Raya and the last dragon it is much more than the latest Disney movie, at least for me. It’s true that I’m not even a huge Disney fan. But somehow because of StripeThere’s a little girl in me that finally feels seen
Growing up in America, I hardly ever saw Asians in movies or on television. And if I did, they were rarely brown and Southeast Asian like me. Finally, that is changing.
Raya is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who is Vietnamese American. The film is inspired by various cultures of Southeast Asia. The script was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, who have their roots in Southeast Asia. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many interesting cultural Easter Eggs to find in the movie. Raya’s name means “celebration” in Malay. He rides on his animal companion called the “Tuk Tuk,” who shares his name with Cambodia’s iconic motorcycle-powered carriages (you will find similar wheel sets in much of Southeast Asia).
In a sneak peek that almost makes me cry (and I’m not a crybaby), Raya wields what look like Arnis bamboo sticks, weapons used in Filipino martial arts. His sword is reminiscent of the Indonesian kris. The film’s epic combat scenes are also based on fighting styles from Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
If a lot of that is unfamiliar to you, I don’t blame you. I was born in the Philippines and didn’t even learn about Arnis until I was in college in the United States. When you don’t see yourself reflected in the world around you, you lose a lot. That’s why it means so much to see Raya, dark and tough, wielding the same weapons my ancestors used to fight.
In general, Asian Americans are already underrepresented in the media, but Southeast Asians are often even more ignored. “Asian American” is a huge umbrella that encompasses many peoples, cultures and languages. Grouping everyone in a group can obscure that diversity. Worse, it can make some communities and the inequalities they face invisible.
That’s a problem that is often talked about as a lack of “disaggregated data” for the Asian American and Pacific Islander umbrella group. Often not enough data is collected to break down how experiences vary from group to group. For example, many people from Southeast Asia came to the U.S. as refugees after the Vietnam War or the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge, and that can make their migration stories and the resources they have access to in USA
Poverty among Hmong Americans, many of whom came to the United States as refugees after cooperating with the United States during its “Secret War” in Laos, is twice as high (26 percent) as among the Asian-American community in your set. Such data is necessary to dispel the myth of the minority of the Asian model, a stereotype that hurts all Asian Americans because it wrongly assumes that our communities already have access to all the resources we need.
If you have seen Stripe or even just your trailers, then you know the movie is about bringing communities together. Disaggregating data is not about dividing anyone. To bring people together, you must first watch Each other.
In Raya and the last dragon, we see his characters face adversity that fits into the modern history of Southeast Asia: there is war, loss, famine, and a long search for healing. The main characters form a kind of mixed refugee family who are building a new world together after each of them has lost almost everything.
I am not saying that the film and its representations are perfect. After all, it is a real life version of Disney. The movie still blends all the different cultures of Southeast Asia into a single fantasy world, and Disney has been criticized in the past for creating a monolithic culture in movies like Moana and Mulan that again “add” aspects of different peoples. Stripe It will likely face a lot of scrutiny, in part due to pressure to fairly represent a large group of people whose stories have largely not been told before in the media. I’m already feeling the pressure to write this post, knowing there are things I won’t see.
But in this case, I will take an argument about how a story should be told without any story. Hopefully it makes room for more stories to emerge.