Alert: Major spoilers ahead!

My girls’ latest obsession has been Disney’s newest princess film Moana. And for good reason. Moana is full of humor, action, self-discovery, and is set in the incredible backdrop of the Pacific Ocean (which becomes its own mischievous character and Moana’s friend). It makes history as the first “princess” movie from Disney that does not include a love story, or even the hint of a love story. The titular character actually fervently denies being a princess at one point, explaining to her Demigod partner, Maui, that she’s “the daughter of the chief,” to which he shrugs, “Same difference . . . If you’re wearing a dress and have an animal sidekick, you are a princess.” Furthermore, it is the first of the Disney canon to feature a non-white princess for whom her race and social status is not in any way an issue. She (and everyone around her) just is. A fantastic comment on equality, by making no comment on it at all.

In many ways, it is not your typical princess film (both of her parents live!), and that is welcome news for a modern audience with distinct Pink Fatigue.

So, why does Moana give me that sick, familiar feeling again? That cross between fear, shame, worry, anxiety, and sadness that I’ve known for fifteen years now. Why can’t I watch it with enjoyment, but ambivalence? Why does the refrain “know who you are” cut so, so deeply?

The revelation hit me like a slap in the face. Like a sharp pain, deep down, in my most intimate, private places, places that I alone can feel. I suddenly knew.

Moana is about rape.

Maui rapes Te Fiti, the Mother Island, and the movie is, ultimately, about Moana helping Te Fiti to heal from her assault, but only after she helps Maui heal from his toxic masculinity and learn humility.


The premise of Moana is that the demigod, Maui (played to perfection by Dwayne Johnson), travels to Te Fiti and steals her “heart.” Te Fiti, the Mother Goddess, has the power to create life, and Maui is convinced that her heart will give him that same power. Using his giant fish hook (a clear metaphor for his masculinity/phallus), Maui violently pries Te Fiti’s “heart” from the middle of her “spiral” located at the center of the Mother Island. However, once Maui takes the heart (a small, smooth stone that is intricately carved with a spiral, swirled pattern), he discovers that it has lost all power, that it is “just a rock.” The Mother Island starts to spread death around to every island, and what is more, the stolen heart is now seen as a prized artifact for a whole ocean full of monsters, but mostly for the fearsome Ta Ka, a demon of fire and lava. Ta Ka rises once Maui steals the heart, and she is powerful enough to actually knock the fleeing Maui out of the sky, and separate him from his magical fish hook, dooming him to a thousand years of emasculated, non-magical solitude on a desert island.

It is easy to see how Moana becomes a metaphor for sexual assault. The smooth, round “heart” that is taken from Te Fiti without her consent is a magical object capable of creating “life,” a clear stand-in for her womb/vagina/womanhood. But, importantly, it is a thing that becomes worthless when it is removed from the Goddess from whence it originated. Maui’s fish hook, even if it weren’t enormously phallus in its mere size and shape, becomes the representation of his masculinity, the thing that makes him “awesome again,” the source of all of his power. Yet, siginificantly, it is Moana who sees that Maui is not, in fact, defined by his hook, and that the hook itself does not possess the power he needs to become a hero “to all.” He attempts to use his hook to fight off Ta Ka in order to replace the heart, but is defeated—multiple times—and his hook is eventually destroyed in the process. This is when the audience discovers that an act of violence cannot undo a violent act. Only an act of love and compassion.

Moana, in an attempt to return the heart herself, discovers that Te Fiti, the Mother Island, has sunk into the sea, and reemerged as the demon Ta Ka herself. Te Fiti’s anger, sadness, and fear that resulted from Maui’s attack transformed her into a monster of fire and lava, a beacon of death instead of a thing that creates life. Maui did not remove her powers to create life. Instead, his attack left her no choice but to deny her life-giving powers. To coat her heart in fire and ash, so that no creature could come close to her. Could hurt her again. Once Moana sees that Ta Ka and Te Fiti are one and the same, she turns to the monster with compassion. With love. The climactic moment when Moana restores Te Fiti is one of incredible beauty, but also incredible sadness, as any act of hard-won forgiveness must be.

Translated from the Polynesian language Tuvalu, the choral lyrics read:

Let the tears fall down.

My heart is filled with sorrow

For we have lost

Many loved ones

For we have lost.

Moana is truly a powerful character, as she explains to Ta Ka, “They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you / This is not who you are. / You know who you are.” For Ta Ka/Te Fiti, seeing and hearing Moana acknowledge her long-lingering pain—hearing that it is not merely Te Fiti who feels sorrow, but all of us who have “lost,” without any conclusion or end or resolution—binds Moana and Ta Ka in a community that the far-distant, long-dead island was desperate to discover. (Indeed, the entire film could be considered an extended argument in connectivity, in equality, and the potential dangers of isolationism.) Further, Moana reassures Ta Ka/Te Fiti that her heart “does not define you,” that it is not “who you are.” Te Fiti’s loss, and the terror of the memory of her violation consumed her (just as her protective lava spread and consumed all that she had created), and for a thousand years, alone and frightened, Te Fiti was unable to consider herself anything other than that which used to contain the heart. Used to contain that which supported life. Used to be the vessel of creation. It is Moana who sees beyond the significance of the physical heart, to Te Fiti’s figurative “heart,” her soul, her being, her power in an of herself, separate from the stone itself. Moana sees Te Fiti as whole and complete, even without the physical piece that had been taken so violently from her. She sees the victim, not as broken, but as whole, and this creates true healing.

Maui, meanwhile, must prove that he is worthy of forgiveness for his sexualized act of aggression against Te Fiti. So long as his personality and ego remains inextricable from his fish hook, he is irredeemable. Being separated from his hook for a thousand years, as he in the film’s beginning, has done nothing to diminish the centrality of his hook in his definition of himself. It has only solidified it. Meeting Moana, he only agrees to assist her in her quest to return Te Fiti’s heart under the condition of them also journeying to retrieve his hook from another monster, Tamatoa (a truly GREAT character, by the way). The film does an excellent job demonstrating the fragility of hypermasculinity such as Maui’s, though, as it shows the roller coaster of emotions the demigod rides even after his is reunited with his precious hook. Maui’s happiness is not, in fact, connected to his fish hook: it is more a source of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and doubt (as all hypermasculinity must be, since it is defined and walled by rigid, impossible standards of masculine perfection that are at once perceived as concrete and ever-changing). First, he must relearn how to correctly use his hook, and instead of shrugging off his rusty magic as simply the result of a millennia without it, Maui flops to the ground, groans repeatedly, and then softly sings, “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay. We’re dead soon!” His very life is over because his hook/phallus won’t submit to his will immediately. Secondly, even after he learns how to once again wield the hook, his first attack against Ta Ka results in his hook being damaged and cracked. Instead of depression, now though, Maui is angry and fearful. His hook could be destroyed. Permanently. So, he reacts against the woman who “forced” him to risk his hook in the first place: Moana. “We’re here because the ocean told you you were someone special, and you’re not!” He calls Moana a “girl” and a “princess.” Words that are clearly meant as insults. Then, he uses his hook one last time, to transform into a giant hawk that will take him across the waters, far away from Moana.

The audience does not see Maui’s eventual emotional turn. He merely reappears after Moana has decided to return the heart to Te Fiti herself. We can only assume that it is the love and, yes, respect he feels for Moana that inspires his return. He feels protective of Moana, but not because he sees her as a weak “princess” but as a fellow warrior against the death and darkness. Now, instead of girl or child, he calls her “Moana,” and voluntarily decides to help her against Ta Ka, even if his actions could result in the permanent destruction of his hook/phallus. For Maui, Moana’s faith gives him the confidence to believe that he is more than merely the wielder of his fish hook. She empowers him with the knowledge “Hook. No hook. I’m Maui.” By the end of the film, his masculinity is not exclusively connected to the “magic” of his phallus, but to the extent of his loyalty, and his selfless acts. When his hook does indeed get destroyed, instead of running, or lashing out angrily, or falling to the ground, Maui stands and faces Ta Ka. He performs a “haka” dance, a traditional Maori warrior dance meant to instill fear and elicit a challenge to enemies. Maui’s dance is the moment of his true growth. Even without his phallus, he knows how to perform his masculinity in a way that is distinct to him, while also connecting him to the human community he was born into, and to his sense of self that is whole and complete, without the physical representation that is his hook. Both Te Fiti and Maui, then, discover that they are complete, whole, and connected to a wider world without those physical things that are the representations of their respective genders.

Of course, the lingering, troubling, painful moment for me(and for so many others who are also triggered by the themes running throughout this film), is the moment of forgiveness. The moment when Te Fiti, newly restored into the Mother Island/Goddess by Moana’s act of loving bravery, creates a new fish hook for Maui, gives him is masculinity once again, and forgives his past transgressions. Maui, genuinely humbled, apologizes to Te Fiti, and admits, “What I did was wrong. I have no excuse.” To which Te Fiti responds with a new hook. Significantly, Maui does not touch the new hook until Moana gives him permission to do so, because he is uncertain how to respond to this (undoubtedly not-entirely-earned) gift. Then, Maui thanks Te Fiti. For the first time in the entire movie, this character, who is known for singing “You’re welcome!” over and over to what he has assumed were the grateful and prostrate masses, says a sincere “Thank you” to the Goddess he has wronged, and who has carried the pain of that wrong for a thousand years.


Perhaps it is a sign of my own mortality that I cannot forgive as readily as a Goddess. Perhaps it is petty and bitter of me to think with anger about Maui’s overall likability. His humor. His large smile and witty retorts. Perhaps I focus too much on the silent, smiling Mother, and allow myself to feel too strongly the injustice of her stagnant-yet-beautiful form in the water compared to this lovable rogue who is free to fly across the oceans. Perhaps I see my own silence too much. Perhaps my own isolation. Perhaps my own fears that the one who hurt me, so long ago, sees me not as a woman who for too long has been consumed by the terrible question of “Where is my worth, my self, my power centered?” but as an artifact to be treasured and coveted, owned and displayed.

Perhaps I’m not ready yet.

Perhaps I’ve been ready for too long.

But nobody has traveled the oceans yet to heal me.

So, I watch Moana with joy, and with laughter. And with tears and dread.

It is a wonderful film. But it is one that I don’t think I will ever be able to watch without that feeling. That pain.

A pain that, I’m sure, even if I were to live a thousand years, would never truly subside.