It’s mid-October, which means Halloween is just two weeks away, which means it’s way past time to decide on a Halloween costume for your kid. Chances are, you have a child that is enamored with all things Disney and wants to be all of the princesses. All of them! Especially Moana.
The New York Post recently highlighted an article on raceconscious.org about how that’s probably not a good choice if your kid is white, and revealed that “moms are freaking out” over the culturally appropriative costume. Needless to say, the Post’s coverage has only amplified the debate around what does, and doesn’t, constitute cultural appropriation. Last year, Disney came under fire for its Maui costume, which depicted the demigod’s painted brown skin. The company ultimately pulled the costume in response to the uproar, telling Entertainment Weekly in a statement that “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.” The Maui question may have been settled, but this year, there are plenty of tweets out there asking the internet (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) if it’s OK to dress as Moana for Halloween.
The original article, written by Sachi Feris, discusses how her white daughter was torn between dressing as Elsa, from Frozen, or the titular character from Moana. Feris expresses concern that while an Elsa costume might reinforce notions of white privilege, dressing up as Moana is essentially cultural appropriation – the act of reducing someone’s culture to stereotypes, and thereby belittling it. Though Feris puzzles over how one might wear a Moana costume respectfully, she ultimately decides it just isn’t a good idea.
At this point, you might be saying something like: “But, I dressed up as Jasmine as a child, and I’m not a racist!”, or, “It’s just a Halloween costume, please chill the f*ck out.” But one of the best things about time is that it moves forward. You should too. You can (and should) strive to be better than you were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. If you missed the mark when you were younger, maybe think about using this Halloween as an opportunity to teach your kids about the importance of cultural sensitivity. If your child’s dream costume feels questionable, don’t just throw up your hands and hand over your credit card. You’re the parent here, and the onus of what your child wears falls on you. If your kid wears a racist costume … you’re kind of wearing it too.
If your kid wears a racist costume, you’re kind of wearing it too.
Recognize this: Moana is a really special character to young girls of Polynesian descent who have never seen a Disney Princess who looks like them, just like how Tiana from The Princess and the Frog likely resonated with young Black women who had waited decades to see themselves represented. White girls have plenty of princesses to choose from – there’s Belle, Ariel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty … you get the idea. If your Caucasian son or daughter doesn’t get to be exactly what they wanted for Halloween, encourage them to take a step back and realize that they’re awash in privileges that the real Moanas and Tianas of the world will likely never see, because the world is full of racist assholes.
And those assholes are becoming even more empowered. Our President is a hate group apologist who tries to ban refugees from seeking asylum in our country, simply because of their faith. Meanwhile, Black Americans continue to be killed by police, and antisemitic voices feel louder and more powerful than they have in decades.
So what does this have to do with a seemingly innocent princess costume? Pretty much everything. It’s important to align with, and stand up for, people of color and minorities, and a key part of that is showing respect for their cultures. To pretend to be a racial, ethnic, or religious minority when you’re not makes light of their history – and reinforces a deeply problematic power dynamic, wherein white people use, then discard, pieces of cultures they’ve subjugated for centuries just because they can.
To clarify: No one is telling you to ban your child from belting out Moana songs in your living room. They’re good songs! Moana is a powerful, phenomenal Disney heroine who relies on more than just her CGI perfection to save the day. But there’s no better time than when a kid is in their formative years to teach them that it’s not OK to mock other people’s cultures. That’s the sort of attitude that will ultimately bleed into the way they behave and think as they get older – do they respect the personhood of those unlike themselves, or is their only concern doing whatever they think is fun? (For what it’s worth, Fijian Emmaline Matagi suggests using a kid’s desire to be Moana or Maui as an opportunity to teach them about actual Polynesian culture. She concedes that she understands why kids would want to dress as Moana, but instead suggests that they make their own outfits, without attempting to recreate “designs [they] think are Polynesian.” After all, she writes, “my culture is not a costume.”)
A Halloween costume is a small, easy way to introduce these issues in a way that a child’s yet-to-be-fully-brain can process. This isn’t about putting a damper on your kid’s creativity; it’s about exercising sensitivity towards anyone who doesn’t get to choose how the world at large sizes them up. Whether or not your kids get that is up to you.