The Evolving Disney Princess: From Belle to Moana

Disney is a favorite for feminist critique, and despite their best efforts of revitalization in recent years with Tangled, the Pixar-produced Brave, and the Frozen phenomenon, the question still begs whether these new narratives are not shaping but rather, exploiting latent desires of little girls to end up in the state of happily ever after. Latest release Moana from the Disney stable, along with the re-released Beauty and the Beast remake, showcased new perspectives on romantic relationship and female empowerment that clearly illustrate differentiations in the psychic development between today’s preschoolers and the thirtysomethings of today, raised on a diet of Belle and the Beast.

In 2016, Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University tested the behaviors of preschoolers who had previously been exposed to Disney films and their tendencies towards adopting stereotypically “boy” or “girl” behaviors, with toys like dolls and trucks. Many parents of little ladies will attest that the princess desire is one that’s challenging to convince any four-year-old to transfer to a rocket scientist – whether or not she’s pressured by friends, movies or television. But being that science says so many young girls want to be a princess, just what that role entails and how she comes to be it is where Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and the rest play an interesting role in shaping just what the little girl fantasy might look like.

The original Beauty and the Beast was produced in 1991, and shaped the childhood of many of today’s thirtysomething women. In the midst of a shift described by Justin Garcia of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University as one of the most significant shifts in dating culture since the agricultural revolution, (in a 2015 Vanity Fair article), it’s apparent that dating apps, hookup culture and internet dating has shifted into a world where many women feel second-best, and less of a priority than her older on-screen sisters of the Sex-and-The-City universe, where women were actually taken out for dinner and drinks.  Pop culture in the nineties alleged that the strong man was sexy, ads showed broody men selling perfume, and grandmas asserted that men are for protection and it's ok if he can't show emotion, he's just being a man. It's not surprising that a meme showing redone Disney posters labeled Beauty and the Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, a condition not unfamiliar to the modern woman stuck in a meaningless relationship she's been told by others is ideal.

So it's refreshing to see the new crop of Disney movies addressing the princess paradigm with new takes on the happily ever after love story, like 2012's Frozen, which flipped the classic Disney romance on its head: Prince Charming as manipulative villain; the ice cold princess as a deeply wounded dark feminine archetype, and the love of two sisters triumphing as the kiss of true love. It brings up certain cultural assumptions many are glad to see being eradicated in the little girl vernacular- "you can't be in love if you've only just met" "that perfect girl is gone" and "love can be experienced on many levels". The sweet sidekick becomes a romantic option after being friend zoned most of the movie, and the powerful female ice queen goes back to her rightful rulership rather than building an ice castle of her own. When I see little girls sing Let It Go with gusto, I think of all those cultural patterns they're creating and pray it stands them in good stead ten years from now, when they're defying a parental projection to choose their own course in college or defying the perfect boyfriend to chart a path of their own.

But the ladies of Frozen are still princesses, and so it's a wonder to see how next level Disney - not excluded from the general trend towards environmental consciousness, eco-feminism and appreciation for indigenous cultures - has taken the princess archetype in Moana. But uniquely, released during the same six month period, is the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, marketed to an older audience - the little girls who once devoured Beauty and the Beast as the little girls of today devour Moana. Where are the differences, and where have we evolved?

Belle, Emma Watson, embodies the woman of many a contemporary romantic comedy. She's different. She's the smart one who likes to read, and the pretty girls who simper to get the attention of the town jock are no match to her, though of course she displays no interest. A Gaston who resembles your average nineties teen comedy jock, the object of affection for the princess-cheerleader who is simultaneously crushing the heart of the sweet nerd guy, is disappointingly easy fodder for our audience of grown-up B&B-aficianados, but it does beg the question of where this desire comes from. Is Belle’s Stockholm Syndrome simply an outdated feminine paradigm that seeks out the strong and powerful man, even to the detriment of the heroine’s own independence?

Belle might end up falling in love with a beast, but she doesn’t fall for her abuser so easily this time around. She refuses dinner with the beast and it’s only upon his injury that she recognizes his own existence as a living creature, and so her own humanity is aroused. It’s easy in the battle to forget the essential humanness that we all share, and forget to act in compassion. Belle’s defiant act of nursing the beast is familiar to many activists today: we won’t stoop to their level. The beast may be holding her hostage, but she won’t let him die.

But Belle is still a remnant of the patriarchal system, following her life's pattern after her devotion to her father, and that's something we're familiar with and resonate with, having grown up on a diet of this media from nineties teen comedies to now. But what of the newer breed, the kind of media diet we're feeding to our daughters and the little girls of tomorrow - what can we learn from Moana?

In comparison, Moana, the current princess-du-jour for little girls and their moms everywhere, is a completely different breed – and an absolutely delightful one. Early on in her heroine’s journey, Moana reminds the hulking jock, and conflicted male demigod Mauai, that she is not a princess, to which he replies, "If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess." The pleasant piece, for me at least, is that Moana’s princess status comes from being the daughter of the chief – the daughter who is clearly being bred from childhood to be the next leader of her people, rather than being forced to marry a prince to take over, or dismissed for her power, as other Disney favorites have done (Merida! Pocahontas! Elsa!)

In Moana, the little girl sets off on a voyage across the seas to restore the heart of Te Fiti, the lush earth goddess with power to create, and in turn save her island. Understanding the nature of eco-feminism, Moana recognizes the power of nature as our mother, and witnesses how destruction of her heart is the destruction of all. Based on an interweaving of Polynesian legends with the typical Disney filter, Moana is no love story, instead, it is the tale of obedient daughter turned warrior, village crazy lady turned prophetess and guide, evil lava demon turned mother goddess. A ripe telling of the turning from dark feminine to earth centered consciousness, and one highly relevant in a world where the feminine principle is rising to consciousness. 

Although Moana is granted future-chief status well above some of her fellows in the Disney princess stable, she is still saddled with the dutiful daughter yoke, and needs to obey her fearful father, who projects his own desire to navigate the sea and ensuing fear of its mammoth attraction on his daughter, who from the looks of it isn't even allowed a childish waddle down to the sand and a splash in the water. On one such day, Moana is called to the shore by the spirit of the ocean - who continues to display an affinity for Moana, behaving almost as spirit mentor or fairy godmother, a narrative position shared by Tala, Moana's grandmother, who first shares with her granddaughter - filled with glee, against a backdrop of fearful toddlers - the tale of the lost Heart of Te Fiti, earth goddess of creation whose heart was stolen by the demigod Maui and in its place, arose the demonic lava dragon Te Ka, spewing blackness throughout creation and causing the blight that hits even Montenui, the island of Moana and her head-in-sand papa, her encouraging but often silent mother, and eccentric, free-spirited grandma, who eventually becomes the voice that encourages Moana on her own journey - to explore the sea that calls her and restore the lost heart to Te Fiti.

The Coming of Age tale is not unfamiliar, and there are echoes of every hero's journey from the Odyssey to the Hunger Games. Moana grows up seeking, desperately staring at "the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me, no one knows how far it goes", and her own ancestry of voyaging island way finders is hidden from her even as its clear to her parents that its embedded in the girl's DNA. On her journey, she learns to follow the stars, to respond to the call of the ocean, to feel the waves an let them cradle her.

In Jungian analysis, tales of the fierce feminine awakening are filled with analogies of water, of the depths of the feminine psyche as raucous and unwieldy as the tempests at sea, ebbing and flowing from storm to tranquility. Moana's journey is no different, and she endures the vain mansplainer (a Disney-fied tattooed demigod Maui who insists on being addressed as hero of man - before remembering to add woman - and who as expecting doubts Moana's abilities before returning to her quest); a bedazzled self-obsessed hoarder crab; the descent into the underworld via an extraordinary phallic portal into the chamber of monsters; and the use of brains over brawn in a fight with the dim-witted but numerous kakamora pirates. Not only are all of these executed with adorable and evocative CGI and singable Disney lyrics, but each can be reenacted by a little girl in her bedroom - or analyzed by a college student exploring the heroine's journey.

It's at the end of her quest, though. That Moana's real power is unveiled; and it’s a depth that indicates the truth of Disney's genius as it relates to the truth of the feminine in society today.

It's at the end of her quest that Moana is disappointed and ready to turn back. She's not sure why she came, and can't imagine herself fighting the fiery-eyed demon who shoots lava from her tongue, and looks every bit the angry woman invalidated by patriarchy over time.

An encounter with the spirit of her recently passed grandma, the deep feminine voice of wisdom, embodied in the spirit of the manta rays who glide through the ocean to show the way, is what reorients Moana on her mission. She learns that she is the one she's been seeking and it is not her demigod guide who will help but she, herself. She learns the depths of the sea are truths inside herself; and gets ready for the final showdown.

Here, Disney beautifully demonstrates the truth of how that battle is won. The battle against the dark feminine is won, not by fire and lava, but by replacing the heart to where it once was. In an ending that insiders have stated was not the original and came after many draft versions as a surprise to even some cast members, Moana gets past Te Ka and then finds herself addressing the monster with compassion; almost love, and certainly not fear.

"Let her come to me!" She boldly declares; and in a Biblical move the waters part for Moana and Te Ka to meet, showing the center of the monster's chest, the spiral from where the heart was removed. As the heart fills the unforgiving creature, it is revealed that Te Ka is none other than the original Te Fiti, creation goddess turned wrath-filled monster of vengeance, as any woman knows is bound to happen after we have been raped of our true sense of ability to create, our feminine mystery that lies at the heart. Feared by man and desires for their own power, Mother Earth has been raped of her heart by those who seek her ability to create life, and so the feminine in today's world lies as a wounded dragon, angry, vengeful, filled with lava and wounded pain.

It's when Moana softly sings, “I know who you are,” that she shows empathy for the wounded creature, and so Te Ka bears down and allows the heart in. Like the Sumerian legend of innana's descent, when her rescuers are only able to find favor with dark goddess Ereshkigal by showing her compassion and feeling pity through her pain, so does Moana get to the empty heart of the once/ beautiful goddess and replace it with the love that was once there. In a CGI captured moment that delights children and eco warriors ever here, the blackness turns into green lushness and soon the goddess is bestowing her gifts on the heroes of the quest, and Moana journeys back to an appreciative family.

While Beauty and the Beast certainly had more real life applications for me to take to my own approach to relationships that suffocate, stimulate, frustrate and co-create, it was Moana that moved me further than simply realigning my past beliefs into creating a brand new paradigm.

While Beauty and the Beast certainly had many real life applications for me become the Emma-Watson man-charmer with a bold heart and steel core, taking previous fears and tendencies towards relationships that suffocate, stimulate and frustrate into a new sense of feminine power as ownership; it was Moana's journey that disengages the narrative completely from one of a romantic quest to a desire to save the entire world.

And as feminists, is that not what we are her to do? Intersectional feminism is about using our power as women not simply to advocate for ourselves, but the health and wellbeing of others not in position to do so - including the earth. If we only revisited all the hours spent on personal grooming and secretly obsessing over the objects of romantic love - Belle's wardrobe and Anna's coronation ball prep and Cinderella's godmother transformation, our own obsessive texting and makeup buying and hair curling - into our personal quest; finding the heart of the ocean, our inner truths - perhaps that is all the world needs to solve the blight that's taking over the coconuts and the blackness taking over the world.