Moana: A Disney Princess For The 21st Century
Throughout Disney’s reign, its movies have illustrated society’s standards of each decade; portraying its protagonists to act like ‘women’: Polite, prim and proper.
Yet, Disney attempts to escape the out-dated stereotypes that were promoted in its films, with more exotic characters such as Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998). Despite the evolving views of beauty due to these diverse characters, Disney wasn’t successful in showing the cultures that influenced them. Nonetheless, in 2016, Moana was introduced, breaking almost every stereotype that was held.
Throughout this piece, I will explore differences in production and characterisation between Mulan, Pocahontas and Moana for the purpose of making entertainment that is culturally accurate.
The Album’s Success
With the début screening of Moana, the world instantly fell in love with the original, authentic and addictive soundtrack; so much so that it first entered the Billboard 200 at the 16th spot and even made it to number 2. From the moment Moana is chosen to carry out her adventure, we hear a simple, angelic song — ‘An Innocent Warrior’ sung by Vai Mahina (from band Te Vaka). This elegant song, like others ‘We Know The Way’ and ‘Tulou Tagaloa’, was written by the multi-talented founder of the Contemporary Polynesian band Te Vaka, Opetaia Foa’i, in one of his native tongues, Tokelauan. Thanks to this partnership, we experience the hidden languages of the Polynesian islands.
Ou mata e matagi
Ou loto mamaina toa
Your eyes so full of wonder
Your heart, an innocent warrior
My dearest one
There’s a task for you
The first four Tokelauan lines in ‘An Innocent Warrior’, which translates the impactful features of Moana as a child, while simultaneously introducing a principal aspect of the movie (her role in returning the Heart of Te Fiti). Although not clear to the majority of the world, this song was evidently made for this marvellous scene — and it fits perfectly.
It hasn’t always been this way. Disney wasn’t successful in presenting the Chinese culture through music, considering that, apart from the recurring use of stereotypical Chinese flutes and stringed instruments, the majority of songs in Mulan consist of generic ‘operatic pop’, much like Pocahontas.
As for the inclusion of Mandarin, spoken by the legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan… there wasn’t any. In fact, it seems that the furthest Disney went to making this film culturally accurate was casting Chinese-American actress Ming Na Wen to voice Mulan — which is, at best, tokenism.
How about the mother-tongue of Pocahontas? Nothing about Pocahontas’ native language was included in the film, not even in the soundtrack. This could be due to the slow extinction of the Native-American language varieties. However, I don’t think this justifies the exclusion since the Polynesian varieties are also rarely utilised nowadays, yet Moana’s inclusion has drawn attention to and popularised its languages, which will ultimately avoid their elimination in the future. Maybe if Disney had included Native-American languages, they wouldn’t be on the brink of extinction now.
Moana Redefines Beauty
In terms of their physical appearance, Disney has presented its princesses with the most evident features of the location in which the films are set — even Moana. For instance, Mulan has the cliché Chinese image with straight, jet-black hair and almond eyes, which aren’t perceived to be uncommon in China, as well as Pocahontas’ appearance based upon the Native American voice actress Irene Bedard. Rather than making these characters entirely unique in contrast to their neighbours to highlight their unearthly beauty, Disney has instead chosen to depict an average illustration of them. One could say they are shown as ‘the girl next door’, not having an extraordinary appearance yet still being classed as pretty enough to be a princess.
Moreover, Jasmine from Aladdin (the first ethnic princess to be introduced in 1992) has commonplace Indian physical features such as thick, dark eyebrows and hair. This introduction initiated a new perspective on beauty, with the more open-minded opinions on a variety of physical attributes that originate from all over the globe. Compared with the original Disney princesses, such as Cinderella, the development of the representation of women in Disney is clear. Despite this development, all three of these characters were drawn with the western ideals of women in place of accurate representations of these different women in their own home countries.
Although Moana does conform, by having the typical dark, curly hair and darker skin tone of her home island, she rejects the classic Disney princess body type. Rather than having a thin body and an astonishingly miniscule waist, Moana has a more realistic body and is an adventurous and athletic character. This is clear as she strides up Motunui (meaning ‘big mountain’ in Maori) and zip-lines her way back down using only a leaf and a tree branch … the natural way. It could be said that the island itself has shaped not only her attractive personality, but also her beautiful body.
Moana has influenced millions of children (and adults) by proving that you can be a popular and engaging character without conforming to society’s harsh beauty standards or stereotypical gendered behaviour.
The History of Voyaging
The plot behind Moana is based on The Long Pause, a gap in time when the islands of Central and East Polynesia were not settled until approximately 1000 years ago. After landing in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Polynesians took a break from voyaging for almost 2,000 years. Disney cleverly created Moana to build a fictional reason why the greatest navigators stopped at that time. In this case, the chief (Tui) prohibits voyaging as a consequence of losing his friend in troubled waters in his youth.
Likewise to the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on Victor Hugo’s novel-- with the theme of discrimination of minority groups like Esmeralda’s Romani heritage and Quasimodo’s deformities-- this story is not entirely fiction. In fact, Disney’s team spent three weeks visiting Samoa, Tahiti and others gathering information about how the culture and legends of Polynesian countries intertwine. Polynesian culture is also expressed in the minor characters, through the Samoan tattoos (pe’a) on both Maui and Tui, in the traditional Samoan bark clothes known as siapo, and the classic Samoan round houses, or fale.
Moana begins with Polynesian myths and legends and finishes with the credits rolling over pieces of tapa. Ultimately, Moana is filled with charming Polynesian culture from start to finish. I believe that the success of Moana is the consequence of Disney’s great efforts to immerse itself into the culture of Pacific Islanders, comparing to their other ventures where there is a clear lack of effort. Disney should be proud of “Moana” and the influences it has had (and will have) on society. From refusing social beauty ideals to teaching, enriching and inspiring the world of a distinct and wonderful culture.
What do you think? Leave a comment.