The Women of Disney’s “Moana”: A Feminist Viewpoint

I recently watched Moana for the first time. It’s not my favourite Disney movie by far, but there are some aspects of it that I can really appreciate. The animation is gorgeous, of course, but what really set me thinking is the way women are represented in this film. Other reviewers have called Moana a redemption story, or the tale of a young girl on a journey to find herself, or even an environmental warning – and it is all those things, but to me the most important message is how women are depicted within the confines of a patriarchal society.

Spoilers abound below, so if you haven’t seen Moana yet, go do so first.

The Goddess

Te Fiti, the mother goddess of creation is problematic. She has her heart stolen by a man and immediately turns into a lava-spewing rage monster. She’s unable to move past her anger and hatred until her heart is restored and the man apologises. Only then can she return to her loving (and dormant) self.

To me, she is the clichéd woman that men both fantasise about and fear – the voluptuous beauty who can bring forth life, and the evil Other who brings about destruction. In her malevolent form, she causes Maui’s downfall, stripping him of the fishhook that is the source of his power and banishing him to a desert island. But once her heart is returned to her, she becomes passive again, literally falling asleep with a contented smile on her face.

Te Fiti is a patriarchal society’s typical female. Bring her a bunch of flowers and tell her you’re sorry -she’ll come to her senses again, and she’ll even restore your symbol of power.

She is woman as myth.

The Mother

Moana’s mother also fulfils a traditional role. She is a wife and a mother and she abides by her husband’s laws. We don’t really know much about her and I had to look her name up on IMDB – it’s Sina, apparently. She does what’s expected of her, admirably, and there’s nothing wrong with that. She is content with her life – and who doesn’t want to be content? Like a good mother, she wants what’s best for her child, even if that means defying her husband’s wishes, so she helps Moana escape the island. At the end of the film, when Moana’s people set sail again, we see Sika learning to tie knots, determined to be useful as a sailor.

Not much to be said about Sika, except that she is a woman who is comfortable within the role that society has placed upon her.

She is woman’s present.

The Grandmother

Moana’s grandmother, Tala, is an interesting character. The movie opens with her telling a scary story to the village children, showing us that she is her people’s keeper of past knowledge and traditions.

Yet she is anything but traditional. She is the free spirit who doesn’t sing along with the other villagers, preferring to dance by herself next to the ocean. When she dies, she takes the form of a manta ray (a traditional Polynesian symbol of graceful strength and wisdom that teaches one to stay true to oneself) to become Moana’s spiritual guide. She is also the only one who encourages Moana to follow her dreams.

And yet Tala calls herself “the village crazy”, which is unfortunate. It sends the message that a woman of knowledge who is unusual and interesting and lives outside the defined structure of society cannot possibly be in her right mind.

And although she is the one who spurs Moana on her journey, her advice was to get Maui on her boat so that he can save them all. Tala still sees the man as the saviour, while the girl is merely there to help him on his quest.

She is woman’s past.

Moana

From a very young age, Moana wants nothing more than to set sail and explore the ocean. She feels stymied on the island, especially since her father forbids her to ever venture beyond the reef that protects their confined home. So she resigns herself to becoming her people’s next chief. This in itself is unusual, as she seems to be the first female in a long line of male chieftains who have placed their slabs of rock on the mountaintop.

When her village is threatened, Moana follows her grandmother’s urging and goes in search of Maui, even though she was chosen by the ocean to save her people. While she tries to convince the demigod (an arrogant ass if there ever was one) to step up and help her, she learns all the skills she needs and eventually acquires the self-confidence to save the day.

She returns to her village, a saviour and a leader, and becomes her people’s wayfarer as she leads them off across the ocean in search of a new destiny.

She is woman’s future.

What are your thoughts on the women of Moana? Do you agree that this movie paves the way for young women to shake of the traditional feminine roles of the past and embrace independence as the creators of their own destiny?

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