When I was young, I told myself wild stories about fantastical characters. Magic filled my daydreams; it was how I knew how to survive a world in which I was certain I didn’t belong because of my innate queerness.
As an adult, I continue to look to fiction to escape reality, and now I do so to also learn more about other’s experiences. It’s so important to discover all I can about the realities people other than myself face. I try my best to communicate these basic principles to my students: discovery through stories — fiction and non-fiction — yields wisdom. Storytelling is essential to human evolution. It can be a way to cope with harsh realities, and can lead to necessary exposure to cultures and ideals that one might not normally be exposed to.
This is a practice we desperately need more of right now when narratives about minorities in fiction and in post-election news feeds are whitewashed (at best) and downright false and destructive (at worst.)
It’s no secret that the America that elected Donald Trump is divided. Some would argue that it’s the most openly divided the country has been since before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. There is divisive rhetoric at every turn, about every issue, and exclusion is and has been at the heart of Donald Trump’s vision for America ever since he declared his candidacy. Many people are afraid of a Trump presidency. Many minorities don’t know where they’ll fit in “Trump’s America.”
This level of exclusion is a result of a lack of exposure to the “Other,” as well as faulty or — worse — absent storytelling. If there are no positive stories about the other half of America — the non-white, non-male population — then how can we ever expect true equality, or, at the very least, a basic understanding about the value of shared and different experiences.
Amidst the insanity that is Donald J. Trump and post-election America, Walt Disney Animation Studios has released the perfect antidote to the xenophobic hysteria running rampant throughout the country: Moana, the studio’s 56th animated feature, and it’s most ambitiously diverse, culturally accurate, and empowering film to date. In order to tell a proper story that respected Polynesian culture and tradition, the studio avoided the mistakes made with the historically inaccurate and stereotypical retelling of Pocahontas, created a trust of scholars and advisors. According to an interview with the film’s writers John Musker and Ron Clements, the storytellers behind Disney classics like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, in Vanity Fair, the group consisted of:
A group of anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers from islands including Samoa, Tahiti, Mo’orea, and Fiji, this group was integral in shaping some of the finest details of Moana, from character design to song lyrics.
The end result is one of Disney’s most poignant films that not only features a diverse cast — there’s not one white character in the entire film! — but celebrates it from opening credits to end credits. This is an especially important film right now, as so many are seemingly ready to support Trump in his crusade to strip rights away from minorities, including brown people and women. It’s important now more than ever for stories about people of color to flood mainstream media; storytelling is the most powerful tool we have in the fight against hatred of any kind. And Moana is a triumph in both storytelling and empowerment.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD! Don’t read further if you haven’t yet seen the film. Unless you like spoilers; then, by all means, proceed…
In Moana, the title character is unlike the Disney Princesses of yore; where Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Ariel (The Little Mermaid) would be singing songs about wanting to find love and submitting to the princes who always rescued them, Moana doesn’t acknowledge love or men at all — there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of Moana’s love life, not even a passing joke — and she certainly isn’t a damsel in distress. She is the daughter of the village chief who inexplicably longs to leave her the confines of her island and explore the vast ocean. She is called to the water by some innate desire she doesn’t understand. She’s being groomed by her father to become the chief — a first for a Disney film. Sure, Frozen saw Elsa become Queen of Arendelle, but her **cough** homophobic (or should I say “frostphobic”) parents basically convinced her that who she was was not good enough and that she had to hide herself. Moana, on the other hand, is praised by her parents, and the villagers were more than ready to be lead by her. Sure, her father didn’t want her to explore the ocean, but to be fair, nobody, man or woman, was allowed to leave the island of Motunui due to rough waters a curse from Demi-God Maui, who stole the heart of the goddess Te-Fiti. Moana, spurred by her grandma, the self-proclaimed “village crazy lady,” discovers that her people were once wayfinders and equipped with this newfound knowledge, decides to embark on a perilous adventure to find Maui, restore the heart of Te-Fiti, and save her island.
Moana’s role would have normally been reserved for the Aladdin’s, Tarzan’s, Wreck-It Ralph’s, or Flynn Ryder’s of Disney past. This film breaks the tradition of antiquated gender roles. Moana trusts her own instincts, and when she needs help, she isn’t afraid to ask Maui to teach her how to sail properly. She learns, and is abruptly catapulted to the same level as a Demi-God. In some of the film’s most self-aware moments, Maui calls Moana a “princess” because she has an animal sidekick in a delicious slice of metafictional commentary that pokes funs of the Disney Princess trope, and is cognizant of the fact that it never dips into that territory. Not to mention the film’s title, Moana, is the actual name of the protagonist, a departure from the studio’s most recent princess outings Tangled and Frozen, where both films got title changes (Rapunzel: Unbraided and The Snow Queen, respectively) in a misguided effort to appeal to male demographics. That Moana’s film is named after her shows great growth, and ownership over her identity (a leap even from films like Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Princess and the Frog, and even Brave, where the main female protagonists were identified by the attributing descriptors in their respective titles.) All of this amounts to one giant leap in the right direction, sending a strong, clear message to viewers, especially young girls, that women are more than capable of making their own decisions, taking charge of their own destinies, and not relying on [usually white] men to save them. In fact, in the end, it’s Moana who saves everyone — even Maui — all by herself, using her intelligence and empathy as a powerful one-two knockout punch.
And viewers are loving Moana. According to Forbes, it made “$82 million in its initial five days in North America. It is the second-biggest Thanksgiving debut of all time, behind Walt Disney’s Frozen.” Americans are seeing Moana. Millions of viewers are getting exposed to Polynesian culture, to brown characters, to a powerful young woman who is the moral center and has more strength and courage than the male characters by a long mile.
This is why storytelling matters. Viewers all across the country are letting Moana, a young brown girl, into their hearts in droves; it’s important to tell stories about non-white, non-male characters to show so that viewers who don’t fit that very narrow demographic realize that they too matter. How can we expect our children to grow up thinking that they matter, that their voices are heard, that they can lose themselves in the same types of stories white male consumers have always had the luxury of experiencing in American media? If we don’t have positive stories that feature powerful protagonists of color, or of young girls who don’t pine for anything other than love and a guy, how can we expect children to think that they belong, or that they have options beyond the limiting portrayals they see of themselves in the media.
Telling stories like Moana is also important for building empathy toward other races. Films and stories like Moana are so important to the young viewers who don’t exposure to anything bigger than their immediate surroundings. These types of stories help to build respect, empathy, understanding, and celebratory of differences.
Moana is a character who loves her heritage, celebrates her culture, holds her island and her people in extreme reverence. She doesn’t want to run away from who she is. One of the films most powerful, chill-inducing moments comes when Moana has lost in her initial confrontation with the film’s villain, Te-Ka, a volcanic lava monster. In a moment reminiscent of The Lion King when Mufasa appears in spirit form to cavalier Simba, Moana’s grandmother, who passed away in the first act of the film after revealing the truth to Moana that their people were descended from voyagers and that she should listen to her heart and, appears to a downtrodden Moana and reminds her to believe in herself.
Unlike Mufasa, who tells Simba what to do, Grandma Tala encourages Moana to look deep within herself to find the strength to continue; she praises her and imparts wisdom the way that only grandmas know how:
I know a girl from an island / She stands apart from the crowd / She loves the sea and her people / She makes her whole family proud / Sometimes the world seems against you / The journey may leave a scar / But scars can heal and reveal just where you are / The people you love will change you / The things you have learned will guide you / And nothing on earth can silence / The quiet voice still inside you / And when that voice / starts to whisper / “Moana, you’ve come so far” / Moana listen / Do you know who you are?
This moment in the film is the most empowering moment in the film. In a song called, “I Am Moana,” a reprise of Moana’s “I want” song “How Far I’ll Go,” she realizes exactly who she is, and in the most unabashedly self-declarative moment in Disney history, Moana takes ownership of herself, and everything she is. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who penned the lyrics to the film’s soundtrack, are pitch-perfect, and are enough to make grown men cry. Moana sings:
Who am I? / I am a girl who loves my island / And the girl who loves the sea / It calls me / I am the daughter of the village chief / We are descended from voyagers / Who found their way across the world / They call me / I’ve delivered us to where we are / I have journeyed farther / I am everything I’ve learned and more / Still it calls me / And the call isn’t out there at all / It’s inside me / It’s like the tide / Always falling and rising / I will carry you here in my heart / You’ll remind me / That come what may / I know the way / I am Moana!
It’s a moment that sends chills down the spine. Seeing a young, brown, female heroine save the day — I won’t spoil the actual ending, because it’s that poignant and beautiful — was an incredible triumph. Ultimately, Moana realizing that her culture and traditions are such an intrinsic part of her is a powerful storytelling tool conveying a message of empowerment and pride that is so seldom seen in mainstream media.
And it matters that she’s a strong brown girl.
Disney has done a somewhat decent job at diversifying over the last few years: earlier this year, Zootopia took on the issue of prejudice and segregation, but made it palatable for children by using bunnies and foxes to exemplify a world battling against widespread (and unfair) discrimination based on predator-prey classification; last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens gave viewers a female protagonist, a black protagonist, and a (possibly gay?) hispanic protagonist in Rey, Finn, and Poe, respectively. Marvel is slowly, but to much fanfare, exposing viewers to superheroes like Black Panther and, eventually, Captain Marvel, both of which will lead their own standalone films, a first for Marvel, which is owned by Disney. Disney’s other animated ventures since 2009 have mainly revolved “buddy” characters, where both male and female protagonists journey together and get equal screen time, as seen in Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and the aforementioned Zootopia and Frozen. Princess and the Frog was the first Disney film to feature a lead black character, and Big Hero 6 featured a diverse cast of asian, white, and black characters, making Moana only the third animated film in the last six years to feature a non-white protagonist, and, counting Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it’s only Disney’s 8th film to feature a minority in a protagonist role.
Eight. Out of 56.
Statistically speaking, that’s 14% of Disney animated films.
In a country that’s constantly diversifying, whose population is more female than male, where minorities are outpacing whites at record numbers, and we must do better to include stories that represent more than just the white experience. That’s the only way we can combat the hate, the racism, the xenophobia, the homophobia, the anti-semitic actions, etc., in a way that’s so subtle, and engages America’s youth in positive, productive ways. We need storytellers to craft stories about brown people, black people, LGBTQ persons, persons of all cultures and identities.
Moana is by no means the solution — it’s one story created by a media conglomerate that has a storied past of racist imagery they’d rather keep locked in their vault — but it is a small step forward toward more authenticity and diversity in mainstream storytelling, and in a cultural climate where being Other means fearing for your safety, well-being, and future, strong, dynamic stories (especially for children) about POC will no doubt prove to be a powerful antidote to those feelings of isolation and loneliness, and can help build bridges, not walls.