Hopefully, last week’s post showed that Moana has some deeper and more complex concerns than a typical Junior Knows Best, Follow Your Heart kids’ film. By looking at the foils, Maui and Tala, we distilled the theme of approval. Through a close reading of the evil crab’s song, we saw that the film also plays with the dichotomy of outer vs. inner life. (I…can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.)
So, how does Moana herself deal with being pulled in two different directions?
Moana as a film could simply say, “Don’t care what anyone else thinks; follow your heart!” The film could also say, “’Follow your heart’ is a crock; learn to fulfill a meaningful place in the community.”
Let’s be real: in a Disney film, we’re expecting the good side of this polarity to be “follow your heart.” Usually, the ones against following your heart are tyrannical patriarchs like King Triton or overbearing mothers like Brave’s Eleanor.
In Moana, we have a patriarch, and he’s on the side of “accept your place in community” rather than “follow your passion.” Moana’s dad makes his case in the song “Where You Are.” But here’s where we start muddying the easy polarity waters: he’s not wrong.
Contentment, thankfulness, and fulfilling a role in the community are lauded in this song. These are good things. What’s more, the film presents this song without the least hint of irony. It casts no shadow of disapproval on her father, her mother, or these “narrow-minded” islanders. Throughout the song, though Moana’s inner conflict is clearly seen, she is enjoying this community and comes to accept her place in it (without any indication that she’s been unjustly brainwashed).
So wanting approval from your community is not condemned. It’s part of life. It can even be good.
Furthermore, the easy Disney message of “Follow your heart” is pruned a bit. Indeed, Good Foil Tala is always encouraging Moana to do so. But the film doesn’t mistake “follow your heart” for what it can be abused to mean in our culture. Abused, it means, “Self-approval is all; who cares what anyone else thinks?”
In the film, who espouses that line of reasoning? The villain. Tamatoa. So even Good Foil Tala’s advice must not be followed as a guiding star—at least not in isolation.
Moana is too community-oriented to fall fully on “Follow your heart.” But she is also too in love with the sea to simply forget her passion. Which will she choose?
Now we’re beyond easy cartoon polarities. Now we’re getting interesting.
THE RECONCILIATION OF OPPOSITES
During Moana’s lowest point, abandoned by her troublesome foil Maui, her other foil (Tala’s spirit) visits. “I know a girl from an island . . . . She loves the sea and her people,” she says, acknowledging Moana’s dilemma. Then she encourages Moana again to listen to the voice inside and asks, “Do you know who you are?”
Moana navigates between the inner and outer, approval and passion, in song. Here it is, with my glosses added:
Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island; (she rejects “follow your heart” alone)
I’m the girl who loves the sea; (she doesn’t fully dismiss it either)
It calls me. (the call of her passion is from the sea, outside her)
I am the daughter of the village chief; (who represents the pull for approval)
We are descended from voyagers (they represent, for Moana, the pull of the sea)
Who found their way across the world;
They call me. (the call is from her ancestors now, still outside her)
I’ve delivered us to where we are;
I have journeyed farther;
I am everything I’ve learned and more;
Still it calls me. (“it” here is ambivalent, is the call still outside her?)
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me; (well THAT’s different! Also, cue Shannon crying)
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising;
I will carry you here in my heart; you’ll remind me (the call isn’t the only thing inside her: her love for community is, too)
That come what may,
I know the way! (she knows how she will navigate this theme…)
I am Moana! (and she knows who she is! YEAH!)
Moana only fully realizes who she is when she reconciles “follow your heart” with “I am a girl who loves my island.” Just one of them will not do. For her, this reconciliation can come because the “weirdness” she’s been feeling is actually the call of who all her people were made to be.
Here’s how I see all this coming together:
Too often we confuse “following our hearts” (inner) with following something outside us. Many a teenager (or adult!) probably thinks she’s following her heart (inner) when she’s actually just jumping on the bandwagon (outer) or following an idol that she has become enslaved to (outer).
This was actually Maui’s problem, and it creates the conflict the whole film must solve: in his addiction to approval, easily mistaken for “following his heart,” he acts without regard to others and creates the monster Te Ka. When people seek approval above all else, they can hurt us, like he hurt Te Fiti. When we do it, we can steal our own hearts and make ourselves the monsters.
Moana remains conflicted as long as she thinks both the call for approval and the call to follow her passion are outside her. It’s when she realizes the call is from within (within a girl who also loves her community) that she is able to reconcile the two, to hold them both together, whereas we are tempted to strangle one and feed the other. It is only this fully realized Moana, this person who accepts the tension and balance between outer community and inner passion, who can restore balance to her world.
Is this nuanced analysis what my kids will get out of Moana? Definitely not. They will get, “Maui is funny!” And the message they will probably get is, with no nuance or tension, “Follow your heart!”
But beneath the surface of easily recognizable and marketable themes, Moana gives a slight course-correction to “Follow your heart.” It shows the value of individual interest and the value of community. The emblem of the reconciliation of the two is the final shot of the stack of stones on which Moana’s father had asked her to build as a recognition of her commitment to the island. She has added to it: but it’s a seashell, not a stone. She has maintained her identity, even while firmly ensconced within her people.
Our world is starving for both purpose and community. But so often we’re willing to reject one to gain the other. In this mess, Moana shows us that we don’t have to forego community with the people around us in order to be individuals. And if we want to really be part of a community, it doesn’t serve to follow blindly: we have to own who we are.
I want Moana as a role model to my girls not only because she’s athletic, with a more realistic build, and not only because she’s not so boy-crazy she would forcibly change her body for the chance to meet a stranger she saw that one time. I want her as a role model of individual purpose within community. Come to think of it, I want her as my role model, too.