How Far I'll Go: Why Disney's Moana is more than just a feminist hero

Whenever someone mentions how great Disney’s Moana is, I get weirdly proud. I puff my chest out and hold my head up high taking credit as if I was involved in the movie’s development. The fact is, the movie has had a huge impact on my own personal development.  

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Moana and I have a lot in common... well, I like to think we do because, I see a lot of myself in her. I mean no, I personally have never single handedly fought off a lava demon in order to save my island village but, I am living in a world where Donald Trump is the president of the United States so, perhaps don’t write my hero abilities off just yet.

So, what do I a living human woman have in common with an animated Disney character called Moana who lives in the fictional Polynesian island of Motunui and is the daughter of Tui, the village chief?

Well, as you have probably guessed from the number of vowels in my surname, I too am Polynesian and my dad, also named Tui, comes from a long line of Samoan chiefs. Fun fact: my great-great-grandfather was one of the chiefs who carried novelist Robert Louis Stevenson to his final resting place on the summit of Mount Vaea in Upolu when he died.

Sharing a perceived commonality, however low level it may seem, with someone you see on screen is important. It’s why representation in pop culture matters because it’s the vehicle in which cultural stories can be shared with large audiences. When I was growing up, every once in awhile the call “SAMOA IS ON THE TV” would echo around the house and my family would all go running into the lounge room to watch footage of what was essentially a beach as my dad would explain where that beach was in relation to a childhood memory. I think I can count on two hands how many times the “SAMOA IS ON THE TV” call went up during the 90s and, I’m pretty sure 99.9% of the time it was due to Getaway or The Great Outdoors.     

So, you know that when I first heard about Moana I was pretty excited and, then I kept getting more and more invested with every, “Hey Tali, did you hear Disney is making a movie about a girl from Polynesia?”         

I remember when the movie trailer was released and watching it for the first time and listening to “We Know The Way”. The moment I heard that song, I heard my childhood. I heard my dad playing the guitar and the songs my cousin Sina played whilst trying to teach me to dance the siva. I heard the Samoan words I could never speak but, would always sing along to.  

I watched that Moana trailer and within me I felt this overwhelming sense of being seen. It’s the feeling I had when I was 13 and watched Looking for Alibrandi for the first time. Finally, seventeen years later my Samoan half got to feel that same feeling my Italian half had felt nearly two decades earlier.   

Needless to say, my expectations for the movie were high and I started getting worried before its release when Disney was being accused of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. Luckily, those concerns dissipated when I watched Moana for the first time. I loved it. In fact, part of the reason for the timing of writing this now is because Moana was recently released on Netflix and I’ve already watched it more times than I can count.

The other reason for writing this now is because, yesterday I went to a talk where Clementine Ford praised Moana as a feminist hero. My chest puffed and I held my head high as Clementine talked about how strong Moana is and how unlike other Disney princesses Moana doesn’t chase the love of a prince as a reward for her trials. As a feminist, I completely agreed with everything Clementine said about Moana and I have absolutely no doubt that this powerful change in Disney’s messaging will herald a generation of strong and powerful thinkers.

However, I kept thinking that I see more in Moana than just praised feminist hero. I look at Moana and see my Polynesian experience.

When people talk about their favourite Moana scene, they often describe Moana parting the ocean Moses style and returning the heart to Te Fiti. It’s a great scene and I can understand why it’s a fan favourite. However, my favourite scene is about about ten minutes before and lasts for only about two seconds - Moana is readying herself to battle the lava demon Te Kā and puts her hair up in a high bun.

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I know, a high bun sounds pretty insignificant when compared to the whole strong feminist hero who saves her village from an angry lava demon; but, as soon as I saw Moana’s hair go up I smiled a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean. You see, when you have thick curly Polynesian hair then the high bun is the crown you wear when there is work to be done. I watched that two seconds of hairstyling and thought, “that’s so me”.   

I know society talks a lot about diversity and how to be more inclusive and, while I understand and support the motive the actual practice of meeting diversity targets often ends up being completely tokenistic. Rather than really appreciating the ethnic depth of the character they go for the box ticking approach ie you’re brown, you’ll do. Which is really unfortunate because representation is powerful and when done right says your culture matters, your story matters and you matter.   

I’m so happy that finally some of the story of my Polynesian culture was told in Moana and, I just hope that more people from more cultures also get to feel have that experience.