Moana: Disney Princess of the 21st Century

By Caitlin Panarella

Over Thanksgiving break, I went to the movies with my two little sisters and saw Moana, the new film in the Disney princess franchise.  As both a feminist and a Disneyphile, I walked out pretty happy.  I believe stories have the power to shape our worldviews, and all I could think about was all of the little girls in the theater who will have seen this one.

First of all, Moana passed the Bechdel test with flying colors.  (For anyone that does not know, the Bechdel test for movies has just three requirements: 1) Two or more female characters, 2) A conversation between two female characters, and 3) A conversation between two female characters that is about something other than a man.)  Moana and her grandmother share a strong bond, as well as equally adventurous spirits.  The only person who understands Moana’s wanderlust, her grandmother encourages her to follow her intuition and never give up.

Moana is Disney’s first Polynesian princess, as well as the first princess that does not conform to the standard “wasp-thin” body type of past princesses.  At a press event in July, the film’s directors Ron Clements and John Musker said that this was a deliberate decision, as they “wanted her to be different… to be an action hero, capable of action.”  Disney is making strides in being more inclusive, toward people of color as well girls with different body types.

What does not appear in the film is perhaps just as notable as what does.  Moana has no love interest, nor even the hint of one, with the main male character, Maui.  In Disney princess films, with few exceptions, a princess’s story is incomplete without the prince, without the “happily ever after” of a love story.  While viewing a woman as incomplete without a man is problematic enough, this narrative subtly conveys another troubling message: women and men cannot be friends without sexual tension, unrequited romance or an eventual romantic relationship.  (At one point in the film, my sister and I leaned over to each other at the same time and whispered, “If they end up together, I will be so annoyed.”)

Moana and Maui’s amusing banter and gradual trust create a heartwarming, authentic friendship.  Moana stands in contrast to plenty of films where vulnerable moments between girls and guys usually serve as the gateway to a romantic relationship.  Friendship does not stop at a gender boundary, and it was gratifying to see a Disney film finally reflect that.

The film appears to take place in a world in which the matter of gender equality is not addressed because it does not need to be.  Instead, viewers watch a young girl leave home on a journey of adventure and self-discovery.  Despite Moana’s father mentioning, in passing, that the position of chief has been patrilineal, there is no contention over Moana being the heir.  

Often in Disney films, a woman’s “duty” is to marry.  Even in more feminist films— Brave, Mulan, Aladdin—where the female protagonist fights gender norms, society first and foremost expects her to be a wife.  While I do consider these films valuable in showing young girls that they can defy gender stereotypes, I do think there is something to be said for a film that shows a world in which the princess’s fight is not simply to be seen, where we can see her grow and develop in an inclusive society.  A sharp contrast to many Disney films, Moana grows up in a community that expects her to lead and flourish, where her duty is to be chief. 

Moana offers a window into a post-feminist narrative, where a female protagonist too can have a three-dimensional story that is not viewed as incomplete if it lacks a love interest.  Her battle does not have to center around proving her worth.  Not only a beacon of hope for old-timers like me, it shows young girls what they should expect of society— an equal playing field and an open mind.