Raya and the Trappings of ‘Representations’
When Raya and the Last Dragon was first announced, I was naturally excited. Very excited in fact to finally get the chance of seeing my own culture getting canonised within Disney’s vocabulary. Well, I had Mulan, and also arguably Moana which I still claim even today being an island boy, but still I wanted more as they never feel quite like me. Unfortunately, instead of having my expectations met or feeling just whelmed, watching Raya made me realize the futility of wanting to achieve this sense of belonging and affinity from any work coming up from mainstream Western media, not until a broader ethics on care has been sufficiently achieved and practiced at the very least.
Before I begin, I must say that I actually really do appreciate the character Raya, who is by all counts gorgeous, inspiring and everything else I expect from a female hero. My problem with the film instead, lies in the construction of the work, both in its writing and its production, and how Disney’s aestheticism as spearheaded by her lovely visage had been used as a distraction from these underlying problems that the studio has neglected to take into account.
(That is a reference to Singapore, RIGHT?!)
From a macro perspective, the movie does carry with it a heart-warming and even inspiring message through the formation of an unlikely family and also the incredible line delivered by Raya: “Then let me take the first step”. While the multi-culturalism within Kumandra is historically accurate given the great diversity within the the region, the problem with this however arises from the need to posit these cultures as not just divided (and hence lesser than what they could have been if together) but also hostile and aggressive towards each other. Aside from being both grossly inaccurate and insensitive to the culture that this film is trying to speak to, Raya strength as a hero becomes unnecessarily underscored by the noble savage trope, making this whole endeavour seem counterproductive. Furthermore, this also raises the question of who should serve as this unifying force for this imagined utopian community. The Americanised subject cherry-picked by the capitalist neo-colonial forces from an arbitrary list of references?
It is on this note where I discuss the breaking point of the film for me which was the baby Noi who, of course, turns out to be a scam. Though she carries out some pretty heroic feats ultimately, the use of this trope without engaging with the socio-political issues that contributed to how children have been raised and exploited in such environment makes such representation, undesirable and even counterproductive. For those who are unaware, I am talking about how her character hauntingly echoes the human-trafficking problem plaguing Thailand (and possibly the rest of South-East Asia) where children are forced into begging by syndicates. While her character maybe have just been a nod to the Boss Baby series, the translation of this trope into the South-East Asian context without sufficient care ultimately brings about traumatising connotations as cute as she is.
Another aspect of the film which I take issue with is the codification of Namaari, an interesting albeit under-developed character, as queer through her appearance. While it is undeniably refreshing to have a prominent androgynous character who looks as amazing as she is plot-important, the fact that she is cast as a villain for most of the film reflects upon South East Asia’s gender politics in a reductive manner and is hence, counter-productive. On top of resonating with the ladyboys of the region and their prominence within the cultural imaginations of the region in a way that reinforces the notion of South-East Asian males as traps, the fact that she is placed in opposition to Raya who is framed as cis-gendered seems more like a reinforcement of hegemonic structures of sexuality by Disney as opposed to a liberating representation of queerness in spite of the homo-eroticism characterising their relationship.
Given Disney’s emphasis on how the film was written by South-East Asians, these “plot-holes” in the script may seem curious but they make sense when we take into account the diversity within South-East Asia that I begin this post with. When the lived experiences of the people in Singapore are already so starkly different from the people of Malaysia, even if they’re only separated by a kilometer-long bridge, expecting knowledge to sufficiently encompass territories as wide and vast as Vietnam and Philippines as well seems both preposterous and impossible especially since we seldom think of Britain and France as having anything in common with each other. Further complicating this is how there is also a huge difference between the perspectives of the South-East Asian diaspora, the new migrants and the local populace that makes the notion of representation in itself problematic. Without undermining the “dash American” population’s connection to the countries they also call home, it is important to note that their experience of their home countries is vastly different from the local populace and that gaps will necessarily arise within their understanding of this other culture.
Given these inherent difficulties, engagement with the region requires an extraordinary amount of sensitivity so as to avoid reducing the region into a list of tropes. More importantly, we can not just rely on representation in itself and use the deployment of minority figures as a deus ex machina that excuses the work from all problems as representation in itself is not enough. Aside from the two instances I cited, one need not look past the ridiculousness of a character names ‘Raya’ and the casting of East Asians in every major role save for the titular character to see that there are deep-seated problems within this project in itself. While I don’t think it is necessarily wrong for Disney to attempt to reach out to these new markets, it must be supported by a broader ethics of care grounded in thorough research if that is its aim. Otherwise, the work as remarkable as it is, risks being reduced to yet another example of toxic representation. As visually arresting as Raya is, the film had unwittingly homogenised the great diversity found within South East Asia into a single, monolithic entity, characterised by savages and tricksters. Perhaps it would have worked better as an art book filled with concept sketches.