The new film from Disney, Moana, has done extremely well in the box office since its release. Though never quite reaching the heights of its princess-style predecessor, Frozen, the film has reaped in critical acclaim from a wide number of reviewers. But while some praise the perceived feminism of a Disney Princess who needs no prince to succeed, others continue to question Disney’s cultural appropriation, particularly in light of the controversy over a Halloween costume of Maui that was pulled from shelves after being deemed offensive.
Disney films shine a light into contemporary pop culture and its relationship with feminism and racism in particular, so if you are looking for a research paper topic in film studies, Polynesian studies or women’s studies, you can find plenty of material in Moana.
Pushing feminism forward
Disney Princesses have long been criticized for their willowy figures and tiny waists. In Moana, animators changed the titular lead character’s build so that she looked more like a normal, athletic girl. She’s more of an action hero than previous princesses, and her entire story arc could as easily have been given to a male character. Many viewers responded — finally, a Disney Princess whose story is driven by her own agency and her desire to save her people—and the world!
Despite her youth and relative size, she holds her own against demi-god Maui. Their relationship settles into an almost sibling dynamic. There’s not even a hint of romance in the air. But for some viewers, that lack of romance for a woman of color is tantamount to erasure of Polynesian women owning their own sexuality. In looking into research paper topics about Disney and feminism, consider comparing Moana to Frozen, a feature that received praise for its perceived feminism, and criticism for its character design.
Cultural appropriation in Moana
In creating the world to showcase the Maui stories, rather than focus on one particular culture, filmmakers blended many Polynesian cultures together into a whole that is easier for an audience from beyond the region to digest. That blend, however, is problematic, as it does little to showcase the incredible diversity of a region that stretches from Hawaii to New Zealand. It’s also a gross simplification: Indigenous Oceanic Cultural Anthropologist Tēvita O Kaʻili, in his Huffington Post article “Goddess Hina: The Missing Heroine from Disney’s Moana,” considered the resulting film “simplistic and asymmetrical” because core portions of Maui’s history were lost by pairing him with a human teen rather than his traditional counterpart, the goddess Hina. Others have written about their dismay at the usually lithe Trickster Maui’s gigantic form, which animators designed to give him the on-screen presence they felt the demi-god merited, and his riotous hair, which animators designed in response to requests from the Oceanic Story Trust, as they believed his hair was needed to represent his spiritual power.
For some Pacific Islanders, the case for cultural appropriation is more about who will benefit from the film. Will Islanders? “The profits will not benefit our communities nor advance our languages, institutions or local economies,” wrote editor J. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua in a December 2, 2016, Honolulu Magazine article “’Moana’ is Turning Culture into Cash—Here’s Why it Matters for Hawai’I” by Don Wallace. In the same article, Pohai Ryan of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association posited, however, that the film would drive tourism to the region.
It is no surprise to Disney that the film has met with criticism from indigenous viewers. “There’s going to be anger,” Nainoa Thompson, Hawaiian master navigator and Oceanic Story Trust member, told Jason Genegabus in Honolulu Star-Advertiser article “Pacific Isles Culture a Touchstone for ‘Moana,’” published November 20, 2016. “There’s going to be frustration with certain depictions. … My role was to help minimize that. What I wanted to do with Disney was to create educational opportunities about the truth and the real stories told by Pacific people.”
Do you think films ever drive viewers to investigate the source material? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.