Cultural Appropriation

Screw Cultural Appropriation and Let Your Daughter (or Son!) Be Moana for Halloween

Cosmopolitan isn't very cosmopolitan when it comes to costumes.


Screenshot via Moana / Youtube

Should little girls avoid dressing up as Moana for Halloween if they aren't, like the character, of Polynesian descent? Cosmopolitan and Redbook, two magazines dedicated to the mission of helping women alter their appearances, say yes.

"You're the parent here, and the onus of what your child wears falls on you," wrote the editors of Redbook, in a piece that ran on the websites of both magazines. "If your kid wears a racist costume…you're kind of wearing it too."

By "racist costume" you might picture a kid dressing up as a member of the KKK. But no, the editors are talking about Moana. For little white girls, the kick-ass protagonist of the 2016 Disney film is off-limits:

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.")

But little girls aren't dressing up as a generic Polynesian stereotype: They are dressing up as a specific fictional character. The culture isn't the costume; the character is. And it seems to me a good way to encourage respect for the culture is to let the kid dress up as the character. When we can imagine ourselves as other people, we gain empathy for them.

On the other hand, saying no to a child who wants to be Moana could sabotage the cause of greater racial inclusion and sensitivity. Why can't I be Moana? What's so different about Polynesian people? They're really so fundamentally different from me that I can't pretend to be one of their heroes? How is this a productive or encouraging line of thinking for a child to entertain?

This is the mixed-up logic of cultural appropriation, which ought to be opposed by all people of liberal, cosmopolitan (heh, look at that?), multicultural persuasions. It's a joy-killing, curiosity-shaming, inclusion-discouraging theory that divides people naturally inclined to cross boundaries that ought to be crossed.

As Lionel Shriver, an author and friend of Reason, put it: "People with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life."

Practically speaking, cultural appropriation is too confusing and contradictory to even be enforced. Would the editors of Cosmopolitan and Redbook try to stop a little black girl from dressing up as Moana? Is it only white girls who can't appropriate other cultures? What about little boys? Cosmopolitan positively profiled James Charles, the first male "CoverGirl," calling him "just gifted AF [as fuck]" at make-up. Given Cosmopolitan's opposition to appropriation, I might have expected some handwringing. Is Charles not guilty of appropriating traditional aspects of the culture of womanhood?

To be clear, I fully support having a male CoverGirl. (I described Charles as "fierce as hell" in a Tweet, noting the social justice left was attacking him for making a stupid and relatively inoffensive joke about Ebola in Africa. Pitchforks, pitchforks everywhere.) I just don't see how Cosmopolitan can be wildly in favor of this while at the same time deciding that other line—a non-Polynesian kid wanting to be Moana for Halloween—is the line we can't cross.

Redbook and Cosmopolitan take their cues from an article by Sachi Feris, a mom who blogs at Raising Race Conscious Children. Feris, whose daughter is of Argentinian ethnicity, sounds like quite the concerned parent. First, she was worried about letting her kid dress up as one of the Frozen princesses for Halloween, because they are white and, "we see so many White princesses, her character sends the message that you have to be a certain way to be 'beautiful' or to be a 'princess'…that you have to have White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes." Mom eventually relented, and even made her daughter a "long, blonde braid" just like Princess Elsa.

But Feris was also concerned about the possibility of dressing up her daughter as Moana the following year:

First, I considered whether my daughter and I could find Polynesian artists that made traditional clothing and both learn about and support their work—but I wasn't coming up with such artists…and, moreover, it still felt problematic to "dress up" as another culture, (even while trying to learn about and honor it). So much for idea #1.

My second idea, which I shared with my daughter, involved thinking about different qualities that Moana exemplifies, like bravery, strength, love of family, and caring for the environment, and using those qualities as inspiration to dress up as "Moana's sister".

My daughter was not impressed. "No! I want to be the real Moana!" she said with a scowl on her face.

Here was Feris's response:

"Anyway," I added, "I don't like the idea of dressing up using the same traditional clothing that someone from Moana's culture may have worn because that feels like we are laughing at her culture by making it a costume. A child whose family is Polynesian could dress up using that type of traditional clothing but Moana's culture is not our culture. If you want you could dress up as someone from one of your cultures, you could be a tango dancer from Argentina…(or as Che Guevara!). Otherwise, maybe you could be a modern-day Moana and dress up in the clothing you think Moana might wear today."

Emphasis mine. It's not okay to dress up as Moana, but it's okay to dress up as Che, a brutal murderer who executed hundreds of political prisoners, gay people, religious dissidents, and anyone else who threatened Cuba's totalitarian regime? I'm sorry, but if cultural appropriation means it's in bad taste to wear a Moana costume (if you're not Polynesian), but perfectly acceptable to wear a Che costume (if you're Argentinian), it's a useless concept. Happy Halloween, everybody.