By: Alana Brandt
There seems to exist a precise and collective moment in girlhood when the industries of youth are strangled in the mirror. It’s sobering to see a young woman’s ambition bow to self-consciousness, even more so to recall this shift within one’s own cognizance.
In an age of such intimate interplay between media and identity, affirming positive representation is crucial in empowering young women. If I were currently raising a daughter and searching through the multitudes of media to try and bolster her self-image, Disney’s 2016 film “Moana” would be a starting point. Finally, finally¸ the princess lead has something resembling a normal human body and unapologetic gumption, paired with brown skin and a dearth in romantic inclination. It seemed, at first glance, as though Disney had finished merely dipping its toes in the waters of progressivism, and finally synthesized all the elements only toyed with previously: tomboy tropes, racial representation, figures that look capable of housing vital organs, etc.
Before we band together in song and dance at it’s release, however, there are a few considerations. First of all, the release of this movie felt a little late. Had Disney dared to release “Moana” a decade sooner, it might have pushed forward the envelope of social agency, might have actually made a bold move in gender politics and racial representation. Instead, in predictable corporate fashion, Disney waited until payoff was guaranteed.
This commodification of art vastly alters its purpose in society – it regresses from a force that critiques and questions to one which merely reflects popular values; it is a recipe for stagnation. In JFK’s 1961 inaugural address he called the artist, “the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” It is deeply troubling to think that in a time where the reality of artistic introspection is so dearly necessary, we find its economic framework so utterly lacking.
Instead, in predictable corporate fashion, Disney waited until payoff was guaranteed.
Nevertheless, it is tempting to hedge one’s bets on this issue. Afterall, “Moana” tells a different and important tale to young women about their worth independent of the eventuality of romance. Plus, ascribing radical subversiveness to a company like Disney might seem foolish in the first place; if Disney’s shifting gender dynamics helps to substantiate these patterns and make them accessible at an early age, ought we not embrace “Moana” nonetheless?
There is in fact a more insidious consideration here. When control of the narrative is ceded to big corporations, important historical depictions often come second to gender politics. In “Pocahontas,” for example, Pocahontas is accorded agency by the Western sensibility and is singled out as a sparkling beacon of solidarity between native and colonizer. Disney has solidified this mythology in American childhood; the atrocities of the Western paradigm are so completely whitewashed in the exultation of this independent animated beauty. The dialogue is successfully shifted to focus on an individual heroine even in the context of Western genocide. In “Mulan,” the critique of gender performance has a distinctly exotic flavor, lest evidence of patriarchal oppression be associated with our own social structures. Once more, the feminist pursuit is commandeered to endorse the project of the West and its equitability, thus innately endorsing its economic structure as well.
Similarly, “Moana” is set in a pacific dreamland in which the rituals and mysticism of the island culture are validated with bewitching imagery, depicting a wonderland which was never undermined by Western suspicion of its barbarism. The nostalgia for the sacred connection between nature and human, and its association with the primitive and tribal, is now used by and for a culture who desecrated that sacred innocence.
I am deeply glad for the shift, denoted by “Moana,” to a more inclusive standard of beauty and a world in which beauty itself is not heralded as the feminine currency. The idea that perhaps the ideological landscapes of future young women will not be leveled by internalized misogyny is one which fills my heart with hope. Nevertheless, we must remain cognizant of the platforms we use to achieve this eventuality; and filter our approval of corporate endeavors, even ones which seem to further our causes, with a deep and unrelenting skepticism.