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Moana: A Feminist Analysis Where it Falls Short

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Disney has come a long way in terms of feminism. Instead of kind but subservient Snow White, young girls now have strong-willed female characters like Mulan, Moana, and Merida to look up to. Gone are the girls whose version of happily ever after is little more than a happy marriage (which in turn saves them from a cruel situation). In their place are girls and young women who wish simply for their autonomy, who may or may not find love along the way. In that vein of thought, Moana has been labelled by many people as a feminist Disney princess––and in many ways, she is. Moana wants to travel the ocean, to see what lies beyond her island, but is held back both by her father and her obligations to the people she will one day be in charge of. Moana, surrounded by hypermasculine characters, who, in one way or another, try to take advantage of or control her, is not quite as feminist as some people would prefer to think. In the following essay, the film Moana and the characters themselves will be examined to see where they fall short in terms of feminism.

It is a well-known fact that Moana is an independent girl who knows what she wants and, in effect, does not need anyone to accomplish her goals for her. True, Maui helps Moana through a good portion of her journey, but one must remember that it is Moana who leaves her island and sails the seas (with no experience) to find Maui herself. This is a bold journey for a young girl who has never left the comfort of her island, and in fact has only ever been told of the dangers of doing so. As Lauren Blastow puts it, “Moana is dif- ferent from former Disney princesses because she does not divide herself in the film and has no love interest or prince who comes to her rescue” (Blastow, 7, sic). In terms of feminism, Moana herself is not the biggest problem. No, one of the first problems is Moana’s father, Chief Tui. The chief is what many people may view as an ideal man: he is well-muscled, heavily tattooed, a good leader, and aggressive when needed. He dwarfs his daughter and wife. This is a fact that he uses to his advantage when Moana, in a bid to help her people, suggests that the islanders begin fishing beyond the reef, where everyone has been forbidden to venture. Now, it is apparent that the chief is not thinking clearly in this moment––and to an extent, that is understandable. As is revealed later, Chief Tui lost his friend the first time they ever ventured away from the island, leading him to forbid anyone from venturing farther than the reef. Now, it is easy to understand Chief Tui’s frustration with Moana here. The thought of his only child leaving the island terrifies him. He cannot stand the idea of losing her. It is even understandable when he yells at Moana, who for years has been wanting to do the very thing that scares him. But Chief Tui takes it a step further. Using his significant strength to his advantage, the chief grabs Moana by the shoulders (who has been standing on a boat), lifts her up and sets her on the ground. He does this with unnecessary aggression, and it is implied that Chief Tui would use this as an opportunity to yell in Moana’s face were they not being watched. Once again, it must be said that Chief Tui’s actions here are, to an extent, understandable. But as many good parents know, physical aggression is not the way to get one’s child to listen. What’s more, if the roles had been reversed (if Moana’s mother, Sina, had been the chief), it is almost guaranteed that she would not become violent. With some notable exceptions, Disney is not the most well-known for making aggressive female characters––whether intentional or not. No, this scene is playing into male stereotypes, assuming that men will lose their temper when provoked, thus leading them to physically lash out. Not only does this go against the concept of feminism (which desires men to be able to express themselves in ways other than aggression), but this sends a problematic message to young girls and boys alike.

There is yet another thing worthy of note in regards to Chief Tui. If one is to compare him to the other men on the island, one will realize that the chief is the largest and most intimidating there is. There are, of course, other men present, but the ones we see snippets of are much more average in terms of build. It seems as though Chief Tui is the one with the most tattoos as well––in a culture where most, if not all, people have tattoos. What, then, is the message here? Are viewers meant to believe that a natural leader has to tower over everyone they are in charge of? That a leader must be, if not male, at least have obvious masculine qualities? That seems to be the implication. Even Moana, who is next in line to be the chief of Motunui (her home island) is nowhere near Chief Tui in terms of stature. And, as viewers will observe, Moana is far from a delicate princess with “long slender legs… long fingers, small feet and calves, hourglass shaped hips, a long neck and soft facial features” (Blastow, 9). No, Moana has realistic body proportions and muscle mass––none of which hold a candle to Chief Tui’s towering figure. Many implications can be drawn from this, some of which have already been mentioned. On average, women do have smaller muscles and less strength than men, but this is not something that they should be ashamed of, or that Chief Tui should use to his advantage.

Before moving on to Maui (who is yet another significant aspect), let us consider another problem in this film: Moana’s eventual ascension to village chief. Now, what one must note here is that, as far as the history of the island goes back, the village chief has always been male. This is quite ironic, considering female chiefs were common in traditional Polynesian culture. However, given that Disney seems to be ignoring this aspect, why is tradition changing with Moana? Perhaps Chief Tui and Sina have been unable to conceive any more children, leaving them with only Moana. But in that case, surely the chief must have a nephew, cousin, or some other male relative that could replace him one day. Barring that, there is undoubtedly some worthy young man that the chief could choose on his own. Why does the movie not offer some male heir? The most obvious answer would be: Moana is the main character of her movie––a Disney princess. Like with Elsa and perhaps Merida, it only makes sense that the protagonist is next in line for the “throne,” such as it is. That is the simple, although unsatisfactory answer. Of course, inferences can be made as to why Moana is next in line for chief. Perhaps Chief Tui is, to an extent, more progressive than his predecessors. Perhaps Moana really is his only option in terms of heirs. However, if this were the case, it would stand to reason that some people (male or female) would object to this change to their tradition. In reality, it took women in western and other cultures centuries to obtain the rights they have today. It is unlikely people would take this change without batting an eye––and yet, that is what the people of Motunui seem to do just that. They accept Moana’s help without rebuke, even actively seek her out for assistance. One woman even tells Chief Tui “She’s doing great” after Moana helps her solve the problem of inedible coconuts (Moana, 2016). While it would be nice if feminism were such an easy thing (receiving little or no resistance), the fact is it has never been this easy. Disney does the feminist movement a disservice by not explaining this change in leadership, or at the very least implying how Moana or Moana’s parents dealt with the controversy surrounding this change.

Now, let us take a look at Maui. As a character, Maui is quite interesting and deserves consideration. While still problematic in some ways, Maui is not inherently a bad character. Of course, he does start off as a stereotype: a man who thinks too much of himself, is overconfident and never dares show weakness. However, like many male characters in this mold, his tragic backstory of being an unwanted child comes to light, thus explaining his boisterous behaviour and constant need to show off. As Madeline Streif and Lauren Dundes put it: “Maui faces insecurities as a man, a quest that may be relatable to young men who likewise are plumbing the depths of manhood in a society that rewards hypermasculinity…” (Streif and Dundes, 2). While undoubtedly an overused trope, Maui’s tragic backstory (and his subsequent need to earn the love of humans) does make him a more sympathetic character––perhaps even relatable, to some. But of course, he is not without his flaws. Like Chief Tui, Maui uses his significant strength to his advantage against Moana––such as to throw her off the boat they are on later; perhaps in hopes the water will carry her elsewhere, or that Moana will drown. Either way, this reaction, while humorous in the context of the movie, is unnecessary. Although, given that Maui has been stranded for centuries (alone) on an island, perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing all of the social norms.

Still, if Maui’s behaviour can be forgiven, to an extent, this does ot save him from scrutiny. When it comes to Maui, one must take into consideration one of the most essential aspects of his character: his hook. Right from the beginning, after Maui is first introduced, it is obvious that Maui’s hook holds immense value to him––in a way that viewers don’t fully appreciate at first. It is easy to say that Maui is heartless (or that he doesn't truly care about human life) when he says nonchalantly in regards to Moana, “Well, she’s dead. Okay, let’s get my hook” (Moana, 2016). And perhaps that is the case, in part. Maui, like many male characters before him, simply needs to learn how to care, and that is not a bad trope in and of itself. But one must take into consideration Maui’s attachment to his hook. It is not a simple trinket––his attachment does not even stem from the fact that is possibly the only true possession he had for centuries. In effect, the hook is the source of Maui’s powers, and thus, the symbolic representation of his masculinity and subsequent self-confidence. Now, it has been suggested that the hook is a phallic symbol. A fair enough assumption that may very well be true. However, that is not the focus here. Throughout the film, it becomes apparent how much Maui perceives he needs his hook. During the beginning of his arc, Maui views the hook as more important than Moana’s life and risks life and limb to get it back. In fact, the only reason he saves Moana from Tamatoa (the over-large crab obsessed with shiny things) is because he is there for his hook and cannot help but gloat. Up until this point, Maui has treated Moana as little more than a silly young girl––and continues to do so for a good portion of the film. However, after Moana saves Maui’s life (for he is, in a way, helpless without his hook), Maui shows a willingness to change by acknowledging that Moana “[did him] a solid.” (Moana, 2016). While Maui does continue to mock Moana later on, this is an important moment in his character development.

It is true that Maui undergoes some vast changes throughout this movie, but one must not forget the fact that the events of this film happened because of him. To put it another way: the entire plot of the movie started with male violence––and age-old greed. Maui stole something that was not his (something he didn’t need), thus condemning the entire world and the humans he claims to love so much to a slow, decaying death. In his defense, Maui didn’t seem aware of what the theft of Te Fiti’s heart would cause. But this does not excuse his actions. Maui’s theft seems to represent a sense of male entitlement. Like many men in the modern world and centuries in the past feel they are entitled to women’s bodies, Maui feels he is entitled to his power––and the power that he thinks Te Fiti’s heart will get him. Maui has a tendency to think of little more than himself and all that he has lost or missed out on. Considering how much Maui craves the love of the humans, does this mean Maui feels entitled to their love as well? It seems as though he does, although, at the very least, his position as an unwanted child is a sympathetic one.
In the past few paragraphs, the men in the Moana movie have been under close scrutiny. Let us turn our attention to the women in the film. Or, one woman in particular: Moana’s grandmother, Tala. At one point in the movie, Tala playfully tells Moana, “I’m the village crazy lady. It’s my job” (to act weird) (Moana, 2016). The trope of the “crazy lady” or, in some cases, “crazy old man” is rather common. From crazy cat ladies to the village witch, there is one outsider who can be seen almost anywhere. Depending on the type of story, the “crazy lady” can either turn out to be a sympathetic character, or always remain that one weird character who, at one point, drives the plot forward. Tala turns out to be the former, being greatly loved by Moana and her son, Chief Tui––despite the fact that he fails to take her seriously. Her presence in the film does bring forth a question, however: if Tala could care less about what people think of her, and thinks it better for them to leave the island one day, why does she not make Chief Tui listen to her? Or, at the very least, try and have a discussion with him using her famous reverse psychology? It is not unknown for parents to exercise authority even on their fully-grown children. Not to mention that, in some ways, Hawaiian cultures, like Polynesian, are considered matriarchal, with women making final decisions and passing their possessions through the female line. Tala, being as independant and “wacky” as she is, certainly doesn’t care what people think about her, and it is well-known that she disagrees with her son on never leaving the island. And yet, aside from nudging Moana in the right direction, she does nothing. She tells stories about Maui, yes, but never once does she outright defy her son. There is a rather simple explanation for this. While some people may say, “Moana’s society is egalitarian and there seems not to be a difference in, for instance, the tasks the members have to carry out or the clothes they wear” (Rebollo, 6), this is not entirely true. Despite its being based on Polynesian culture, Moana still lives in a society that is very much patriarchal––albeit one that is at least trying to be more egalitarian.

Moana is an enjoyable film––there is no doubt about that. It sends a more positive message to young children than that of Sleeping Beauty or The Little Mermaid. It shows that a young girl does not need a love interest to be full or happy and that she is fully capable of getting things done herself (albeit Moana does have some help). Not only that, but it shows both young boys and girls that girls don’t always have to be soft and demure, while also showing that men (even hypermasculine men) are allowed and capable of showing a vulnerable side. But this doesn’t mean it is without problems. Yes, this film does cast Moana in an independant light, but it still places her in a patriarchal society and glosses over Moana’s eventual ascension to chief. While it is possible Disney chose not to deal with it for fear it would detract from the story they are trying to tell, this is nonetheless something that should have been explored or at least touched on in some way. What’s more, it would not be a terrible thing if Disney were to create male main characters of more attainable body types. Alas, Disney still has a long journey in its quest for equality in their films, but Moana, at least, is a good stepping stone to get them there.