Disney Pulls Controversial “Moana” Costume Amid Protests of “Brownface”

Swift damage control saves Disney's highly anticipated film from a PR faux pas
Disney Moana Costume BoyDisney Moana Costume
Photo: Disney



The show will go on. That seemed to be one takeaway from the brisk damage control shown by Disney after a merch lurch threatened to steal the spotlight away from an eagerly anticipated movie by a talented team that includes Dwayne Johnson, local ingénue Auli‘i Cravalho and the songwriter-director-star of Broadway smash Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda.


But the costume is off. A zippered unitard for boys, it’s a disconcerting bit of cultural camouflage due to the full-body Polynesian tattooing and warm brown flesh tones. Speaking to New Zealand’s Stuff four days ago, member of parliament and Maori Party co-leader Marmara Fox claimed the costumes were “no different to putting the image of one of our ancestors on a shower curtain or a beer bottle.” (An earlier Stuff story cited complaints about the demigod Maui character’s girth, accused the film of “fat-shaming.”)


By yesterday, Disney executives had made the no-brainer decision to pull the costume. Why risk the prospects of another aquatic juggernaut in the wake of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, whose opening weekends pulled in $70 million and $132 million, respectively? (Moana opens Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 23.)


Cultural appropriation is serious business and deserves a serious discussion—which HONOLULU has been having and intends to continue having in our pages. We reached out to two well-regarded commenters who come at the issue from different angles.


Editor of acclaimed The Value of Hawai‘i series and UH-Manoa associate professor in social sciences, J. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua had this to say:


“This morning I heard radio DJs harping on Hawaiian women who expressed concern and critique about the costume. I heard callers saying, ‘this is an opportunity to teach others about Hawaiian culture.’ Here are the facts of the matter: The film was not initiated nor will it be owned by Hawaiian, or Samoan, or Maori, or other Polynesian people. The story was not written by screenwriters of our communities, nor illustrated by artists of our communities. It was not written in nor will it be translated into any of our languages. The profits will not benefit our communities nor advance our languages, institutions or local economies. This is straight-up cultural appropriation.”


When HONOLULU reached the executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, Pohai Ryan, for comment, she responded with the following statement:


“Overall, NaHHA supports the education of Native Hawaiian culture through mainstream mediums, because it guarantees an opportunity for the public and our visitors to gain more knowledge about our people and history. We, like many others, are thrilled to see a movie of this caliber take the main stage and are happy that Disney chose actors of Polynesian descent to play the characters. While we agree that the costume was a poor choice to help market the movie, we see this entire issue as an opportunity for the public to research the significance of Maui and the underlying cultural context of this movie overall. We encourage everyone to discover further the beauty of our culture and history to build a better understanding of our islands and our people.


“It is our understanding that Disney pulled the costume today and we support their decision and acknowledge that they are responding to some of the concerns voiced by people in our community.”


As our culture roils, it’s worth recalling the old saying, “When elephants dance, the grass is crushed.” Moana’s wardrobe malfunction was magnified thanks to the collision of the film industry’s publicity machine and the gossip/clickbait factory, exemplified by Gizmodo, Jezebel and Deadspin, which create an echo chamber of outrage on a daily, even hourly basis. On the same day we got the headline, “Disney Does Brownface in Moana Misfire” we got “The first Jumanji Photo is Here and Everyone Looks Like Characters in a Jungle Explorers Video Game,” “Gotham Producer’s Reasons for Sexing Up Poison Ivy Make No Sense But Are Very Gross” and more. Today, the grass won. But the media machines drive on.