The US has long been a driving force in entertainment, media, and cultural exportation, so the responsibility of transforming how marginalized identities are represented lies largely in the hands of the major players in Hollywood and mass media companies such as Disney.
With films such as Crazy Rich Asians and advertisements from Disney like “From Our Family To Yours”, which features well-researched representations of Filipino culture, it appears that mainstream media is finally starting to include characters that have historically been under-represented or exoticized.
Disney’s latest animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon features Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess and is a landmark moment for Southeast Asian representation in Hollywood.
The film was co-written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter Qui Nguyen and Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim, and Raya herself is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, the first Southeast Asian actor to lead an animated feature from the studio.
Members of the production team behind Raya and the Last Dragon traveled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore to research the cultures in order to accurately reflect them. The studio also has a Southeast Asia Story Trust that is comprised of a group of consultants with different areas of expertise ranging from music and choreography to architecture and martial arts.
For those of Southeast Asian heritage, it is exciting to see people who look like their parents and grandparents grace the screen. However, this powerful move is only the beginning, and there is still room for a lot of improvement.
Many people from Southeast Asian communities have mixed feelings about the release of Raya and the Last Dragon. Some people think the blending of multiple Southeast Asian cultures diminishes the significance of each individual culture, and there is also shock at the fact that no one in the main cast is of Filipino descent, even though Filipinos are the second-largest Asian-American group in the U.S.
Regardless, it is important to acknowledge that if we continue on this path of diversity and inclusivity, the first movies, shows, and representations of marginalized cultures will be followed by even more. It will take more than a few films like Raya and the Last Dragon to address the multifaceted issue of under-representation, but for now, we can celebrate the new path that the media industry is taking and continue to support, critique, and improve how our diverse realities are represented.