Why Moana is the Feminist Princess We Needed

Moana is a beautiful tale of a young-girl-turned-woman who sets off to save her home island of Motunui. Full of whimsy and catchy tunes, the central plot is that Moana demands that the demigod Maui fix what he ultimately broke, when he stole the heart of Motunui years ago and set the collapse of the island in motion. Besides appreciating the stunning graphics and appropriate cultural context that is represented through the movie, I was especially struck by the feminist-girl-power nature of the film itself.

First, Moana is inquisitive and filled with wonderment at a young age. Although this wonderment was discouraged by her father from her youth, Moana’s sustained desire for knowledge and adventure is inspiring. I hope that a young girl will view this metamorphosis into young adulthood as a blueprint for her own life. I certainly remained hopeful throughout the movie. As I sat next to my 5-year-old, I thought about how she has certainly felt the pressures of society. Even from a young age, there have been moments when fellow (male) classmates that would tell her she couldn’t play with them because she was a girl, and times in which she felt — even mildly—judged for her preferences. As parents, we try hard to build up our children, and this is a special task when our child identifies as female. Moana’s tough yet compassionate (she even saves the silly chicken, HeiHei!) view on life is surely a fun lesson for any young child.

On another note, Moana’s characterization is decidedly a step towards body acceptance. She is a curvier young woman with darker skin. This type of representation is uncommon within adult films, let alone children’s film. This phenomenon was highlighted by the “white Oscars” – a movement that I wholeheartedly empathized with at its time.

Moana is special as she does not fit the “typical” body mold often represented throughout the history of Disney movies. She does not have long skinny legs, large breasts, nor is she especially tall – and she’s still beautiful, not in spite of these differences, but because she just is.  Moana reminded me that it’s time we stop qualifying those individuals that do not fit the typical body mold. Instead, we could state women’s beauty factually and unapologetically. Have you ever heard someone say, “She’s chubby, but she’s still pretty!”? Moana enforced my feeling that we need to stop qualifying these “positive” accolades with this type of phrasing. Moana is gorgeous, inside and out; her bravery and tenacity throughout the movie shows through her actions as she singlehandedly succeeds in saving the island of Motunui. Looks are not relevant – these actions are more important to a young girl than the color of her skin or the size of her breasts; it’s time we start viewing these types achievements as the main focus of young (and older) girls’ lives, rather than just a “bonus” to their looks.

Moana is also triumphant because she stands up to the patriarchy. While I wouldn’t condone disobeying one’s parents, almost all of us do at one point or another. I was truly impressed with how Moana manages to respect her father, but refuses to crumble under the pressure of being told to never, ever go out beyond the reef. She knew that there were some tasks that were more important than accepting what her father had instructed her to do.  Her grandmother and mother become powerful female figures within the movie, as her mother hugs her fiercely and knowingly when Moana gathers her belongings and food to go out on a journey to disobey her father’s orders to save the island. Her father does not know this, as he copes with the declining health (and eventual death) of his mother. Further, her grandmother (her father’s mother) is perhaps the strongest figure of the entire movie. Her strength, and abilities for critical analysis are particularly poignant when she makes it clear that, the “rules” of the island, put in place by male figureheads, do not apply to her. While her role as the “village crazy lady” (in her own words) provides comic relief to a dismal situation on the island, she remains a strong figure for both Moana, and viewers, to look up to. This is especially important as older female figures within our society are often unfairly discounted.

Finally, this would not be a complete analysis without considering the role that Maui played within the film, as a central masculine figure.  As Maui had stolen the heart many years prior, his role is important and serves the film well, in terms of providing a brooding male figure that represents the juxtaposition to Moana’s female empowerment.  After a series of troublesome events, Moana stands up to her enemy-turned-friend, Maui, as his actions put the island, and Moana, in this difficult position in the first place. Since Maui is a strong, booming fellow, this is no easy task. However, Moana gracefully rises up and asserts herself against this male as a means of doing what is right.  Conversely, you can see that Maui struggles with his desire to be tough and brooding, but eventually realizes that she does not mean harm to his masculinity. Instead, she is simply trying to allow him the space to right his past mistake.  This can be especially difficult for a young man, and we even emphasize with Maui  throughout as he assumes the role of the friend-and-enemy (“frenemy”) throughout the narrative.

This central theme of remaining strong against adversity, whether we are referring to Moana or Maui, and acting without the support of those around you, is strong throughout the film. Moana is an amusing, imaginative story that shows how to effectively stray from societal norms to do what is appropriate in one’s own environment, even when this is not the easy route to take.  In these tumultuous times, Moana is a breath of fresh air, for adults and kids alike.

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