Despite an almost universal love for Disney’s assortment of “perfect” princesses, a closer look at the coveted club reveals a problematic trend – many of these princesses are white, and the majority of them depict the helpless, damsel in distress archetype. While it’s fun to sing along to “Under the Sea” and take pictures with Princess Tiana at theme parks, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Ariel spends the majority of Little Mermaid mute and The Princess and The Frog’s rare black main character is in frog form for almost all of the movie.
Moana of Motunui fights these ‘princess norms,’ and you can’t help but love her for it. Moana has much in common with Disney’s other princess films: a likable young girl with a taste for adventure, longing to break free from what’s expected of her (think Ariel and Mulan), catchy songs every few minutes, an emotional plot that ends in happy tears. But what sets Moana apart from every other movie is the titular character herself.
Different from Disney’s earlier princesses, Moana defies the default design of skinny and white. She’s thick. She’s brown. She’s got no love interest. Together, these qualities make for an amazing role model for women of color.
Less princess and more leader, Moana saves her people and the earth without help from sidekicks and men.
Yes, she receives aid from a demigod (introducing Dwayne Johnson’s character Maui), but ultimately it is Moana the ocean chooses to save the day. Unlike Frozen’s Anna, who goes gooey-eyed for manipulative Hans in less than ten minutes through song, and Elsa, whose self-acceptance is illustrated by a ‘sexy’ makeover including a dress with a slit and gorgeous messy hair, Moana doesn’t use any gimmicks. Even her goofy sidekick Hei-Hei proves to be more of a humorous addition to the movie than an actual aide to Moana. Her determination is all she needs.
There’s a reason why my sister and I, both brown women, cried at the end of this movie. On surface level, Moana is another Disney girl with an animal sidekick ready to save the day. But pay close attention. You’ll find a movie with a rich narrative celebrating female and POC excellence. And when the main character passionately cries “I am Moana!”, you too will shed tears.