For centuries, nations have expanded geographically and economically by taking land and labor from indigenous people. One of the narratives used to justify this colonialist expansion portrays indigenous land and space as empty, simply there for others to occupy. This narrative is known as indigenous absence.
Kleinman and Kleinman write that this kind of erasure is also applied to indigenous communities and families through the lens of health and suffering. For example, as in this Pulitzer prize-winning photo taken by Kevin Carter for The New York Times, the media often portrays indigenous communities as if they are in a state of constant helpless suffering, leaving any local action, support or voices out of the narrative. This implies that indigenous communities and families cannot adequately help themselves and require outside intervention from a supposedly more qualified source. Colonizers then use this logic to pursue their goals under the guise of providing help.
Chris Sanders’ Lilo & Stitch illustrates the narrative of indigenous absence through its portrayals of Lilo’s family, while using the presence of aliens (and a social worker) to advance this narrative and represent a justified state intervention.
When we first meet Lilo, she is swimming alone in the ocean, without any supervision. We then learn that Lilo and her older sister Nani’s parents have recently died in a car crash, leaving Nani to care for Lilo. While the film shows their local community in the beginning, this community is absent when it comes to caring for Lilo or Nani. Nani is also repeatedly portrayed as an incredibly incompetent guardian. Because of this, the family’s biggest threat and the most major plot device is the presence of an evil social worker, who could take Lilo away. Thus, the very premise of the plot depends on the absence of a competent guardian for Lilo, and the fact that her household and community are inadequate and have failed her, creating a supposedly dire need for state intervention– so dire that the social worker identifies himself as “a special classification” that they bring in when “something has gone wrong.”
When Stitch joins the family, he creates chaos and jeopardizes Nani’s job search, all of which make the household appear even more unsuitable for Lilo. Stitch is thus used as a plot point that furthers the narrative of indigenous absence by exacerbating Nani’s caretaking challenges. At the same time, however, we see that Stitch fits in well with the family and is a valuable friend for Lilo when she has no one else. Both Lilo and Stitch are portrayed as unruly and badly behaved. In fact, Lilo fits in so poorly with the white community around her, that the only creature she can befriend is an alien. By choosing not to give Lilo anyone from her own community that she can relate to, the film furthers the notion that the indigenous community is absent and is a space for others to fill. Furthermore, the fact that she is portrayed as so deranged that she can only be expected to befriend an alien emphasizes Lilo’s otherness and implies that Lilo requires correction by an external force.
The most iconic phrase from the film is “Ohana means family,” and it’s marketed as a wholesome Hawaiian phrase. However, for Lilo, “Ohana” is policed and threatened by outsiders throughout the movie—both by a social worker and an invading alien military force; in fact, Lilo can only keep Stitch at the end by invoking state law.
This mirrors a history of state violence against indigenous children in the form of residential schools and forced adoptions, which were justified by the same narratives of safety and health that are used to question Nani’s competence as a guardian. Social workers and child welfare professionals participated in and often facilitated these colonial efforts. Frantz Fanon, referring to health and medicine, explains, “colonization sought a justification for its existence and the legitimization of its persistence….” Thus, the plot of Lilo and Stitch can be viewed as a microcosm of colonialism.
Lena Denbroeder is a recent graduate of Barnard College where she studied economics. Her professional interests include working towards health and housing equity, and approaching healthcare and health policy through a social justice lens.
Fanon, Frantz. 1982. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press..
Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1996. “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus 125 (1): 1–23.
Sanders, Chris. 2002. Lilo & Stitch. Walt Disney Pictures.