The Abrahamic religions who look to the story of Adam and Eve as foundational for all male/female relationships traditionally see the story as adversarial. Eve is weak and will destroy Adam unless he takes a strong hand and saves her from herself. We see a similar narrative reflected in the early Disney movies. Over the past few years, Disney princess movies have moved away from plots that focus mostly on the male/female relationship (Brave, Frozen, Tangled). But with the production of Moana, we have a new interpretation of the male/female relationship. This new message is a clear critique of rape culture and the damage that culture has on society.
Warning: The following discusses the plot of Moana and will contains spoilers.
In the past, Disney princess movie plots have been based on a traditional understanding of the story of Adam and Eve. The basic plotline is that a woman makes a mistake, endangering herself or others and a man must arrive to save her. This is most obvious in the first princess movie, Snow White, in which the title character ignores the warning of the dwarves and eats a poisoned apple, bringing about a type of death that is then overcome by an expression of love from a man. This basic pattern continues in Disney’s productions until fairly recently; the most recent princess movies either try to reverse the gender roles for hero and person in distress or bypass gender altogether by moving to a mother/daughter or sisterly conflict. However, the latest Disney princess film, Moana, is substantively different, addressing gender in a way that is consistent with the LDS understanding of the eternal nature of gender.
The first thing you notice in this movie is how beautiful it is. The animation is amazing and the music is moving. It has all the hallmarks of a princess movie. However, it is clear that this will not be the standard princess movie. Moana is not a “princess” by title, even though she is the daughter of the leader of her people and one day, will rule herself. Moana vigorously rejects Maui’s assertion that she is a princess, but to her rejection he replies, “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” So the film is intentionally playing on the princess theme, but makes some dramatic changes.
The main plot of the movie is that the demigod Maui stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, which holds her power to create life. Maui stole this while Te Fiti was sleeping. To have Maui steal a sleeping woman’s “creative power” is clearly an analogy for rape. Why does Maui do this? For the adulation and acceptance of his peers—not because he has any desire to create life with Te Fiti. This reflects current rape culture. Rape culture is partially about men wielding power over women, but it seems to be even more about men jockeying for social status within their own ranks. They demonstrate their masculinity to one another through their conversations and acts of violence (sexual or not) toward women.
When Te Fiti wakes and realizes that her life-creating power has been stolen, she loses her identity and becomes Te Ka, a being filled with lava and anger, lashing out at those around her as she protects what little of herself she feels she has left. Te Ka cannot follow Maui and try to reclaim her heart. She is hemmed in by the barrier islands and cannot leave them. She is forced to rage at this violation and injustice alone as the world turns a blind eye. To see a woman who was raped being forced to suffer the resulting rage and pain alone is heart-wrenching. No wonder it transformed her into something unrecognizable from her former self. Nevertheless, when the rape of Te Fiti goes unpunished, the event begins to poison the whole world. When the life-creating heart of one woman is taken, the life-creating forces in the entire world are thrown off balance. Although far away in an unseen land, the rape of one woman affects everyone, including males and females. This is a powerful message for all viewers that rape does not just damage the woman who is raped, but the entire society is affected.
Even Maui does not get off cleanly. He may have taken her heart, but it doesn’t end up being the great social-climbing act he thought it would be. His theft results in his hook, the source of his power, being broken. So instead of rising up and proving how great he is, Maui sinks into isolation and impotence. What a clear message of what rape culture does to men. We mostly focus on how devastating rape culture is to women, but this illustrates the impact of this kind of thinking for men. By seeing the life-giving force of women as merely something to be taken to impress other men, they are actually isolating themselves from being able to form true relationships with either women or men.
While the above plotline is revealed throughout the movie, the opening scene of Moana actually takes place 1000 years later with a young woman named Moana who is chosen by the sea to return the heart to Te Fiti. To do so, she is told she must bring Maui because he is the only person who knows Te Fiti’s location. First, Moana must find Maui’s deserted island, where he has done nothing but build an empty edifice to himself.
Moana finds Maui and, in effect, forces him to face justice. He must again face Te Fiti and help restore the heart. Now, Moana and Maui do not know that Te Fiti and the lava monster, Te Ka, are the same person. Maui knows the lava monster wants the heart, but doesn’t know why the lava monster rages so much. On this journey, Moana discovers her personhood independent of a man or her own procreative powers, which is another break from the Disney mold. She learns to listen to the voice that guides her from within, a critical skill that enables her to help others find their own identity and value. This happens when she realizes that the lava monster is really the goddess Te Fiti: a hurting, grieving woman who had her heart (her procreative powers) taken from her in her sleep and has found neither justice nor restitution. Moana calls out to the lava monster that she knows who she (the lava monster) really is. The lava monster is more than a wounded, raging, and raped woman: she is still a goddess inside. As Moana learns who she is—independent of anyone else—she reminds the goddess of her own identity that is independent of the actions of Maui. Moana then returns the heart to Te Fiti, and Te Fiti transforms back into the goddess that Moana knew was always there. Moana has helped Te Fiti reclaim herself after a devastating violation. And when that healing and restitution comes, the whole world heals. The insidious darkness that had been slowly sucking the life out of the world is now gone and life can flourish.
The final part of the story is particularly interesting, and seems to resonate most with the LDS understanding of gender relations. Once Te Fiti is restored, she forgives Maui and restores the power of his fishhook. Although Maui deserved hardship, he was cut off from others for a 1,000 years and then was willing to sacrifice his own power in an effort to restore to Te Fiti what was taken. Her forgiveness seems to be more of an acknowledgment of his changed heart and most importantly, a knowledge that he will now use his power to protect the life-creating heart. With this restoration, the world is brought back into proper balance.
Moana is a wonderful metaphor for the power of men and women working together with respect for one another’s differences, and the first time I’ve seen rape culture taken on at such a fundamental level. I hope the girls and boys who grow up with Moana will internalize this message, and maybe we will start to see tremendous healing within our world.
Full Citation for this Article: Powers, Emily (2017) "Film Review: Moana," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 1 (Spring 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticlePowersMoanaReview.html, accessed <give access date>.
Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.