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On creative license and cultural sensitivity

This is a really long post. But it’s really important, and we’d appreciate it if you read it all.

As some of you may know, Disney has recently announced its next film, Moana, for release in 2018. The film will be starring a Polynesian seafaring princess by the same name.

When I first heard about it, I was really interested, and I looked around a bit to see what kind of character designs they’ve released, and found plenty of fan drawings on tumblr, and then I found this, and this. Which is just a small sampling of a lot of (valid) apprehension I’ve been seeing about it. It seems that Disney is focusing on Māori culture in specific, which has left people divided; on the one hand, relieved that Disney seems to be doing their homework, but on the other, suspicion because of its terrible track record regarding representation of… well, everything. The entire internet is there for you to go and look that up, I’m not going to waste time exploring that topic here.

The point I’m getting to is that it made us reconsider our currently Māori character, Reka. We’re planning to expand her role in the comic in the next few chapters. Part of this would involve the reader gaining insight into her cultural history, such as her tattoos. But we realised, when trying to script it out, that we weren’t sure how to tell the story of her culture and background convincingly. We realised that, despite having created her, we actually know very little of her origins. And before all this, we hadn’t actually considered the impact that designing a character like Reka would have on Māori readers.

In our quest to learn more about Māori culture, we read up more in-depth about Māori tattooing, and realised with a sinking feeling that the tattoos Ben designed were all wrong. This, combined with the recent Moana publicity, made us decide to do better research, so we could have a character which is not culturally insensitive. I had no idea where to begin reading, as our questions were rather specific, so I decided to email the School of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland, asking for help. Which was at the same time the best and the worst idea, because we got a very honest and straightforward answer from them.

In a nutshell, I asked if we could talk about our character’s tattoos, and that we were concerned that our representation of her is culturally insensitive, and that we would hate for our comic to be offensive and arrogantly western.

Their response, in a nutshell, is that having created the character in the first place, despite knowing nothing of Māori culture, is already offensive and arrogantly western from the outset. And that if we wished to learn about the Māori culture, the best would be to go to New Zealand, and talk to them face to face, and learn from them in person, and then ask them personally about Māori representation.

Needless to say, we didn’t know where to stick our heads. Because they’re right. We messed up.

So I guess this post is both a combination of an explanation about some changes we’re going to make, as well as a deeply heartfelt, public apology. First and foremost to Māori people. But secondly,  also to anyone else we led to treating an already marginalised culture as exotic and voiceless. Especially as two people living in South Africa, being what it is, that is just a really, really shitty thing to do. We ought to have known better. We messed up, and we apologise. We’ve emailed back saying as much, too. Reka was designed in ignorance, not malice, but the effect is the same, and we really regret that.

So… what now?

Not many of you know this, but Cottonstar was actually never designed to become a webcomic. Ben spent one weekend back in 2008 on an entry for a comic contest. The requirements were: A synopsis of the comic, a minimum of three characters, and a minimum of three comic pages. The contest fell through because Ben turned out to be the only entrant, and he was left with all the work he’d done, which was the cast, the concept of Cottonstar, and three pages that we’ve redrawn and integrated into Chapter 2. After that, in 2009, Ben was approached by a party who proposed to publish the comic, if it was developed further. That also fell through after Ben did pages 1-12 of what is now Chapter 1. (Page 11 was added after the fact to flesh out the story). Then, all of it went into hibernation until around 2010, when we started dating. We chatted about the idea of  launching a webcomic using what he already had, and got pretty excited about the idea, and we leapt into it blindly, not knowing much about either webcomics or writing or publishing. So pretty much everything core about the comic was done hastily in one weekend. Since there was only script for three pages, we had to start writing from there, plugging up plot holes and winging it as we go. We like to think we’ve done alright so far, except for this. If we could go back, we would probably do a lot of things differently.

It’d be really easy to say “eh, well it’s hundreds of years in the future, who’s to say cultures haven’t evolved,” and play the creative license card. But that would actually be even worse, because not only do we now know better, but we would also be wilfully perpetuating a harmful thing. Once you put your work in the public eye, you need to take responsibility for the things you communicate with it. If you’re going to be presenting any kind of narrative, you need to understand what you’re saying, and why you’re saying it.

We’ve discussed it, and we’ve decided the best course of action would be to redesign Reka. She’ll keep her name, her personality and.. well, pretty much everything (including her arm tattoos, because those were not Māori to begin with, and they do actually have a back story), but her background will change. It won’t affect the overall plot, and will make her more a more balanced character. At this point we have the benefit of not having revealed any of her backstory yet, nor has she actually shown any signifiers of Māori culture aside from her tattoos, specifically because we were unsure of how to proceed with her. That stuff can all be rewritten now, with more confidence, involving cultures closer to home, with people we can talk to and consult with when writing her.

We can’t do anything about all the books and posters that have already been printed, nor any of the press and interviews. Fortunately, none of these things have occurred on a very large scale yet. But we’ll be editing our pages piece by piece and changing the cast descriptions. Future printings of the comic will not contain Māori tattooing, and we will be editing all our older pages to reflect this.

We are by no means perfect people, but we’re trying to do what we can to be good people. We still make many mistakes. We have a lot to learn and a lot to change.

The comic is our baby, and we love it, but there are more important things than pride. This is one of them. We hope you’ll understand.

Yours as always

Danelle & Ben

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