, which is no way to represent someone’s deity. In Polynesian mythology he is brave, strong, marvelous, and not at all funny, which the creators of Moana have missed either accidentally or on purpose. There were also loud protests around Maui’s traditional tattoos being sold as merchandise in form of t-shirts or fake tattoos sold for Halloween. They were quickly withdrawn from distribution though, but that’s a different subject.

Maui – The Tattooed Warrior Demigod

moana MauiDemigod Maui is shown tattooed, round-headed, kind of fat and with greasy hair. The problem is that his image is creating a stereotype of Polynesians being like that (which builds up on the fact that they are a people with high rate of obesity), hence getting their children under the bad influence of the distorted image. No matter how trivial it seemed, I think  I’d also find it hard to create an animated character (with memorable character design) based on Polynesians without offending someone or picking up on a “bad stereotype”, hence repeating the very mistake I’m criticizing.

Disney’s Hercules

Another example of such manipulation with someone’s belief (even though this one is not really a deity anymore) is the representation of Hercules in Disney’s Hercules from 1997. He is an ancient Greek demigod, highly praised two and a half years ago. He was a sort of a celebrity of the classical age, and everyone knew about him. The difference is that he was originally thought of and depicted the same was he was shown in the movie, therefore not raising any eyebrows. The situation might have been similar had Hercules not enough interesting features to paint an image of.

Why wasn’t the stereotype of a broad-shouldered, comic book type hero used for Hercules given to Maui as well? He was, instead, given a completely different image of a clumsy, incapable demigod.

Primitive Art in the Beginning of the 20th Century

Perhaps the answer to where these images of Polynesians originated can be found in art history. In the “Eurocentric” Europe who’d invented primitivism as an art form in the early 20th century. There was a widespread hysteria for everything distant, mysterious or anything from eastern or African countries, which had, to Europeans, seemed like rainforests full of animals which had to be locked up in their zoos for show. People were buying and collecting anything that was, or that seemed to be from a distant culture. There was a developed black market. That was also the time of the rise of archaeology, the time when Egyptian pyramids were excavated, and when some of the biggest finds in the history were discovered. African masks, Cycladic figurines, Egyptian mummies etc. were all very sought after items.

Was Moana influenced by Gauguin?

moana disney maui gauguinAlongside Van Gogh, Gauguin is one of the leaders of the movement in painting. An artist who became famous because his utopian paintings picturing Polynesian women and idyllic sceneries. Most of his work on women was later interpreted as paintings of his sexual slaves or mistresses (he is usually considered to have been bad tempered as well). At home, he was an unaccomplished artist, but when he returned from Tahiti, where he went to find inspiration (but really to follow the trends of the pop culture at the time), he managed to get his work on several large exhibitions in Paris, hence finally getting some attention. He served the public an idyllic image of a stress free exotic culture filled with beautiful women. He became neither rich though, nor famous during his lifetime. Anyhow, his paintings of Polynesian women which are now taught at every art school might have been a strong factor in forming their stereotypical image. Perhaps we are all subconsciously expecting half-naked, never too skinny, tanned and black-haired beauties with broad ankles and broad hips that he used to paint. Does Moana have any of those features?

An Ongoing Debate

The controversial questions that arose around Moana could be discussed forever. Do the Polynesian people have the right to protest? Definitely. Did the makers create good characters, even though the character design is stereotypical? Definitely. Was the film a success? I think so. Moana is a beautifully animated movie with an interesting storyline and memorable characters. The sceneries are warm and welcoming and the character design (even though it’s stereotypical) is amazing. The art team should be given highest praises for their work.

The Art Of Moana

Another piece of food for thought might be the completely wrong image we are given of Vikings (even though the latest HBO show has improved it a bit). They are represented with horny helmets, as bearded brutes who don’t know how to read or write, with primitive tribal communities and primal instincts.  All of these stereotypes are archaeologically completely incorrect. Vikings were a developed community of well behaved, well mannered and well groomed men and women.

viking stereotypes

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