“Moana” Celebrates the Power, Strength and Magic of Brown Girls But Misses the Mark With Pacific Islander Representation

I’ve seen Moana and cried a total of 18 times. It’s a deeply moving and beautiful film that celebrates it’s main character, her culture and her self-empowerment. Moana tells the story of a young Pacific Islander girl, the daughter of the chief. She must leave her home and break the rules of her people in order to find her destiny, battle a giant crab, befriend a demigod and return the heart of the goddess and mother island Te Fiti. Moana, voiced with youthful energy and power by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is strong, brave, proud to be herself, proud of where she comes from and proud of where she’s going. She is magical, powerful and Brown — a refreshing difference from the white Disney princesses we’ve seen in the past few years. Unfortunately, Moana also misses the mark on Pacific Islander and Polynesian representation, according to PI activists and scholars. Moana was written and created by white people who went on to cherry-pick parts of Pacific Island cultures to create a mashup one featured in the film. As a queer woman of color, I feel like Moana is a great start for more Brown representation in Disney films, but she could have been a lot more meaningful and authentic if she reflected and honored a specific Pacific Island culture.

One of the things I do love in the movie is the reverence that Moana has for her ancestors and her culture, even while she pushes it and challenges it to embrace the future. This is a reality that many POC, especially queer ones, deal with; where we’re taught the importance of family and our traditions, but when we come out, sometimes those things aren’t there for us. It’s a common struggle, and one that Moana deals with wonderfully. She is raised to believe that she has everything she needs and could ever want through the wonderfully beautiful song “Where You Are,” about being content with what you have and that you’ll never need anything else. This song also celebrates all her people’s traditions that she’ll soon be a part of.

Like many Disney heroines before her, she feels a call to something else, to be her true self. She knows she’s meant for something more. Like Mulan and Belle and Judy Hopps before her, she knows she’s meant for greatness, and she knows that she’s willing to do whatever she needs to make that happen. What I love is that she uses her people’s history and traditions to break tradition and find her own destiny. She discovers her people’s history of voyaging and wayfinding; she learns to sail, takes to the ocean and discovers new islands, just like her ancestors did. It can be hard to balance the importance of your family and your culture with being yourself, and that’s a struggle that is at the center of Moana. But Moana does it. She looks more deeply into her people’s past and finds other traditions, ones that have been forgotten and pushed aside, and she embraces those parts of who she is.

This reminded me of many elements of the lives of queer and trans people. We look to our past and see that many of our cultures embraced female leaders, or nonbinary genders, or trans people, or queer relationships, and we learn more about those parts of our cultures and we embrace them. We walk into the unknown future, but we use our ancestors to guide us. We go to our elders and ask them to tell us stories, just as Moana goes to her grandmother. We sing songs and set out on our own.

At one point in the movie, Moana sings “I am the girl who loves my island, and the girl who loves the sea. It calls me. I am the daughter of the village chief. We are descended from voyagers who found their way across the world, they call me. I’ve delivered us to where we are, I have journeyed farther, I am everything I’ve learned and more.” This is it. This is what being a modern-day POC is like. Later when she sings, “the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me,” she brings this idea full circle.

While Moana is very proudly “Moana of Motonui” (as she says many times in the film), and not another white protagonist like Belle or Rapunzel or Anna or Elsa, she’s not the huge leap forward in representation that she could have been. Some Pacific Islander and Polynesian people have spoken out against the film saying that it picks and chooses from various cultures and combines many different PI people into one. Vince Diaz, a Filipino Pohnpeian professor with a background in Pacific Island studies said that in the trailers alone he saw “Fijian music, Tahitian drumming and Samoan tattoos.” Additionally, many indigenous people say that the film perpetuates the stereotype that Pacific Islanders live life in paradise unaffected by white colonization. Anne Keala Kelly, a Native Hawaiian filmmaker and journalist said that the movie is exploiting PI people and that “Disney has reduced us and our world to a cartoon at a time when our political future is hanging in the balance” and that “the historical fact is that colonization in the Pacific, everywhere for that matter, has had catastrophic consequences for Indigenous peoples in every conceivable way.” These problems cannot be ignored no matter how much I, a non-Pacific Islander WoC, enjoyed the movie.

This also brings to the forefront that, while it’s great that Disney hired PI voice actors and consultants on the film, that’s not enough. They also need to have writers and directors and producers who can tell the stories of their own culture. If PI people had been able to tell their own stories, the film would’ve been more accurate and even better for brown girls to see. Marginalized people need to be able to tell our own stories. Not only would the film have been better, but it would be supporting more PI people and it would give young brown people more real-life role models to look up too.

As a queer woman of color who loves Disney movies, Moana meant a lot to me. Seeing this proud, brown girl on screen as the hero of her people made me cry and made me proud to be myself. It took me on a wonderful journey where I was reminded that brown girls are magic and that we can become ourselves without having to completely abandon our culture and heritage. However, I’m not a Pacific Islander and I can’t ignore the PI voices who are speaking out against the movie. I personally loved Moana but I can’t be fully satisfied with half-hearted representations for any culture because they deserve to be seen in their truth. We should continue to demand authentic representations from media and filmmakers. I’m not going to lie, I’m going to keep rewatching this movie and crying every time, but I’m also going to keep on fighting for better representation. In a time like this, with all the things going on in the real world, it’s important that we’re able to do both. We need self care, and we need to take the strength that we get from the self care and fight the battles that are even more important than ever.


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Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 500 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Mey. I cried so much when I saw it but I usually cry during the good songs of any movie. I’ve also been aware of the criticism, and the risks of having a Disney movie mean more cultural appropriation from white people down the line (*cough* offensive Halloween costumes)

    I still can’t get “how far I’ll go” out of my head. I hope it wins the Oscar (also because BARF La La Land).

  2. I cried more times in this movie than I ever have, pretty much each time a manta ray appeared and more, but as almost as soon as the movie started I felt a deeper sadness I couldn’t just cry out. The fantasy world of Moana just stands too starkly against the lived realities of these peoples. Ultimately the escapist value of the film was lost on me, the beauty on display could not chase away that sadness.

  3. The quip about the not representing the white colonization is bs. Seriously, Mulan was a movie about a Chinese girl. No white European colonization there. Why cause it took place long before. Same with Moana. I see some of these activists just want a reason to complain. They want to see bad things on tv to show what happened to them. This is a kids movie. Not an adult movie. And for all of them saying everyone should be a pacific islander again it bs. Why cause their isn’t enough. But guess what, put a film like that out there and you get people proud of who they are. You get pacific islanders who see their lives on screen and want to do the same themselves. Its a door not a bus stop.

    • That last line is so true. Door, not a bus stop.
      Moana captures a variety of cultures to gave millions of viewers exposure to new art & history & people. Trying to capture one culture and all the complex social nuances would have been too narrow for a Disney film.
      I had so much fun identifying and trying to track the many different references.
      If it doesn’t inspire people to find out more about specific cultures, it will at least bring to light such a vast, diverse underrepresented peoples.

      (Is it possible to celebrate one step in the right direction and continue to push for more stories? Claiming this story was not authentic enough or could/should be changed doesn’t seem like the way to cement more diverse films. At what point will studios give up on trying to branch out and just keep chruning out Frozen/Cinderella type stories?)

      • Well, I’ll wonder how many of these people criticising their own portrayal on Moana give an actual shit about white people being handed a door to to their culture, you know? The world doesn’t revolve around our education and enlightement. We profit from that, not them.

        Personally I don’t generally have one fuck to give about, say, Americans educating themselves about Slavic religious and folk traditions. I would find it cool to see a Disney movie about that kind of stuff but get just as irritated as the professor guy if it had characters in Polish costumes eating Ukrainian food and speaking Russian.

        • Actually, that kind of mashup of European cultures is pretty common in a lot of media, especially fantasy. I don’t think it’s that big a deal to draw on the mythology and traditions of multiple cultures in a similar area. Yes, experts in that subject matter might get squirrelly, but there’s also something called artistic license.

          If you look at a lot of the classic fairy tale movies, they draw on several aspects of medieval or Renaissance European life, or they outright fictionalize some things into a generic combination that actually existed in no place or time. I think such generalizations are OK, especially when you’re trying to tell a larger story about the human condition (as opposed to a very specific tale of a particular place and time).

  4. I agree with you on most of this article, however I think it’s worth noting that the PI response to Moana has been far from uniform and a number of voices accepted and celebrated it. And although a lot of the directing and production team are indeed white men, the original script was by Taika Waititi, the only white person on the cast voices a really dumb chicken, there’s the whole Pacific trust thing… like, it’s not enough but it’s more than you usually see, no?

    I mean, the movie is far from perfect. But I do hope that it symbolizes a pretty meaningful step towards trying for better and actually getting somewhere.

    I also have to admit (and this might be my whiteness talking) whilst white colonization and its products should and must have a place in art and culture, and also in a conversation about this movie and how we consume it, how would they ever come up in this particular story’s context? If we accept that Disney may make a film set in the Pacific, among Pacific people (and I understand the people who refuse to do that but that’s a whole another conversation then) I personally would think it would be preferable that it remains a story of Moana, not her future white colonialists. I don’t think anyone would interpret this story of myth and magic as current reality of the Pacific, no?

    • I completely agree. The people making this movie put in a lot of effort to get it right; specifically only hiring PI VAs (besides the chicken), consulting with actual PIs to make sure the movie was accurate and respectful, and apparently the script was written by a PI, which I didn’t even know. Obviously effort isn’t everything, but when the creators of Moana went so far above the industry standard of blanket whitewashing and reliance on stereotypes I think praise is necessary; if others see that Moana got ripped apart despite all the effort put forth by the creators what incentive is there for them to try to be accurate and culturally sensitive?

      And like someone below said, creating mashups of the cultures of the source setting is par the course for Disney; it’s unfair to single out Moana for doing so as well.

      All that combined with the fact that PI response has been mixed, I think it was irresponsible for Autostraddle to post this article as written. An actual PI could write an article that explores the different responses, whereas Mey can only give us criticism.

  5. As meaningful as it is to be able to relate to Moana as a queer woman of color, it seems kind of inappropriate for Autostraddle to have posted this article criticizing Moana’s inability to center Pacific islander’s in its creative process and have it be written by someone who’s not a Pacific islander.

  6. I’m white so feel free to ignore this but…

    Almost every Disney princess who isn’t based on a real historical figure (like Mulan or Pocahontas) is from a vague and fabricated place that’s a “mashup” of different cultures. For example, Frozen takes place in a mythical land that draws from multiple Scandinavian cultures, not specifically Geats, Finns, Swedes, Sami, or others.

    I get that the history of the pacific islands may make this more of an issue than it was for people of Scandinavian descent (although tbh my family is mostly Swedish and we were Not Thrilled with the depictions of trolls, or the erasure of the roma-coded robber maiden and saami and finnish characters from the original story).

    I just think it’s disingenuous to act like the “mashup” aspect of Moana was a specific slight against Pacific Islanders, not simply a continuation of the Disney brand.

    • I said something similar above before I saw your comment. Derp. You already made the point I was trying to make.

      Sometimes I wonder if people truly understand that throughout human history, we have always been a highly mobile species, and cultural exchange and evolution were the rule rather than the exception. Even before true state societies arose, behavioral innovations would spread across whole continents as people observed each other and imitated traits from outsiders that they liked or found advantageous.

      Only geographically isolated populations escaped outside influence, and even then, their cultures didn’t remain static, they just changed according to their own internal mechanisms (which could take some very weird turns, because we’re humans, and we’re strange critters). Not sure where I’m going with this exactly – anthropological musings derailed me a bit, I guess. The point is, stories that are going to have a broad appeal necessarily operate in generalities to some extent.

    • I certainly agree that “mashup” has long been the modus operandi when Disney portrays other cultures, and not only non-historical ones.

      But I don’t think it’s very fair to compare Moana with a film like Frozen.

      As you pointed out, the history is very different for Pacific Islanders (a colonised people) and Nordics (some of them colonial powers still today). Also, skimming the Wikipedia page for Moana (which I haven’t seen), I notice that plot points involve actual Polynesian mythology and Moana comes from a real life Polynesian island with an existing culture.

      Frozen, on the other hand, takes place in magical made up fairy tale kingdom that exists outside of time and space. Yes, it’s a massive mashup of Nordic imagery, Norwegian places, really random aspects of Nordic cultures from a span of 1000 years, and Sámi tame reindeer, but it’s not Denmark, not Norway, not Sweden, not Finland and not Iceland. As a native Scandinavian I might think it’s lazy of film-makers and illustrators that Nordic imagery often becomes a pictorial shorthand for “someplace cold” and “fairy tales”, but to have historical aspects of my culture replicated inaccurately in something that is explicitly a not my country doesn’t much affect how I am perceived as I move about this world.

      Out of curiosity, what was your family’s beef with the trolls? I’ve never met a fellow Scandinavian who wasn’t wholly desensitised to the full range of troll imagery. The trolls in the tales don’t match the trolls in sculpture, which don’t match the trolls in those John Bauer books we all invariably had as children, which don’t match popculture trolls, like skærmtrolden Hugo (am I dating myself—why, yes, I was a child in 1990).

      • That makes it sound like I ask everyone I meet about their feelings on troll depictions, ha! Obviously that’s not true. What I mean is that I’ve never before encountered a similar complaint, despite being surrounded by a lot of mythology geeks and a lot of varied troll imagery.

      • Hi quick (but possibly important) point of clarification:

        Polynesia is a grouping term for hundreds of Pacific islands, not an island specifically.

        While Motu Nui is a settlement in New Zealand, it is not itself an invidiual island with a culture as represented in Moana.

        Moana mashes up a bunch of different island’s cultural and societal beliefs as a sort of “best-of” or “most-well-known” compilation.

        Are people here upset that it wasn’t based solely on on the stories and traditions we grew up with? Yes.

        Are we also promoting Moana literally everywhere, crying in the movie theatre, and having meet n’ greets with Auli’i at her hometown Walmart with her face basically everywhere? Also yes.

        Also also- while I was super pissed about that Maui representation and glad the costume got pulled- there is something interesting about watching little white girls dress up and chase after Moana at the Hawaii Disney hotel like she’s their super hero.

        Makes me wonder what it was like for people when Aladdin and Jasmine was a big deal. I feel like that would be an interesting comparison as well.

  7. Autostraddle couldn’t find a QPI to write this? LOL this entire article can miss me. I’m so annoyed I invested my energy into reading this only to find out Mey isn’t PI herself. Folx taking space in the wrong places. Just like Disney.

  8. I’m from New Zealand. I think its pretty common as New Zealanders to struggle to feel that stories we hear are relevant to us. New Zealanders now have such a mixture of cultural backgrounds, we grow up hearing Maori myths and legends, but also a mixture of other polynesian legends, hearing a mixture of polynesian languages, and witnessing a mixture of cultures, foods, ideas. Shockingly European culture is a huge one! Hearing Maui’s name, recognising the meaning of Moana’s name, recognising the legends in the song “You’re Welcome”, and actions like hongi (touching foreheads), the tattoos and seeing them being done with a blade, even hearing Jermaine Clement’s voice. Its not all one culture no, but Moana’s mixing of cultures allows me to feel locate my mixed up messed up identity in something, no matter how much I don’t look like Moana, I’m feeling this movie way more than any Disney Princess I do resemble. I’m sorry maybe as you think as its one culture people can’t properly feel represented. But when else am I going to feel this close, if it was one culture I think I would relate to Moana a lot less.

  9. Y’all know autostraddle doesn’t like to hire asian writers. Gotta get the brown girl on staff to play api for the day.

    Also this movie has been out for months and you write about this now hahaha

  10. I want to echo my frustrations with this article. I read it assuming the writer must be a PI because that is what I expect from autostraddle. I was disappointed to reach the end and find that they weren’t.

    Although I am not a PI, I lived and worked on one of the Samoan islands teaching high school. My students absolutely loved the movie (one of the only times they have seen themselves represented in a film). I found it incredibly accurate in so many ways, and inaccurate in others (the depiction of Maui, for example). Everyone (all PIs) I have seen comment about it absolutely loved it. That is not to say that there are not things to be critical of, just that in my experience, the positive response from the PI community far outweighed the negative.

    I was also disappointed that the article quotes the same two people I have seen quoted in almost every article on the internet (Vince Diaz, Anne Keala Kelly) along with this idea that “many indigenous people say that the film perpetuates the stereotype that Pacific Islanders live life in paradise unaffected by white colonization.”

    Many? Who? Where? Diaz and Kelly are completely entitled to share their opinions, and there are many legitimate criticisms about Moana (almost none of which are addressed here, unfortunately, and again I think the positives outweigh the negatives), but these two people have been consistently quoted again and again and we should not assume they represent all (or even “many”) of the views of those living in the pacific islands.

    And this has been said in comments already, but they don’t show white colonization because this film is set during a time period before white colonization. Can we please take a moment to celebrate that Disney created a fantastic, beautiful movie that doesn’t have any white people in it?

    • Uh did we read the same thing because more than a moment was taken to celebrate the brownness.

      Also being in touch with one’s roots while foraging one’s own path which is the part that may resonate deeply with queer folks of color from many cultures.

      • Lex,

        Thank you for your response. I was referring to the idea that the movie isn’t accurate without including or referencing white colonization. It is an idea I have seen repeated and does not make sense to me given the timeline of the movie. I hope that makes sense.

    • Mey,

      Thank you so much for writing this. My previous comment shares my frustrations but I really appreciate the time it took for you to write such a detailed post and how it relates to you. I am especially glad you took the time to remind us the importance of self-care while fighting for better representation.

      Re-reading my comment (especially the last line), I can see how I might come across as wanting you to be less critical. I don’t! If anything, I am wishing your article was more critical and unpacked the criticism from “many indigenous people” even more. Although the Oceanic Story Trust did a great job, there were still unequal power dynamics at play in the creation of Moana. I have found some helpful discussions over at https://www.facebook.com/manamoanawearemoanawearemaui/.

      Thank you again for fighting for marginalized people to be able to tell their own stories.

      With gratitude,
      Jules

  11. So your offended by a white Disney Princess when majority of royalty in the world is probably white and she’s brown not because of social justice don’t find many white blonde girls around that sort of scenery of the world so everyone’s racist because there isn’t a African princess in a snowy dark country that’s most likely in Europe or somewhere cold

  12. This is a really embarrassing and kind of poorly written article. You said the critics claimed that Disney “cherry picked” Pacific Islander (stop being lazy. Write out the whole thing!) culture, yet you did the same thing by writing this article. Also, cherry picking is a pejorative meaning someone choosing bad qualities on purpose to make something look bad or good in their favor. To say they cherry picked is MASSIVE insult!

    You chose to basically say “well, some Pacific Islanders hated it, so therefore it’s a HUGE problem and only their opinion matters! u_u” What you should have done was write an article about the criticisms of the movie, not some really informal tumblr-blog style post where you repeat the same words over and over and fetishize “brown girls” despite the fact that you aren’t brown at all (That’s just so creepy, man. Like a dude who keeps complimenting a woman on her beauty) just because you claim to be Latina.

    For a lot of Pacific Islanders, Moana was a good movie with good representation. The opinions of the people who liked it matter too. Just because they did the whole pan-ethnicity thing doesn’t mean it missed the mark. Newsflash, they did the same for several other Disney movies, even the ones with majority white characters. Moana’s not the only exception. Even one Pacific Islander critic of Moana acknowledged that making Frozen a pan-Scandinavian film can be seen as a problem.

    Watching people who aren’t involved in the animation industry write articles like this does nothing but create secondhand embarrassment. None of you do any research and just speak from your ass while hoping that collective disappointment will make you in the right.

    Also, there were Pacific Islanders involved in the direction and production of the movie, even if they aren’t the main credits. And Jon Musker and Ron Clements DID acknowledge their privilege about being white men directing a movie about a Pacific Islander girl. does it mean they’re exempt from mistakes? No. But this isn’t the “problematic white guy stuff u_u” your tone makes it out to be…

  13. Damn comments section sounds like a lot of triggering from a whole lot of different angles.

    Mey, you made it super clear that you were writing from the perspective of a WoC who loves Disney movies and not from a PI perspective. With that in mind you took care to amplify voices of dissent specifically from PI people without making any statement about what the “PI Community(TM)” thinks (understanding of course that like all “communities” there are huge varieties of opinions and experiences.)

    Without completely bashing the film you did introduce some complication to the Disney formula of “culture-mashing” that tends to blur rather than highlight the diversity of cultures and experiences found around the world. You presented a mixed and honest opinion. You never presented yourself as the only opinion or as someone directly triggered by weird culture misrepresentations.

    I think it is brave to insist on participating in mainstream culture rather than flat out rejecting it. Yes, marginalized viewers will constantly be burned and confused by missteps in representation and the ever-present haunt of White-Supremecy and colonialism and yes its perfectly valid to refuse to engage at all and to call out bullshit for bullshit but its also perfectly valid to still watch and cry and be critical all at the same time.

    Mey, ur gr8. Remember when you baked a princess cake? I do. Keep it up gf.

  14. As long as the stories of people of color are being told by white men, there’s always going to be inaccuracies, generalizations, and stereotypes present in films. Watching the creative processes behind Moana is fun–the creation of the music, the storytelling, all of it. But it’s still white people all the way down the line. That’s the problem.

    As people of color, we need to be telling our own stories. We need to be the artists and filmmakers and directors. That way, we’ll actually get it right.

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