Watching Moana, Disney's latest animated movie, was an extremely emotional experience—I cried for probably half of it. It’s a powerful, visually stunning, epic tale, about a resourceful and determined young woman, and it smashed the box office into smithereens, making $81 million over Thanksgiving weekend (although it didn’t do as well as Frozen). It’s immensely successful as a story and a profit machine, it celebrates brown women, and it is definitely culturally problematic. Welcome to the identity crisis of being a brown girl in a Disney world.
When I first heard that Disney was adding a Polynesian princess to their roster, I was cautiously excited. I always root for brown representation, but I was worried about what the corporate behemoth might do to Polynesian culture—seeing as how Disney's treatment of Middle Eastern and Indigenous American characters has been dicey at best. Sitting in the theater watching Moana, I felt the very same push and pull of optimism, joy, and deep cultural discomfort.
Moana is a great character, one that any young girl can look up to. She’s beautiful, strong, smart, and independent. She doesn’t need a love interest, she’s more than happy to go toe-to-toe with a demigod, and she’s not afraid to search for something bigger. And she’s brown. I expect it would feel much more special for Pacific Islanders (at least, those who aren’t enraged by the use of their stories, people, and imagery), but even as someone of South Asian descent, simply seeing a brown woman with curly hair feels like a huge acknowledgment. That not only do we exist, but we’re heroines, worthy of our own stories (and dolls).
Unfortunately for brown women, validation comes at a cost. After all, representation is pay-to-play. As many have pointed out, Disney has co-opted the innumerable cultural identities of the Pacific Islands, paring the vast amount of peoples and languages down to some very colorful cliches, from the body of Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson)—which was inaccurate by many accounts, depicting him as an obese stereotype—to the portrayal of the mythological Kakamora tribe (from Melanesian folklore), rendering them an adorable, insanely merch-able answer to Minions.
Disney brought in Oceanic Story Trust, a body of Pasifika cultural advisors consisting of “anthropologists, cultural practitioners, historians, linguists, and choreographers” to offer counsel to the production—the first time the company had ever actually gone to such lengths in the name of cultural authenticity.
The Trust helped the filmmakers iron out the small details in the film, from making a line about coconuts more accurate to making sure Maui had hair. In the original design, Maui was bald (bald and fat!) and the Disney artists initially pushed back on the Trust's insistence on adding hair because animating hair is very, very hard. Having the image of a demigod from your mythology butchered for the sake of convenience also sounds pretty hard, though.
Disney’s pursuit of authenticity (featuring a voice cast that is almost entirely made up of people of Pacific Island descent) makes Moana a better movie, but real authenticity doesn’t come from a body of advisers. It comes from the writers and the actual filmmakers, from people of a culture getting to tell their own story. That’s it. (New Zealand director Taika Waititi did write an early draft of the script for Moana, but most of it was not used, and screenwriter Jared Bush took over.)
Disney tells powerful stories. That’s the job. The company's been doing so for almost a century, and it's mastered the formula. As I watched the movie I realized, in between my various bouts of crying, that it didn’t matter if Moana was supposed to be Polynesian. Her culture is secondary to the universal hero story, Disney’s enduring narrative arc: girl loses family member, girl goes on voyage, girl beats ridiculous odds and saves the day, girl realizes who she truly is. In the movie, in a strange, doubly meta observation, Maui tells Moana, who just scoffed at his suggestion that she’s a “princess” (she’s “the chief’s daughter” after all), “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
But it’s true. Badass as Moana is, she’s just another Disney princess. As visually beautiful as the film is, as much as its soundtrack includes actual Polynesian music, it’s just another Disney movie, just another kid-friendly flick. The Polynesian culture, the names, the visually striking portrayals of these millennia-old goddesses and demigods are all ornamental, in a way.
It certainly feels like Moana was less about honoring a culture and more about abiding by new "trends" of promoting diversity. After all, Disney is a business. The point is to sell movie tickets, merchandise, and theme park entry fees. A character is also an opportunity to sell a wearable skin suit.
As one woman on Twitter—who identifies as biracial Tongan—put it:
But watching Moana, I couldn’t help but feel moved. Seeing a young brown woman be a hero on her own terms is very rare. Seeing her sitting at the top of the box office is even rarer. (Also Rachel House’s brilliant portrayal of Moana’s grandmother really hit a soft spot for me, like, damn.)
So, do we embrace Moana, knowing that to some extent, it renders Pasifika culture a novelty, conveniently leaving out any implications of colonialism? Do we lambaste it even though it’s a rare opportunity to be brown and be celebrated, and this is probably the best treatment of Pasifika people by white storytellers so far?
This is the identity crisis of being a minority in a world where imagery and representation mean so much. We yearn to see ourselves, to feel special in that larger-than-life way that we imagine our white peers always feel, but in doing so we must attach ourselves to the strings wielded by others.
I loved Moana, and I accept it as a Disney movie that draws its mythos, imagery, and audioscape from Polynesian cultures, but isn’t inherently Polynesian. A fully culturally authentic film requires having people of that culture at the helm, and that's not what Disney's done. For me, the bottom line is that Moana isn’t perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.