Stock photo of Disney’s Moana
I have had a bone to pick with Disney for a long time. Perhaps it was the women’s college I went to that nurtured my strong feminist heart to challenge anything that put girls and women into precious and demoralizing boxes.
The Disney Princess franchise has long been an entity that I have struggled with – from the earliest messaging for young girls to wait for your prince to come – or worse – recognize the need to be saved by your prince. Further, young girls have learned to put intellect, ambition, interests and talents aside for the good of the more important support role required to land a man.
Ariel had to LOSE HER VOICE (!!!!) in exchange for the chance to follow and meet a goofy bro with a cute dog. Her prince was nothing special. He certainly lacked anything akin to the precious gift Ariel had – her voice and her talent to sing. It’s creepy messaging for young girls, confusing at best, but demoralizing, really.
Belle was an improvement. To begin with – the books. I was a book nerd and an English Literature & Creative Writing major (undergraduate degree) when “Beauty & The Beast” was released. For once, the Disney Princess did not need saving, and in stark contrast the princess, who wasn’t a princess at all, saved the man, er The Beast. It doesn’t get all warm and fuzzy here, though. Look at the qualities of The Beast. Feminists have long critiqued Disney for setting Belle up with a poor romantic choice. The Beast locks her up. He is rude and scary. Creepy, really. I’m going to save the character analysis and leave this one here. It’s still a story about a girl’s pursuit for love and her happy ending – marriage.
I wanted to love “Pocahontas”. Finally, a Disney Princess who wasn’t another white girl. Her song – Colors of the Wind – became my first Disney anthem. It felt like real progress. But, once again, there were many flaws in the female heroine storyline.
Here is the summary for the animated film:
Pocahontas is the animated tale of the romance between a young American Indian woman named Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith, who journeyed to the New World with other settlers to begin fresh lives. Her powerful father, Chief Powhatan, disapproves of their relationship and wants her to marry a native warrior. Meanwhile, Smith’s fellow Englishmen hope to rob the Native Americans of their gold. Can Pocahontas’ love for Smith save the day? (From princess.disney.com)
This is far from the reality of Pocahontas’ story. The real Pocahontas’ name was Matoaka, which had been concealed for fear the English could do her harm if they knew it. She was about ten years old when John Smith came into the picture. She converted to Christianity, took the baptismal name Rebecca, and married John Rolfe. As for her biggest colonial contribution, she aided her husband’s tobacco farm.
Colonists had been trying to grow tobacco for years, but without success. Now suddenly, with Pocahontas present, John Rolfe succeeded in growing a crop Europeans would buy. Tobacco culture required very different techniques from European crops, and women were the agriculturalists in Chesapeake Algonquian society, so she was the one who understood both the crop and the environment.
Taken from Time Magazine’s article “The Full Story of Pocahontas is Rarely Told. Here’s What We’re Missing” by Karen Ordahl Kupperman, March 12, 2019.
We get continued improvements – like “Mulan”. She’s a strong female character. But, Disney cannot help but enforce the only “happy ending” available for female heroines – finding love.
Here’s Disney’s summary for the animated feature film “Mulan”:
Fearful that her ailing father will be drafted into the Chinese military, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) takes his spot — though, as a girl living under a patriarchal regime, she is technically unqualified to serve. She cleverly impersonates a man and goes off to train with fellow recruits. Accompanied by her dragon, Mushu, she uses her smarts to help ward off a Hun invasion, falling in love with a dashing captain along the way.
Thank goodness for the dashing captain. Sigh.
“Frozen” produced another powerful girl-power anthem – Let It Go.
The film has it merits. Obviously, it doesn’t offer a diverse landscape of characters. I have Nordic heritage so I can appreciate the snowland magic of Arendelle, which was based on several locations in Norway. It’s about sister love, which I love. Romantic love gets squashed when the love interest turns out to be a fraud and the heroine has the sense to let him go. So, from a feminist perspective, “Frozen” gives young girls something else…
Then came “Moana”.
Sigh of complete relief and joy! I came to know Moana at the start of the coronavirus shutdown. Songs from the film were among favorites on my toddler son’s playlist. We felt something visceral, in our bones – the way I felt something from Colors of the Wind and Let it Go. But better.
“Moana” is everything. I could gush about her and this film all day long. I have been obsessed. She is natural beauty so luminous – by far the most beautiful Disney Princess, in my humble opinion. Her inner beauty is palpable. From the adorable opening scene when baby Moana meets the ocean.
I cried throughout this movie. I realized Moana is for mamas! I mean, yes, it’s for children, it’s for everyone. But it really is for mamas in a special “we’ve been waiting for this” kind of way!
The soundtrack is so soothing and body-electric-heart-warming. I soon learned the songs we loved so much were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (genius behind “Hamilton”). I love this man. I want to become his friend. I want to thank him. I want to nominate and vote for him for President. Because he gets it. Clearly this man embodies change, clarity, inclusion, love, strength, and how the power of music can teach and heal.
Here’s the storyline for the animated film “Moana”:
An adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides her in her quest to become a master way-finder. Together they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity.
This is teenage angst at its best! There is no weirdo love story that gets pushed into the psyche of little girls’ faces like stuffing shit food down the throat of a goose for foie gras. This is pure. This is about the environment and healing mother earth, Te Fiti. This is about presenting a very different lens about a Polynesian people – not as ignorant natives or entertainment for white people – but as a long line of mighty voyagers!
I got chills up and down my spine springing goosebumps up all over my skin during so many moments of watching this film.
Moana’s grandmother is the consummate crone who, upon her death, transforms into a beautiful stingray, her spirit animal. Every scene with Moana and her grandmother is breathtakingly and achingly beautiful.
I like “The Rock”. I mean, I really didn’t have much opinion of him. But, after seeing him personify demi-God Maui, well, I love Duane “The Rock” Johnson now, too. He is perfection in this story. I had no idea he could sing! My toddler jams to his song “You’re Welcome” written by Miranda. The rapping is a welcome pure delight.
This mama has serious opinions about Disney Princess films. Especially since I have a little boy, I don’t want him to see the stereotypes portrayed in most of these earlier films. I want him to see girls and women as strong, capable and not the second gender. Little boys need strong, independent female heroines as much as little girls do. They need to learn from better examples that the earth doesn’t revolve around them and their male privilege. Male heros in Disney tales need to be better. They don’t need to rescue females. They need to include females, work alongside females and even be able to take a backseat to females.
The messages in Moana are clear. It’s about heart. Sometimes hearts are stolen and turn us inside out. Pure love can return and restore a heart and heal. We can restore our earth and help her heal herself – she has enormous power to do so.
Just look at air quality maps during the coronavirus pandemic that show clarity and improvement when toxic daily function of humans is put to a halt. We have the power to restore Te Fiti so she can heal herself, regenerate and spring new life.
There must be a Moana in all of us. We all have a path and a purpose. We all go through the sometimes painful process of finding our own identities. This often happens multiple times during the course of a lifetime.
In fact, I am going through my own Moana moment in the course of my life, working through my still new identity as mother. Yes, Moana is for mamas!
Her songs have awakened a longing inside of me to break away the crackling shell of what life has turned me into – tired, anxious, confused, sleep deprived, unsure, feeling unstable and even depressed and angry. There’s a lot of Te Fiti in me right now, too.
When we stop force feeding girls the one tired storyline about white beauty, or victim heroines, or happily ever after love stories – we’ll feed girls with nourishment to love themselves for who they are, for exactly how they look, and to encourage them to follow their hearts, to help foster the yearning that evolves into a life-long journey of discovering identity, of soul searching, of becoming.
Here’s my anthem: I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).