Moana – What ‘Girl Power’ Actually Means

Thoughts On: Moana (2016)

With her island under the threat of famine, the chief’s daughter attempts to change nature with the help of a demi-god.

Ridiculously brilliant, Moana is yet another Disney masterpiece. After their early-00s to early-10s stint, Disney have come back with quite some force. Whilst Frozen was lacking, Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out and Moana represent a run of great original works that was only ever managed in their initial classical period around the 40s, and hopefully this can continue to run on as more Disney originals come out.

Moana is a deeply archetypal film, one that draws upon age-old tropes and concepts brilliantly. This film has, however, been criticised for not reflecting Polynesian mythology accurately with, for example, the lack of Hina, who, in various stories from differing cultures, is either said to be the elder sister, or the wife, of Maui that would sometimes assist or teach him. However, whilst Polynesian culture was something that Disney had chosen to utilise, and so consequently had to treat with respect, I think they also had room to create a narrative of their own. And having taken some liberties, Disney have manage to create a narrative that, in my view, is a sister of sorts to The Lion King, and is, in many ways, just as good as, or even better than, the 90s masterpiece.

We have explored the narrative of The Lion King already in quite some depth, dissecting the concept of The Circle Of Life as well as hierarchy as a system through which order and competition can flow in balance. With that as my exploration of the film, I also think that Dr. Jordan Peterson’s psychological deconstruction of the narrative is incredible. Here are the links to part 1 and part 2 of his lecture (be warned, they do add up to over 2 hours). There is so much of the Lion King that is reflected by Moana that concerns adventure, hierarchy, order and heroes. For example, Peterson picks up on the archetypal idea of a hero going out into the desert after a society has fallen by virtue of its people, or mere entropy, that can be seen in various stories such as Exodus. This is, of course, seen in The Lion King with Simba journeying out of the Pride Lands and in Moana with our protagonist sailing beyond the bounds of the reef and into the rough, stormy seas. Moreover, there are concepts such as wise parental figures that guide the hero from the after life; lands that must be saved before the poison that threatens them entirely consumes all; young people learning of their faults and how to overcome them through responsibility as well as a dash of bravery and stupidity (which is what we see in the use of the sidekick: the chicken and then Pumbaa and Timon). With a more detailed exploration, a plethora of other parallels between these two films would become evident, but, these stories aren’t one and the same – nor are they too similar like The Good Dinosaur is to The Lion King.

Moana separates itself from The Lion King by drawing upon the same archetypal hero myth, but selecting a female lead and a female-centric journey. As most will know, the archetypal male and female that pre-dates modern human civilisation are the hunter and the gatherer. Whilst males generally fit into the ‘hunter’ category and women the ‘gatherer’ category, these are not simple, irrevocably separate concepts. The hunter side of humanity is that which goes into the forest, into danger and darkness, and emerges with life-giving sustenance. The gatherer, too, collects these fruits of life, but in a more established and orderly domain. These two sides are needed to make a whole as, without them, the hunted can only fight between hunting and being hunted, and the settled can only defend what has already been established whilst it slowly atrophies. To sustain the whole, the hunters need respite and the settled need some avenue of exchange between the outside world and themselves. If we look to Moana, we see this exemplified perfectly.

Whilst it is suggested with this image and scene that stability and order need a foundation from which to grow from as the generations pass…

… Moana’s people used to be voyagers that would establish settlements for one group of settlers before allowing another group to grow up and move on if and when they needed the freedom or required the resources. Both of these concepts kept in balance the gatherer aspect of their society as well as its hunting requirements so that the culture could grow deep routes, expand, flourish, explore new horizons and keep themselves a chance to stay alive no matter what came their way. However, one day, people seemed to take a step too far.

When Maui took the Heart of Ti Fiti for humanity and Moana’s father lost his friend these heroes and adventurers seemed to make one tragic mistake: they presumed they had power that they did not. In such, Maui assumed that he could give the power of creation to people and Moana’s father assumed that he could take care of his friend like he does himself. And from both of these mistaken assumptions comes the idea that people, in a way, must support themselves whilst remaining humble – and this is a key trend in this story; not only does a human have to lead the fight to restore order amongst the gods, but Moana has to initially go on her journey, as well as end it, alone. And through these steps and interactions, though they start out with much fronting and obnoxiousness, all parties involved grow warmer and more humble. This means that, whilst a hero doesn’t have to remain entirely isolated and individual, there are integral parts of their journey that they have to face alone after learning from others.

Both Maui and Moana’s father are dealt a harsh blow by this realisation and react in two opposing, but nonetheless negative, ways. Moana’s father converts his people into a primarily gathering society; they stay on their island and do not venture into danger. On the other hand, Maui rejects responsibility; if he must do things alone, then he will only do things for himself. Both of these decisions are incredibly faulted as they stagnate life and leave it vulnerable to mortal threat. It is then Moana’s job to teach these lost male archetypes how to care enough about others as to pick up responsibility, and also how to have enough faith in themselves to confront darkness and lead their people into new light.

It is at this point that some would project concepts of ‘girl power’ onto this film and leave it at that. However, there is a deeper reason for Moana, a female, having to assist and support male archetypes. As Peterson suggests in his Lion King lecture, there is an anima archetype in the hero myth. The anima and animus, as Carl Jung suggested, are masculine and feminine archetypes in the male and female unconscious; both male and females hold the opposite sex’s archetype within their inner personalities. This is, in a way, a commentary on the concept that the male and female archetypes are fundamentally the hunter and the gatherer. It not only implies that we aren’t merely polarised as either hunters and gatherers, but also that, for the individual to be balanced, they, just like a wider society, need to reconcile male and female virtues within themselves as to counter-balance the negatives of both genders; they must embody their self and its antithesis to be able to confront the world as a whole and evolving being. With Moana’s father embracing his anima, his feminine side, to a degree that is becoming detrimental to his society, Moana must embrace her animus to an equally extreme degree to save it. As a result, to find balance, the daughter must take the place of the father – which is the complex profundity below the concept of ‘girl power’ in this movie.

Having taken the position of her feminine father by re-igniting the fire that kept her people thriving many generations ago, Moana then ventures out into the dark and dangerous ocean to find Maui. However, in the context of this film, who is this character and why is he important?

As we have touched on, Maui stole the Heart of Ti Fiti. Ti Fiti is the creator of life and, in a sense, is another version of ‘mother nature’. This again extends our male-female, hunter-gather, archetypes, and in turn suggests that females breath life into the world whilst males, such as Maui, run about organising and re-positioning it. The mistake Maui makes, however, is that he does not respect the female archetype and allow her to retain her powers. Instead of leaving the act of creation in her hands, Maui attempts to take it into his own and give it to people as to please them. Among other things that we will come to, this creates a very expressive commentary on the colour symbolism of green.

In feminine hands, green can mean luscious life and vibrancy, but, as in this image of Maui…

… green can also represent envy and evil when in masculine hands. And this only emphasises the creationary aspects of the female archetype that are, in a way, responsible for creation – which males (should) organise structures and construct paths of freedom around. By ignoring this natural state of affairs, Maui turns the female archetype into a hell-ish one that near-destroys him, or, rather, makes him sleep on the couch for more than a thousand years.

This transformation of Ti Fiti into Te Kā suggests that the female archetype is at the centre of nature, and to destroy all that is good about nature is to leave all that is malevolent about it to rule; from flora and grass will rise lava and fire. And so, again, we have yet another element of this narrative that suggests that balance, especially between femininity and masculinity, is key.

Having confronted, in a very haphazard way, the chaos that flourished from imbalance that Maui put upon the world, and having recognising that they need one another because, whether they like it or not, they are bound by natural law…

… which is what the sea represents, Maui and Moana agree to work together.

In such, the pair not only warm to and teach things to one another, but agree to go into The Realm Of Monsters to confront Tamatoa, the giant crab.

As is quickly discovered, Tamatoa, much like Maui, is self-obsessed. And this is what Tamatoa’s cavern of jewels represent alongside his eager willingness to talk about himself. That said, like their good female counter-parts, good males, by nature, serve others. Maui encapsulates this idea in seeing himself as a ‘hero to all’. However, heroes can often find themselves in need of a shield as they do battle to serve others. Interestingly, Maui never had a shield…

… only his magic hook. Alone, and abandoned by his mother, it must have become the case for Maui that his ego had to become his shield, and thus the reason for his self-obsession is exemplified. Tamatoa exploits this, however, by keeping Maui separate from his weapon whilst tearing down his ego defences, claiming that his shield (the jewels on his back) is impregnable. What the journey into The Realm Of The Monsters then represents is Maui confronting his last remaining defence and failing – at least, if not for Moana, he would have failed. Moana’s ingenuity, which protects Maui, leaves him feeling stupid…

… and a mere set of teeth in an otherwise fat head. However, Maui concedes because one of his core negative experiences, which gave him the need to stimulate his over-inflated ego, is starting to be challenged.

The straw that crushes Maui’s back is the fact that his mother abandoned him; threw him out to sea (which ironically represents nature and creation) to die. Despite this, Maui begins to embrace the female archetype through Moana, and thus she becomes his shield – as in the cave of Tamatoa. It is then realised, upon much more personal ground, that Maui’s purpose and shield is found in other people – just as Moana’s is. And this exactly is why they need each other and fight for a group of people bigger than themselves.

The next step here is then for Maui to reassemble his multiple selves (which are characterised by the various animals he can turn into) and fight to restore order by confronting Te Kā.

However, things do not turn out very well. Not only does Maui come close to destroying who he believes he is (which is symbolised by the magic hook, which, further, is an encapsulation of the hunter concept), but Moana also fails to work with him as she believed she could do everything on her own after obligating Maui to help her. This is a pivotal moment for both characters as their trust of one another and even in themselves is shattered.

But, Moana is quickly reminded of just who she is; the ratio of femininity and masculinity within herself is reaffirmed and embraced, and so she ventures out alone.

Independence and bravery often aren’t enough, however. After all, and as is made clear in the Planet Of The Apes series, a great king or warrior isn’t merely an individual, he is the leader of a strong group. Moana reflects such a sentiment by also having Maui realise who he is: the sacrificial hero. So, not only does he return, but he gives up who he is, destroys his magic hook, to help Moana. Maui thus embraces the concept of wholeness; that he is only complete with Moana by his side.

There is another big “however” though. Maui and Moana having been fighting the wrong fight; they were trying to eradicate natural destruction, fire, by itself. As is suggested by the fact that Te Kā cannot go in water, the positive aspects of nature has a way of extinguishing the negatives: good trumps evil. As opposed to the blanket destruction of destruction, this is why the feminine, creationary, aspect of nature needs to be re-instilled…

With nature in balance, there is again order; Te Kā becomes Ti Fiti; Maui again becomes a hero; Moana retakes her position as tribe leader; her people become voyagers again. This prevents darkness and poison encroaching upon light and, though evil is never fully destroyed in this film, there is peace. And such is the profound beauty of Moana. This is a film about managing the conflicting elements of the self, of others and then of nature as to harmonise light with shadow in a world open and peaceful enough for exploration, bravery, compassion and a pinch of naivety.

To conclude, whilst The Lion King concerns itself with the reconstruction of the heroic male archetype, Moana is focused on the revivification of the great female archetype. This, in my view, makes them very closely akin and masterpieces in their own regards. But, these are just my thoughts. I’m sure there’s plenty more to be said about this film, so, what are your thoughts on Moana?

***

Those who have been following the blog for some time now will know that Moana marks the end of the Disney Series. Started way back in May of last year, we began this long journey across more than 3 dozen Disney and Pixar films. Now that we’re here, I have to say thanks to anyone that has followed me along this road.

 

 

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Attila ’74 – History On Film

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