Why Moana Isn’t My Pacific Islander Feminist Heroine

by Haylee Kushi (Staff Writer)

Disney is marching out a new kind of heroine for its next princess movie – a young woman with no romantic interest, a thicker body frame, and fierce pride in her cultural heritage. In the trailer for Moana released on September 15th, Disney promises to celebrate Pacific Islander cultures. Yet despite the movie’s feel-good aspirations, it misrepresents culture and plays into stereotypes of Pacific Islanders.

First, it consolidates the huge range of Pacific Islander cultures into a mass by not naming one. The demigod Maui and long canoe voyages, for example, are parts of some – but not all – Pacific Islander cultures. Since Disney has labeled Moana a “Pacific Islander” movie, the differences between these cultures are ignored and erased.

Most important is the issue of Maui himself. Māui’s race is depicted, as is the race of many other Disney characters, with cringeworthy and outrageous exaggeration. His super-wide nose and scrunched-together eyes, his skirt made of random different kinds of leaves and a couple seashells, and his ten-toothed necklace have no foundation in Pacific Islander culture. He is huge, with no neck or ankles. He follows historical stereotypes of Polynesian men as obese, unintelligent, and hypermasculine.

In Polynesian cultures, Māui is part of our genealogy in both a cultural and ancestral way. For example, in a Hawaiian story, Māui slows the sun from moving too quickly across the sky by negotiating a compromise to create a dry season of long days (Kau Wela) and a wet season of shorter days (Hoʻoilo). He is consistently clever, brave, and benevolent. Moana addresses Maui as “shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea.” In Hawaiian culture, Māui is not a demigod, is not connected to the wind, and is not a shapeshifter.

Disney has released a “Maui” children’s costume on their online store, where children can don the “demigod’s” brown, tattooed skin and long, curly hair. Clearly, as it becomes less and less acceptable to “play Indian” with mock buckskin outfits and plastic headdresses, Pacific-Islander-themed costumes like “Big-Fat-Dumb-Maui” and “sexy hula girl” will fill the Native costume role.

At one point, the elderly narrator in the newest Moana trailer warns the audience that “beyond our reef, great danger is coming.” This “great danger” turns out to be a lava monster, as though the natural habitat – not colonization or imported disease – were the real threat to Polynesian people. In fact, Pacific islands are born through volcanic activity. They are host to many cultures that respect and appreciate lava – in Hawaiian culture, she is called Pele – but never fight against it.

Lani Teves, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, warns that in legacies of anthropology, “Western knowledge privileges itself and extracts indigenous knowledge to support the growth of its own institution.” Moana misrepresents cultures that see themselves as part of natural life, instead casting nature as the enemy, as in the colonial imagination. Disney plays into stereotypes in which Native people are connected mystically to nature rather than operating logically as part of an ecosystem.

The movie also disregards indigenous knowledge of astronomy. Maui and Moana succeed in their voyage not because their people spent time learning how to navigate by the stars, but because the ocean – personified as one of the movie’s characters – happens to be on their side. This waters down indigenous knowledge and fictionalizes Native relationships to the natural world.

Although individual Pacific Islanders Auliʻi Cravalho (voice actor), Dwayne Johnson (voice actor), and Opetaia Foaʻi (musician) will profit from Moana, the vast majority of the money made from this movie will go to a giant, white-owned corporation. The praise for a movie that finally celebrates brown cultures will be applause for Disney, and will do nothing to help Pacific Islanders, many of whom are in positions of colonial servitude to the United States. If anything, this movie will intensify the predatory Western gaze upon the Pacific, increasing the desire to support a problematic tourist industry that discourages sovereignty.

Audiences this November will applaud Disney’s palatable representation of Pacific Islander cultures, Disney’s make-believe Pacific Islands unoccupied by the United States military, and Disney’s plucky, invulnerable Pacific Islander heroes. Native people, once again, will be confined to a distant, mythical past where they were once brilliant and fun. Tragically, they are no longer with us! Or so the story goes.