Moana, Elsa, and Halloween

by Sachi Feris

My five-year-old, who I had successfully shielded from Disney princesses until recently, finally figured out that “Let it go” (which she had been singing with her friends for a over a year), was from the movie “Frozen.” My daughter promptly demanded to see “Frozen” along with “Moana,” inspired by a Moana-themed birthday party favor (sunglasses). We saw both films within the month and, in early August, she declared that she wanted to be “Elsa” from “Frozen” this Halloween, and “Moana” the following Halloween.

I had some reservations regarding both costume choices…about cultural appropriation and the power/privilege carried by Whiteness, and about Whiteness and standards of beauty…and so our conversations began:

“Elsa is an imaginary or made-up character. Moana is based on real history and a real group of people…if we are going to dress up a real person, we have to make sure we are doing it in a way that is respectful. Otherwise, it is like we are making fun of someone else’s culture.”

Hearing me push back against her Moana choice, my daughter re-asserted her desire to dress up as Moana (for Halloween 2018!). I closed this initial “Moana” conversation by telling her: “We would have to do some research and figure out if there is a way to dress up as Moana that is respectful of her culture.”

Since her 2017 Halloween choice was, in fact, Elsa, I returned to this costume choice and shared: “There is one thing I don’t like about the character of Elsa. I feel like because Elsa is a White princess, and we see so many White princesses, her character sends the message that you have to be a certain way to be “beautiful” or to be a “princess”…that you have to have White skin, long, blonde hair, and blue eyes. And I don’t like that message. You are White, like Elsa—if you dressed up as a character like Moana, who has brown skin, you would never change your skin color. But I’m not sure I like the idea of you changing your hair color to dress up as Elsa—because I think Elsa’s character could also be a short, brown-haired character like you.”

“No,” my daughter refuted. “I want you to make be a long, blonde braid like Elsa’s.”

“We can do that,” I agreed. “When we are dressing up as a made-up character who is White, it is OK to change how your hair looks, but I just want you to know that if you wanted to, you could dress up as Elsa and not change your hair.”

Later, as my daughter continued her daily ballads/sing-alongs to “How far I’ll go” from Moana, I began doing some research of my own with regard to if/how my daughter, a White child, could dress up as Moana in a respectful way, in case her 2018 costume choice got bumped up.

“What are you doing?” my daughter asked as she peered over my shoulder while I looked at my smartphone.

“I’m trying to find more information about if a (White) person can dress up as another person’s culture in a way that honors the culture, without making fun of the culture or using the culture in a way that uses stereotypes or makes people who identify with that culture feel uncomfortable…” Through some additional back and forth, I elaborated on the idea of stereotypes (click here for a conversation about stereotypes from when my daughter was much younger) and the concept of cultural appropriation, though without using this phrase.

I came up with three ideas:

First, I considered whether my daughter and I could find Polynesian artists that made traditional clothing and both learn about and support their work—but I wasn’t coming up with such artists…and, moreover, it still felt problematic to “dress up” as another culture, (even while trying to learn about and honor it). So much for idea #1.

My second idea, which I shared with my daughter, involved thinking about different qualities that Moana exemplifies, like bravery, strength, love of family, and caring for the environment, and using those qualities as inspiration to dress up as “Moana’s sister”.

My daughter was not impressed. “No! I want to be the real Moana!” she said with a scowl on her face.

Since we were talking about Halloween 2018, I wasn’t overly concerned, but a day or so later, it occurred to me to ask my daughter what her costume would look like if she were to dress up as the “real Moana.” I thought, perhaps, her answer could open up a possibility that hadn’t occurred to me.

“I need to see a picture of Moana,” she replied. We googled an image of Moana and my daughter affirmed that her costume would need to be “exactly like the one in the picture.”

“But I don’t have the exact clothing that Moana has—how about if you just wore similar colors as Moana, like a red shirt and a skirt?”

“No, I want you to use your sewing machine and make a costume like Moana’s.”

I reminded my daughter that I had given my sewing machine away (and, by the way, she had grossly over-estimated my sewing skills!).

“Anyway,” I added, “I don’t like the idea of dressing up using the same traditional clothing that someone from Moana’s culture may have worn because that feels like we are laughing at her culture by making it a costume. A child whose family is Polynesian could dress up using that type of traditional clothing but Moana’s culture is not our culture. If you want you could dress up as someone from one of your cultures, you could be a tango dancer from Argentina…(or as Che Guevara!). Otherwise, maybe you could be a modern-day Moana and dress up in the clothing you think Moana might wear today.”

After a few days of the same conversation, my daughter decided that she would, instead, dress up like Mickey Mouse for Halloween 2018.

“That is a great solution,” I told my daughter. “And with Mickey Mouse, we don’t have to worry about making fun of anyone or dressing up as a culture different from our own because Mickey Mouse is a pretend mouse!

This brings be to my third “idea” on “how to dress up as Moana”…which was to tell my daughter she could not do so. In the end, my daughter came to this on her own.

As far as my concerns about Elsa, I did some more googling and came up with images of a brown-haired Elsa and a short-haired Elsa, which I showed to my daughter. “See?” I told her. “In these pictures, Elsa doesn’t even have a dress on, she has regular clothing. So there are lots of ways to ‘be’ Elsa. This is what I was saying about Moana—that you could dress as a modern Moana in regular clothing and still ‘be’ Moana.”

I was immediately shot down. My daughter would have a long blonde braid as “Elsa” and I would have to grin and bear it. Today, our Halloween discussion continued as my daughter required me to remember various costumes from my childhood and considered briefly dressing up as a telephone instead of “Mickey Mouse” in 2018. One thing is for sure, our discussions around appropriate and inappropriate Halloween costumes will continue.

Post Script: A friend shared with me that when her daughter encountered Frozen for the first time, they found a staged version with a Black woman playing Elsa (click here for a video about an artist who drew Elsa as Black). My friend also told her daughter that Idina Menzel, who sings the part of Elsa, is Jewish (as are my friend and her daughter) and that Idina Menzel looks nothing like Elsa. Finally, she shared that the husband and wife who wrote the music and lyrics to Frozen are a White woman and an Asian American man, just as in her daughter’s family (my friend is White and Jewish and her husband is Korean).

If you have anything to add about your conversations about Moana or Elsa, please share them in the comments below!

__

Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and individual consultations on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to her five-year-old daughter and to her two-year-old and three-month-old sons.