On Moana, and Why Representation Matters.

When I was 15, I started my first job. After a few afternoons of filling out applications for every store and restaurant in the movie theater strip mall, I was eventually signed on as a so-called ‘Sandwich Maker’ at the local Quiznos. Slinging nearly-expired cold-cuts and slathering mayonnaise-based sauces on 100 sandwiches a day wasn’t exactly thrilling job experience, but my months at Quiznos taught me more about life than I had ever expected.

Our boss was a terrifying tyrant who may or may not have helped his children commit wage fraud, but my coworkers were amazing. L & M, two undocumented immigrants from Mexico, were intelligent, sincere, hardworking people who worked 3 jobs without complaint to provide for their children. L and I used to have conversations about everything and anything from across the onion slicer. One day it was her escape over the border with two infant children to spare them from an abusive husband; the next, stories about her vivacious older daughter who never got to start high school due to her lack of Social Security number. These were stark realities for a fifteen-year-old to hear, but they helped shape the way I view the world. I was a sheltered suburban kid who had never gone hungry, never lacked clothes or a roof over my head. I assumed that in our idyllic hamlet everyone was equally well-off. I was wrong. I will never be able to repay L for teaching me that.

Besides L, there was M, a jovial accountant in his former country who worked as a janitor, fast-food worker, and groundskeeper in California. Kind and patient, he fed me traditional Mexican dishes with delight (he especially liked to watch the tears stream down my face as I happily devoured stews and steaks well-seasoned with habanero). During the FIFA World Cup, the two of us propped up his phone behind the vegetable counter and streamed Univision on mute, mischievous grins in place all the while. He was also the father of adorable 4-year-old twins. When I bought his boys a soccer ball from Target my last day on the job, he cried. They had never had a brand-new toy before.

Of course, I cried that last day too. L and M, who were constantly short on cash, had stopped by Walgreens on their way to work to present me with a Hallmark card, a recipe for  M’s carne asada, and a package of hastily wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates. I was floored. Really, though, it was J’s gift that got to me the most.

J was the other person with whom I worked most frequently. 5 or 6 years older than me, she was the oldest of 12 children from American Samoa. She had floor-length, blue-black hair that she wore in an impeccable braid, and she worked full-time at Quiznos while also attending community college. When she wasn’t working, she performed as a traditional Polynesian dancer at local festivals and county fairs. She also sold handcrafted leis and barrettes at craft booths and farmer’s markets. J was my hero. Tall and strong, glamorous and smart and unpretentious, she lived life without complaint. After grueling twelve-hour shifts, she would go on to babysit her younger sibling while studying for nursing exams. Still, she was exceedingly thoughtful, even towards a mere coworker like me. On my last day, she gave me a lei made of flowers, one made of neon-colored gummy worms, and a hand-carved barrette with my name inlaid in bright wood. I had never received something so beautiful made by someone I knew. I still have it.

Gummy worm lei.
That’s a lei. Made of gummy worms. Yes, really.

How does this relate to Moana you ask? Well. I haven’t talked to J in years, but I remember so many of our conversations. Her main soapbox revolved around Disney movies. The caretaker of 5 younger sisters, she refused to let any of them watch Disney films.

“Look, my sisters, they’re beautiful. I know it. But we live in this crazy-ass town surrounded by skinny little white girls and they already think they’re ugly. They think that they’re fat, or whatever, and that their hair is frizzy and weird, and that they’ll never be as pretty as those blonde girls down the street. Why should I let them watch movies that tell them that’s true all the time? Why make it worse?”

Why make it worse indeed. That’s why when I first heard about Moana, all I could think about was J. This was the not-a-princess princess she’d been waiting for (and Polynesian, no less!). Still, I prepared myself for disappointment. As much as I love Lin-Manuel Miranda, could he really make a difference in the wide world of Disney, which has its own set views about the nature of the world?

Short answer: yes. A glorious, rapturous yes. Moana was everything I hoped it would be and more.

Moana Poster
Moana in all her glory. © 2016 Disney Media.

First of all, her looks. Moana looks real. She’s slim but strong. Her waist is proportional to her body. She even looks like she has big feet! Her voluminous, gorgeous, wavy hair doesn’t stay static or perfect throughout the film. In fact, it’s doused, drenched, covered in sand, let down and then hastily twirled into a bun again. Her outfit is traditional without being sexualized. Her clothing doesn’t impede her movement. There is no ‘oh-dear-God-how-are-you-running-in-heels’ moment a la Bryce Howard in Jurassic World, because Moana is barefoot and badass, and she’s not sorry about it.

Looking at Moana, who uses her arms and her legs and her feet and her hips without shame or self-consciousness, I kept thinking of J – was this the princess she and her sisters had been waiting for? I hoped so.

Indeed, as the movie went on, I became and more enraptured by Moana. Not defiant for the sake of defiance, she grappled with the nature of family, leadership, and strength with tenacity, logic, and grace. Her sidekick, while adorable, was fairly useless. Who needs a sidekick when you have your own skills? Even when accompanied by the male demigod, Maui, Moana calls the shots, and boy does she do it well. Still, her leadership isn’t impeded by arrogance or pride. Throughout the film, she genuinely grows as a person. She learns from her mistakes. She grapples with her emotions, her goals, her desires. She is the Disney heroine we have all been waiting for.

Tomorrow, I’ll write an actual review of the movie. Today, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you to Disney for making Moana. This girl — this feisty, brilliant, spitfire of a girl? I know her. She’s my half-Japanese best friend. She’s my Samoan coworker. My Hawaiian neighbor. She is the determined Black business woman and the Somali-American congresswoman. She is fierce. She is kind. She accepts help, but doesn’t require it. She matters. This movie matters. This movie shows little girls who look like Moana that everything about them is beautiful. That strength is nothing to be ashamed of. That you can be a voyager all by yourself. It shows all of us that we are at our best when we love ourselves and use that love to love others. Moana is beautiful; I’m so glad she’s finally here.

–S

Day 5: January 5, 2017

 

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