When Snow White first debuted in cinemas in 1937, Walt Disney not only invented the hand-drawn animated feature film, but reinvented traditional fairy tales for the modern audience, creating a new genre. He removed the cruelest and more disturbing parts of the stories, added musical style songs and funny animal sidekicks. Then, over the last twenty years, his company has moved progressively away from conservative and patriarchal clichés: female characters are now more interesting, independent and equal to their male counterparts, love at first sight has given way to more unpredictable and sparkly relationships, ethnic diversity was introduced with Arab, Native American, Afro-American and Polynesian princesses. There is only one aspect of the fairy tales the American cartoon factory has a hard time letting go of: the royal status of its heroines.
“I am not a princess!” proclaims Moana in the homonymous animated film. Good, finally. Does that mean that after more than sixty years, the Disney monarchic streak has come to an end? Sadly, not.”I am the daughter of the chief” she explains to her friend Maui. A rose by a different name… “Well you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess to me” her friend Maui replies. You are predestined by birth to be the next leader of your people, you’re a princess to me, I say. In fact, the very first musical number already informed us that the office is hereditary, passed on from one generation to the next in the same family. Am I the only one bothered by that? Probably yes, but I’ll go on anyway.
In what I consider the worst, most formulaic part of a spectacular and truly enjoyable buddy adventure movie, Moana’s father teaches his daughter that in the idyllic Motunui island everybody has a role to play for the good of the community, so far so good, the camera pans on farmers and fishermen, and that Moana’s role is to be the chief one day and add her stone to the pile of stones built by her ancestors. That puts things in a different light. Apparently, some are born to be followers, some to be kings, ehm, chiefs. The whole thing reminds Mufasa’s lecture to Simba about the circle of life and the part that every animal is called to play in it, except here we are not talking about food chain but social classes. In Moana‘s world, social classes are natural.
I felt uncomfortable listening to a song lightly glorifying a society of immutable casts where the important thing is “to find happiness right where you are”. True, our heroine will rebel to this motto, but only in its most literal meaning: turning her people into nomads; they’ll be able to move geographically, not socially. So much from the country that invented the American dream! What a setback after last year Zootopia brilliantly imagined a world where also natural food chain can be subverted and every animal given equal status and opportunity.
Looks like with the “not a princess” statement Disney didn’t want to break any new ground but simply, staying away from castles, crowns, long dresses and traditional symbols of wealth and power, take the distance from the most stereotyped, sexist connotations of the princesses. A chief-in-training barefoot and in practical beach outfit highlights the modernity of a heroine who doesn’t need to be saved by a passing prince, can fight the dragon on her own to save the kingdom, doesn’t care about fancy clothes and balls, and is not obsessed with finding true love.
But why, then, not getting rid of the privileged status altogether? Isn’t being a brave, determined, smart, athletic, good-hearted, funny gal just enough? I thought Mulan, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog and Judy from Zootopia already answered that question once and for all. The first one, from a modest Chinese family, enrolls in the army disguised as a man, then saves her fellow soldiers from massacre and China from the invaders. Tiana, a black girl from a blue collar family in New Orleans, manages through her drive and hard work to open her own restaurant, realizing her deceased father’s and her own dream. Judy, a rabbit, leaves the comfort of her farmers family in the countryside for the futuristic metropolis of Zootopia, where all sorts of habitats and animals peacefully coexist; there she’ll find her on way in life in the least expected, and most challenging, of fields, the police, becoming the first of her species to join a rank populated by big, tough mammals.
Couldn’t Moana be, like them, simply starting off as the daughter of a fisherman or a coconut picker? Couldn’t she earn the leader status at the end of the story thanks to her heroic actions and huge accomplishments? After all, she saves her island from extinction, reconciling her people with their goddess and their forgotten past as sailors and nomads. She’s an explorer, a fighter, a visionary. She is simply the best. And no, historical accuracy is not a good excuse to avoid the self-made woman plot, because when a film features a singing and dancing shapeshifter demigod with animated tattoos, fierce coconut pirates, a magical stick and a giant crab, I think you can take some liberties from the real Polynesian societal structure. Especially considering that Moana is a story celebrating self-determination and the breaking of taboos and traditions.
Maybe the strongest reason behind Moana’s predestined leader role is a commercial one. She has to claim her spot near Aurora, Belle, Rapunzel & Co.: for the sake of merchandising, she needs to be included in that powerful Princesses brand. The little girls all around the world must be able to say, like Maui: you are a princess to me. After all the Princesses line, created in the early 2000s by the former Nike executive Andy Mooney, is now worth 3 billion US dollars. That kind of money tends to influence you when you have to come up with the next worldwide acclaimed heroine.
As for me, I’ve always preferred republics over kingdoms, loved underdogs, never been into royals gossip, and considered long puffy dresses uncomfortable and so passé. Therefore I enjoy animated films centered on hard working girls, ehm, mammals like Mulan, Tiana and Judy who challenge the status quo and society’s expectations to find their own role in the community. If they climb the social ladder, they do it by their choice and capabilities.
Too bad, Mulan ends with a huge setback when our brave soldier doesn’t follow on the path she heroically carved for herself, refusing a high-rank office offered by the Emperor to go back to a more traditional life with her parents, and very soon a husband. And, to be true, Tiana, the successful entrepreneur, finds her true love and becomes a princess, although a penniless one, by marriage. Only Judy stands out as one of the very few animated heroines with a career and not involved in royalty and romance.
In the end, in the Disney universe the ultimate feminist character is a bunny. I bet Hugh Hefner didn’t see that coming.