Moana Is The Disney Role Model We've Always Wanted

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Walt Disney Pictures

If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me

One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go

These song lyrics haunt my dreams. My son has been listening to the music for Moana for weeks since watching the movie during a playdate. I admit that his new obsession with Moana doesn’t grate on my nerves like other kid movies. Moana is a solid role model for kids, and I love the central message of the film.

At its heart, Moana is the kind of female empowerment story that Frozen tried to be, but didn’t quite achieve. Moana is primed to take over her village, but she knows that her real purpose lies beyond the confines of her island. She is drawn to the water from a young age and knows that somehow her destiny lies within the sea. When she discovers that she must find the demigod Maui to save her village, she must disobey her father (I know, typical Disney princess trope) to save her village from a blight. But honestly, the disobeying her father part is the only typical Disney princess thing about this movie.

Moana doesn’t need anyone to save her. She is a one-girl wrecking crew, determined to do the saving at all costs. She is the heroine that we have been waiting for in a Disney movie. She is clearly driving the ship, and we’re all just along for the ride.

From the minute her grandmother — who is really one of the best characters in the film — tells her to look into herself and find her destiny outside of being the leader of the village, and she finds the ship that tells of her ancestral past, I was completely sucked in. So rarely with children’s movies do you see the female lead character be the one to take her destiny into her own hands and keep it there for the rest of the film.

She never gives up her power, not even to Maui. It’s funny seeing a demigod play sidekick to a teen girl who is a self-taught sailor. Of course, he gives her some of the tools she needs to reach her goal, but even he becomes discouraged when faced with the lava monster that had almost destroyed him before. Moana is the one who leads the charge, and ultimately gives Maui the strength to face his fears. She is a badass.

Maui, as a character, has so many layers to him. He is the comic relief of the story, but he is also interestingly a hurdle and a symbol of how toxic masculinity takes a psychological toll. Yes, I’m aware that I’m projecting some pretty heavy stuff on an animated character, but if you are forced to watch the movie as many times as I have (and learn the song to sing to your kid), you’ll understand. Hear me out.

Maui is a demigod who is essentially rendered useless when he loses his hook. Without his hook, he is totally emasculated. (His hook = his penis = his masculinity.) He takes the heart of goddess Te Fiti “as a gift to humans,” but then he loses it trying to escape from lava monster Te Kā and is too scared to get it back. He steals Moana’s boat after a song where he basically spends two minutes talking about how great he is, and then leads Moana into several dangerous situations to try to get rid of her for his own self-serving glory. I mean, he was willing to feed her to the giant crab Tamatoa to get his hook back!

Then when he is defeated by Te Kā (who Moana realizes is Te Fiti without her heart), he stomps off and leaves Moana to fend for herself. My son loves acting out the scene where Maui tells Moana that the heart is nothing but a rock. When Moana is willing to take on Te Kā (and is fairly successful), Maui finally comes to his senses and helps her out. After he stole her heart, Te Fiti is nice enough to fix Maui’s broken hook. Only a woman would do such a thing.

In her deepest heart of hearts, Moana is driven by loyalty. Not just to her parents and her village, but to her ancestors. Loyalty to her father is what kept her from going beyond the shore as a young girl, but that same loyalty, plus the loyalty to her grandmother (who always encourages her to be honest with herself) is what pushes her to do what must be done. She knows that her place in the village is already cemented, and for a while she is willing to accept it, but she also knows that she’s meant for something bigger. That’s the voice that is always calling to her. It’s not in the distance — it’s right inside of her the whole time.

The song “I Am Moana” stands out to me because there has never been a song (though “Let It Go” comes close) where the character fully realizes who they are and acknowledges the arc they have made as a character over the course of the film. It is a moment of self-actualization that is usually reserved for romantic comedies.

And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me

It’s like the tide; always falling and rising I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me That come what may I know the way I am Moana!

As a parent, I am so grateful for a film like Moana. It is so easy to write off animated films as fluffy and simply for entertainment value. But when a film like this comes along, and you have a character who gains such a clear sense of self as the film progresses, it makes having to sit through it a million times so much more bearable.

Moana teaches kids that they have their destinies inside them and not to let anyone stand in the way of that. It is a powerful message for children, but also for the adults who have to watch it as well. By the end of the film, my heart is bursting, and there is a good chance I have tears in my eyes because I feel inspired by Moana’s journey. A+

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