• YEAR: 2016
  • DIRECTOR: Ron Clements, John Musker
  • KEY ACTORS: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
  • IMDB SCORE: 7.6


✔️ Interestingly for a movie with a female lead and no romantic storyline, the Bechdel Test is not an easy answer, although this is more related to nuance in the test rather than the movie. Is Gramma her grandmother’s name? Do non-romantic discussions about a man count? Despite these arguments, it’s a clear pass to me!
✔️ But there is no doubt that it is rewatchable. It has the key Disney features of great music, great visuals and inspiring characters, and it’s wonderful!
I don’t want to fuck the cast. Perhaps unlike other Disney movies, Moana is a much less sexualised character and definitely more like a child than some of her predecessors. Which is an important step forward!
❌ And similarly, it didn’t inspire fantasies. It’s just not that kind of movie!
✔️ Is it sex positive? I am going to give it a mark as I can’t find a reason not to. Sex and relationships really aren’t part of the plot but I like that Moana isn’t pressured into marriage and it is feminist and body positive so that’s good enough!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Disney+, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Here we are – at the end of my Disney Princess movie series (Except that I’ve enjoyed talking to you about these movies and watching them all so much that I’m going to do another series in September!). I’m ending this series with the most recent inductee onto the official Disney Princess list – a princess who tops almost every ‘most feminist’ princess list. She’s a bad-ass warrior and she’s a chief and she’s incredible.

And she’s a sign that what we expect from a princess has changed. The Disney Princesses do tend to reflect the age that they were created – are we surprised that Snow White is a domestic servant when women in the 1930s were essentially treated that way all the time and that Ariel was independent but punished for it in the early 1990s? As feminist revolutions have progressed, so have the Disney Princesses. But change has been slow and not always good. As I wrote in the Little Mermaid post, the price for the independence of the Disney Renaissance princesses was an increasingly masculine world where women spoke less than half of the time. The ‘New Age’ of Disney Princesses started with the Princess and the Frog in 2009 but this wasn’t exactly a revolution – their first Princess of colour spent most of the movie as an animal, which was a misguided and kind of racist decision – and real change wasn’t seen until 2010’s Rapunzel when finally, FINALLY, characters presenting as women spoke more than the men again.

When thinking of these princesses as role models, there’s another change with the New Age Princesses that I think is hugely important – they weren’t only complimented on their looks. Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer’s analysis of the linguists in Disney movies also showed that in the classical Disney movies, 55% of the compliments that the Princesses received were about how they looked and only 11% were about abilities, ‘their skills or accomplishments.’ As the graph below shows, originally published in the Washington Post, even the Renaissance princesses fell down on this front, but by the time of the New Age Princesses, the balance had shifted and 40% of the compliments were about what the princesses could do rather than how they looked, thank god. Because this is what I’d like my daughter to see – girls, women and people who present as women being praised for being capable rather than just beautiful.

A graph comparing compliments on appearance and skills in the Disney Princess movies with classic movies showing 55% appearance based and New Age showing 40% skills based

But as Fought and Eisenhauer concluded, ‘Disney is clearly proud of its efforts to modernize the princess movie genre, but it has a lot of work to do.’ The princesses were still mostly white, still all thin and still all shared the same face, as a Tumblr post noted: ‘Apparently every Disney woman is a clone/direct descendant of some primordial creature with huge round cheeks and a disturbingly small nose, because there is no other explanation (yes there is(it’s lazy sexism)) for the incredible lack of diversity among these female faces.’ This is partly because there are actually very few female characters in the Princess movies, apart from the lead, which provides ‘fewer opportunities for animators to create goofy looking female supporting characters,’ but it’s more to do with misogyny. Of course. Princesses have to be traditionally beautiful and also have to fit other gendered attributes – kind, sensitive, calm, good. And, apparently, according to Frozen’s head of animation Lino DiSalvo, it’s very difficult to animate female faces if ‘you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive.’ I…I can’t. Imagine being so unimaginative while still working in a creative industry.

Except that the Tumblr post was from 2015 and the linguistics article was published in 2016, and neither mention Moana.

Moana tells the story of a Polynesian Princess who feels drawn to the ocean. Moana (Cravalho) wants to sail beyond the reef surrounding her island but her father forbids it. Sadly, her island is dying and her grandmother tells her that it is because a demigod Maui (Johnson) stole the heart from Te Fiti, the goddess of creation. The ocean has chosen Moana to save the world, find Maui and convince him to return the heart to Te Fiti. With her idiot chicken friend, a staple for any Disney movie, Moana crosses the reef and sets sail. She finds Maui, persuades him to return the heart but eventually discovers that she is the one who needs to do it – she is the one who can speak to the goddess and save her people. Which she does and then she returns to her island to lead her people across the sea, becoming the voyagers that they should always have been!

An image from Moana of Te Fiti holding Moana in her hands

It’s a really special movie and I can see why it has become so beloved. It feels almost like the younger generation’s Little Mermaid, particularly as it was directed by the same team. The songs are incredible and I always find myself singing ‘How Far I’ll Go’ for literally days after watching it; the animation is stunning and beautiful; and the story is suitably epic with the right level of peril and comedy.

Moana’s feminist credentals do largely stand up to scrutiny. She’s the daughter of the chief but there is no doubt that she is the heir to his throne – there’s no mention of needing a son or that Moana needs a husband in order to rule. She’s simply going to be the chief! And I loved that the entire community accepted Moana’s birthright without question, suggesting that they see women in leadership roles as normal rather than exceptional. And this is such an important idea for young people to see and understand!

Moana wearing her chieftain's headdress

But as much as I would like to write more about this, there is one feature of Moana  that I have to write about first in case it becomes such a rant that becomes the entire post (Spoiler: it does), and that is her body shape. Put simply, she looks like a real girl.

Reading more about this has led me down a horrific rabbit hole that made it clear how frankly unrealistic the previous Disney Princesses were. It’s pretty obvious that they are all thin and beautiful with, as discussed above, the same wide-eyed oval face but the team at Above Average discovered that 6 out of the 11 princesses before Moana had eyes that were bigger than their stomachs. Literally. The width of their eyes was bigger than the width of their waists.

A graphic of Elsa showing how wider her eyes are than her stomach

(Sadly, I can’t find the original Above Average post as the links are all broken but there are more examples posted in this article in Seventeen.)

And I don’t think we can ever underestimate how damaging these sorts of images can be to children and young people. I have talked a lot about how these princesses become early role models in gendered attitudes and behaviours, and the same is true for appearance. The fancy dress market alone proves that children want to look like their favourite princesses – they want to be the princess and that means looking as much like them as they can. Which, obviously, means being unnaturally thin. As BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne told Phys.org, ‘Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal…As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four.’ Is it really any surprise that we struggle with having a healthy body image when these are our early models?

But Moana is different. While not nearly plus sided, she does have thicker legs and a more normal waist. She looks like she really could sail a raft across the sea and stand up for herself in a fight with a demigod. And this is deliberate. When designing Moana, Clements and Musker, the directors, decided to make her more realistic. Musker told BuzzFeed that they ‘wanted her to be an action hero, capable of action…it just seemed right for this character to have her look like she could physically hold her own for what kind of stunts we wanted her to do, and the physicality of the role.’ As well as this, Finnish graphic designer and illustrator Jirka Vinse Jonatan Väätäinen paid particular attention to what was being said about Disney Princesses, listening to the concerns of fans and parents, and agreed with the decision to illustrate her as a real woman. 

And I find the results – Moana’s look – and the coverage of them, hugely fascinating. Because Moana is still pretty skinny. I don’t look at her and even notice that she’s a different shape from the previous princesses. As Molly Horan wrote in Refinery 29, ‘her waistline certainly looks pretty slim in the stills from the film, and she only looks more “athletic” and “normal” when compared to the hypersexualized (and teenage) princesses of Disney’s past, who have comical body proportions.’ Yet, fascinatingly, this was enough to cause outrage among the kind of people who are scandalised by any hint of sexuality in the characters. Conservative writer and talk show host Debbie Schlussel was quoted in a BBC article as describing the ‘thicker framed Moana as one more example of political correctness gone too far. “I think it tells girls that they don’t have to be fit,” she says. “I think it’s setting up girls for unhealthy lives in the future and also for disappointing romantic lives.”’ And this is such bullshit. It makes me so angry!

Because the one difference that I did notice with Moana’s realistic body shape was that she did not look as sexualised as the other princesses and I am truly fascinated that conservative critics seem to be complaining about this. For my sex score at the top of this post, I really couldn’t imagine giving Moana a mark for wanting to fuck the cast because she is believably a child. An impressive and beautiful child with extraordinary leadership skills and a believable ability to inspire her people, but still a child. I know I’ve described her as ‘believable’ too often but that’s because it is important.

An image of Moana standing on the beach with an oar looking powerful and like an action hero

There is a troubling trend for the Disney Princesses to become more and more sexualised, which is especially worrying when you consider that they are almost all teenagers. Most of the princesses are 16 and, at 21, Elsa is the only one who isn’t a teenager and yet they all have buxom and definitely adult bodies. There are many reasons why being a teenager is a difficult time, and the fact that our bodies and emotions mature at different rates is a big one. Some teenagers do have bodies like adults when they are 16 or even younger and some are emotionally ready for sex and ready to cope with being sexualised by the media and wider society at that age, but it is rare to have both at the same time when still a child. But the Disney Princesses tend to have both sexualised bodies and attitudes, and they are essentially treated as adults by the people in their worlds, preparing them for marriage or encouraging them to be more attractive to men.

And I worry about what these messages tell young people, what it teaches them about their value, worth and their body image. Jennifer Zeven, writing an essay on Medium, describes how fairy tales are often a safe space for young people to experience emotions that aren’t allowed in their real lives – children aren’t really supposed to hate their stepmothers or run away from their parents and live in the woods, but fairy tales characters can do that and this allows the young people to healthily and safely explore what that might be like. But, alongside these safe spaces, gendered and sexualised messages sneak in: ‘If we accept that fairy tales are powerful vehicles capable of providing healthy outlets for subconscious thoughts not ‘allowed’ to be lived out in real life, then we must also accept sexualised messaging and perpetuation of outdated gender roles therein are just as powerful, and may limit girls’ perceptions of what they are capable of to begin with.’ So I am glad that Disney have finally made the decision to try and change.

The fact that Moana is a Polynesian Princess who hasn’t been sexualised is also kind of revolutionary as Disney has a bad habit of sexualising black and brown characters. NerdyPoC’s essay on Medium described how ‘women of colour in mainstream media are often subjected to the same tired tropes over and over again: reluctant victim of oppression, fiery seductress, exotic dancer,’ and Disney characters of colour tend to fulfill all of these – think of Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esmerelda. Blogger Tassja, quoted in NerdyPoC’s essay, felt that it was ‘no coincidence that out of the Disney princess menagerie, the WOC are the scantiest clad. It’s no coincidence that, while Belle and Ariel and Aurora are undoubtedly sexualised, that their sexual allure is composed of a wide-eyed innocence, a girlish shyness and naiveté, while Jasmine and Esmeralda move in deliberately sinuous lines, their bodies openly sexual and beckoning.’ But, again, Moana seems to have escaped from this significant failure of Disney’s past.

The cultural representation of the Polynesian people isn’t perfect. Maui has been criticised for being too bulky, becoming an ‘obese caricacture’ of Polynesian people and, again, for giving obesity a free pass (honestly, why is this always such a problem?!). There’s also the very unfortunate incident of the official Maui ‘costume’ – essentially a brown-skin tattooed suit that Disney swiftly withdrew. As  Arieta Tegeilolo Talanoa Tora Rika told the BBC, even aside from the fact that no one would dream of creating a white skin suit, the ‘tattoos are deeply meaningful to Pacific people. Like a fingerprint, a tattoo is unique to each person.’ It shows an extreme level of cultural blindness and misappropriation that such a racist idea would actually reach the shops!

But I do feel that Moana is a huge step forward and a really positive sign of how the feminist ideals have reached the mainstream. For *Disney* to recognise the need for change and modernisation and the importance of representation is really wonderful. Moana is a new type of princess and a modern, realistic image of a girl, and I love it: ‘Compared to your average Disney princesses, Moana is neither selfishly rebellious nor simplistically innocent. Her longing for the sea isn’t just a flight of fancy, but an innate cultural pull that superstitious tradition has thinly covered…Instead of chasing after a man or even finding love by accident, Moana never loses sight of her key goals of saving her people, both literally and culturally.

Moana makes me really excited about what Disney could show us next, or more accurately, what our world might look like and how this could be reflected back at our children. (We’d like an LGBTQ+ princess please!)

NEXT WEEK…the first of my movie star series on TOM CRUISE!

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.