Moana is Disney’s latest adventure that follows its new pattern of spinning narratives of female empowerment that appeal to growing mainstream feminist thought. We have a film without a single white person that tells the story of a young woman whose goal in life in no way, shape, or form includes romance with a man. She cares only about adventure, finding her purpose, and ultimately restoring her people’s lands and their sense of their own history. By itself, Moana presents viewers with a strong, ecofeminist message and portrays the meeting of the human feminine with the divine feminine as restorative. However, the film’s Disneyfication of Pacific Island cultures presents some issues when attempting to discuss feminist theology in its narrative (and in this piece I’m intentionally avoiding Christianizing this theology as the story uses a non-Christian/pre-Christian spiritual framework).
In the moments after I finished watching Moana, I was filled with “warm, fuzzy, feminist feelings.” I had just experienced a quite inspiring and empowering story that ended with restoration for a community and for its deities. In the beginning, the fatherly expectation of Moana isn’t that she marries, but that she assumes her proper place as the chief of her people and swears to protect them just as all the previous chiefs have. Essentially, she is to continue the system as-is once it’s time for her to step up. No one questions that she’ll lead or doubts that she should lead. The problem comes from her desire to travel the sea and return the heart of Te Fiti to prevent her lands from dying. This desire goes against the rules previous generations established to keep their people safe from the dangers of the unknown world.
But Moana later learns that this rule is not eternal and that there’s a sort of collective amnesia about it. With help from her grandmother, she discovers giant rafts from her people’s ancient past and discovers that her people used to travel the sea all the time. Remembering and embodying this forgotten and hidden aspect of her culture gives Moana the determination (and equipment) necessary to successfully make the journey beyond the reef. It’s a powerful testament to the role of collective memory in a culture and women’s place as orators of this memory in history and post-colonial fiction.
So Moana leaves her island with a clear mission to find the demigod Maui, who is responsible for stealing the heart of Te Fiti in the first place and unleashing the destruction that’s gradually killing the other islands. It is this male demigod’s greed and desire for power that began this desolation of the environment–the ecofeminist message is pretty clear here. Therefore, it is Moana’s responsibility to compel him to return the heart of Te Fiti and restore what he ruined.
Yet in the end, it’s Moana who restores the heart, not Maui. This squarely places femininity as the agent of restoration. Additionally, we learn that the lava monster Moana and Maui believe they need to destroy to get to Te Fiti is actually Te Fiti, showcasing how masculine greed taking something vital from a feminine deity–her very heart–causes destruction.
However, the restoration does not stop with Te Fiti and Moana. It ultimately extends to Maui as well, who by now has changed as a result of his journey with Moana. When we first meet him, he is arrogant and egotistical. He refuses to teach Moana the art of wayfinding and spends a good deal of time trying to trap or deceive her. We also learn that he is burying his feelings and running away from his past. He creates for himself a seemingly strong front, free of negative emotions just as toxic masculinity would have men do. But by the time Maui is face-to-face with a restored Te Fiti, he has not only dealt with these emotions, but also stepped aside to trust Moana’s leadership. Finally able to push his own ego out of the way, Maui is restored when Te Fiti gives him a new cane that’s even more powerful than his old one. In Moana, restoration really does extend everywhere–the human and the spirit, the individual and the community, the environment, the feminine, and the masculine.
For a western, American audience that earnestly wants better stories about girls, especially girls of color, Moana resonates and its messages have no doubt had a positive impact on little girls (and little boys) everywhere. However, no Disney rendition of anything has been without its problems, especially when those renditions depict non-white cultures.
If our feminism aims to be intersectional, then we have to understand the real-world effects of the creation, distribution, and marketing of these stories on indigenous people. Two major problems arise with Moana in this regard:
- The question of cultural authenticity
- White people’s use of a living culture’s actual deities for profit-making endeavors that harm the environment, thereby undermining the film’s ecological message
In the first five minutes of her video essay on Pocahontas, Lindsay Ellis does an apt and humorous comparison of Pocahontas and Moana, highlighting mainstream media’s tendency to portray indigenous people in palatable ways to white people. This inevitably leads to inaccuracies, missed details, and messages that, after some digging, aren’t as positive as they seem.
While Disney’s depiction of non-white cultures in its films has improved in some ways over the years, there is that constant tension that Moana is ultimately a story about an indigenous culture told by white people. The company supposedly formed a board tasked with ensuring and validating a respectful, accurate representation of Pacific Island cultures for this film, but some have criticized that effort as Disney deciding what “cultural authenticity” is and whether or not they succeed at it.
The film may have great messages, but Disney ultimately profits from the production of plastic toys and other merchandise that causes pollution, and increased tourism to Hawaii and Polynesian islands, which includes branding initiatives on jet planes that release pollutants into the atmosphere.
Sticking the film’s portrayal of Maui on a jet plane is ironic, and not in a good way. Are the Polynesian people to whom Maui belongs benefiting from this marketing effort? Other than those individuals directly involved in the creation of Moana, I’m not sure. Additionally, using someone’s deity to encourage tourism and make a few bucks isn’t considerate of whether that culture’s theology even allows for such a thing. In the case of Maui, everything I’ve read has said “no,” especially since that increased tourism causes more pollution and funnels more money into tourism that has drastically changed how indigenous people live their lives.
On a more positive note, a Maori translation of Moana has had a positive impact on indigenous Polynesian people who probably for the first time are seeing themselves on screen and hearing their language spoken in a major film.
In highlighting a feminist theology in Moana, I intentionally avoided Christian language because as a Christian I always attempt to be cognizant of my faith’s colonizing past, especially regarding indigenous cultures. To me, being careful of this is part of loving my neighbor. Restoration and re-memberment within a community are most certainly experiences we discuss in the Church all the time. So in a very general sense, Moana speaks to a familiar theological reality to me. At the same time, many Christian churches and denominations are quite concerned with damage to the environment and being good stewards of the Earth. At General Synod, the United Church of Christ passed an emergency resolution about environmental stewardship. The UCC has also shown increased solidarity with indigenous people over the years, such as renouncing Manifest Destiny and standing with Standing Rock.
In the end, I do think we can celebrate good, powerful messages in fiction when we see them while also contextualizing our reception with real-world effects. Coming short of this would leave us with a rather incomplete feminist theology.
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