“Raya” and the Representation of Asian Culture

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Claro Bacaltos, Layout Editor

Disney’s latest princess film, Raya and the Last Dragon, provides a rich, wonderfully animated, and engaging story. Moreover, it is very interesting how this pair of appealing and exciting teen girl rivals represent a broad political message that Disney has pushed over the decades. Also, it’s a fantasy adventure that will bring Disney fans a long-awaited treasure: Raya as the first Southeast Asian Disney princess. The film was recently released on March 5 and has been premiering on Disney+ and in select theaters. 

The film is set in a fantasy land called Kumandra, a prosperous place rampaged by Druun, an evil spirit that turns people into stones and multiplies. There was a rivalry for the orb that ultimately divided Kumandra people into tribes and each tribe resembles a dragon: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon. Then there is Raya, the first Southeast Asian princess, who went on a quest to find the last dragon in order to reunite the tribes of Kumandra. Raya is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, a Vietnamese-American.

I know what you’re thinking. A lone rider. A dystopian world. A land that’s gone to waste. How did this world get so broken? Well, that all began 500 years ago. Kumandra – this is what we used to be.”

— Raya

In a news conference last week, Kelly Marie Tran stated, “All of us are seeing these attacks happening consistently, and you do get to that place sometimes where you’re like ‘Oh this is a very broken world, and the only way to really get through this is to look for the bits of hope in your community.’

The release of this new animated film may pose a stepping stone in deterring discrimination. It is really fulfilling to see “brown” skin color being represented on the big screens where it is mostly dominated by Eurocentric standards. People are used to seeing pale, blonde Disney princesses because the market is catered to Europeans, and appreciation is being shown by the Asian community that Disney will finally consider to target the Southeast Asian market and represent its people and wonderful culture. It gives the younger generation a role model to look up to, to make them feel that they are seen and heard. A Southeast Asian Disney princess is one of the small steps of the progressive push for more diversity not only in the industry but also in other fields as the world gets smaller and smaller due to globalization. 

It is also very refreshing to see a redefinition of what it is to be a princess. Raya is a warrior, who can protect herself and doesn’t need a prince charming, which goes against the traditional Disney princess definition people know. To see such modern progressive ideals being instilled in a Disney princess gives expectations to see more future Disney princesses who are from different backgrounds and different cultures.