July 30, 2018

Moana (the Movie): Let's Break it Down

Fair warning: this post has nothing to do with my books or my writing. It does, however, look into the elements of one specific story and the underlying messages that story conveys—intentionally or not. This is very different from my usual topics, but the realization hit me hard and seemed worth writing about. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!

Movie poster from the Disney site.
So, as you can tell from the post's title, I want to talk about Disney's Moana—a movie one review called "the perfect Disney movie" (Tasha Robinson, The Verge). Let me be clear: I like the movie; this post isn't about bashing it.

But upon watching it (not for the first time, thanks to it being on Netflix), I realized something about the basic underlying story. This post will include details from the movie, so if you haven't seen it, you may not want to read on.

So, Moana broken down:

Man assaults woman then freaks out when she—instead of taking it lying down—gets angry, taking zero responsibility for his own actions.

A young woman comes along and tries to get him to make up for his past (despite being discouraged from even trying by a different man), and Man 1 fights her every step of the way, blaming everyone else for the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, she spends her time trying to push him into doing the right thing while also building up his fragile ego. Because his ego matters more than her being legitimately badass.

When the man doesn't immediately succeed and therefore quits, the young woman realizes (with the help of a wise older woman) that she doesn't need the man in order to tackle the consequences of his actions. She realizes that the woman he initially hurt is the injured party and not some randomly raging bitch, shows compassion, and helps the injured woman heal.

Man is given credit—treated like a hero—for fixing the problem because he...came back after running away? Claims he had "good intentions" for the first attack? Was willing to face the possibility of consequences* to clumsily attempt to make up for his initial assault? By further attacking the injured woman, let's not forget.
    *Possibly losing the magic hook...which he ultimately doesn't, so what a metaphor for our justice system.

In other words, a woman is hurt by a man; another woman does the hard work of fixing it, with the guidance of a third woman. Moana is a movie about women trying to pick up the pieces following a man's entitled (I want it, so I deserve it to have it) attack. And in the end the man gets at least half the credit for the solution even though the situation was his fault to start with and he wasn't actually the one to fix it.

Maui is heaped with credit for no longer being a whiny jerk. Meanwhile, Moana does most of the actual work for their journey (spoilers ish: fighting the Kakamora; tricking Tamatoa & getting Maui's magic hook back; getting them across the ocean; figuring out how to get past Te Ka; and figuring out the ultimate answer) while also managing Maui's emotional state. 

Still, she's essentially a sidekick in her own movie. Her story is about paving the way for Maui to do the bare minimum in taking corrective action in order for him to "earn" being called a hero—something he always considered himself to be. And the closest this comes to being acknowledged is one short moment between Te Fiti and Moana, a silent recognition that she is the one truly responsible for repairing what Maui broke.

Don't get me wrong, this movie is still about the power of women:
  • To survive
  • To build each other up
  • To deal with a man's ridiculous demands and baggage while still getting s**t done.
  • To do it all while discounted—as the "crazy" woman, the "raging bitch," the "incompetent child"
  • And then to turn around and build up everyone else, sharing knowledge gained instead of just sitting back expecting adoration—or resenting how she was treated before

So, Moana truly captures some all too real elements of womanhood, including how it frames the entire story around women being forced to clean up after (and heal from) the actions of a man. There's an immense strength in all three women—the older one, standing strong in her faith despite people's vocal doubts; the injured one, standing her ground and also being able to find herself again & heal; and the young one, persisting in what she knows to be right & necessary, and showing compassion to someone the world sees as a monster.

But something about all of that being relegated to the shadows of the stated quest—bring Maui across the ocean; help him restore the heart—doesn't sit quite right with me.

What about you? Have you thought about these elements to Moana? What do you think about this underlying story?


  1. Thank you for this. It is how I have felt about the movie for a while and I am glad to hear someone else felt the same.

    1. I was trying to figure out if this is a common theme in (recent) Disney movies, though I haven't had a real chance to devote time to this for now. But Mulan, for example, also stands by her convictions despite men telling her she's wrong/incapable—and she is motivated by helping those same men—but in the end, she is recognized for her heroism.

      Frozen also features one woman helping another woman heal (from psychological scars), and of the main men involved, one is the sidekick helping Anna, another is the villain manipulating them—including trying to discredit the powerful but scarred one by casting doubt on her abilities to control herself—and the third is the wise old guide. Fewer female characters, on the one hand, but more of a focus on them helping each other heal, and arguably the scars inflicted on them were from both parents, though that begs the question in an ancient regency, did the mother have as much decision-making power as the father.

      But in both those movies, as well as Moana, and Tangled, and possibly more, the women first "have" to be taught fundamental skills by men.

      Ultimately, I don't know. It seems perhaps these elements sneak through the subconscious of the writers/animators in creating these movies, even when they're aiming for a "girl power" core. In any case, I'm glad I'm not the only one questioning this.