Moana might be the most important Disney film of my lifetime

Walt Disney Studios ©

So, first off — this is straight up a piece about feminism and sexuality in Moana, as viewed by a queer white woman in Europe.

While I am utterly unqualified to comment on how these issues intersect with the cultures and societies of Pacific Islanders (or the film’s depiction thereof), there’s a great piece by Richard Wolfgramm on having conflicting feelings about Disney’s approach to Polynesian culture, and a brief one by Arieta Tegeilolo Talanoa Tora Rika on Māui’s physical portrayal in Moana and the inherent problems therein.

First, I thought Belle was my Disney princess.

Beauty & the Beast was the first film I saw at the cinema, and it instilled in me a principle that I consider solid to this day — a library is a better gift than an engagement ring.

Belle was smart, principled, an outcast, liked to read books in strange places, and a brunette to boot. She was even allowed to get a little bit angry that one time, how unladylike! She was me, surely?

Yet as the years went by, I found myself with a growing unease about idolising Belle. First, I was highly unlikely to pitch up at an enchanted castle populated by magical dinnerware, no matter how many Neil Gaiman stories I read, and second— I wasn’t much into the idea of a fixer-upper. When I tried to see a future partner in my mind’s eye, it wasn’t someone whose spell I would have to break, whose habits I would have to tame, whose anger I would have to ride out.

It was an equal. Someone who wanted to embark on life’s adventure with me. It turned out I wasn’t all that into Beauty & the Beast’s ‘if you love him enough he’ll change’ vibe.

Then there was Mulan. Now we were talking. Disobeyed her family, ran away, dressed as a man (why I found that so thrilling was something I wouldn’t understand for another few years yet), fought for her life, saved her country, bagged her man… wait, what?

There it was. That unease again.

Lather rinse repeat for a few more cycles, and then… the day after my 28th birthday, and about 18 years after I really needed her, I finally found my Disney princess.

Except she wasn’t a princess at all.

Why? Not because the film clumsily refutes this notion in its own dialogue, but because she exists outside the social and economic structures that create princesses.

Ironically for a product of the global behemoth that is Disney, and for a film that I’m almost certain only included a comedy chicken and an adorable pig with about 40 seconds of screen time wholly for merchandising purposes, Moana herself exists beyond the reach and philosophy of capitalism.

Normally a Disney princess begins with a burden of wealth that hampers her freedom, or ends by marrying into it and thus unburdening herself of poverty or suffering. Yet although Moana is to be the leader of her village, we don’t see any material gains from this (aside, arguably, from ceremonial dress); only the responsibility of caring for her people and their island.

Which, again, is not presented as the burden it tends to be in Western narratives— “oh god really, I have to do some work for this basically limitless wealth and comfort?”

Walt Disney Studios ©

The only material possessions to which Moana shows any defensive attachment are the heart of Te Fiti — an item she knows from the outset she will have to give up —, her grandmother’s necklace, the reasonableness of which I don’t think we need to make an argument for, and her boat and oar, without which she will die.

So she’s already out of the system that defines the motivations of most Disney princesses — the need for escape, whether up or down the social ladder, usually by marriage. In what seems to be a society of equals, where everything is shared, Moana doesn’t need to bargain her way out using her sexuality.

Yet, ironically in light of this, her physical portrayal is still her most important characteristic.

Moana is a young teenager. An actual one. Not trapped in a semi-fetishised adult body. She doesn’t look as though she’s supposed to be any older than Auli’i Cravalho would have been when she began work on the film (14).

Moana is strong and fast, and she has the physical proportions of someone who is strong and fast. She shimmies up trees and masts, climbs out of caves and runs practically everywhere. Her body reflects this. While still conforming to a relatively Western ideal of thin beauty, Moana has at least the body of someone who does the things that she does, and isn’t tottering about on feet entirely too small for her physique, with a stylised waistline incapable of accommodating even half of her necessary internal organs.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect is that Moana’s physicality is her power. While her heart and determination are important facets of her character, the film would be done in 10 minutes if she couldn’t jump and sail and swim as she does. She’d be dead several times over. Not only is her physical appearance reclaimed from the halls of corseted waistlines, but it is reflective of an inherent strength and power that see her through her own story.

Why is this? It’s not that the revolution suddenly arrived with the marginally better portrayal of female characters — Elsa and Anna still waver about on proportionately tiny feet and in impractical clothes in Frozen.

I am certain that a good deal of the credit here is due to the Oceanic Story Trust — a group of Pacific anthropologists, historians, linguists, cultural practitioners and choreographers assembled by Disney to try and hold the film true to the cultures it portrays [again, Richard Wolfgramm is incredibly insightful on this]— but my (entirely personal) feeling is that it’s also because she’s not made to be looked at by men.

There is no love story in Moana.

Not only is it not central to the narrative — as in Frozen where sisterly love proves more important than a scruffy nerf herder — but it is entirely absent. Moana doesn’t show even a twinge of romantic interest in anyone, because she has shit to do.

My god. How desperate I am for my 10 year old self to see that.

Moana’s love story is with the ocean, with her island, with her people. She loves the world that she is in, and she loves learning her own strength as part of it.

That’s it.

We don’t need to see her silhouetted against anything, looking dainty and lovable. She’s not delicate, she doesn’t need saving, and we need never see her through a man’s eyes (though both directors are men, so I don’t want to imply that this entirely negates the presence of the male gaze).

And, which is more, this is never commented upon. Not only does Moana enjoy her own story unfettered by romance, but there are no expectations — implied or stated — that she should be looking for a partner. Her difficulties with her father stem from his desire for her to settle down and lead, not settle down and get married.

As a geologist, I feel compelled to point out that Te Kā is grossly misunderstood ❤ (Walt Disney Studios ©)

The jewel in the crown, for me, is that as a result of this, Moana is open to a queer reading. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s queer coded in any way — that’s not credit I want to give out lightly, and it’s not present in this film — but the truth remains that, while platonic, all of her physically affectionate interactions are with women. Her mother, grandmother, Te Kā and Te Fiti.

If you wanted to imagine a queer reality for Moana, there is nothing in the film’s canon to jar you out of that belief.

If, as a queer or questioning young person you want to see yourself in this Disney princess, you can.

Had this film arrived when I was younger, I might not have spent the entirety of my teens not knowing half of who I was. I can’t really put into words how beneficial that would have been.

As illustrated by this beautiful thread from a bookstore employee in Indiana; queer representation in popular culture matters. It’s not simply a nice thing to have; it’s vital, essential, and life or death for a lot of kids.

If you can’t see anyone in the world like you, being happy, how do you know you’re not just an isolated abomination? How can you see where you might end up?

I don’t want to heap Disney with credit here. They’ve not made a kid’s film with a queer protagonist, and they’ve not deconstructed decades of questionable narratives about women in society in one fell swoop. Māui’s misogyny towards Moana is played for laughs and never interrogated. This is not uncomplicated.

But.

This film does feel different. Is different. I think we should reward and encourage that, in an era where we can speak more powerfully with our wallets than our votes.