I am a child of Disney—growing up, summer visits to my grandparent’s homes always included trips to Disney World. I danced through my childhood with blue ribbons in my hair like Belle, and hoping that someday my prince would come.
As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with Disney has steered away from childlike wonder and into the realm of serious critique. Between whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and the continual perpetuation of patriarchal norms, being in love with Disney films can feel like a guilty pleasure—especially in the female heroine/princess categories. And, as a woman of color, the lack of representation only becomes increasingly problematic.
But this past weekend, Disney released what, I believe to be, its most successful and empowering narrative thus far: Moana.
Moana’s magic is not in the magical wands of fairy godmothers or the affirming kisses of a dashing prince—the magic is Moana herself (aided by the compositions of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was responsible for the majority of the soundtrack).
From the very beginning, it is clear that the stakes for Moana are different than any princess who preceded her. As the daughter of the chief of her Polynesian Island, she is expected to stay on the island to become the future chief of her people. And while she is bound by familial duty, she is pulled to go beyond her island to explore beyond—which is (of course) expressly prohibited.
However, it is clear early in her life that Moana has been chosen (by the Ocean itself) to restore peace and unity not only to her own island, but to the surrounding islands after centuries of discord. She embarks on an adventure that includes meetings with demigods, teaching herself to navigate the open ocean, and constantly facing down fears.
Time and time again, we watch Moana push through self-doubt and doubt inflicted by others to fulfill her destiny. And, in the final confrontation of the movie, she demonstrates the power of compassion over anger, understanding over fear, and love over hatred. A powerful message no doubt—but even more powerful when Moana’s physical appearance is taken into consideration.
Moana is a young woman of color—her hair is curly and unruly, hanging down to her mid-back. Her skin is a deep brown, often darker on her cheeks when it’s kissed by the sun. She pulls it up in large messy buns, and runs around barefoot. Her eyes are bright brown. She is savvy, she is smart, and she is inspiring.
Her entire narrative is a testament to the importance of expansion—of moving beyond one’s comfort zones and into the realm of the unknown, that leadership and heroism looks different on everyone, and all across this country, little brown girls (and, let’s be honest, older brown girls) with big curly hair and unruly personalities, who feel themselves called beyond the reefs of the known, get to watch one representation of themselves on the big screen—the Disney screen—where, for the first time, their difference is being celebrated, front and center.
For the first time in my life, I was watching a Disney heroine who looked like me. She wasn’t a side love interest or a misrepresented woman of Native American descent. She was a brave, adventurous woman of the Pacific Islands who cultivated her own destiny right in front of us.
It is my hope that with the release of Moana, we will see fewer little brown girls with white Elsa wigs next Halloween, trading them in favor of their own unruly, bouncy beautiful curls and skin. Or, at the very least, knowing that Moana is just as powerful, inspiring, and strong as Queen Elsa—and so are they.
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