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Feminism and Religion – The Philosophy Behind Disney’s Moana

Disney has done it again.

Continuing its winning streak of beloved animated feature films, Walt Disney Animation Studios hits yet another home run with Moana, an uplifting and heartfelt tale destined to adorn the awards-spangled annals of Disney’s decorated filmography.

While the film wouldn’t be a Disney story without recycling some old tropes, Moana does offer some new ideas that might surprise you on a second viewing.

So, without further dawdling, let’s take a deeper dive back into the sparkling aquamarine waters of Disney’s Moana.

Feminism and the Disney Heroine

Let’s be honest, Disney isn’t exactly known for its strong female characters, with their classic roster full of “princesses” defined almost entirely by their good looks, impossibly slim waists, and relationships to Prince Charming.

Fortunately, Disney has been getting better at portraying female characters, with women that are strong, capable badasses in their own right (Mulan, Pocahontas), and a woman who don’t need no man (Elsa).

Here’s the thing, though – they’ve never been both.

Mulan and Pocahontas are both defined in part by their romantic relationships to male lovers, while Elsa, though powerful, is kind of a whiny cry-baby when you really think about it.

That makes Moana the first female Walt Disney Animation Studios character who, on top of having no romantic inclinations, is also a bona-fide badass.

You could say Merida also qualifies, but she’s from a Disney-Pixar production, not WDAS, and I’m a stickler for details.

“How about Officer Judy Hopps from Zootopia?” Well… She’s a rabbit. But okay, fair enough.

In Moana, Disney drives the feminist message farther home than in any of their prior films. Moana’s gender-blind tribe has no qualms whatsoever about a woman becoming their chief, and has both men and women contributing equally to roles like farming and exploring.

Maui, on the other hand, represents the stereotypical male chauvinist, with his incredulity towards a woman like Moana being “chosen” by her tribe, and by The Ocean. He relentlessly mocks and doubts Moana’s abilities as a mortal woman, and even goes as far as to trap her in a cave and throw her into the ocean… repeatedly. It is only when Moana survives the Realm of Monsters and saves Maui’s life, that he changes his tune and becomes convinced of her worth.

In the Moana-Maui dynamic of the film, the writers espouse a form of gender equality achieved through mutual respect – men and women are different, but both are equally important. Maui’s strength and raw power are essential in their quest, but so are Moana’s skills, intuition, and gentle touch. Equality between men and women, the film argues, is embracing the value of every individual, different as they may be from each other.

Religion

Aside from the story’s obvious roots in Polynesian culture and religion, Moana is rife with modern religious symbolism and references, some more subtle than others. These include references to reincarnation, aversion to eating pork, and splitting the sea à la Moses, to name a few.

Not convinced? You might be when you realise that The Ocean in Moana is an analogue of the most prominent figure in Abrahamic religion – God.

At the film’s opening, the narrator (Moana’s grandmother) reveals that, “in the beginning, there was only ocean”. Sound familiar?

She also reveals that Tafiti, the “mother island”, emerged from The Ocean and created all life, much like the relationship between God and Darwinian evolution that some theistic evolutionists subscribe to.

Unlike the sleeping Tafiti, The Ocean is an omniscient, omnipresent entity that shapes the course of the world and guides the heroes’ actions throughout the film.

As helpful as The Ocean is in the story, an ever-present undercurrent in Moana is the question of why The Ocean doesn’t help more, evocative of the Problem of Evil argument against God in real-world philosophy. Put simply, if God (The Ocean) is so powerful and benevolent, why doesn’t He (It) eliminate evil (the darkness) altogether?

At one point in the narrative, our heroes get surrounded by “pirates”, and Moana cries out to The Ocean for help, to which Maui responds, “The ocean doesn’t help you. You help yourself.” A weird sentiment for someone who has seen The Ocean as a living, moving entity with his own eyes, but one that brings to mind the classic “God only helps those who help themselves” argument.

Help the heroes while they’re being attacked by savage pirates? Nope. Splash some water on the lava monster trying to kill our heroes? Nope. Stupid chicken falls into the water for the umpteenth time? Better save it.

In one scene, The Ocean straight up sends a massive storm at Moana, marooning her on a desolate island much to Moana’s chagrin, until she realises that Maui is on that same island. The Ocean sure does work in mysterious ways, doesn’t It?

And I haven’t even mentioned the similarities between Maui and other religious figures like Jesus and Prometheus, as well as Moana’s prophetic “chosen by The Ocean” story arc. This is probably a bold claim, but Moana just might be Disney’s most religiously-charged film to date, for better or worse.

In conclusion…

Throughout the length of its runtime, Moana delights, entertains, and moves viewers with Disney’s signature magic and flair, all while delivering a narrative rich in subtext and ripe for discussion. Moana is a film that proves, like the ocean it’s set upon, to be far deeper than it seems.

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