Decoding Cultural Misrepresentations in Disney’s Moana



As an influential media corporation, Disney’s platform holds an important role in sending messages to audiences who watch these admired and world-known films. However, as Streiff brings to attention, “the financial success of Disney’s princess franchise has resulted in concerns about how [it] might influence audiences, particularly developing youth” (1). Although Disney aims to spread messages of diversity to audiences through enlightenment and activism, as the corporation increasingly tires to express different cultures through film, they also tend to stray away from displaying cultures in their true entity. Moana’s misrepresentation of Polynesian culture serves as an important example of how Disney uses caricatured representations of cultures and cultural appropriation, in addition to simply spreading messages of diversity through enlightenment and activism. Scholars like Johnson Cheu and Douglas and Shea T. Brode have looked at how Disney promotes certain messages about nationalism and unity, however I intend to show to what ends Disney misrepresents Polynesian culture in Moana. I will begin by introducing Disney’s main goals and messages that are intended to be communicated with audiences. I will then explore how these goals are contrasted when audiences take on a different viewing position and perspective of Polynesian culture in Moana, which reveal the misrepresentations in the form of imagery.

Disney’s Messages and Their Toll on Popular Culture

In order to understand how cultural misrepresentations are coded in Moana, I will begin by exploring Disney’s central messages and construction of American nationalism and unity. As Disney holds a “prominent position within the paradigm of popular culture” (Brode), the corporation has become increasingly influential for audiences, especially children. Disney’s alluring aspects of magic and fantasy are in true efforts to create “an alternate universe that operates at the pleasure of young children, centering their world view, creating a place where animals speak, one never grows old and the possibility of becoming a prince or princess” (Cheu 9). Older films including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, aimed to create the uplifting ideology of the American dream and inspire the personal growth of many Americans with the common “rags to riches” story of success. Although these heartwarming and influential messages became world-known and from audiences from one generation to the next, it is evident that “Disney’s world is not magic for everyone” (Cheu 9).

Although Disney has increasingly shown efforts to implement cultural representations through themes, settings and characters in their films, as can be seen in Aladdin (1992), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and most recently, Moana (2016), they often tend to misrepresent cultures by using stereotypes, caricatured representations, and cultural appropriation. As Disney intends to provide visual images to younger audiences, it is important to identify that these images “provide them with cultural information about themselves, others, and the relative status of group membership” (Brode). One example of this can be seen through the documentary Life, Animated, a documentary about a young autistic man who utilizes Disney and its fantasy and messages in his everyday life. He essentially “materialize[s] these movies and characters to communicate… and understand the society in a broader aspect” (‘Life, Animated’; a Documentary…”). The documentary reveals the impact that Disney has on individuals, and notably children, in terms of their socialization and perception of the world. This is one example of the way in which cultural misrepresentations in Moana, which I will further explore, serve as important factors of socialization and child development for children who view the film. As Cheu explores, “self-image in children is shaped, at least to some degree, by exposure to images in popular culture” (9).

Cultural Misrepresentations in Moana

As impactful as Disney’s messages are for intended younger audiences, the corporation does portray Polynesian culture in some true respects. One example of this is the film’s soundtrack which carries many traditional beats and sounds of Polynesian culture. The film’s musical team retained the “percussive and heavily chant-based” elements of traditional Polynesian music, including songs from Opetaia Foa’i, a Samoan singer-songwriter (Chinen). Likewise, the film also featured voice actors, screen writers and composers of Polynesian descent including Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho. The setting of the film also aims to display the true entity of Polynesian land and its people. This is characterized by the colourful imagery throughout the film, the positive and ambitious islander characters and furthermore, the strong motivational messages which are implied through characters like the female lead, Moana. However, there is a thin line between cultural appreciations and cultural misrepresentations in the film.

Figure 1. (Moana, 2016) © GIPHY. Public Domain.

As Tian explores Disney’s film Mulan, in which Chinese culture is displayed, she brings up some unique ideas that can be similarly applied to Disney’s Moana. Disney is depicted as a mass media company that culturally borrows to display adaptations of the original cultures (Tian). In Moana, it is evident that Disney culturally borrows from Polynesian culture to display diversity. However, in order to do so, Tian explains that the foreign culture has to be “decontextualized, essentialized, recontextualized, domesticated and, sometimes, universalized”, so that it can produce “a more global image” (Tian). In Moana, the depiction of Maui, the demigod who helps the central character Moana on her journey to save her island is altered for the purpose of the movie. Traditionally, Maui is a figure in Polynesian oral history. An important figure for Pacific Islanders, Maui is often depicted as a cultural hero. “Maui has been credited with passing the secret of fire to humans, and making the days longer in summer and shorter in winter, by drawing the Hawaiian archipelagos together and slinging the sun” and his strength is often believed to have created the Hawaiian Islands. (Popovich). However, in contrast, this cultural figure of importance for Polynesians is depicted as humorous and overweight in the film. He is visualized as a playful character through his humorous lines and dancing tattoos. This contrasts with what his true historical background consists of. One can see how the traditional figure is culturally borrowed as Tian explains, and is then contextualized for Disney’s entertainment purposes (Tian). Traditions and the idolization of this traditional figure are sacrificed in order to reveal the character for Disney’s account.

Disney’s Perspective of Polynesian Culture and the Audience’s Viewing Position

Furthermore, it is important to look at Disney’s consideration of their worldwide audience. By having such a large audience, not only does this call for different viewing positions of the film including those of adults and children, but it also means creating and displaying stereotypes of represented cultures within films like Moana. This is so that the cultures can be easily understood and identified for audiences. In Moana, Polynesian culture is seen through a single perspective of islander life. It does not capture suburban or city lifestyles of those of Polynesian descent, but rather builds upon the common stereotypes that all Polynesians are islanders who sail, live by the ocean, go fishing as a daily obstacle for food and survival, etc. The lens that the audience looks through reveals a manipulated and very stereotypical aspect of Polynesian culture.

Disney movies have a history of carrying positive implications and messages. Abiding by this theme, cultural representations of Moana follow the same path. The strong, central Polynesian female character of the movie is seen venturing out to sea, with the ambition to save her island and people. The uplifting message and motivation for young female audiences gives the appearance that this character will never fail, and that the outcome as it is, will mean nothing can go wrong. Disney’s “alternate universe that operates at the pleasure of young children” (Cheu 9), and its idealized wish granting factory of a corporation, creates representations that everything is positive, when in reality, some things are simply not. Young audiences not only experience misrepresentations of Polynesian culture throughout the film, but are also sent impractical, over-idealized messages through their viewing positions.

Figure 2. (Moana, 2016) © GIPHY. Public Domain.

Disney’s perspective of Polynesian culture also uses colourblindness to negate difference in the film. As the underrepresented culture of Polynesians is expressed throughout the film, colourblindness is used to cover the fact that characters hold this ethnicity and are categorized as the other. As Cheu explains in the context of Disney’s film The Princess and the Frog, “color-blind racism denies difference based on skin color by simply refusing to see color; therefore, Tiana is “just a princess,” not a black princess. The rhetoric of color-blind racism enables an adherence to dominant ideologies and institutional practices by negating difference.” Similarly, in Moana, Maui and Moana, amongst other characters of Polynesian descent in the film are not to be seen as different. Disney situates these characters in a Polynesian land, that is Motunui, and implements Polynesian names and mispresented historical figures, however, the corporation negates difference as the film is distributed to a global audience. Colourblindness is rather covered up with the fact that Disney is representing Polynesian culture.


As Disney’s uplifting and enriching messages and their representations of diversity are becoming increasingly apparent, it is important to identify the misrepresentations that are being gestured through these films as well. Moana serves as an important example of a film that advocates for the way in which Disney can remove misrepsentations of cultures for such wide and diverse audience. Perhaps the negative representations of Polynesian culture can serve as motivations for Disney to carefully consider representing culture for entertainment purposes.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Debating Disney : Pedagogical Perspectives on Commercial Cinema, edited by Douglas Brode, and Shea T. Brode, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Streiff, Madeline, and Lauren Dundes. “From Shapeshifter to Lava Monster: Gender Stereotypes in Disney’s Moana.” Social Sciences, vol. 6, no. 3, Aug. 2017, pp. 1–12., doi:10.3390/socsci6030091.

Chinen, Nate. “Consider the Coconut: How Moana Uses Polynesian Culture to Create a Prototypical Disney Story.” Slate, 22 Nov. 2016,

Cheu, Johnson. Diversity in Disney Films : Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability. McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2014,

Popovich, Britany. “Disney’s Cultural Appropriation in ‘Moana.’” F Newsmagazine, 9 Nov. 2016,

Moana. 2016. Disney. GIPHY.

Moana. 2016. Disney. GIPHY.

Tian, Chuanmao, and Caixia Xiong. “A cultural analysis of Disneys Mulan with respect to translation.” Continuum, vol. 27, no. 6, 22 Dec. 2013, pp. 862–874. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/10304312.2013.843636.

‘Life, Animated’; a Documentary Portraying how Disney Films Help Someone to ‘Live’ rather than just Exist. Athena Information Solutions Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, 2016, ProQuest,