Updated: Sep 17
Disney traditionally centers movies around a female protagonist. She is young, beautiful, and waiting for a prince to come to rescue her. Not Moana! She is a princess by birth and trains to be the next village chief. Although, at first glance, Disney tries to portray the future chief from a feminist perspective. However, there are still several patriarchal references throughout the movie. With careful attention to details such as background, clothing, social, cultural, and psychological influences, one can point out the antifeminist allure.
From birth, Moana learns to be a leader but simultaneously plays a submissive role to her father. The village traditionally follows a patriarchal hierarchy of a male-dominated power structure within the community and the home. Moana will be the first female leader, creating a matriarchal society of woman leaders. Societies have predominately dictated men in leadership roles, thus setting the stage for the male-dominant aspect depicted in this production. Throughout the opening scenes, men are seen balancing stalks of bananas from the end of poles across their shoulders. The stalks are so big they touch the ground. The poles bend beneath the weight of the ripe yellow fruit. Boys climbing coconut trees barefoot chopping coconuts with axes. At the same time, women are on the ground catching the harvested fruits, becoming the recipient of the male's effort. Fishermen in boats on the open ocean catch back fish for dinner while the women tend fires, hang out rugs to dry, take care of children, and do other laborious jobs. All these roles portray a male-dominated society.
The male is providing for the family, fishing the ocean waters for food, climbing trees, and showing strength and courage. The characters' body structure and attire strengthen the idea of a patriarchal society. The men are three times the size of the women, have prominent brows, piercing eyes, huge noses, and are broad, bulky, and muscular.
In contrast, the women have small bodies, curvy waists, tiny noses, and big doe eyes. The men have tattoos all over their bodies, while the women have none. Even the jewelry and adornments of the people create an impression of a dominating male society. Men wear necklaces made of animal teeth, whereas women wear necklaces and other decorations made of flowers and leaves. Dancing in the village also depicts male dominance. Men dance with legs wide apart and knees bent, they do not have to hide their sexual anatomy, but women dance with legs together, keeping their sexual anatomy closed and private. The men dance with strength and forcefulness, while the women sway in a sensual movement.
Physiologically the village people show how women are submissive to men. In one scene, the men come to Moana and her father on the beach. They tell her they can find no fish in the lagoon. Moana suggests all the areas around the island, but they state there are no fish in these areas. She suggests they go beyond the reef. Still, her father gets angry, raising his voice, puffing out his chest, revealing hostile facial features, and forbidding anyone, especially Moana, to venture beyond the reef.
Moana challenges her father, but he gets angrier, towering over her, dominating her, and not backing down. Moana becomes submissive, timid, emotional, and even hysterical or overemotional. Lois Tyson objects to the idea that many women suffer from hysteria but not men, stating that doctors don't study men for the disorder (Tyson, 82). The village sees the chief as having a short temper but not hysterical. The chief's angry outburst is a way of blocking out the fear and pain of losing a friend beyond the reef. On the other hand, Mona's society sees fear, pain, and crying as feminine emotions that cannot be allowed. But anger, aggression, violence, and yelling are viewed as manly.
As the scene continues, the village men can be seen in the background looking the other way, rolling their eyes, and pretending not to notice the scene before them. From a phallogocentric perspective, one can assume the men are backing up their chief. A chief who is in a dominating role filled with anger and hostility. In contrast, Moana is timid, emotional, and submissive. The men condone the chief's actions while ignoring Moana's emotional outburst and pleas. The chief frightens the men with his size and strength. If they side with Moana, it will anger the chief more. And there is the possibility of displaying feminine emotions.
Although Mona is depicted as the next chief in line, she is portrayed in a feminine fashion. As chief, she is expected to stay home and take care of her family and the people of the village. People expect Moana to be a virtuous girl, sitting on a pedestal. She should give up her dream to sail beyond the reef, to be self-sacrificing and nurturing. She has no needs of her own because she has the needs of her village to worry about (Tyson, 86). They treat Moana like an object. She has no choices of her own. If she were a man, she would be allowed to go beyond the reef, possibly even expected to, because it is the courageous thing to do. Instead, she is expected to take care of her "family." It does not matter what Moana wants.
Mona may be the next chief in line, dress like a soon-to-be chief, be taught the ways of a chief, and even play the role of a future chief, but she is still in a male-dominated society. A society that expects people to follow the gender roles already established. Gender roles are not the same as sex roles. Gender roles are behaviors and attitudes taught and accepted by society or a village based on a person's anatomical sex. In contrast, sex roles are behaviors people learn appropriate for their presumed sexual orientation. Moana will still be expected to have a feminine, womanly feeling in her leadership. People expect her to be motherly, nurturing, and emotional. Her people will not expect her to be muscular, angry, fishing, climbing trees, or sailing boats.
Although the movie's central theme tries to reflect a feminist perspective, it certainly demonstrates an antifeminist background that still alludes to an ideology of patriarchy. Depending on a person's subjectivity and individual experiences, the movie still communicates to young girls that men are considered the head of the household/village. Men are still dominating, authoritative, and angry. At the same time, women are timid, emotional, or hysterical. A patriarchal lifestyle subjects children and adults to a worldview through the lens of a male-dominated society.
In contrast, the movie's end concludes with Moana returning from beyond the reef. She has saved her people from destruction. Not only that, but she will also be the next chief in line. Moana will create a matriarchal society or, at the very least, a culture of more equality between men and women. As the movie concludes, the villagers all work together to pull boats and ships to the ocean waters, men and women alike. They sail out into the ocean to explore and find new resources. The women help to tie ropes and sail the ships as Moana guides the boats and climbs to the top of the mast. Women are performing what was previously viewed as male work.
In a feminist/matriarchal society, movies, literature, storytelling, and language must still describe a backdrop of dominant male societies. If they are not contrasted, many viewers will not be able to associate with the plot. Although America is slowly changing, many people still have been conditioned that male-dominated societies are the norm. Just as with deconstruction theory, there needs to be a contrast between one society and the other to help viewers understand there is a difference between the two.
On the other hand, are the writers covertly reinforcing the patriarchal society by using a male-dominated village as the backdrop of the movie? Are they playing with the spectator's subconscious? Can the writers depict a patriarchal society, hoping that viewers will subconsciously identify the background with real life? Has humanity been so conditioned throughout life that they know Moana is just a fairy tale? Many feminist critics may interpret the movie as pro-feminist, but others view it as a male-dominated world. The plot does add a lot to the overall movie, but the subliminal message still screams male domination. From the animators' ideal of the character's body shapes, the clothes and jewelry they wear, the body language, and the actions of each villager. By viewing more than the top layer of the movie, one can bring out the male-dominated message underneath.