I’ve always had a soft spot for finding familiar tropes, archetypes, and Easter eggs in TV and movies — like catching all of the Lord of the Rings bits in an episode of Bob’s Burgers, or recognizing a ship named Serenity on an episode of The Expanse. Disney films make this process particularly fun: The studio has a knack for monetizing references across their massive franchises. Marvel films are always packed with moments of fan service for those who have kept up with the cinematic universe, Ralph Breaks the Internet featured Disney’s entire princess lineup, and Pixar animators often subtly pop characters from one film into another as easter egg cameos.
So I appreciated that Disney’s new animated movie Raya and the Last Dragon gave me the chance to play spot-the-reference, whether intentional or not. I related the film to Mulan, the Disney classic I grew up with. Both films star an Asian woman driven to combat in order to protect a beloved father, with a dragon sidekick who provides comedic relief. Both films use plucked flowers floating on still water to convey grief. That said, I don’t want to suggest they’re the same — especially as Mulan is set in China, whereas Raya’s story takes place in a fantasy world based on Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.
When Raya’s early trailers came out, fans found a visually similar character in Avatar: The Last Airbender’s co-protagonist waterbender Katara (and Korra, of the spinoff series Legend of Korra), thanks to similarities in young Raya’s outfit and hairstyle. I had also noticed this, and ended up playing a kind of tug-of-war with myself. I was worried about Raya’s filmmakers recycling Katara as a visual archetype — but I also chastised myself for the assumption that these figures were identical just because they wore similar clothing, and were darker-skinned Asian women. Mostly, I had never seen a big children’s fantasy release that led me to make these comparisons before.
But after watching Raya and the Last Dragon, the Avatar: The Last Airbender comparison dropped from my mind. Raya reminded me more of the emotionally distant but physically powerful heroine archetype — like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen — fighting through a divided post-apocalyptic world. I was happy that others covering the film largely dropped the comparison too. But a few pieces did go on to draw connections between Kumandra’s warring factions and cute, inventive animal mashups to the ones in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both of these are hardly tropes specific to Last Airbender, though — they’re common themes that can be found across science and fantasy fiction.
As entertainment continues to diversify, we’ll keep bumping into this grey area between what we consider archetypes vs. characters who feel similar because they’re from the same race or cultural background. It’s a particularly salient question for speculative fiction stories, which are known for having well-established tropes. New releases are marked by substantial discourse around spotting references, like scoping out WandaVision’s Marvel Easter eggs. People have always compared new heroes and stories to their favorites from the past.
Some predominant archetypes have emerged in speculative fiction, and they often provoke questions about whether a given character was fully based on a predecessor, like Harry Potter’s wizard headmaster Dumbledore, who looks suspiciously similar to Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf. But these historical throughlines are typically the provenance of white characters, because so much of the speculative canon — and even more recent science fiction and fantasy films — have centered on white characters. The ur-texts of modern science fiction and fantasy blockbusters tended to reinforce the idea of whiteness as neutral.
Western high fantasy continues to reckon with a racist legacy. Classic texts, authored in eras where racist portrayals were the absolute norm, often ended up propagating these beliefs in the form of maligned fantasy races and classes of characters, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s portrayals of orcs and goblins. The standard-for-the-time British colonialist attitudes he baked into his work have trickled down all kinds of modern fantasy entertainment. Dungeons & Dragons publishers, for example, are now reckoning with the RPGs racist stereotyping.
In this environment, people of color in prominent roles are more likely to be tokenized or hyper-visible in ways that draw more immediate comparison, and to suffer severe backlash when they don’t conform to the historical casting of a science fiction or fantasy property. This is true for Asian Americans who are cast in starring roles, like when Kelly Marie Tran was harassed by racist and misogynistic trolls after playing Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. The severity of the harassment led her to deactivate her Instagram account.
At the same time, Hollywood has a long history of selectively infusing a mishmash of Asian — or what TV and film creators thought of as “Asian” — architecture, art, language, and fashion into speculative-fiction worlds, all without casting Asian actors to populate these Asian-inspired worlds. Cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and even the more recent Blade Runner 2049 are a great example. To provide a better comparison to Raya: the most popular children’s fantasy franchise, Harry Potter, mostly flattened its Asian characters. Much like other characters of color in the series, Cho Chang and Padma and Parvati Patil mostly served to slightly diversify the general population of the wizarding world, even though the narrative remained white-centered.
For years, Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the few cartoons made by Americans, aimed at children, and set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world that actually starred Asian characters. I love the show, and I’m impressed by how well its politics and characters hold up more than 15 years later. But it is funny to compare it to Raya when its world-building leaned heavily toward East Asian influences. While there are still relatively few massively popular Asian-centered cartoons written by Asian people in American media, there’s an even greater scarcity of animated shows and films centered on Southeast Asian characters specifically.
When I watched Raya and the Last Dragon, I was thrilled to see this fantasy world primed to reach a large audience thanks to the Disney name, and excited to add Raya and Namaari to the Asian action-princess pantheon. And while I enjoyed comparing Raya to other Asian women action stars, I was just as excited to connect her story to other recent tropes in children’s fantasy media. Raya has its similarities to Mulan, and to Last Airbender. But the comparisons don’t end there. In Namaari and Raya, I saw Catra and Adora from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and thought about readings of Frozen’s Elsa as queer. I’ve often joked that certain characters had to walk so others could run, like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline in Adventure Time making space for other queer girl relationships onscreen. I look forward to seeing the characters Raya might inspire — the action-adventure heroes who will get to run thanks to her time in the spotlight.