Raya and the Last Dragon has hit theaters and Disney+, marking Disney’s first Southeast Asian lead. The film tells the story of Raya and her quest to find Sisu, the last dragon, in order to restore life and peace to her world of Kumandra. It is rich with culture, personality, beautiful animation, and a heartwarming story. But it also sheds light on some of the issues that hinder Asian representation in Hollywood. Before we begin, I want to make it known that this is a Black woman writing this piece. I do not claim to speak on behalf of or over Asian individuals, nor would I ever mean to do so. This is simply a discussion about a film that I really enjoy and would like to talk about. I felt that this was important for me to mention. Now let’s get into it.
The Asian monolith
Similar to Black Panther (2018), Raya isn’t set in one specific country but rather creates a new fictional one that takes inspiration and aspects of culture from various countries in the SEA (Southeast Asian) region. A way to celebrate as many cultures as possible could explain why there isn’t a focus on just one country. But it also re-enforces a common stereotype. Creating Kumandra to represent a melting pot of Southeast Asian countries can further the idea in people’s heads that all Asian countries are one and the same.
Now, it is true that countries close together do tend to have overlapping aspects of their cultures. However, that does not make them all the same thing. We’ve seen this happen similarly with Moana (2016) as well as the aforementioned Black Panther. This recent trend of portraying regions populated almost exclusively by people of color as imagined monoliths can be dangerous and detrimental to the people of these cultures. That “they’re all the same” rhetoric is what allows people (mainly white people) to further dehumanize people of color. And in this case, specifically, it is Asian, namely Southeast Asian, populous. This then brings us to my next topic: casting.
Casting from the wrong region
Raya is Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess and of course, it was only fitting that she’d be voiced by the lovely Kelly Marie Tran. The problem is, Tran is one of the only Southeast Asian actors in the entire film. This has been a point of discussion ever since the casting was released. But it doesn’t become any less relevant as time goes on. Colorism, classism, and colonialism (the 3 C’s as I call them) are the root of the divide between East Asians and Southeast Asians. East Asia is also what many people from the west assume is the entirety of the Asian continent. Asian representation in Hollywood as a whole is awful. But when it does pop up, it’s usually in the form of East Asian actors, excluding South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Middle Eastern Asians from the conversation.
That’s why it’s ironic for the cast of this film to mostly be made up of actors of East Asian descent. It shuts out Southeast Asian actors from getting a chance at a role like this in a film meant for them. It’s already hard enough to break into Hollywood as it is. It also once again perpetuates the idea that Asian people are interchangeable, regardless of where they’re from.
The beauty of Kumandra
Aside from its flaws, there’s still so much to love about Raya and the Last Dragon. The biggest praise, of course, is because of its references to Southeast Asian cultures. Monica Joelle Ortiz points out various references specific to certain countries throughout her review of the film. For instance, the sword that Raya uses is a Kris. Used by Filipino warriors, the waves of its shape represent serpents. The fight scenes are full of fantastic choreography and are thrilling to watch. Some of the fighting styles include Indonesia’s Pencak Silat and Thailand’s Muay Thai. There are multiple scenes featuring stylized animation that only enhance the already exquisite work done by the animators. The character designs are beautiful and full of personality. There’s rarely a dull moment when you’re watching this film.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a beautiful addition to the Disney catalog. After the release of Pixar’s Soul last year, it has been wondrous to see so many Black and Brown faces in high-profile animation. This makes the pattern of Disney putting its Asian-centric films behind a paywall all the more frustrating. If you have the $30 or feel comfortable going to the theater, I’d highly recommend that you support this film. If not, it’ll be well worth the wait when Disney finally releases it to everyone.
The importance of Raya in a hateful world
Now, I can’t talk about Southeast Asian representation without bringing up what’s been happening as of late. Ever since the start of this pandemic, there has been an exponential increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. This may not seem like it’s related to Raya or Hollywood at all, but it absolutely is. The media that we consume has a direct correlation to how we perceive others. Harmful stereotypes and poor representation of Asian communities have a direct correlation to anti-Asian hate crimes. That’s why a film like Raya is important and also why its issues are part of a much larger discussion. However, that is a very big conversation, and one that I think should be helmed by the people it directly affects. Asian Representation: The Visibility Issue in Hollywood by Luc Pham outlines this issue beautifully and much more in-depth.
It’s exhausting to have to continue to explain to white people why seeing ourselves on screen is so important. For them, it’s just watching a movie or tv show. For us, it’s creating spaces that reflect who we actually are and not who white people think we are. It’s a place for us to showcase our humanity, something that’s been stripped away for centuries. But like everything else, it starts with conversations and exposure. Hopefully, this piece can provide that in some way for you, the reader. Seek out Asian works and support them. Seek out Southeast Asian work, East Asian work, South Asian work, Middle Eastern work. Expand your worldview. You’ll be better for it.
Here is a link to a google document full of resources, information to educate yourself, and places/people in need to donate to.