We get it: Moana is queen. Her story is a feminist manifesto that left me (and probably you) shook to the core. And had I not been simultaneously exploring intersectional feminist theories, I would have thought feminism–and feminism alone–was the core of Moana.
But I watched Moana through a different theoretical lens. If you haven’t heard of it already, let me introduce you to ecofeminism.
Ynestra King, a 1980s ecofeminism conference organizer, describes ecofeminism like this:
‘Ecofeminism is about connectedness and wholeness of theory and practice. It asserts the special strength and integrity of every living thing. For us the snail darter is to be considered side by side with a community’s need for water, the porpoise side by side with appetite for tuna, and the creatures it may fall on with Skylab. We are a woman-identified movement and we believe we have a special work to do in these imperilled times. We see the devastation of the earth and her beings by the corporate warriors, and the threat of nuclear annihilation by the military warriors, as feminist concerns. It is the masculinist mentality which would deny us our right to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way.’
Here are other ways it can be defined.
An oversimplified, but helpful, way to consider ecofeminism is an acknowledgment of the patriarchy’s parallel dominance over women and the environment, acting within its assumed right (from Biblical roots — at least five verses) to control all other species on the planet. Not only have men, via the patriarchy, accepted this invitation by depleting animals and natural resources to suit their own needs, but men have also subordinated women to the level of non-human species, exerting their dominance over them as well. Thus, we cannot liberate the environment until we liberate women, and vice versa. The force behind both systems of oppression is the same.
If you are interested in learning more, here is a helpful conference presentation with some startling insight. I am also currently reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams and will post some takeaways when I’m finished.
But what the eff does this have to do with spirituality, especially SBNR philosophy? First, let me show you a quick photo:
On the left, we see the literal food chain as it exists from the patriarchy. The smallest, least visible creatures are at the bottom, and a man is on top. Notice that even a woman is on second-tier next to a whale and other large mammals; this is intentional. The Genesis quote shows us the permission given to men to dominate as I referenced earlier. This ego-based pyramid shows that our ways of being on this planet have evolved to unquestionably place men at the “head of the table.” This influence is inspired by a religious construct.
On the right, we see an ecosystem that men and women (all genders recognized) are simply part of, not leading. All creation has dignity and worth. A cosmological component of spirituality is the acknowledgment that we are all stardust–all of us. From humans to starfish to ants, we’re all made up of the same “stuff,” so we do not have the given right to dominate one another. We all serve a purpose on this planet, and as we dominate and literally kill off other species, our planet will not be able to function. An unraveling of the patriarchy will help us return to the ecosystem we were intended to be part of.
Patriarchial “egosystem” = competition and dominance.
Ecofeminist “ecosystem” = connection and support.
And now for some Moana…
“Her heart held the greatest power ever known: it could create life itself.”
Just moments into the film, we already hear women being equated not only with the environment, but also the divine. Moana’s grandmother tells then-infant Moana the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti (summarized):
A demigod named Maui, who could shape shift with the power of his magical fishhook, stole the heart of Te Fiti (pictured as a lush, green mountain). Without her heart, Te Fiti began to crumble, giving birth to terrible darkness. Maui tried to escape, but a demon of earth and fire struck him from the sky, never to be seen again. The heart was lost to the sea, and in its absence, life will continue to be destroyed on every island until everyone dies. But one day, someone will go beyond the reef, find the heart, and restore Te Fiti, saving everyone from their inevitable fate.
From this story alone, we can identify a few things:
Maui = man who stole the heart of nature (also personified as a woman) = patriarchy
Maui’s fishhook = phallic symbol, fragile masculinity
Restoring the heart of Te Fiti = reversing patriarchy
In her childhood, Moana doesn’t know (but we do) that the ocean has chosen her to restore the heart of Te Fiti. One of her first interactions with the sea involves her creating a path for a baby sea turtle to get to the sea and escape the birds/other creatures trying to kill it. In return, the ocean becomes a friend to Moana, guiding her with explicit signs and next steps not only then, but throughout her life. We also see in Moana’s childhood that she is recognized as the next great chief of her people. In a cute jingle at the beginning of the movie, we learn that nobody leaves the island; you must find happiness where you are. Despite Moana’s natural inclination to leave the island and find answers elsewhere, her father, representing another patriarchal prototype, aggressively opposes a departure of any kind. Hmm… I imagine he would. “We have an old rule that keeps us safe,” they say.
But eventually Moana does escape and does what she needs to do. This is prompted by a complete wipeout of fish and coconut resources. (The coconuts go bad? Remember that). Let’s talk for a hot second about her companion. Did anyone else notice that in Moana’s first failed attempt to go beyond the reef, her classic Disney companion was the cute pig? Then, in the second attempt, on accident, it is Heihei, the bird with a disability? This is super important:
- The pig is default. Meat is default. If we want to take this replacement of companion literally, the cute pig is what we would expect, in contrast to a bird with disabilities. One could argue that the bird still represents meat consumption, but the important piece is the bird’s disabilities.
- The bird’s disabilities are intentional. Ecofeminism places heavy emphasis on ableism and accessibility in its intersections, noting that people with disabilities are often seen on the very bottom of the human hierarchy because they are considered most vulnerable and dispensable.
- In the opening scenes we see a few lines referencing meat consumption: first, Moana’s apology to the pig when she eats from a bowl of pork, and second, a villager jokes about eating the bird. Moana states that everyone and everything has a purpose, so no, the bird cannot be substituted as food just because its purpose hasn’t revealed itself yet. In time, the bird proved itself as a viable companion.
Then we meet Maui, an asshole. His pompous song “You’re Welcome” is actually revolting–I suspect intentionally as well–to show the extent of the patriarchy’s delusion. One of Maui’s immediate defining characteristics is his chest tattoo, which takes on a life of its own. Because it often “battles” with Maui, eventually showing compassion to Moana and the need to restore the heart of Te Fiti, the tattoo seems to represent his higher consciousness. I believe the people who perpetuate the patriarchy the most are still aware of the harm they are causing. Maui defies his tattoo and opts for a more self-serving solution; as a demigod, he will not be affected by Moana’s success or failure.
A few fun feminist pieces here: Most of us catch Moana’s line explicitly saying she’s no one’s princess, which is clearly a masked apology from Disney for fucking so many things up with their antifeminist ideals throughout the decades. But a more covert jab to the patriarchy is when Moana steals a banana out of Maui’s mouth (previous photo) and takes a huge chomp on it in the photo above. Yas, gurrrr. Yas.
The coconut army. At this point in the movie, I had felt legitimately anxious a few different times and couldn’t imagine watching this as a child. At first, the coconut army seemed like a time-filler — a plot point introduced because things were going too well for them. But when I read my own line earlier about the coconuts “going bad,” I see the point: this army is made of coconuts that went bad. It made me think of the opening scene of Interstellar when the once-beautiful prairie landscape flooded with smoke that destroyed crops and killed people. The coconuts are our planet: when we remove the resources needed to replenish them, they will turn on us. These scary coconuts are a literal scene of humans fighting with nature. This small scene might be one of the most profound: can you imagine the day when we are battling with our very own source? The same entity that once tried to save us becoming the enemy we created?
Now it’s time for the absurd crab scene. As Moana and Maui spend more time together on the boat, we learn that it will be impossible to restore the heart of Te Fiti without Maui’s hook, which is being held hostage by Tamatoa, a 50-foot-tall psychedelic crab. Why does this crab like things that are so shiny?
A component of the patriarchy is capitalism. We are socialized to love shiny things: things we can spend our money on to boost profits for corporations run by men who can do whatever they want. We love to stay in fancy hotels built on natural land. We love shopping malls. We are much like that demented crab who likes to turn off all the lights just to see how bright his possessions sparkle. While we are tricked into believing capitalism benefits us, the rich white men in corner offices know the truth: it benefits them. The environment is the greatest casualty of industry, though women are also depleted significantly through their dependence on capitalism–dependence fostered through men who perpetuate women’s self-perception based on body, interests, hobbies, personality, and other ways of being.
Why does the hook matter, and what is the significance of the crab stealing it?
First, let’s remember the story Maui tells after stealing his hook back (summarized):
Maui wasn’t born a demigod. He had human parents; they took one look at him and decided they didn’t want him and threw him into the sea. The gods gave him the hook and sent him back to the humans, where he would try to impress them with the powers wielded by the hook — creating fire, providing coconuts, etc. — but it was not enough. He ultimately tried to steal the heart of Te Fiti so his family would love him, but that, too, was not enough.
The point is so clear here: men act like gods. The patriarchy feels the need to create and destroy based on feelings of insecurity and non-acceptance, and it will never be enough.
Because of this, we can draw two conclusions:
- Maui is a victim of the patriarchy as well. Had he not been “bestowed” with his hook as a gift — essentially the promise of respect — he would not have felt the need to exert his power in irresponsible ways. Even those who perpetuate the patriarchy are victims of the patriarchy. This cycle needs to be broken.
- Like the scary crab and his jewels, nothing will ever be enough. Tamatoa feels the need to emasculate Maui by taunting him with the words, “Maui’s having trouble with his little hook! What a terrible performance; you don’t swing it like you used to.”
Even after an encouraging attempt for Moana and Maui to restore the heart of Te Fiti, we see Maui is still profoundly influenced by his patriarchal ideals. When he tries to fight the fire monster, he immediately wants to quit because the sword is wounded. Because sword = penis, Maui again feels emasculated when his first attempt to be powerful is not met with immediate success. He says, “My hook is cracked. Without my hook, I am nothing.” This fragility represents what the patriarchy will do but not say: it will prioritize its own self-preservation above the good of the cause, even though it possesses the tools and resources to liberate.
We Don’t Need No Man (Part 1): After the fragile Maui dips, grandma shows up as a beautiful holographic stingray, an animal spiritually symbolizing the sentence, Gurl, you got this. The intergenerational support and wisdom among women is important here. This brief, but important, encounter with grandma is a reminder of Moana’s ability to accomplish this task with her own motivation. She sings her Moana song again, I weep again, and then she goes on her merry way to defeat Te Ka.
We Do Need a Man, But Not For the Reasons You Think (Part 2): Remember Te Ka, the fire monster from grandma’s fable? It has been guarding Te Fiki, making it nearly impossible to restore the heart. As Moana successfully bypasses a hole in the barrier wall and makes her way to Te Fiki, the fire monster seems ready to defeat Moana until Maui shows up. Maui, who seems to have had some sense knocked into him, wields his sword in order to defeat the monster and support Moana from the sidelines.
Maui reminds us here that patriarchy cannot be undone by women alone. We need men and people of all genders to identify this is a problem–and men need to be willing to step up and “wound their swords” in this messy, important work. This scene is important because Maui does not appear to be the hero. It is so clear that Maui believes in Moana’s mission that, for the first time, he is comfortable with his personal sacrifice for the greater good. To do this, Maui must confront his literal enemy — Te Ka, who wounded him many years ago — and try again. I suspect much of the ugliness he sees in Te Ka is what he sees in himself.
Now the good shit. Upon realizing that she, not Maui, would be the true heroine to restore the heart of Te Fiti, she raises the green (famously the color of nature and healing) heart stone and summons Te Ka by singing: “I have crossed the horizon to find you, I know your name / They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this is not who you are / You know who you are, who you truly are.”
And then she does it.
This makes Te Ka transform into Te Fiti, and then Te Fiti immediately restores life to the dead soil while wearing a beautiful crown of roses and a smile on her face. YAS QUEEN!
But why is it Moana’s fate to restore the heart of Te Fiti rather than Maui’s? Besides Disney’s smart choice to have the heroine save the day (#feminism), the ecofeminist piece is, again, of huge importance in this plotpoint. Moana meets Te Ka as a scary fire monster whose capacity to create life is completely reversed: it only knows how to create death. Now it understands it can create life by choosing love.
Let’s treat Moana and Te Ka as hero/villain for a hot second. In confronting this scary beast, she is confronting the patriarchy, for sureeeee: based on dominance, the patriarchy has been trained to destroy things despite humans’ original allegiance to and partnership with the land. When Moana signals Te Ka to come forward and kisses it on the nose, she practices healing. When Te Ka becomes mesmerized by the beaming green light — its own heart — it regains consciousness much like Maui’s tattoo, dropping the act and behaving within its own nature: not as what it has become, but as what it once was before all this patriarchal bullshit started.
Now let’s look at Te Ka and Moana as two oppressed individuals in acknowledgment that their fate is bound with one another. The ecofeminism gets literal here: In order for each party to survive this encounter, they must give permission to each other to heal. Te Ka, on the most basic level, must decide to not kill Moana. Moana must decide to not be afraid of Te Ka, bravely replacing the heart and offering a gesture of forgiveness despite the pain and destruction it has created.
This is intersectional ecofeminism. Obviously Te Fiti, the goddess of creation, has to be gendered as a woman. But do viewers realize this is counter to the Biblical narrative of God — a man — creating all of life in six days? So many people will watch this and think, “Oh, what a nice goddess! She looks beautiful, and I’m glad she saved Moana’s village.” A sophisticated viewer will see right past that and realize the intentionality behind Te Fiti looking like she does. Just as Te Fiti was restored in an environmental capacity, our women need to be restored as well. When Moana saved the environment, she saved herself. The intersectional lens does not argue that the environment or women have it “the worst,” but the liberation that “un-does” the dominance exerted on both of these historically oppressed populations can heal the rest of our oppression, too: animals, people of color, people with different abilities…the list goes on.
In the celebration of Te Fiti being restored, it’s important to not miss this amazing face Te Fiti serves to Maui. When she summons him (!) and he lands on her open palm, she doesn’t say a word (she never does) as Maui man-babbles an awkward apology about stealing her heart in the first place. She is not having it.
But when Maui finally relinquishes the power of his hook (penis) and says, “I don’t need it; I am more than just my hook,” Te Fiti opens her other palm to reveal Maui’s fully restored hook. This restoration is more than just a reconciliation. It serves as a recognition of Maui’s surrender to the power of his own sword (again, both meanings), which he proved by sacrificing his sword in order to be an accomplice (male ally) to Moana’s restoration of the heart. When Maui chooses to have his own sword destroyed in order for Moana to restore peace, the patriarchy bows to ecofeminism. Te Fiti rewards him the sword based on the assumption that he will only use his sword (male privilege) for good from now on.
As much as we want to hate Maui for his initial sexist, chauvinistic, and literally god-like behavior, here’s why we shouldn’t. Due to Maui’s backstory revealing his own pressure to act as a socialized male, trying to earn admiration from others by manipulating the earth and literally stealing life, the compassionate ecofeminist will understand that Maui was a casualty of the patriarchy just as much as Te Fiti and Moana were. His parents didn’t love him for who he was, so he had to defer to the power of his own hook (penis) to get attention. After working with a woman leader like Moana and, in the Te Ka-turned-Te Fiti scene, he learns to get the fuck out of the way and let Moana restore the heart because it has to be her. Though Maui removed the heart (patriarchy), it was Moana’s (feminism) to restore.
Also, Maui scores a few extra points when Moana invites him to join their tribe by saying, “My people are going to need a master wave finder,” and Maui’s response, “They already have one.” +++
No new plot here, but it’s absolutely worth seeing more images of Te Fiti and the fucking amazingness of women getting shit done. More crying.
And before I could even catch my breath, they show Moana’s symbol of chiefdom and I am a blubbery mess again. Earlier in the film, Moana’s father, the current chief, takes her to a high mountain peak to show her the shrine-like legacy of island chiefs via the stack of rocks; each chief has placed his stone on top of the others. Moana’s choice of a shell is an homage to the line of shells that led her to the ocean when she was a baby (when she was “chosen”) as well as a clear symbol for a vagina. But just as important as what the shell represents is what the shell, literally, is not: another rock like the rest of the chiefs. There is a new chief in town, and this ain’t a patriarchal tribe anymore, honey.
The conclusion of this film is Ecofeminism 101: when you liberate the environment, you liberate people. The relationship between our human survival and the survival of our planet could not be more obvious. It took a woman leader to facilitate this liberation not just because she was a woman, but because Moana herself was oppressed by her father. On a micro level, Moana’s liberation–hence the liberation of women as an oppressed identity group–liberated the environment and thus humans as a whole.
Dang, Disney. We’re okay now.