I’ve been thinking about writing a review of Moana for some time now (ever since it was released back in November), but it’s been more difficult for me to approach than I anticipated. My feelings about it are…complicated.
Some context: My mother is from New Zealand, and my siblings and I are registered Ngāi Tahu (Māori). Even though I was raised in the U.S., I’ve always identified as half-Pacific Islander. Growing up, I absorbed my family’s stories about life in Aotearoa and immersed myself in books about Māori culture and mythology, especially the exploits of Māui. As an adult, I’ve stayed connected with my NZ family and happenings in our iwi, and I have a great deal of pride in my Pacific heritage. So seeing my family’s culture and a childhood hero get the Disney treatment brought up a lot of conflicting emotions for me.
If aspects of the film were difficult for me–a white person raised in America–to process, you can imagine how much more difficult it could be for someone who was actually raised in a Pasifika culture. And honestly, that’s who you should be listening to. So before I get to my thoughts, I recommend you read the following:
- “Don’t Swallow (or be Swallowed by) Disney’s ‘Culturally Authenticated Moana'” by Vincente Diaz
- “Despite Claims of Authenticity, Disney’s Moana Still Offensive”: An Interview with Tina Ngata
- “Remembering Who I Am” by Jeanne (I love her thoughts on how the film is about diaspora)
- @FangirlJeanne on Moana and Representation of People of Color
- Twitter thread by @AnjulieWrites
- Mana Moana Facebook page
Now, in no particular order…
1. I’m excited that my daughter (who has a Māori name) has a fabulous Polynesian heroine to look up to. She absolutely loves Moana and Auli’i Cravalho, and I’m thrilled that she has a movie she can watch that’s filled with Pasifika characters. And I’m always excited to see NZ actors (Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement) in big-budget movies.
2. I loved the women in this movie. I loved Moana. I loved her grandmother. And I loved that her grandmother and mother supported her goals and that Moana helped Te Fiti heal from the trauma of Māui’s assault. I’m 100% here for women raising up other women, and I was grateful that the story was centered around Moana and not Māui (whom I was glad to see apologize for his violence to Te Fiti).
4. When these traditions are removed from their proper context and filtered through an animated lens (not to mention a white gaze), the potential for exploitation and appropriation is incredibly high.
The most obvious example of this is the Māui costume debacle. Even though Disney pulled the costume, which would have allowed (presumably) white children to wear Māui’s brown skin and tattoos, they still manufactured plenty of other offensive merchandise, like Māui’s fishhook. (Māui’s hook, which he used to fish up New Zealand’s North Island, is made from the jawbone of his grandmother and is a sacred symbol, not a toy.)
I have to confess: my daughter, who is four, begged me to buy Moana’s necklace. After some hesitation, I finally allowed her to get it. But I wouldn’t buy any of the other parts of Moana’s “costume,” and I made sure to show her my real pāua and pounamu jewelry and explain their ceremonial and spiritual significance.
5. Speaking of Māui, I was very disappointed in his characterization. I like Dwayne Johnson, but this cartoonish caricature is not Māui, at least as I know him. (Māui also isn’t a demigod; he’s an ancestor.)
Then there’s the issue of Māui’s size. I have complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I think it’s great to have a big/ fat character who’s comfortable with his body, and I loved that we get to see different body types in the movie. But there are a lot of damaging stereotypes about Polynesians wrapped up in that portrayal.
I appreciate that striking the right balance here was going to be tricky. If Moana is a teenager, you don’t want to pair her up with a sexy older man. (The fact that fat characters can’t be considered sexy is another can of worms.) And to be honest, I liked that there was no love story. But…
6. The problem is that brown girls often don’t get a love story. They’re always expected to be strong and rarely get to be feminine. As Fangirl Jeanne says, “Desexualizing women of color by coding them as strong…is still controlling our femininity. It’s not feminist; it’s racist.”
If I were writing the screenplay, I would have left Māui out of it completely and given Moana a human companion of her own age. (Maybe another girl!)
7. Compared to Disney’s treatment of Indigeneity in movies like Pocahontas and Peter Pan (admittedly, a low bar), Moana is a vast improvement. I appreciate that the filmmakers took the time to do their research, and they clearly invested a lot of thought and consideration into their portrayal of Moana’s people. On the DVD there’s a mini documentary called “Voice of the Islands” that offers an overview of the places they visited and the filmmakers’ methodology for including various Pacific traditions. I really enjoyed hearing from the people they interviewed. (I especially loved what Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, a Master Tattooist from Samoa, said about Polynesian tattoos: “We use our bodies [to record our history]. The history is on our bodies.”) The video gives you a good sense for how much input they took from Native islanders and what they were trying to accomplish.
8. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite succeed. I understand that Disney wanted to find a way to include a variety of Polynesian cultures so that a range of P.I. folks could see themselves represented in the film, but homogenizing Pacific cultures isn’t the answer. It would have been better to focus on one P.I. culture, ideally with a director from that community.
I realize that the setting for the movie is meant to be ancient Polynesia and that Disney was probably aiming for a sort of Ur-culture from which contemporary Pasifika societies evolved. But imagining a pre-Eureopean era actually makes things worse because it’s an attempt to bypass the history and violence of colonialism.
In the words of Vincente Diaz, the problem is that beneath “this entire project is an enduring modern and colonial desire for romanticized primitivism and a colonial nostalgia for lost innocence.” He continues,
If romanticized primitivism describes modernity’s long-standing want for the supposedly pure and innocent way of life said to exist in places like Polynesia, colonial nostalgia is the same longing but in the form of a lament over having destroyed such purity and innocence through its own history of colonial encroachment and rule in the region.
For more about the colonialist underpinnings of the film, be sure to read the entire article.
9. One thing I wanted to note was that the idea for the plot was inspired by a period in Polynesian history, called “The Long Pause,” when all voyaging came to a halt. Doug Herman, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, explains,
Western Polynesia—the islands closest to Australia and New Guinea—were colonized around 3,500 years ago. But the islands of Central and Eastern Polynesia were not settled until 1,500 to 500 years ago. This means that after arriving in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Polynesians took a break—for almost 2,000 years—before voyaging forth again.
Then when they did start again, they did so with a vengeance: archaeological evidence suggests that within a century or so after venturing forth, Polynesians discovered and settled nearly every inhabitable island in the central and eastern Pacific.
Nobody knows the reason for The Long Pause, or why the Polynesians started voyaging again…Enter Moana.
The Long Pause is actually something I use in my worldbuilding for The Windstorm Series. I think it’s great fun to imagine fantastical explanations for historical mysteries. But when you’re writing about cultures that aren’t your own (and that have been oppressed by your culture), you have to be very careful.
10. Finally, there are the environmental issues. As Herman says,
This glorification of native peoples striving to save their island from environmental catastrophe stands in stark contrast to the actions currently underway at Standing Rock, where Native Americans and their allies are being attacked, arrested, and sprayed with water cannons (in the freezing cold) for trying to defend their water sources and sacred lands.
I’m glad the movie draws attention to environmental concerns, but its approach is flawed and more than a little irresponsible. Island nations are the most at risk from the effects of climate change. But in the movie, the real cause of climate change is displaced and the efforts to stop it romanticized. (The blame is put on Māui, and Moana fixes the problem and the earth is restored to its pristine state). So there’s no sense that these problems are ongoing.
For more about the intersection of environmental concerns (especially plastic waste) and Polynesian culture, see Māori educator Tina Ngata’s blog The Non-Plastic Māori.
For the most part, I enjoyed the movie and even found myself getting pretty emotional at certain moments. I’m always glad to see more diversity in our media, especially for our children, and it’s exciting to see (elements of) Māori representation in particular. But there’s a fine line between honoring another culture and exploiting it for monetary gain, and at the end of the day, I don’t think Disney pulled it off–or is even capable of pulling it off–at least in the hands of white directors. As Tina Ngata says, “Having brown advisers doesn’t make it a brown story. It’s still very much a white person’s story.”