I finally got around to seeing Moana a few weeks ago, and I have to say I really enjoyed it (how good was that David Bowie disco crab?). I’ll always love a good Disney princess film – not for the humour or the songs or the magic, but for the politics.
In my mind, Disney princess movies are the perfect tool for measuring our progress in areas like representation and feminism. Because they’re mainstream, commercial and child-friendly, they provide a kind of overview of what’s considered acceptable in wider Western society at their particular time of production. We know that Disney doesn’t take risks. They’re not an indie film company looking to challenge our perceptions or tell the stories of those on the margins. They’re not going to make a film that might risk offending even the whitest of white bread families. What people let their children see is a pretty good indicator of what they think is ‘normal’ and ‘ok’ – so we can use this as a sort of yardstick to measure mainstream social progress.
If you look back at all the Disney princesses over the past few years (let’s say since 2009), you can really see the changing attitudes slowly, painstakingly coming into view (usually about 30 years after they were accepted by ‘alternative’ literature and cinema – as I mentioned in my post about reading women, Hollywood is possibly the most resistant industry to any kind of change). We start getting princesses of colour (Tiana from The Princess and the Frog), heroines with agency (Tangled, Brave), female-centric narratives (also Brave), sensitive representation of different cultures (Moana), and a shift away from the focus on idealised romantic love and towards friendship and familial love (Maleficent, Frozen, Moana).
This brings me back to why I enjoyed Moana so much (spoilers, obviously): the heroine was played by an actual Polynesian woman and was three-dimensional, brave, and active in seeking out her own destiny; there was no love story whatsoever; and historians, linguists and leaders from a number of Islander nations were heavily involved in the film’s production. And let’s not forget that disco crab.
It isn’t perfect, but it shows that we’re (slowly) getting somewhere. And if nothing else, at least this generation of girls has more than a princess who does nothing but sleep for 100 years to admire.