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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.

maui

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.

Te_Fiti

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.

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My Dearest Husband:

How do you do it?

I don’t mean this vindictively, or snidely, or with anything other than amazement. I’m genuinely asking. I’m truly seeking answers.

How do you do it? How do you maintain the commas?

Because, for me? It’s all become hyphens. Mom-blogger, mom-helper, mom-cook, mom-runner. Even (good lord help us) mom-lover (“Okay, be in the moment, Rachel. Be in the moment. Was that a footstep? Oh, god, she’s awake. I knew that there was no way she’d go down so easily tonight! Not after all that ice cream before bed. You know, I really have to start making dinner earlier. At least for the girls. But, then, what, I’d have to have dinner ready by 5? Baths by 6? Jesus, how does anyone who works ever see their children? Well, I guess they don’t really. I mean, look at my hus– Oh! Dammit! Stay in the moment, Rachel!”)

Nothing can be separated out, you see? It’s all a big, tangled mess. But for you? You still have commas in your life.

Husband, lover, musician, engineer, mechanic. Fatherhood is just another facet. Another neat slice of your life pie-chart, contributing its portion to keep you complete. To bring you to fullness. To get you to 100%. It’s all still separate for you. Separate, but whole.

The other day, we talked about prioritizing. I complained that my running, my learning piano, my book clubs, my once-monthly girls’ nights felt inexcusably selfish. Unforgivably me-focused. But, at the same time, I couldn’t keep placing “me” at the bottom of my priority list. Especially since I so often feel as though I’m at the bottom of everyone else’s list too. That’s when I looked at you, and asked you about your priorities. Where was I? Where were the girls? Where were you? Your eyes flicked down and a small crease appeared between your eyebrows, and before you even answered, I knew.

You’ve never had to prioritize. You’ve never even thought about it.

Because you go to work, and you are a small business owner. A mechanic. A problem-solver. Then, you come home, and you can do some fun Dad stuff before Mommy declares that we need to brush our teeth and go to bed. And, sure, maybe you sit on the couch for a few minutes after the girls head upstairs, leaving Mom to take care of teeth, potty time, pull ups, and PJs all by herself, but, hey, you’ve worked hard today. You deserve a little break. (You do. You really do.) Afterwards, you snuggle in a king-sized bed with your wife, and rub your fingers along her thigh while you two watch House of Cards. Once again, though, she’s not in the mood. She just wants to sleep. But, overall, a day well spent.

Everything is still, remarkably, compartmentalized for you. Work, home, band practice, the occasional date night. It’s still hard. Very hard. We have a family business. You work 7 days a week. At least 70 hours. You wish you had more time for me. More time for the girls. More money for everything. I know that you worry that you’re missing out on your daughters’ childhood. It’s painful for all four of us when you say goodbye on Sunday mornings, especially when we know you won’t be back until after dinnertime. But, we’re trying to grow our business. That slice of the pie is just bigger right now. Soon, we’ll be able to cut some of it off, slivers at a time, until everything looks more balanced once again. Growth is hard. But we’ll get through it.

But me? I don’t have a pie in front of me. I have a plate of spaghetti. A jumbled, disorganized, hopelessly tangled mess. I have a mental inventory of every single item in our house stored away in the annals of my brain. I know where our four-year-old’s polka dot socks are, as well as your cordless drill. I know the exact placement of every single bouncy ball and crayon in our house, and if I was placed blindfolded in front of your closet, I would be able to put my hand within 3 inches of your favorite tie. I know what the thermostat is set to. I know how many ant traps we have out right now, as well as how old they are. I could tell you, with surprising accuracy, exactly how many chicken nuggets are in my refrigerator. I know that we have a play date scheduled in two hours, followed by naps, then perhaps a visit to Nana’s. I know that the insurance is due this week, and well-check appointments are next Thursday. I know that all of this information changes constantly because of the two small girls that I watch, protect, love, and occasionally resent every single day. I know that I missed recycling pick-up last week, so now I have to decide if we can make due for another week, or if I need to drag the girls to the recycling center and drop off our plastics in the meantime. I know that I need to start cooking more at home, because our credit card statement reads like a list of fast fooderies, and the workers at the local Chick-fil-A know my girls’ names now. But I know that cooking is the first thing to get thrown off my list at the end of a long day, and I know that it’s easy to call you and just ask for some fries instead.

I know that I’m so, so tired.

I know that you are too.

But you can at least find the small slice of “Bobbie” in your pie. It’s tiny, but it’s there. It plays music on Thursday nights. It builds guitars and spends I-don’t-know-how-many sleepless hours researching pickup combinations and guitar pedal wiring diagrams (you seriously have the most boring Google search history ever). It loves woodworking and landscaping, two places where it can show off its artistic side.

For me? It’s getting harder and harder to find that one “Rachel” noddle on my plate. Sure, I can go to book club, but I can only stay for an hour or so. My husband has to leave early for a meeting in the morning, so we’ll all get an early start tomorrow. I get to weave and create textiles on my loom, but I have kept only one or two pieces for myself. All the rest are gifts. I host play dates and drink buckets of coffee with my girlfriends. But we end up talking about the kids, being interrupted by the kids, cooking for the kids, kissing booboos on the kids. Once again, “we” are placed beneath (and outnumbered by) “them.” Even running, my one reprieve, is still tinged by my unrelentless momness. Running used to be my way to think. I would escape all of my worries, think about books, plot out the arguments for my dissertation, compose syllabuses and class plans. I never used to even listen to music while I ran. Now, I run to banish all of my thoughts. I run so I don’t have to think. I crank up the southern rock, and try to escape, well, me. I try to forget that I need to finish these five miles in under an hour, or else you’ll be late leaving for work. I try to forget that I’ve had to ask my mother-in-law to watch the girls–again–so that I can get in a run (and try to forget how much you hate that I have to lean on her so much). I try to forget that we’re almost out of milk. I try to forget the bills. The loneliness. The way that even this thing that I do, this completely solitary activity, is burdened by all of the other people and things in my life. The way that I carry my daughters, my mother-in-law, my friends, even your cordless drill around with me as I run.

Maybe your ability to compartmentalize is just another product of your male privilege. As a man, you’re not expected to be a “dad-entrepreneur.” You’re allowed to be a dad, and a businessman. In many ways, I am not afforded that same privilege.

But it often feels more sinister than that. My hyphenated state feels strongly self-imposed. A result of an overzealous rewrite of my own life, where I edited out all of my commas, one at a time. It felt inevitable at the time. It felt like it was the right thing to do after I became a mother. I should be able to delete the hyphens, organize the spaghetti, weave the noodles into a single tapestry (sort out my muddled analogies). I should be able to re-punctuate my life. But I still just don’t know how.

So, do you have any suggestions, dear husband? Can you help me? Or is your pie-chart, comma existence not really as great as it seems to me? Maybe you’re jealous of me? Maybe we both need to be our own messy, eternally divided selves in order for this to work? A part of me hopes that’s the case. The part that is tired. The part that just doesn’t want to keep searching for the unhyphenated, noodle “me.” But it wouldn’t be fair to you to stop looking for me. I cherish the small slice of “you” I get to taste every now and then. You deserve “me,” as well. Me in the moment. Me without the burdens. Me completely unattached to anything else.

Maybe together we can figure this out. You. And me.

Love always,

Rachel