I was late to watch Moana. That tardiness was intentional. I balked a little at its overwhelming praise and in pure cynical, hipster fashion I had to wait a full year before I sat down and watched it in full despite the few times I tried to watch it via clips and less than great downloads. I can’t say that the film Moana means to me what Up or even Princess and the Frog does but I can see why, how and where it’s important in the discourse. But I wanted to talk about the heroine’s journey, finding yourself and your culture and knowing the difference between your voice and the voice of your people.
Moana is a story about the titular Moana on an adventure where she discovers that she is from a long line of sea-faring people and through her bravery and cultural identity, she fixes the problem, becomes princess and all the things are good again. What is the most touching part about Moana is that it is a journey with her and through her culture to find herself. Moana is her people but in that she is also something so much more.
The idea that especially female characters have to go on some epic road trip isn’t a new one. Most female characters in great works tend to sit and stay in various castle or castle-like arrangements but anime and comics and some young adult novels are great in giving us tales of women who have to go on an adventure and hopefully find something more than just a man at the end. Rukia in Bleach searches for strength and her overbearing brother’s approval. Ino in Naruto uses her time during missions to find and learn new things and hunt for a replacement for Sasuke. If you want an entire playlist of “girls on an adventure” stories look at the library of Hayao Miyazaki: most of his stories center around young girls that have to go out on an adventure to do something or learn something or to just save your pig-parents because capitalism. And if you must give Disney more credit then they probably deserve, Merida in Brave has to go on a quest to find a solution to the whole…mom and bear thing before Moana aired. Lilo has to go on a self-discovery mission with her new alien friend in Lilo and Stitch and this was also way before Moana hit theaters. And while the quest isn’t always literal: the need to put a heroine in the place of the hero on a journey is now a pivotal part of telling a female’s story. Though I will personally advocate as an out of shape person more metaphorical journeys.
Dear readership, you’ve been there with me as I’ve struggled with being more than my skin tone and that struggle has continued on for most of my life. I’m the dictionary definition of cultural abandonment. I’ve always prided my voice over the voices behind me. Look at my current situation with my family. Like the anime boy I am, I broke from tradition and forged my own path: for better or worse. I chose to listen to my own voice and ignore the voices that shouted so loudly behind me. My voice became the last one I heard and valued. But it’s lonely being on the top.
I work through being culturally abandoned through other cultures. I just said at dinner “I’ve given up so much for Japan.” . I work through my angst of not being “black enough” by turning my back on being black, being American or even being traditionally Southern or female for that matter. I embraced Japan, France, Austria, Germany…I embraced all of these cultures and countries as I did my best to come to terms with how wronged and left behind I felt by my own. I was never black enough to be black but could never and never wanted to be white. I just wanted to be me and in books I can be anyone or anything.
Amber and I are road-warriors and considering that we are both black women, it’s no surprise that many of our ventures have us facing the history and legacy behind us. We retrace the stories of rebellion, history and the complicated stories of complicated men and women. We venture out with our mythical steed (usually my Prius) and we go out to find our voices. She really only takes me along because I speak a few different languages and that there is still awe in my eyes when we find something genuinely interesting. She takes me because she knows she can probably still shock me and make me feel something. We go because I’m hoping for an experience that will shake me from my usual cynicism and will either make me feel immense shame or pride of the mix of both that comes with being a dually-conscious black person.
In my haste and desire to find my voice, I silenced out all the other voices that were kind. There are survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in me. There are Airmen in me. There are veterans, scientists, government officials, activists and writers in me. There is greatness in me and their voices are just as loud as mine. Those voices also do a wonderful job of drowning out the not to positive voices that still echo in my heart.
And while I’m not an airman or a survivor or even a full-time activist: I am me. I’m not in competition with their greatness and their weight isn’t a burden: it should be a comfort; albeit a bit of an overwhelming one. Their desire and the path they paved to let me be a cosplayer, writer, panelist and all should be enough. It is enough.
So, of course, it makes a lot of sense that I found the story of a young Polynesian girl discovering her voice and path through the stories lost to time immensely powerful. I had already bonded somewhat withe the stories of Mother Tahiti and of Polynesia during my time in Hawaii. And I’m not going to say the film’s perfect. I’m contractually obligated to mention the film’s not perfect. I was annoyed by Maui’s portrayal and most of the humor came from a literal dumb chicken. Being meta actually weakened the film a lot. Admitting that Moana in so many ways is just like the princesses that came before her actually weakens how special and unique her story is. But framing Moana as a light-reboot of Pocahontas actually helps remind the view how different the movie is from all those that came before it. Moana achieves her goal through persistence and listening to the voices in her heart that can help her while shrugging off the ones that cannot.
That’s a lesson even a cynic can get behind.