Disney and Cultural Appropriation

How our Media Consumption is Influenced and is Influencing the Culture War

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I love just about every tradition that comes from this time of year: pumpkin carving, haunted houses, dressing up, scary movies, candy, and time with friends. I don’t think that this holiday misses a beat in terms of having a little fun.

However, this time of year has its shortcomings. Unless you’re blind, you can’t have missed all of the campus posters and buzz about cultural appropriation. I even got a new sticker for my journal from the friendly table people.

As I have been diving into what cultural appropriation is, I have discovered that it’s a complex and controversial topic. To help me navigate this topic, I spoke with Rebecca (Becky) Daigneault, Assistant Professor and Field Education Director of Social Work for Minot State University. She also teaches the diversity and inclusion class for the social work students here are NDSU. She defined cultural appropriation as “using any item from a marginalized culture to minimize that item or practices cultural importance.”

So, getting into the weeds, I will give you some ethical dilemmas. Pause and take a moment to consider how you view each situation and why you think that way.

For example, if a little girl who is white wears a Disney Pocahontas costume, is that cultural appropriation? What if the little girl is black? Does that change how you feel about the question I asked? If a white man wears a changshan, is that cultural appropriation? Suppose I traveled abroad and supported a local artist by purchasing jewelry from them. Would I be committing a social faux pas by wearing that same piece of jewelry in America? If that jewelry was a religious symbol and I didn’t know it, is it still cultural appropriation?

Even with this topic in mind, it’s not hard to avoid problematic costumes. Photo Credit | Abigail Faulkner

There is a very fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. What sparked my interest in this topic was a video I saw on youtube of a white man wearing traditional Chinese clothing and asking college students what they thought of his outfit.

Most of the college students said they were “disgusted” and thought what he was doing was “wrong” and “terrible.” However, when the man in the video went to Chinatown and asked Chinese people what they thought of his outfit, many complimented him on his clothing choice. They told him how nice they thought it was on him.

I don’t think it’s a massive leap for me to say that it’s probably not a great idea to wear clothing that isn’t from your culture, intending to mock it. Especially not a costume for Halloween, which is inherently a satirical holiday. However, this humble writer’s opinion is that people in America, white people in particular, have way overcorrected on what cultural appropriation is and means.

Simply wearing an article of clothing or eating a food item that isn’t from your culture is not in and of itself cultural appropriation.

When I wear native Alaskan earrings, I am not claiming to be native Alaskan. They are often purchased from a native Alaskan vendor, and I support them and their business by wearing those earrings. Unfortunately, I don’t wear them often to school for fear of being shamed for doing so.

If you are a Twitter user, you probably know what I am talking about. Sometimes, social justice warriors will hear about an issue like cultural appropriation. Instead of amplifying the voices of the people negatively impacted by issues like cultural appropriation, they end up yelling over them. Daigneault said, “it seems like their heart is in the right place… but they end up not really listening to their stories… they radicalize and polarize it.”

Especially when these items that you have purchased benefit the cultures and the people who created them. Cultural appropriation is most problematic when you end up monetarily gaining from intellectual property that isn’t yours. High fashion is especially guilty of this. Western designers are not just inspired by Eastern designs but straight up copying them and selling them for a much higher cost without ever crediting the inspiration for these designs.

Let’s go back to the example I gave earlier of the little girl in the Halloween costume. I have a friend who wore a Pocahontas costume when she was a little girl. She loved the character but told me her friends roasted her for doing so and “called out” for cultural appropriation. While this may fit the technical definition of cultural appropriation, the intention is also important. The intention in this instance was not to make fun of culture but to show appreciation and idolize a cultural figure as a role model.

Suppose you are going to call someone out for cultural appropriation. In that case, I will point the finger at Disney for taking a real Native American girl and changing her story to push the most convenient themes for the narrative they wanted to tell because the truth wasn’t pretty. This is cultural appropriation and erasure of a real women’s story. Additionally, even if the intention behind the costume was good, that doesn’t mean that the Native Americans aren’t negatively impacted by it. Daigneault said, “It reinforces negative stereotypes… makes you see them as characters, not people.”

Disney is also super guilty of token diversity. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but Disney is not moving in the right direction regarding diversity, especially with some of the castings of their Disney princess live-action movies. It is a wonderful thing, and it moves me to tears to see that little girls, in this case, black girls, finally can see themselves as a mermaid, a princess, or a fairy. I believe that way more fairytales should adopt a color-blind casting approach.

However, with Disney in particular, I think their intention is to cast main leads that are people of color to check a box saying that they are diverse without involving more diversity in their writing rooms, production, or the rest of their casting.

The solution to Hollywood’s diversity is not to take traditionally German and Dutch stories and cast people of color into these roles. Instead, I would love to see Hollywood create more projects that not only centered people of color in leading roles but also have historical origins outside of Europe and manage to do tastefully and respectfully. For me, seeing Disney do diversity right looks like more movies like “Encanto.”

The easiest way would be to include more diversity in your writer’s rooms to create unique stories that pay homage to culture without claiming to have invented it or disrespecting the culture they intend to represent. I feel the same about having a female James Bond or Doctor Who. As a consumer, I would rather have more original stories than gender-swapped characters.

I would love to see Hollywood create more projects that not only centered people of color in leading roles but also have historical origins outside of Europe and manage to do tastefully and respectfully.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that religious or cultural figures should be Halloween costumes. I wouldn’t wear a hijab and call it a Halloween costume. I also don’t think sexy nuns should be a thing, either. I’m sorry, but if you went as a sexy nun last Monday for Halloween, I think you are a weirdo. I am specifically referencing Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox.

All this to say, it comes back to what most things come down to, how’s your heart? Are you approaching these holidays and these topics with an open mind and the intention to be kind? Or are you hoping to get a laugh from your friends and with the bravado to think that you are right?

I am open to learning, and while my opinion may be more conservative than some of my peers, my real intention here is to be respectful of others. I also don’t want humanity to be divided. Be kind to one another and open to others’ life experiences. You don’t need to change your mind, but you do need to be kind.

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