There’s been a lot of discourse about Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.” While all of the arguments are definitely valid (like how they’ve lumped together an entire Asian region with different cultures, how there are hardly any Southeast Asian executives on the production team and how it’s not even available in the Southeast Asian region), it’s still something kids deserve to see—when it becomes available here, of course.
Seeing and being seen
While I haven’t seen the movie, the trailer offered some insight into how watching it can positively affect the perspective of younger viewers. When I was a kid, I only saw white faces in Disney movies. These characters were fair skinned with high nose bridges and had golden hair. If we wanted to see faces that looked like our own, we’d have to turn on the TV and watch a local channel.
For many of us, the international representation of Southeast Asian—specifically Filipino culture—was limited to the Miss Universe pageant and watching Lea Salonga perform on stage. Don’t get me wrong, these are still wonderful ways to see our culture on the global stage, but they mostly catered to grownups.
“Raya” offers children the experience of seeing faces that look similar to their own as the protagonists of the story. That’s a big deal. But more than seeing shared features with the characters that they see on the screen, it offers children a possibility to dream.
Children are visual learners, which is why showing them what’s possible holds greater impact than telling them what’s possible. Letting them see people who resemble themselves and the people they interact with as characters in a (potentially) cool Disney movie will open the doors of their imagination to possibilities they might not have otherwise imagined.
Yes, we’ve all been lumped together as the Greater Southeast Asian region on screen, but they still look like us. And those characters that look like us are being rooted for by people who don’t. That’s an invaluable experience to have as a kid.
There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a start
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with an elderly African American woman at a Broadway show. With tears in my eyes (dramatic, I know) I was telling her how touched I was that there were people on stage that looked like the both of us. She said, “Whatever we have right now, we fought for. And there’s no going back. It will only get better.”
I can’t say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the representation that we truly deserve. Again, I’m not an authority on anything, but to me (and the kid version of myself I always carry in my heart), it’s a step in the right direction.