I saw Moana. It was delightful. It wasn’t perfect, but it was delightful enough that I think you should go see it.
Let me unpack all of that for the next two pages.
Moana is a Disney movie. I went into it expecting a modicum of South Pacific culture that was pretty much just stereotypes and coconut trees with a storyline about a young woman getting saved by a demigod in the process of falling in love. What I got was something much, much better.
Before we get into South Pacific cultural stuff, let me point out that Moana doesn’t have a romance plot. That bears repeating. The most recent Disney movie DOESN’T HAVE A ROMANCE. This is huge. This is no longer telling young women (and young men who identify with princesses, and young genderqueer folk who see themselves in a princess) that you have to live your life as a means to getting a husband. Instead, Moana is a role model who is doing her thing and having her adventure. We don’t know if she gets married in the end, and that is not an unsatisfying ending. This is amazing. It’s also about damn time.
To digress a moment, I never thought I’d get married. When I fantasized about my future, I saw myself writing novels, having a career, earning a PhD. But a man never factored into it. I was going to do my thing. Clearly, that plan got derailed someplace along the way and I made choices that took me in a different direction. However, I didn’t have control over falling in love, or having someone fall in love with me, so it wasn’t a thing I set as a goal. I had control over writing, I had control over my eduction. Those were goals. Relationships weren’t goals, they were happy accidents. So seeing a movie in which there was no romance, in which one of the characters wasn’t actively trying to have a romance, was refreshing and honest.
Ok, onward to the land of cultural appropriation and coconuts!
Moana is set in the South Pacific. The South Pacific is not a cultural monolith. If you take language to represent culture (it doesn’t, it is a relatively modern conception to equate 1 country with 1 culture with 1 language, but that’s a different rant), there are around 1,000 languages spoken in the South Pacific.* So, Moana is a story meant to represent roughly 1,000 cultural traditions. That is an impossible proposition.
I went through and read a bunch about the making of the movie. It seems that they focused on Hawai’ian, Polynesian and Maori culture, in that order.** That tightens the potential cultural variation to maybe 300 cultures-as-represented-by-languages. That is a still impossible, but at least closer to reality.
So, given that basis, it was never going to be an ‘accurate’ portrayal of South Pacific culture. It isn’t.
That said, there are certain cultural cross overs, some of which the movie did beautifully. For instance, the verse about coconuts in “Where You Are” is priceless and amazing and so exactly reflects my experience. The sentiment of ‘We have everything here, why would you go elsewhere?’ is also accurate to my experience. I was told over and over that life in my country (the USA) and in the capital (Port Vila) was hard, but on the island, everything is provided by the land. I’m delighted that the makers captured that sentiment so exactly and converted it into a singable Disney song.
To bounce back to problematic things, there are three more I’d like to touch on. First,
Moana is not a character that appears in cultural histories or mythologies. She, and this story, are 100% creations of Disney. In some ways, this makes it feel more ok and in some ways it makes it feel less ok. By telling a new story, they are telling a new story. There isn’t cultural baggage to the story, or versions with events that need to be sanitized, or changed to be palatable to a Disney audience (whoever that is). This means that Disney had a clean slate and wasn’t going to steal or re-write an existing story. On the other hand, this feels a bit more like appropriation on the other pieces because of it. As in, they’ve written a story set in a semi-fictional world, but by semi-fictionalizing it, they’ve replaced the real histories and wealth of stories of the cultures with something that is very Disney, and very white.
Second problem: the character of Maui is a character that exists in many Polynesian cultural traditions. In many of these stories, he is represented as a svelt youth, full of mischief and trickery with a weakness for humans. The exploits his tattoos represent are all taken from stories in various traditions. The tattoo that doesn’t come from Polynesian stories is an important one. In no tradition that I could find is Maui an orphan. In fact, his brothers and sisters often help him accomplish the great feats he is known for. On one hand, these are minor changes. On the other hand, it continues this weaving of real cultural story and tradition with Disney-fied culture.
My third issue is mushier. This film employed an incredible number of South Pacific Islanders and people of South Pacific descent as voice actors and in research associates. Both the leads, Auli’I Cravahlo and Dwayne Johnson, are South Pacific Islanders/South Pacific descendants. This is important. Seeking out talented people of color to portray people of color is so important. I’m glad Disney did that. However, that doesn’t change the predominantly white hierarchy of Disney. So, it many ways, this was white people making money off of stories of people of color. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole situation, but it seems a bit mixed up to me. On one hand, Disney made a point to use cultural advisers and talent who have South Pacific connections. On the other hand, the highest profit go to people who aren’t those advisers or Pacific Islanders.
In review, cultural things are complicated. It is impossible to do it perfectly. But Disney put forth a serious and non-trivial effort to do this with respect and to broaden the range of princesses available. Discussions like this require nuance, a thing the internet as a whole doesn’t do well, but I hope that this will continue to bring out nuanced conversations about these issues.
For me, I finally have a Disney princess I identify with. A young woman with wanderlust, zero interest in romance, and a streak of stubbornness a mile wide. I approve.