Writer, Teacher, Researcher
I have this love/hate relationship with Disney. I remember when I was my children’s age, gathering around our television set on Sunday nights, eating our popcorn dinner and watching The Wonderful World of Disney. It was here I fell in love with The Shaggy DA, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Escape from Witch Mountain, and The Apple Dumpling Gang among other classic live-action Disney films. Disney will always hold a significant place in my childhood.
The Disney I grew up with is not without fault, with a large number of racist and other problematic portrayals throughout their catalogue. But the Disney that has been created for my daughter is one that has always frightened me. A Disney where the role of a princess is one of subservience with a focus on finding a prince which will make everything better. This is the Disney I struggle with and the Disney that keeps me up at night.
Every once in a while, Disney does something that makes me happy. Usually, it involves their live-action films or Pixar. Big Hero 6, Inside Out, and Wreck it Ralph are recent animation studio films that I found pushed at some of the traditional narratives of gender, friendship, relationships, and youth found within much of the Disney canon.
So, when my children and I went to see Moana this past week I had my fingers crossed. I had already read a number of reviews discussing the ways in which the film has sparked discussion and commentary. I’m here to add to the appreciation of Moana.
I love Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). I love that it was just assumed that she would be the Chief of her people. I love that her father never talked about wanting a son or any assumptions that Moana would not make a good chief. Instead, Moana’s story is one of a traditional hero’s journey, and it just takes place in the body of a feminist teenage girl.
Moana can do whatever she wants. She figures out how to sail. She holds her own when she goes to find Maui, the demigod who needs to help her save her island and her people. She is determined to help her people and find their true history. She is determined to make the world better for the people she loves.
About halfway through the film, my love/hate Disney relationship popped up again. I realized that there were no white people in the film. I was worried that at some point there would be an appearance of a white warrior/savior who would come in and ruin the magic that was Moana. I’m so glad I was proved wrong. Moana remained the story of Pacific Islanders. The story of voyagers. And as Lindy West comments, the story of diversity that shows the true desire of progress and diversity those in the US want.
Moana is a feminist princess hero that I want for my daughter. Her first desire is to take care of her people, not find herself a prince. She is determined to be herself and conquer the sea. Moana knows what it means to live in fear and the damage that fear causes people, and she conquers her fear. In doing so she helps her people conquer their fear as well in order to find their history and continue their story.
I refuse to call Moana an anti-princess. I refuse to say that because Moana has no love story or not in a ball gown or so unabashedly feminist that she cannot be a princess. It is because of all these things that I will hold tight to Moana’s princess label. In Moana, little girls can continue to see the various ways in which they can be princesses (and really why they should strive to be queens and leaders). Moana shows strength. She shows leadership. She allows my daughter to see the ways in which young girls have the power to conquer their fears and find their stories. And, for that, I am in love with Disney’s latest princess.