Is this truly a win for Southeast Asians?
There have been mixed reactions surrounding Raya and The Last Dragon, and these were amplified all the more when outlets reported that “Southeast Asians can finally see themselves in a Disney movie.” The hype is big but the expectations are even bigger. We've been waiting years to see ourselves properly represented in a Western-produced movie. And for this thirst for representation to finally be answered by Disney? It should be good.
The trailer looks to be everything we could ask for. Disney’s attention to detail has greatly improved; references to different Southeast Asian cultures are easily identifiable and beautifully rendered. Raya’s fight scenes are packed with the right tension. The dash of humor is just enough to leave viewers curious about what comes next. At first glance, one might wonder, how could you not want to watch this?
But upon closer inspection, the wins and misses with Raya and The Last Dragon are easier to spot than one might think—which leaves us to wonder, is it truly the representation we deserve?
Win: We’re put on everyone’s radar
Aesthetically, you could say that the film is heavily influenced by our cultures. You can already point out these elements just from watching the trailers. Raya wields weapons resembling the Malaysian keris and our arnis. The scenes are set in places definitely across Southeast Asia, like the floating marketplaces of Vietnam and Indonesia or golden palaces like those found in Thailand and Myanmar.
Disney made it a point to hire Southeast Asians for their production team and some minor voice actors. This choice translates into an undeniable familiarity in the visuals: the mix of fair-skinned and dark-skinned individuals, their clothes, their ways of life. It’s refreshing to be immersed in a Disney-built world that looks like home for a lot of us, instead of feeling like you’re from the outside looking in.
Miss: Opportunities are lacking
Even with these wins, we can’t help but notice the parts Raya and The Last Dragon missed. One of the most glaring: the casting choices. We have Kelly Marie Tran, a Vietnamese-American. But she’s joined by Awkwafina, Gemma Chan and Daniel Dae Kim, all who are not of Southeast Asian descent. All of this leaves us with questions. Were Southeast Asian voice actors not qualified to take the main roles? Or did the casting team lump all Asians together for the sake of a star-studded cast?
The next major miss: accessibility. Disney made a film heavily influenced by Southeast Asian culture. But this same film will be premiering on a platform unavailable on our side of the globe. The other legal way of watching the film would be through cinemas. Not to state the obvious, but not many countries in Southeast Asia will be opening their cinemas soon. How will we see ourselves represented on screen if we have a hard time finding it in the first place?
We’re left to assume that referencing Southeast Asian cultures for Raya and The Last Dragon is just scratching the surface of diversity and representation. Maybe it’s even performative to an extent. Because as much as they’re amplifying our existence and championing a main character who looks like us, big film studios like Disney need to follow through by using their influence right. The focus needs to be on giving more opportunities to Southeast Asians, whose stories they are telling through this blockbuster-in-the-making, whether through casting decisions or access to the film.
Some might say that despite inaccuracies or lapses, at least we got some semblance of representation, that it’s a step forward for all Southeast Asians. Though there will always be those who would beg to disagree. Yes, now they look at us, but do they really see us? From where we stand, the entire Raya production has its work cut out for it if it wants to give the diversity of our region its due justice.
Regardless, there remains a silver lining: Raya and The Last Dragon is opening up the discussion of how cultures and people should be represented on screen and across platforms. We can’t just be satisfied with seeing our faces put on blast. We also need to know that this push for diversity translates into active decision-making. If the conversation stops at media representation but doesn’t bother to give Southeast Asians—or any group of cultures, for that matter—room to excel, then maybe mainstream media should work on their definition of diversity and representation.
Art Alexandra Lara