Disney's 'Moana' wins at box office with feminist narrative

Moviegoers raved over Disney's latest female-centric film, 'Moana.' As the roles of female characters have diversified and become increasingly inclusive, many hope to see the girl-power trend continue.

Disney via AP
Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, appears in a scene from the animated Disney film, 'Moana.' Many are hailing Disney's latest effort as a feminist success that features a princess without a love interest.

Disney’s latest princess is on a mission – but that doesn’t mean she’s looking for a man.

Hitting theaters on Nov. 23, “Moana” raked in $81.1 million at theaters over the holiday weekend, making it the second highest grossing Thanksgiving release to date after “Frozen.” While notable for its initial financial success and stunning animation, critics have hailed the film as a positive departure from the classic damsel in distress narrative that has guided much of Disney’s storytelling over the past century. The company made smaller strides in films such as “Mulan” or “Pocahontas” and larger leaps in the more recent “Brave” from Disney-owned Pixar or “Frozen” to embrace more empowering female personalities. But many observers say “Moana” has traversed into new territory by ridding its main female character's story of any love interest.

By adopting that change after decades of pushing glittery gowns, towers, and handsome princes, Disney might be closer to playing catch-up with society than paving the way, some experts say.

“You don’t put a lot of radical ideas and images in films that are going to have a large child audience,” Amy Davis, who teaches film and television studies courses at Britain's University of Hull, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “You don’t do that because when you do try to push the barrier too much, you offend part of that audience. You push away part of your audience who are used to seeing safe, family-friendly entertainment.”

In that regard, Disney’s newer characters aren’t necessarily radical feminist projects, but reflections of what consumers have pushed them to include.

“That is because society has already led in that respect,” she adds. “We want female characters to have a goal.”

The story of “Moana” certainly adheres to that ideal. The plot follows a 16-year-old girl from a Polynesian island who seeks to become a master way-finder and save her people. Along with Maui, a once-mighty demigod – voiced by Dwayne Johnson – whom she meets along the way, Moana sails across the open ocean, taking on monsters and finding her own identity as she seeks to save the declining island where her people live.

“We’ve had a series of films with empowered women doing amazing things,” Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief, told Variety. “There’s something in that that’s sticky and resonates with a broader audience. It’s fresh and different, but there’s still something familiar and relatable to the movies we’re making.”

While the absence of any love interest may be the most striking piece of the narrative, other, more nuanced aspects of the film also spoke to its feminist merit and message. Toward the end of the film, Moana nearly rejects her mission by tossing a stone – the heart of an island goddess – into the sea. But she then makes the active choice dive into the ocean to retrieve it, choosing her own fate.

Some female-centric narratives have thrust the characters on a mission, but the creators of Moana crafted the narrative to allow her to make her own choice – something that could show young girls that they don’t have to wait for a calling or permission to take on an adventure, Rebecca Hains, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, tells the Monitor.

“To me, this was a really nice return to those stories that were meant to be more empowering by showing girls that they can choose their destiny,” she says.

That change is one that many will likely welcome.

Princess culture has become a growing concern for some parents, who worry that traditional narratives with limited scope could curtail girls’ imaginations and ambitions and may later lead them to become obsessed with weight and looks in a way that threatens their health and self-esteem. Some wonder how to fight the obsession with crowns and pink tutus, and others have criticized Disney for crafting the stereotypes into palatable films and marketing desirable merchandise that fits that narrative to girls.

That effort took off during the past two decades after Disney sought for a new way to market its various princess characters, Dr. Hains, who wrote the 2014 book, “The Princess Problem,” says.

“When you think about princesses from a branding perspective… the princesses all had to have a sort of cohesive feel,” she says. “They sort of regressed to the mean.”

That meant outfitting even some of the less traditionally feminine princesses, such as Mulan, in fancy dresses seen once or twice in the film rather than the outfits they donned for the majority of their storyline. For Moana, there is no frilly garb to choose from, and if Disney wants to incorporate her into their line of princess merchandise – a process that usually occurs about a year after the film’s release – they’ll have to stray from the norm.

Many have applauded Disney’s recent efforts to create more inclusive female characters, but it might be parents and children who are leading the bulk of the movement away from traditional characters, rather than Disney blazing a trail. After spending 11 years as the best-selling costume for girls, princesses took a backseat to female superheroes in Halloween sales, another indication that young girls have become taken with the idea of empowered women on a mission.

But expanding the depictions of female characters isn’t just important for young girls; it can also provide diverse views of gender roles for boys, says Kara Hyvarinen, a mother of two boys who runs a site called Phoenix Mom Blog in Arizona. Ms. Hyvarinen says she tries to act as a positive female role model for her sons, showing them that women are just as capable as men. “Moana,” she says, reasserted that message in a new light.

“For some reason, Moana really stood out,” even when compared with films like “Brave,” she tells the Monitor. “I think because there was a male demigod who was along with her, and he kind of gave up and she had to step in and be a hero. The guy couldn’t handle it, but the girl could.”

Her sons, who are 9 and 12, typically prefer superhero movies to princess narratives. But with a less feminine and romantic plot, they found a way to identify with the film’s message.

“They were excited because they wanted to see [Mr. Johnson’s] character, but when we left, they kept talking about Moana,” Hyvarinen says.   

The skyrocketing success of the film likely means Disney is onto something with its new mission, and there’s potential for similar films to follow “Moana’s” path in the future in order to succeed among a younger, more progressive group of parents and their children.

“I hope that they continue telling diverse, interesting stories about girls,” Hains says. “There are so many stories that we’ve yet to see about different types of girls, about different walks of life.”

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