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





  1. That’s such a sad reply from the School of Māori Studies.

    For starters….you’ve been type cast as Arrogantly Western even though you realized your portrayal might be inaccurate, being as it is based on what little is available to be known about the Maori in your culture, and understanding that this is probably inaccurate at best, and you are reaching out, wanting to correct it, and the only solution they have to get their culture portrayed correctly in one character, is to go there and study under them.

    Most of my cultural background is Scots and Irish. We are always represented by the Benevolent Conquerors, owner of lands they steal, and rewriting our history to make their barbarism culturally acceptable. They were the Monarchies, and now the Uber Merchants of the world, where would we be if they hadn’t destroyed our culture and imposed a portable wealth, and and resource destructive system on us?

    Your doing a comic, and wanted to get some accuracy into a charterer of yours, and if it had been of a culture I was educated in, I’d jump at the chance to get some real history and back ground in your offering, to entice those who are unaware, to get better educated.

    Western Arrogance, you certainly aren’t, if your trying to be better educated about the world around you, and represent realities instead of perpetrating myths, when you are aware they are myths.

    Anyone that gets to study in the USA about the Maori, would get the same response form these folk. Why? Because all that is being offered is the Western View. Once you want to know more, and represent reality, your no longer an active member of Western Arrogance.

    Thanks for wanting to be culturally sensitive, and to accurately portray a character. Without moving to New Zealand, I don’t see how you can do more if the experts are unwilling to take advantage of you as an educational vehicle.

    Oh yeah, Uber Merchants…. and a people attempting to recover from their excesses, and their death hold on the basic survival of the people they’ve economically enslaved… is what drew me to your comic, now I want to KNOW MORE AN MORE!!!!

    Thanks Danelle and Ben!


  2. In all honesty I really think that given the time period and being a work of fiction it shouldn’t really matter much. Like you said… creative license.

    But it’s nice that you gave it some thought and wanted to be faithful to their culture. I do think their response sounded a bit uppity though lol

  3. I, too, am incredibly disappointed at the response you got when you reached out for help and this is indicative of something that happens right here in South Africa, too, but it could be fatigue at constantly being bombarded by ignorance (or, worse, outright bigotry). I just wish the School of Māori Studies had seen it as an opportunity to teach, even if part of the lesson was that you are too far removed from the culture to be able to reflect it accurately. (I guess that was the lesson in a very blunt manner.)

    We have an indescribable number of cultures and identities in South Africa and, as a white person, especially, existing under cultural privilege, it has been hard to try to learn from and understand other people’s perspectives and experiences in the country because I have experienced a similar backlash – just instead of Western privilege it’s white privilege being thrown at me.

    I have been fortunate, as a freelancer, to work with a great number of people from many backgrounds and with some I have been able to have these conversations where I can ask questions, hear (for example) horrific stories about things that happened blocks away from me while I was living a happy childhood under apartheid and shielded from what was going on, and understand the experiences that people have had that have caused them to wrestle with personal identity and cultural identity.

    One of the most informative – and to my mind important – panel discussions that happened during this year’s Open Book Comics Festival concerned a group that is working on a comics project that seeks to reframe the Coloured identity (with the help of a comic aimed at kids). The identity has negative connotations for a lot of “Coloured” people (being an identity that was applied TO them by apartheid classification and with which they don’t want to be identified because they experience it as an identity of people who were told, and therefore grew up believing, that they are unworthy, which has a huge psychological impact on one’s self worth and so forth), to a new identity based on Khoi-San heritage, which goes back thousands of years and has many positive role models and mythologies that can help to give kids a positive cultural identity and positive self belief to counter the culturally endemic sense of unworthiness that they grow up with.

    That came out a bit messy as I still have to write my article about this – it is a difficult subject to tackle because I am aware that I may unintentionally be insensitive out of ignorance as I try to relay what I learnt in the session – but I was encouraged by the people on the panel who were open to questions and keen to take the discussion further – with everyone, including me.

    We can’t change and we can’t learn if we are unwilling to talk to each other.

    Meanwhile, I applaud your decision to reframe Reka with an identity that is suitable and accurate. I can see how difficult this must have been for you after having put years of work into the comic. It’ll only make it better, however.

    • MJW,

      Good luck with what help you can offer, I wish the nest to all of you. Those who were here before the colonists (I’m in the US, and born here, all my ancestors followed after the initial colonization periods were over in different locations).

      The First People, where I live, have been here for at least 13,500 years, a mere 4,000 years before the last ice age raised the sea level 200 feet and covered over most of the older civilizations on our planet. A mere 9.500 years longer then what we are told is the cradle of our Civilization. It’s sorta humbling. It certainly makes me want to know more about everyone, as obviously my public education was intended to get me to be a good worker, not be well informed to be able to make good decisions.

      Some of these people also toss white privilege and such in my face, but it doesn’t deter me from showing how in times only in the last 40-110 years ago, these people didn’t have recognition as people, much less humans, you couldn’t be tried in a court of law for killing one of them until after about 1974.

      There is so much to learn from other peoples, I urge all cultures to do what they can to get their histories together, teach, and reestablish their identities.

      People get co-opted to commit atrocities upon other peoples, by those who then steal the land and it’s resources, and move on with that portable wealth, they leave desserts behind them. But not all of the people co-opted into committing atrocities remain that way.

      I’ve been sitting here the last 2 evenings practicing music on a Practice Chanter (for Bag Pipes) my Great Uncle traded his rifle for, in the first Boar Wars, as he had no stomach to kill farmers trying to protect their land from a better armed robber.

      In summary, the people at large (not the racists) all learn more about culture, and community, if everyone had one, that wasn’t simply represented by a well armed government.

  4. Wow, sorry to hear that and I understand. Although, the response from The School of Maori was harsh and it felt like they squandered a good opportunity on helping you guys learn more about the culture that I can truly see you deeply want to know more. I wish you luck on the comics and looking forward to your new re-designed Reka!

  5. […] may recall this blog post we did about Reka. We promised to redesign her, starting with her facial tattoos. We started with […]

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