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Fat Maui: how he broke the internet

In the last week my Facebook feed has been full of critiques about Maui’s representation in the upcoming Disney film Moana, penned by New Zealand’s own Taika Waititi. This will be one in a sea of think pieces which have already started flowing here or here and even here on The Guardian. This was intensified after a meme surfaced comparing Maui to a pig and a hippo. To date it has 1247 shares and 2800 likes and climbing, doing it’s rounds in the Pacific Island community both in New Zealand and world wide.

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Sourced via Facebook

There are various arguments against the Disney depiction of Maui and many stem from comparing the build of Maui the Polynesian demigod (which people are calling obese to the point of perpetuating stereotypes) to real-life buff Pacific actors who play non-Pacific often European heroes such as Samoan The Rock Dwayne Johnson as Hercules or Hawaiian Jason Momoa as Aquaman. Even characters such as King Triton from The Little Mermaid aren’t safe from the crossfire.

The non-Hollywood representation of deities across different cultural landscapes is so diverse. The well recognised Hindu god of Ganesh is typically a man with a round belly, four arms and an elephant head. Caishen, a god of wealth in Chinese mythology is usually depicted with a round cheerful face clothed in red. In our own backyard Polynesians carved representations of their gods, one of them being Tagaloa. Tagaloa has a slightly different role depending on which Polynesian island you come from but generally is short with a large penis. All of these deities are far from the buff Greek and Roman gods.

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Tangaroa (1992), Ani O’neil, Return to Sender, Papakura Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of Louisa Afoa (2013)

Maui is a god found in mythology all across the Pacific; Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa and of corse Hawaii and Aotearoa. He’s often labeled as a ‘trickster’ using his supernatural skills of turning invisible or the ability to change into an animal to sometimes steal things. However his pranks usually aided mankind. I grew up seeing Maui through the illustrations of Peter Gossage. The Gossage Maui is slim and lean, nothing like WrestleMania’s The Rock. His skin is a lot darker, tā moko on his face and his hair is black which is usually tied up high. This image is specific to Māori and even more specific to Gossage.

It never crossed my mind that Disney’s Maui was obese until I went through my Facebook feed and that was the term used to describe this larger than life being. I didn’t see any rolls of fat, but someone who is immensely strong as he swings his large fish hook, flexible as he dances and flips in the air and pretty awesome as he transforms into an eagle.

When people started comparing Disney’s Maui to The Rock and Jason Momoa, they were no longer just talking about the demigod – they were talking about actors in Hollywood. Is The Rock or Jason Momoa really an accurate representation of Pacific people who are spread across a vast array of islands each with their own diverse cultures and beauty standards. Those against Maui’s build are commenting on a hollywood double standard. They would much rather have a muscular sculpted man with long fine hair. But is that not also playing into a fetishised image of the noble savage while simultaneously perpetuating Western beauty ideals?

I get it. Representation is political. If you’re not part of the hegemony the chances of misrepresentation in the media are high. In New Zealand, Pacific people receive tropes such as uneducated, trouble making criminals not to mention overweight and of bad health.

What has also come to light through the various reactions is the prejudices we have against our own weight within our Pacific communities. Lets be real and call out the memes for what they are — fat shaming. Memes that were shared amongst liberal leaders within Auckland’s Pacific community, leaders that supposedly are advocates for ALL islanders against prejudice.

There’s enough pressure on youth to look a certain way. I’m so okay with Maui not represented as a hyper-athletic sexual object. Calling Disney’s Maui a hippo while calling Dwayne Johnson handsome is sending a message that those whose rolls sit outside of western beauty standards should not be visible. Fat shaming is not a catalyst for change. It doesn’t make sense to challenge representation in order to uplift your people when by doing so you’re shaming people within that same community.

Two years ago rapper Fortify took to FB to voice his opinion that fat men shouldn’t perform the haka because it didn’t look good.

“Hate when I see Maori or Islanders dressed up doing haka etc and they are overweight and look like they just came from the bakery! No offence 2 anyone overweight but if you are dressed traditionally and doing a haha at least look the part! Please don’t take this the wrong way but our warriors were fearsome, staunch and muscular not overweight with girl boobs!”

To which he received a lot of clap back. The response everyone had for him was basically that mana has no size and maybe that’s how we should view Maui. Even if he did have large rolls of fat on his body (which he doesn’t) it wouldn’t be able to diminish his spirit. He would still be a powerful demigod.

I’m looking forward to seeing Moana on it’s boxing day New Zealand release, finally my own Disney princess. But judging by popular opinion, my fat brown body will never and should never represent a Pacific goddess. The patriarchal gaze is just too strong.

Louisa Afoa

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2 Comments

  1. Mandy Treagus says

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I think one thing that provoked this critique of the Disney Maui figure, though no one seems to have mentioned it, is the disparity between the sizes of Moana and Maui. It makes them a sort of beauty and the beast couple, implying his monstrosity. It could equally imply his divinity I guess, but perhaps that isn’t the first thought of audiences with little knowledge of Maui stories. There seems to be a whole lot of gendering going on.

  2. Raincitywriter says

    Thank you so much for a well-thought out piece. I personally was excited to see body diversity with disney heroes – and Maui is powerful and strong, just as yous said. Without looking like Fabio.

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