My thoughts on Raya representing my culture.

Arshad Shaharudin
6 min readMar 23, 2021

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I re-watched Raya and The Last Dragon and feel the immediate urge to do this writing. I first watched it around the last fortnight and had a bit of mixed feelings. Watching it for the second time, I did not buy it this time.

I wouldn’t say it is a bad movie. Like many Disney movies; it has good values, top-notch CGI and a fairly good plot. Character development is definitely present. A family movie? Yes. Bring your kids, siblings to watch this in the cinema while it is still there. However, was it a good representation of my culture? I would say I’m disappointed.

First, if you haven’t, watch the trailer here:

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Let’s begin with the plot. It all started 500 years prior to the movie timeline, in a land called Kumandra. There are evil spirits; Druun and they’re turning whatever they touched into stones. Dragons, who have been living alongside the humans all fought together against the Druun, but they were turned into stones as well. The dragons’ last resort was to create an orb to ward off the Druun and there goes the last dragon down the river stream (literally). This resulted in the people of Kumadra fighting over the orb and that’s when the civil war broke and divided them into 5 parts of the tribe; Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine and Talon. Raya was from Heart and her tribe was the one guarding the orb.

Then obviously, the plots thicken during Raya time when her father, the Chief of Heart has a pure intention of reuniting the five separated tribes back into one Kumandra. But, what’s life without a little betrayal here and there; that’s when Raya found her friend-turn-nemesis, Namaari. Long story short, Raya makes a poor judgement, Raya’s father turned into stone and Raya is on her quest to find the last dragon.

It’s Disney, the epitome of happy-forever-after, so of course it ended with the heroine winning at the end of the plot. To be fair, I would give credit to the plot and the scriptwriting. I wouldn’t easily get bored on repeated viewing. I appreciate a bit push of maturity when Raya’s rivalry is not as simple, it's a little bit political.

We are too culturally rich to be treated like this by a white studio.

A fair piece of representation from a big production name such as Disney comes with high expectations from people. Raya is the new Disney princess and said to be the new princess representing Southeast Asia. This is a long wait for many of us; especially folks from this region. Southeast Asia consists of 11 countries altogether, and we have our own distinctive cultural colour. However, Raya and the Last Dragon brought all of our 11 cultures and mashed it up in one mushy movie. That’s the way Disney saying “There you go. That’s enough representation for now”.

Imagine that they put Tun Fatimah and Trung sisters, national heroines for respective countries into one poor representation?

I want you to look at this simple infographic of where the inspiration of Raya derived from. It is a bit of cherry-picking here and there from the rich Southeast Asia culture and even history, and putting it into a 1-hour and 54 minutes film. My say is this:

Each of us from Southeast Asia is different and unique. I can’t come to the room and saying I am from Malaysia and as same as Thais, or even Indonesians. We speak different languages and have different customs. This movie represents no one in particular.

I am a tad disappointed, both writers, Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, respectively are Malaysian-American and Vietnamese-American. To the extent of embracing the Southeast Asia culture, the production team travelled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore to learn about our cultures.

For us who are Southeast Asians, who experience the culture in everyday real-life feel like the cultural blending makes the movie tasteless and insensitive.

The main side-kick for this movie is Sisu, being said is the last dragon. She is voiced over by Awkwafina (who is not a Southeast Asian) and is inspired by a Naga. A mythical creature derived from our folklore and said the inspiration comes from Thailand and Laos(refer to the infographic above #17). Sisu is baby blue, bright, shiny and fluffy. The resemblance doesn’t sit still of how the folktale Naga looks like.

This is how Naga looks like.

Nagas are the patronage of the rivers. Homed at Mekong River and they are believed to control the rainfall. All over Laos and Thailand’s architectures, especially their temples, you can see their prominent statues all over. With their sharp teeth, scaly skin and definitely not fluffy. However, considering this is a family-friendly movie, probably Disney think it is best to make Sisu baby blue and fluffy. I’ll give it a pass.

Our culture is not your buffet

When the first appearance of the five fraction tribes, I thought each of the tribe is representing at least one of the Southeast Asia countries in the real life. So, when Raya first appeared, I genuinely thought she represents Thailand. Although her first appearance was in combat mode, practicing with her father using Philipines’s weapon, Kali stick.

Then it gets more and more confusing, she wore what it seems to me is Thailand’s embroidery textile, and her pet’s name is TukTuk, deriving from the infamous trishaw in Thailand. She and her father also cook what I am guessing is Tom Yum. However, there is suddenly a quick Batik painting scene, and Raya’s father seems to be using a sword that looks like a Keris as his main weapon; which both is a shared culture by Malaysia and Indonesia.

By the time that the movie plot developed more and more, I couldn't pinpoint what is belong to whose culture. Everything is just there for the name of representation but not actually representing anyone or any particular culture. I think the representation that I wanted to be proud of is gone out of the window by the end of the movie.

I don’t know how this looks like a representation of Southeast Asia culture to me?

When they first announced Raya, I looked forward to it. It isn’t fair for me to say that I expect people out of my cultures -or even anyone who doesn’t belong to the culture that they’re trying to exhibit- aren’t capable to generate a fair story of cultures out of their own.

In fact, Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, are Southeast Asians; with more representation in and behind the scene, probably high expectations were fairly put. In addition to that, as said, research has been done. The team travelled before the pandemic to capture the details of this region to be translated to the movie, but I guess, it lost in translation?

The main problem is actually generalizing our culture. Disney princesses have been always Eurocentric, and the last 2020 Mulan remake also was a disappointment (a terribly tasteless movie- hate it). Considering Disney is the biggest animation studio, they can afford a research team (that actually do their job) and to hire people from respective cultures to generate a culturally appropriate movie. Raya makes the rich culture of Southeast Asia fall flat and doesn’t do the justice of what we are.

For those people who are not aware of Southeast Asia’s culture, this movie doesn’t tell them who we are or what our culture looks like. It is just an assumption of our culture. It doesn’t tell any story. Safe to say, I would just be happy if Disney picked Raya to be a Thailand princess or a Filipino princess and that’ll be it. Not a regional princess.

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Arshad Shaharudin

A Media Studies BA graduate, now pursuing a Development Studies MA. Always read but doesn’t really write, hence, here he is trying.