By: Arlene D. Nagtalon
Image via TheButlerCollegian.com
As a Filipina-American, I was hyped when this movie came out earlier this year on March 5th, 2021. Not only would we be seeing representation of and influences from various southeast Asia, like the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia, to name a few, but Raya, the titular character, and Namaari, her nemesis, are two of the most badass females I’ve ever seen.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, Raya And the Last Dragon not only pays homage to a plethora of Asian customs, but sheds light on how women are defying cultural stereotypes that have been opposed for decades. When it comes to racial fetishisation, subservience to men, learning how to defend oneself, or escape traditional domestic values, this Disney movie is truly revolutionary for breaking away from the old-fashioned portrayal of Asian women.
One of my favorite scenes of this movie is, arguably, the entrance scene. You have a masked girl running through the woods, skillfully avoiding booby traps, then fighting an unknown figure to obtain the Heart of Sisu, a magical orb containing the last piece of dragon magic. Rather than finding the need to justify who this girl is and why she’s doing what she’s doing, Raya performs every action with certainty. Most importantly, she does so without worrying about her appearance or how she looks. As we are parting from stories that don’t end with main characters finding their significant others, the need for the protagonist to dress or look the part matters a lot less than the lesson of the significance of trust.
In comparison to the beginning of Disney’s Mulan (1998), showing her getting ready for her meeting the matchmaker, Raya doesn’t worry or care about how she looks as she is fighting, especially in male eyes. While one may make the argument that these two movies were produced decades apart, straying away from surface looks is an invaluable message to audiences who are more concerned than ever about growing up in a society with unattainable standards of beauty. Many fetishsize Asians to maintain their light, fair-skinned complexions, so having Raya as another main character with brown skin like Moana will allow others to embrace their darker skin.
Doing away with subservience to men is another aspect of Raya And the Last Dragon that I enjoyed. While there were only three male characters, Chief Benja, Boun, and Tong, their interactions with Raya and the other female characters was never a power struggle. Raya was never one to comply easily to the wishes of others, especially when she realized that it was her father, Chief Benja, who invited the other tribes to Heart in hopes of reuniting Kumandra once again rather than fending them off to protect the Heart of Sisu. We also cannot forget about Raya’s initial conversations with Tong when she was captured by him. Rather than fearing for her life and obeying his wishes to die at his hands, they were able to compromise and do what was necessary to fulfill their mission to acquire the broken parts of the Heart of Sisu.
Raya growing up learning how to defend herself is another way that Raya And the Last Dragon strays away from not just Asian female stereotypes, but female stereotypes as a whole. Unlike how Merida from Pixar’s Brave was discouraged by her mother to wield a sword and bow, Raya’s father trained her from a young age to become the Guardian of the Dragon Gem by fighting him. She’s lucky she is able to learn these skills from a male figure when people like Mulan were forbidden to learn the art of fighting, as it was prohibited at the time in China. Old-fashioned Asian families typically see opposing evil forces, fighting, and exploration as tasks for men, which undermines female capabilities. With Raya, Namaari, and little Noi portraying powerful women who can stand on their own two feet, they encourage their female audiences to do the same by fighting for themselves and what they believe in.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, Raya And The Last Dragon is a reminder that women of all backgrounds and ethnicities should be treasured and valued for the roles they play in society. As peace restorers, fighters, travelers, protectors, and much, much more, people like Raya prompt us to think about our contributions, no matter how nontraditional they are.
Written by writer Arlene Nagtalon