Disney’s latest animated feature Moana was recently released on DVD, Blu-Ray, Digital Download, and wherever else you watch movies at home (and if you haven't seen it, get on that right away). Though this film was five years in the making, it’s impossible to ignore the current political and cultural climate as this film enters the pop culture zeitgeist. There have been several articles devoted to Moana as a feminist heroine who has a more realistic body and an adventure plot that doesn’t center around romance; however, when we live in a world where a man who has admitted to sexual assault is the President of the United States, Moana’s commentary on rape culture should not be ignored.
Yes, that’s right, an animated movie aimed at children is sending a very clear message about the complicated and very real issue of a society that denies and/or normalizes rape and sexual assault, often blaming the victim for not guarding himself or herself against his or her attack. There is surmounting evidence available through our news and current events that strongly suggests this is the world in which we live, a world where rapists are often celebrated and rewarded, and victims are meant to stand by and watch this happen. For instance, recently actress Brie Larson, an advocate for sexual assault survivors, was forced to present Casey Affleck, a man accused of multiple cases of sexual harassment, with a Best Actor Golden Globe and later an Oscar. This is what normalizing sexual assault looks like.
But what does this have to do with Moana? Consider Te Fiti, a goddess with the power to create life. Although some have criticized Moana for its formulaic hero’s journey plot, the character of Te Fiti defies the classic plot structure by being both the villain and the victim of the story. After the demigod Maui steals Te Fiti’s heart, she is transformed into Te Kā, a “demon of earth and fire.” Moana’s journey is then to find Maui and make him take responsibility for what he has done. When Moana reaches Te Kā, she discovers that the heart cannot be truly restored until she confronts the demon, acknowledges what happened to her, and makes her understand that the theft of her heart was not her fault; “They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you,” Moana sings. Only after this realization can Te Kā become the goddess Te Fiti again.
The parallels between Te Fiti’s victimhood and victims of sexual assault are clear. Women are often demonized after they are sexually assaulted, and Te Kā represents this victim blaming. No one even recognizes that Te Kā and Te Fiti are the same person until Moana correctly identifies her at the end of the film. Through emotional healing and being released from the responsibility of her own victimhood, Te Fiti is finally released from her torture. When Moana sings to Te Kā, “this is not who you are, you know who you are,” the film stresses the importance of women being able to claim their own identity after assault. This message of self-identity as power is stressed throughout the film, with songs like “I Am Moana,” and “Where You Are,” and “You Know Who You Are” focusing on the strength behind identity, especially for the female characters. In this way, Moana presents a strong message that women should be learning as young girls, ownership of their body and their own selves in the face of a world that thinks it has the right to take those things if it wants them. When Moana reminds Te Kā of her true identity, one that cannot be defined by those who seek to take from her, she is reminding girls everywhere that self-possession is power in the face of rape culture and victim-blaming.
Of course, Disney as an outlet for feminist narratives is a work in progress, and even the story of Moana is not without problems. By stealing Te Fiti’s heart, the character of Maui is essentially a sexual predator in this analogy. However, while Maui is certainly made to take the blame for what he has wrought, he is at no point a villain in the story. Te Kā, the victim of the assault, is the only villain, which is problematic because of what it suggests about Te Fiti's implication in her own victimhood. What is even more problematic is the way Maui is portrayed as a lovable and hilarious trickster, one who arguably is given the catchiest song of the movie, which normalizes the ways in which he has violated Te Fiti. Even after Moana seeks him out to take responsibility for what he has done, it is unclear that he ever fully understands the implications of his actions. At the end of the movie, it is Moana, not Maui, who must set things right with Te Feti.
Nevertheless, I think the real message here is that victims must learn how to empower themselves without expecting their assailants to take responsibility for their actions. This is not ideal, but if this is the world we live in, at least Moana is urging young girls to find power within themselves and fight back.