The newest Disney movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, was released March 5 and introduces the first Southeast Asian princess. The story follows the journey of the titular heroine to find the last legendary dragon of Kumandra, a fantasy world inspired by Southeast Asian cultures.
The film has been heavily marketed and praised as a historic moment in representation — that finally, Southeast Asians can celebrate being visible in Hollywood and identify with a story and its characters.
And the filmmakers did invest time and energy to ensure cultural authenticity, utilizing cultural experts, life experience from those with Southeast Asian heritage and local immersion from traveling to these countries.
However, they go further to express their sense of responsibility in validating the self worth of Southeast Asians.
“When there’s a project like Raya and the Last Dragon, it has a lot of attention put on it,” screenwriter Adele Lim said in an interview with Time magazine. “The people who have not been represented for such a long time have so much of their hopes and dreams pinned on it.”
This is not only pretentious and condescending, but this shouldn’t be the point of representation. Coming from Southeast Asians, our ‘hopes and dreams’ — our sense of self and the pride in our culture — shouldn’t rely upon the benevolence of a multi-billion dollar corporation.
Nonetheless, representation is a good thing. Through representation, the stories told in mainstream media are diversified. Deriving inspiration from more diverse sources leads to richer, more unique stories. Our cultural backgrounds frames our identity, so it only makes sense this would apply to fictional characters as well.
But contemporary representation in modern media often misses the mark. Rather than take the time to consider how characters’ unique backgrounds might influence their worldviews and motivate their actions in a narrative, simply featuring minorities is enough to be commendable.
This isn’t an issue so long as the creators of said media are not patting themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum. Yet Raya and the Last Dragon is applauded for simply featuring ethnic aesthetics, including Raya wearing a salakot and her sidekick being named after a popular form of Southeast Asian transportation.
This makes the focus less about the story and more about flaunting shallow diversity.
Despite well-intentioned research, the Southeast Asian cultures represented in the movie are hard to define beyond superficial aspects like food, garb and architecture. The cultural values and customs of these countries are not made apparent in the movie because the film spends very little time in each of the kingdoms of Kumandra.
Raya and the Last Dragon appropriates the aesthetic of Southeast Asian culture as exotic, heist setpieces rather than incorporating the unique cultures in the narrative or characters. Thus, it has to distinguish the kingdoms through stereotypes and different color schemes, which weakens the film’s message of trust and unity.
The only unique cultural ideas we could identify were how food played an important role in community building and the thematic significance of water. Water serves as the lifeblood of Kumandra from geographically connecting each tribe to vanquishing evil spirits, which parallels its importance to rain in Southeast Asian agriculture. Further, the ritual that Raya’s father performs where he pours water over Raya’s head is reminiscent of a sacred Cambodian Buddhist water blessing.
Regardless, when discussing the movie, the inclusion of distinct traditions is overshadowed by the filmmakers’ pride in simply being able to showcase regional food and weapons.
Representation should be something more than seeing yourself and the appearance of your culture on screen. It should be about the diverse religious, philosophical and cultural values and perspectives that help us look at the world in a different way and inform us on the human condition.
The overzealous praise that Raya and the Last Dragon has received for representation does a disservice to the Asian representation and storytelling done much better in other media, namely a classic Disney princess movie.
Mulan (1998 film) is about a daughter who sacrifices herself rather than let her father die in the army. Mulan’s motivations are not only fueled by filial piety — a dominant principle in Asian cultures — but she must also contend with and survive in the patriarchal regime of the Chinese military.
In this way, Mulan does a superior job at subsuming Chinese culture into its narrative as well as the protagonist’s perspective and reaction to it.
Storytelling should be a universal exercise of empathy and a medium that conveys and helps us understand experiences not our own. It should not be limited to relatability or how much we identify with the protagonist.
The recent push for representation has made us approach storytelling in a more insular manner. In getting so hung up on looking for people who look like us in the media, the focus shifts away from connecting with stories that resonate with us on a deeper level. The reaction to Raya and the Last Dragon seems to imply the former is more important.
Previous Disney princesses offered diverse experiences and stories, all of which contained empowering messages. Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is a Black Disney princess who embodies the message of hard work. Rapunzel from Tangled exudes heartwarming optimism and desire for freedom.
Are we supposed to be less moved if we don’t look like these protagonists? Obviously, the answer is no.
Good representation arises from good storytelling. Stories like Raya and the Last Dragon should make their representation apparent through skillful writing rather than having to advertise to viewers that their work stands for something greater than what’s presented to us. Ultimately, the film does not succeed at using Southeast Asian culture to shape the narrative in a meaningful way nor does it show audiences what is unique about it other than what it looks or sounds like.