Among people who enjoy railing against what they call “wokeness”, the Disney Corporation is a popular target. In April last year, it was recent changes to Disney World rides in Florida that were in conservative crosshairs. By removing racially offensive characters and depictions of slave-trading, critics claimed Disney was bowing to political pressure at the expense of its core mission to entertain. “Wokeness,” wrote Orlando-based columnist Jonathan VanBoskerck after visiting the park, “is ruining the experience.” Similar criticisms are often levelled at Disney’s recent slate of animated films, which increasingly feature progressive themes and a radically more diverse cast of characters than the lily-white fairy-tale fodder of yore. Once again, this is characterised as political posturing designed to please woke elites.
All of this came to mind the other day when I rewatched the 2016 Disney hit, Moana. Set somewhere in Polynesia, the eponymous hero of the story is the strong-willed daughter of a chief who sets out on journey, alongside the demigod Maui, to save her island home from the ravages of blight. Apart from the obvious – featuring a girl of colour as the central character, including a glaring climate change allegory, and drawing on Polynesian myths instead of archetypal European ones – Moana is typical of the recent Disney canon in its unapologetic promotion of what people who detest wokeness would call “woke”.
The treatment of the Maui character is a case in point: in another era, he would have fit the hero bill nicely, but is instead demoted in Moana to buffoonish sidekick, a chronic mansplainer full of juvenile pranks and unwarranted self-regard. The assault on the patriarchy doesn’t end there, either. The only other male character of note, Moana’s chiefly dad, Tui (voiced by the unmistakable Temuera Morrison) is portrayed as bumbling, fearful and mostly powerless. (By the way, the idea that resilience, competence and courage are traits more reliably found in women than men may feel like edgy modern feminism to some, but it’s not something Māori ever needed telling.)
If you’re someone who already believes companies like Disney are pursuing a woke political agenda, Moana will do nothing to change your mind. But, still, you’re wrong.
The truth is, Disney doesn’t care about advancing progressive causes any more than General Electric or McDonald’s do. It’s a public company like any other, and its embrace of racial diversity and inclusive storytelling is designed to bolster profits and protect shareholder value.
It’s working, too. Moana alone made more than a billion dollars.
Here’s why I think diversity is a winning formula.
The children’s movies of my childhood – not to mention books and TV shows – almost always featured white protagonists. If you’re like some of my Pākehā friends who would groan at this observation, saying things like “but those stories had nothing to do with race!”, allow me to respond on behalf of my brothers and sisters of colour: yes, they bloody well did. We got the message loud and clear, even if it wasn’t conveyed intentionally: the colour of courage, the colour of romance, above all the colour of authority, is white – and if that’s never occurred to you, you have just answered the question, “what is white privilege?”
So, in recent times, as we start to see non-white characters and storylines emerge in the mainstream culture, kids like mine feel seen and valued in ways we once did not. And, in the context of the global entertainment industry, there are literally billions of kids like mine. The key consumer demographic in developed countries, and the only demographic in emerging markets? Those same kids.
It’s gratifying to see our own media catch on to the power of diversity, and it’s especially noticeable in the once-very-monocultural realm of radio and television news. A Christmas highlight for me was seeing Oriini Kaipara (Tūhoe, Ngāti Raka, Ngāti Awa, Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa) present the December 25 edition of Three News, the first wāhine with a moko kauae ever to do so. (Full disclosure, Oriini’s mother, who recently passed away, was a cherished first cousin of mine.) Meanwhile, Māni Dunlop (Ngā Puhi) continues to thrive at Radio New Zealand, and whatever shape the combined TVNZ-RNZ entity ends up taking, they’ll need to allow plenty of space for Dunlop’s immense talent to flourish.
The culture right here is shifting beneath our feet in other ways, too. During my annual summer road trip with the kids to our Turangawaewae on, I’ve been chuffed to see the seamless integration of te reo into everyday life in that part of the country, among Māori and Pākehā alike. And unlike in the big cities, using te reo isn’t seen or meant as any kind of political statement – it’s just a way to connect.
Manakohia te tau hou, whakatuara ana te tau tawhito.
Matangi raumati hehengi noa,
Oranga ngakau, whakarito harakeke.
New year, new hopes, the old year is behind. Summer breezes heal the heart, flax bushes show new growth.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.
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