Moana, Disney's first animated, musical fantasy featuring a Polynesian princess, hit box offices like a tidal wave, grossing over $81 million domestically and over $17 million globally in just under a week. Audiences everywhere flocked to the theater in droves, and critics fawned over the intricate animation and its well-timed significance in modern cultural history. As any decent art does, Moana also prompted a flurry of introspective conversation surrounding the slowly-increasing presence of women of color in entertainment, and one Moana viewer's thought-provoking questions about the title character's portrayal has further enriched that discussion.
While Moana's presentation in the film, along with the stunning artistry and music, garnered plenty of initial praise — with many lauding Disney's decision to produce a film about a young woman of color, after so many entertaining films featuring white protagonists (Frozen, Tangled, Cinderella, and Brave) — some have now emerged with their own valid concerns on the overarching effect of painting women and girls of color with what some audiences perceive as a very broad, unintentionally ineffective brush.
"Western media likes to see indigenous people in a particular way," Twitter user and writer @FangirlJeanne wrote on Sunday, presenting her thoughts on the film and pointing out areas that she felt were still somewhat problematic. "Usually in [a] fantasy past of their imagining, that distances us from them. So of course, white people, and many world wide audiences heavily influenced by white supremacy and colonialism influence on storytelling are going to find a grass-skirt-wearing, indigenous girl of color lead [a] story set in a white man's imagined version of Pasifika history."
More specifically, she noted that certain aspects of the film that were left out — or perhaps simply forgotten due to oversight by white producers or writers — were crucial to the story and suggested that they might not have been tossed aside had men and women of color been steering the production.
"[New Zealand writer-director] Taika Waititi did write the first [Moana] screenplay," she wrote, saying that she was "sad" that his version hadn't made the final cut. "In Waititi's screenplay, Moana had brothers and dealt with gender dynamics in a Polynesian family. The white, male director cut this because of gendered aspect ... Just because we've seen a lot of white women deal with gender dynamics within their families and cultures doesn't mean it shouldn't be explored in women of color's lives and cultures. White women aren't the default of womanhood, neither is how they experience sexism."
(Disney representatives did not immediately respond to Romper's request for comment on Waititi's involvement, the reported removal of Moana's brothers from the storyline, and the cultural research portion of the film's production.)
@fangirlJeanne also expressed disappointment that the film had not spent time exploring gender roles within Moana's family (and by extension, Pasifika families):
There are experiences you have as a [woman of color], as a Polynesian girl in a family of men, that can't be replicated in white American families. ... I would argue that many women of color from other cultures could heavily relate to and desire to see representatives in a kids film for their kids to see and learn to dismantle in their own sibling relationships. We lost that narrative because white people think, if it was done to death with white girls, that girls of color don't get a chance to tell their version of those experiences. This is how our stories are shaped by the needs and desires of white peoples. This is he problem with white people telling our stories. They make it about them.
Compounding what she saw as another lost opportunity and an additional gendered aspect was Moana's lack of romantic subplot or interest — which, at 16 (Moana's age, according to Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho, who voiced the character), would have otherwise seemed normal in any other Disney "princess" film (see The Little Mermaid or Frozen). "Desexualizing women of color by coding them as strong or as a child is still controlling our sexuality," @fangirlJeanne wrote. "Moana not having romantic relationships extends her appeal to white women who don't look like her and won't be threatened by her sexuality."
While she didn't discourage others from seeing the film, even noting that she had purchased Moana merchandise for herself and her extended family, @fangirlJeanne specifically pointed out that the reason for her own plans to see the film was unapologetic and largely based in an innate desire for representation — one that many women of color likely felt as well. In short, she explained, many women and girls of color who counted themselves a part of Moana's fanbase likely did so desperately, hoping to see a non-white heroine like themselves win the box office for once. (Or, at least, once again, after a long hiatus.)
"We are American, raised in Disney, and feel the hunger to see ourselves," she wrote. "I won't shame myself or any other Pasifika people for a natural reaction to our oppression. Our joy is always wrapped in pain and sorrow. ... But we need what little joy we can find. I need to see a (Moana) doll with my body and hair, since I began hating myself as a young child."
Many have argued that Moana, perhaps even with its perceived shortcomings and the aforementioned thoughts looming in the background, still stands as a symbol of change within the animated film industry — specifically in how those films portray women and people of color. Vanity Fair, for example, praised the film in a lengthy rundown titled "How Pacific Islanders Helped Disney’s Moana Find Its Way." Specifically delving into writer-director team John Musker and Ron Clements lengthy research process, the magazine wrote,
[Disney Animation chief John] was clear: the project would not go any further until Musker and Clements actually went to Polynesia, marking the beginning of a process that makes Moana one of Disney’s most culturally authentic endeavors yet. For a studio that has been dogged by accusations of cultural insensitivity in the past and present, it was no small accomplishment.
Vanity Fair noted that, in the end, after working exhaustively with "a group of anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers from islands including Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea, and Fiji," Musker and Clements produced what they felt was an accurate depiction of a young Polynesian woman set on an inspiring mission — and as they later recalled to Vanity Fair, the entire team felt an intense emotional connection to not only the character, but the story itself:
"I see all these little girls dressed up as Moana for Halloween," Musker says. "Young women who are dressing as Moana even before the movie has come out, who just feel some connection to her as they see her represented in the film."
Clements agrees. "These things are really very emotional, and it wasn’t, exactly, when we were starting this." But five years and countless trips to the islands later, Disney has found its way.
The Daily Beast, too, called Moana a "feminist" success. "In this week’s Moana we get the heroine we need for these anxious post-election times, and the Disney Princess we finally deserve," reviewer Jen Yamato praised. "She arrives in the form of a fearless 16-year-old who hates being called a princess and wrangles Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as her sidekick." Yamato called the film "both a satisfying traditional Disney narrative and the most progressive film in the studio’s 93-year history, one with a fierce, noble, and confident POC at its center: a princess of color."
In its own review, Polygon noted that the film's title character was just the latest in a long line of feminist Disney "princess" hits, which included such popular characters as Frozen's Elsa, Brave's Merida, Lilo and Nani from the Hawaiian-based Lilo & Stitch, Tiana from the underrated Princess and the Frog, and Mulan. "Disney has been actively changing for the better over the past twenty years," the outlet argued. "With every new movie their female characters get a little more real, a little more believable and a little more open to the growing world around them."
Overall, @fangirlJeanne too highlighted a few important aspects of the film that would make the movie-viewing experience a positive one for women of color, specifically those in the Pasifka community. "Moana does put Polynesia on a global stage in a way no other movie ever could because this is Disney," she wrote. Still, she added, "Moana mashed up the cultures of multiple very different islands/nations, [t]wisting folklore and stories of our ancestors to make us marketable. Yes, a brown girl sits at the top of the box office, but in many ways it's white supremacy and colonialism that got her there."
Is a ticket to Moana worth it, all things considered? Sure. Whether or not you agree with all of @fangirlJeanne's arguments — all valid concerns from a member of the Pasifika community — it's clear the Moana has prompted several important debates in the larger public sphere, and many of those discussion points are ones that parents would do well to talk about with their children.
If nothing else, Moana acts a reminder to all audience members that there are real people behind the vibrant mash-up of cultures playing out on the screen. Their unique experiences and opinions matter, and they deserve to feel accurately represented. For children everywhere, a real discussion helps them to understand and appreciate diversity in others. If Moana and thoughtful critics like @fangirlJeanne are able to provoke any reflection and conversation at all, then they've both done their jobs.