Moana, the latest animated Disney “princess” movie, has pushed the boundaries of Disney’s stereotypical view on woman and race.
Disney movies have been known for their lack of diversity and women’s empowerment since they began making movies. Disney Junior’s “Sofia the First” was a Disney Princess that featured new ethnicities. However, this show received a lot of criticism for the lack of characteristics identifying her as Latina. To respond to this, a Disney Junior executive released a statement saying, “The range of characters in ‘Sofia the First’ — and the actors who play them — are a reflection of Disney’s commitment to diverse, multicultural and inclusive storytelling.” In the past, Disney was criticized for their lack of diversity, so they moved to what many call their “progressive era.” In this time, Disney released movies introducing princesses of varying backgrounds such as Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Many felt that these films did not accurately portray the culture, due to lack of diversity in the staff, and negatively reflected the culture. Of course, the call for more cultural representation in Hollywood is stronger than ever. Responding to this, Disney chose to make a film that deals with characters from a group who don’t often see their culture respresented or dealt with in contemporary Hollywood films: Pacific Islanders.
Moana is set in a polynesian village, where a hunter-gatherer method is used to keep resources flowing through the community. Trouble arises when the village fisherman cannot find fish in the ocean and crops have become inedible. Soon Moana learns that the reason for her islands distress has to do with an ancient legend of a demigod who steals the heart of goddess Te Fiti. The only way to heal her village is to travel to the demigod, Maui and persuade him to return Te Fiti’s heart. Moana, the daughter of the chief feels a strong obligation to protect her community so she sets out on a dangerous journey to set things right and save her people. Together Moana and Maui battle the harsh oceans to bring peace back to their home.
Previously, all princesses sought the help of men to save them or in other cases bring them happiness through love. This is where Moana strays from the typical Disney film. Moana is portrayed as an independent girl, who is able to fight for herself. She never mentions love or needing to rely on a man. Moana also separates herself from other Disney Princess by specifically telling Maui, the demi-god, she is not a princess, she is the chief’s daughter. Moana is also shown as a leader when she helps solve problems in the town. It provides young girls a strong, independent role model to look up to, who doesn’t pursue or rely on a man.
However, Disney has experienced some backlash and has been accused of cultural appropriation, especially after a Moana costume went on sale. Initially Moana was praised for being the first ever Polynesian Disney princess, and one without a romantic interest. Although Disney did a good job in trying to have an accurate representation of Polynesian culture, by having the characters voices being people of Polynesian descent and having the screenwriters be educated on Polynesian way of life when a brown skinned, tattoo filled Maui costume went for sale on the Disney store, people were outraged. The public turned to social media to express their disappointment and anger, a tweet said, “Our brown skin is NOT a costume,” while another said, “Some islander tattoos are very sacred, this costume is literally mocking our traditions”. Additionally, it is now known that Maui is an actual demigod in Polynesian mythology and not a made up character. Unfortunately this was not the film’s first controversy, some were offended on the appearance of Maui. The portrayal of Maui has prompted a debate over a stereotypical view on Polynesian men in the media, because he’s pictured as a very large man. Some may find this disrespectful because it is undermining a heroic figure in Polynesian mythology who created the Pacific Islands by fishing them out according to myth.
Moana is a big step for Disney, but its true power is in the way it will influence the movie industry with an even bigger impact. By Disney releasing a successful film like Moana, it will encourage others to follow its lead. Hopefully more mainstream films will show a more diverse cast featuring girls whose storyline has no love interests. By supporting films, like Moana, financially, we can show our support for representation. As Hollywood continues to sexualize them, women must take inspiration from Moana and empower the younger generation.