Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally watched Disney’s Moana and was pleasantly surprised by how much of a feminist movie it is … for boys. Yeah, you read that right. Boys can watch a Disney princess movie and learn a thing or two. Or six.
In November 2016, when the incredibly successful animated film was first released, I was pregnant and in my third trimester, mentally and physically preparing myself for my son’s eventual arrival on December 3rd. And as much of a Disney fiend as I am, as all first-time parents know, pretty much everything not related to managing life with a new baby is put on the back burner indefinitely.
Fast forward three years later: Since I am currently sheltering in place with my energetic little boy at home, I found myself loosening my limits on screen time a bit (for everyone’s sake). Needless to say, I’m thrilled to have finally watched this awesome movie.
For those who still haven’t seen it (probably not many at this point), here’s the basic storyline: Sixteen-year-old Moana of Motonui is chosen by the sea to find the mythical demigod Maui and take him on a sea voyage so he can restore the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of life, which he stole a thousand years before. Without Te Fiti’s heart, the trees, fish and other resources on Moana’s home island will continue to slowly waste away, threatening everyone’s lives and existence. On their journey, Moana and Maui get to know each other, help one another learn more about who they are, and overcome trials and tribulations along the way.
SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points will be discussed below.
The movie confronts feminine anger.
The main villain of the movie is introduced within the first few minutes. Te Kā is a giant lava monster who appears soon after Maui steals the heart of Te Fiti. Much later, we learn that Te Fiti actually turned into Te Kā, a demon of earth and fire, after losing her heart and life-giving power. For some younger viewers she may come off as scary, given the shrieking, the lava, and the purple crackling electricity, but I think it is great for boys to see the display of such unfiltered, unbridled feminine anger to which Te Fiti/Te Kā is rightfully entitled. I mean, how would you feel if someone stole something that was such a core part of who you are? Though Moana and Maui may have misunderstood the reason behind her anger and subsequent actions, they never say anything about her anger being too much or try to insinuate that it’s overblown or exaggerated (or that she should smile more).
Girls can go on incredible adventures too.
Because Moana is athletic and not as hyper-feminine in shape or wardrobe as other Disney princesses, it may be easier for boys to relate to her. This may lead to them wanting to follow Moana on her adventures during the journey to fulfill her destiny and embrace her inner calling. Just as girls have had to relate to and see themselves in male characters due to a lack of female representation in the entertainment industry, boys should be allowed the freedom (and be encouraged) to do the same. Just as girls can learn from male protagonists without their gender identity being called into question, so should boys be given the same opportunity.
There’s a crab who loves his bling.
While Tamatoa the crab is another roadblock in Moana and Maui’s journey to restore the heart of Te Fiti, he actually teaches a lesson about bucking gender norms while also providing great comic relief. While it is par for the course for a villain to like collecting treasure, it is how Tamatoa shows it off that is enlightening. Instead of keeping it hidden away in a chest, he wears it proudly: It’s all encrusted on the top of his shell with various valuable artifacts, including Maui’s fish hook. He brags about how beautiful he is and how happy it makes him throughout his musical number, “Shiny.” Fun fact: Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda drew inspiration for the rock ballad from music and fashion icon David Bowie who was widely regarded as one, if not the main, poster boy for androgyny. In a world where boys are still not generally allowed to be beautiful without being emasculated and ostracized for it, having him declare “I will sparkle like a wealthy woman’s neck” might give boys permission to appreciate shiny things themselves.
Maui shares his feelings and insecurities.
Boys will be glad to know that even demigods have feelings and that it’s okay to talk about them. As a mother myself, it was heartbreaking to learn about Maui’s family history, and the scene where he shares this information is a great lesson in doing the internal work of getting to know one’s self and what can be at the root of actions taken, which is emotional labor that is more usually associated with (and expected of) women. It was refreshing to see the cocky, self-centered Maui show a more sensitive side and explore his personal issues related to his theft of Te Fiti’s heart thanks to Moana graciously giving him the space to do so. (Side note: I didn’t agree with Maui’s tattoo about his abandonment only showing his mother throwing him into the sea, when he mentions both parents.)
It introduces the concept of “hurting people hurt people.”
On a related note, I appreciated how the reason behind Maui’s theft was put into the context of his traumatic past. Because he had been hurt by his parents abandoning him as a baby, every act of heroism he pursued as an adult was in search of humans’ love and adoration to make up for the parental love he was refused early on. This unfortunately leads him to hurt Te Fiti by stealing her heart, which causes her to become Te Kā, who then takes out her anger on Moana and Maui. It’s a clear way to show that people who hurt others usually have been hurt themselves and have not worked through those feelings, leading to an ongoing cycle of trauma.
Maui issues an apology.
In the end, though Maui tries to play dumb with Te Fiti at first (to which she gives a classic glare that made me laugh out loud), he ultimately apologizes for his actions. Given how much more often women and girls are likely to apologize because they are socialized to take other people’s feelings into account more than boys and men are, I thought it was an important example of a man showing humility, owning his mistake, and asking a woman for forgiveness. (Another step is to show how the person will make things right, but Moana had already given Te Fiti back her heart so it makes sense that this step was left out in this case).
With my guidance, I’m excited for my son to continue exploring the Disney canon — but for now, this movie is his current obsession.
To all the other feminist mothers out there, you’re welcome.