I love going to outdoor movie screenings. Sitting outdoors on a summer evening with good company brings me joy. Last week, I went to an screening of Moana, the Disney movie about a teenager who goes on a quest through the Pacific Ocean with the demi-god Maui. Moana goes on this journey to help her people. The movie came out last year, but I didn’t see it. I have to admit that I wasn’t even interested in it until Simone Biles performed a dance to one of Moana’s songs on Dancing with the Stars. It was then that I realized that the movie has an empowering message. I asked my friend Natalie, who is also a feminist religion scholar, about Moana. She has three young daughters, so I trusted her to be more current than I am. Her enthusiastic response sold me, as did her remark, “There’s not even a love story in it!”
Ah, Disney princesses and their love stories! I’m old enough that I didn’t grow up with the Disney culture that children in the past few decades have, but I haven’t been immune to the Disney princess phenomenon. I childhood pre-dated DVDs and digital downloads, but I still knew and cherished the Disney characterizations of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. These young women were kind and virtuous and beautiful (according to Eurocentric standards), but their stories culminate with marriage to a charming prince. It’s also problematic that so often, the villains in these movies were older women—wicked stepmothers or evil witches—who were motivated by jealousy and hate.
In recent years, the female lead characters (“princesses”) in these animated movies have gotten more multi-dimensional. Still kind, virtuous, and beautiful, these young women also have skills that compare to the traditional male hero: strength, intelligence, and bravery. These have become sources of power for the modern Disney princess, and she is supported by meaningful relationships with family, friends, and animals who guide her growth. And so, as much as I enjoy a good love story, I am delighted to see female characters who model more than romantic ideals. This brings us to Moana.
I saw the movie with Natalie and her youngest daughter. Her remark about the lack of romance readied me to find a message of female empowerment in the film, but she helped me be aware of something else, too. Shortly before the movie began, she told me about others in her social circle who were concerned about the “pagan” imagery in the film. I’m generally wary of Evangelical Christians’ concerns about popular children’s movies when they cast suspicion on some fantastical element of the story (more on that to come in Part 2 of this post). With this in mind, I watched the movie not only examining its depiction of female characters, but also noticing its references to religious and spiritual themes. Would there be a positive message in those, too? Moana is set in a Polynesian culture, and I thought the film’s depiction of it was respectful and beautiful. I think all of us should learn to honor and appreciate the beauty in traditions that are not our own. But beyond that, I think there are spiritual lessons in the film that are particular to its cultural setting, but also relevant to believers and practitioners of other traditions. One is the significance of myth and the spiritual guides who share them.
Moana, the title character, is a young woman who is raised to become the chief on her island. This is an important element for the story’s context, as female leadership is already presumed. She does not have to defend her right to lead; it is expected of her. Her parents and her paternal grandmother, Tala, are instrumental in preparing her for this role. While her father (the current chief) provides practical insight and her mother provides encouragement, Tala provides Moana with the wealth of her heritage. The opening words of the movie feature the grandmother’s storytelling, which sets the scene for the crisis that will come to Moana’s island, but also provide a legacy and vision for her young granddaughter. The story’s central narrative is about Moana’s journey beyond her island’s reef. It is dangerous, but important for the island’s survival. Tala recalls their people’s history, which inspires Moana to continue, despite the risk.
I loved that even at its outset, this film highlights the power of myths to shape us by telling us who we are and inspiring us to claim what we’ve inherited from our ancestors. By myth, I don’t mean a story that is untrue, but rather a story that speaks to a reality beyond its particular setting. A myth tells us about origins, about destiny, and about the perennial struggles of life in its worldly and other-worldly realms. Its truth exceeds the particular details of the story. Most of our cultural, religious, and spiritual traditions have myths.
Moana highlighted the power of myth and the importance of those who bring them to us. The demi-god Maui, Moana’s reluctant companion on her journey, recounts the exploits by which he brings phenomena such as fire to humanity. Throughout the movie, we see various origin stories for a people and their way of life. I was thrilled that a popular movie depicts the power of these stories to inspire a young, brown-skinned woman and the matriarch’s role in sharing them. The older woman here is not the evil villain who acts out of jealousy or bitterness. Tala is the crone, the woman whose wisdom enables her to revel in her own identity and guide others to their greatness. May we know these women and be them!
There’s so much right now that could so easily cause us to give up or forget the greatness we envision for our world and our people. What a joy it was for me to get lost in Moana, Tala, and Maui’s world and be inspired by it.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Art, Community, Earth-based spirituality, Evil, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Film, Indigenous Spirituality, Popular Culture, power, Relationality, Spiritual Journey, Women and Community, Women's Voices