Just because Disney characters look cute doesn't mean Disney films are inoffensive. In fact, they should be recognised as a powerful propaganda weapon, meant to inculcate neoliberal ideology in the earliest years of life. Thus, by virtue of self-defense, the authors of this article, who work in the industry, will not be bothered to avoid spoilers.
Disney’s Moana is set in Hawaii. Moana, the daughter of the Island’s chief, is meant to become the first woman to rule. But the island faces ecological imbalances which threaten the survival of the islanders and lead Moana on an adventure that she will share with a demi god named Maui.
If the title of Disney’s feature is the name of its main female character, one wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moana is the central character of the story. Indeed, as soon as Maui appears on the screen, a shift of focus occurs and Moana becomes no more than Maui’s side-kick. This is neatly illustrated by the memorable “go save the world” addressed by Moana to Maui as he is about to face Te Ka the lava demon. A closer look at Maui’s character can help us understand why this failed attempt at creating a strong heroine might have happened.
Besides Maui’s design being offensive to Polynesian people due to the stereotypes it conveys, there are many issues with the reasons invoked to explain Maui’s personality and his psychological evolution. Maui first comes across as overconfident, bombastic, physically abusive and sexist. In other words, he is what a capitalist and (thus) patriarchal society tends to raise cis white males to become. Of course if you are familiar with Disney films, you already know the drill: Maui is meant to evolve over time as he learns from his contact with Moana. The problem is that Maui didn’t need to start off as a sexist to have an interesting character arc. But a much greater source of concern is the way Maui’s personality traits are explained away: poor Maui has Mommy issues. His mother rejected him as a kid, so he developed an unquenchable urge for recognition, which eventually got him to accomplish great deeds. But after an ultimate defeat at the hands of a goddess, Maui lost his peni… sorry his magic hook, fell into oblivion and developed an individualistic and cynical mindset. In other words, Maui’s sexism, his condescending tone and his abusive attitude had nothing to do with patriarchy but are the result of what women have done to him. On top of this, Maui’s sexism in presence of Moana will only disappear when Moana proves (by Disney’s standards) to be a true heroine. The message is painfully clear: if a woman wants to be treated with respect, she has to prove to be exceptional despite the many obstacles patriarchy has set before her.
At this point a question comes immediately to mind: How could someone fail to understand the systemic nature of patriarchal oppression and as a result imagine a character arc like Maui’s?
When it comes to human behaviour, looking for explanations at the level of the individual rather than analysing the social context, is a reliable indicator that one is dealing with a neoliberal mindset. To deny the existence of social classes and argue against the redistribution of wealth, neoclassical economics will not distinguish between an employee selling his labor and a capitalist selling what his employees produce. Both are buyers and sellers, assumed to produce what they sell and to compete on equal footing in the marketplace. Differences in income will be attributed to hard work or laziness and these behavioral discrepancies will be explained using religious concepts like free will. When free will doesn’t cut it, genetic predispositions are brought up. Yet since these tend to undermine merit, it will be argued that one shouldn’t create negative incentives (like high income taxes) which might dissuade risk-taking prone individuals from becoming the kind of heroic entrepreneurs that our economy supposedly needs so badly.
Disney’s Moana is fraught with this very kind of ideology: despite being constantly socialised to live by the rules of society, Moana seems to have inherited her father’s repressed drive to take risks and explore the world, a drive that she doesn’t seem to share with any other islander. This sets Moana up to become the special individual who will have the courage to sail beyond the horizon and restore ecological balance by repairing the harm done to Te Fiti, the life giving goddess.
One could think that by forming an assembly where all the islanders would have shared their knowledge, a solution the the ecosystemic threat could have been arrived at. But democratic decision making doesn’t seem to be Moana’s cup of tea. After learning about her ancestor’s voyager past, her mind is made up and she sees no reason to waste time deliberating with the uninspired islanders. Moana storms in the village’s assembly, demands that people agree to her plan and then walks away in a unilateral decision to ‘follow her heart’. After she leaves the Island, on many occasions, Moana will be shown as overcoming adversity by finding resources “in herself”. This “free will” oriented line of explanation has become distressingly common in animated features produced by corporations such as Laika, and Disney.
Now you might wonder why Moana would have to travel away to remedy the ecosystemic imbalance occurring on the Island. What does her literally far fetched solution symbolically stand for? It is interesting to note that the ecological problems that the islanders are facing are of a kind that is more likely to occur in a capitalist economy practicing monoculture and trawling. On top of that, we are told that the ecological imbalance came as a result of humans always asking more from the demi-god Maui who was shaping the environment to their convenience, and who eventually stole the Heart of Te Fiti, the life-giving goddess. One gets the impression that Disney is pasting rampant consumerism and the ensuing ecological devastation on a society which is supposed to be set in precolonial times. To put an end to environmental destruction, Moana is supposed to give her heart back to Te Fiti. It is pretty clear that Disney expects us to read this gesture as symbolising a reborn respect towards nature. But after such a display of individualistic and entrepreneurial ideology, should we grant Disney this interpretation? One would be tempted to see the use of Te Fiti’s magical heart to solve problems as symbolising the kind of high-tech solutions that are being developed by capitalists to address productivity issues without addressing ecological damage on a systemic level.
But for all the neoliberal propaganda distilled through her character, Moana doesn’t come out as the leading character of the film. Her lack of experience and skills serve to justify Maui’s paternalistic attitude towards her. Her acts of bravery almost always stay in Maui’s Shadow: Moana defeats the coconut monsters only because Maui can’t be bothered to do it. Maui teaches Moana to navigate, but she falls asleep at the bar and it is Maui who eventually allows them to safely meet their destination. When Moana tricks the crab monster it is only to advance Maui’s story by getting his magical hook back and later encourage him to believe in himself and revive his transformation skills. Finally, when Moana faces the lava demon she is meant to defeat, she starts off with a series of impressive moves. Yet she soon finds herself in difficulty, at which point Maui arrives at her rescue. And as if this wasn’t enough, the personified wave which had assisted Moana throughout her journey also jumps in to help, giving a definite sense that Moana is but a little girl taking steps in the world under the careful supervision of her divine parents. As if we needed a confirmation that Moana isn’t the hero and center of this story, after restoring ecological balance, she gets to have a tattoo of herself on Maui’s chest...But as stated at the beginning of the film, Maui’s tattoos are supposed to represent Maui’s victories. In other words, either Maui is appropriating Moana’s victory, or he’s rewarding her by having her displayed on his chest… which is as patriarchal as you can get. If this is a shared victory, why didn’t Moana get a tattoo as well?
The fact of the matter is, Maui and Moana’s heroic deeds rarely take the form of a cooperative and concerted effort. The only time they do “cooperate” is when Maui sends a reluctant Moana to serve as bait for the crab monster. The rest is a juxtaposition of individual deeds.
So in sum, Moana is just more of the same from Disney: yet another princess story that is postmodern enough for the characters themselves to recognise this and dismiss it. The film has taken what should have been female empowerment and the celebration of Polynesian culture and blister-wrapped it in individualistic neoliberal ideology ready for mass consumption.
Image: Disney graphic used under fair use for criticism purposes, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/107