Moana is the first Disney princess to show that leaders don’t have to fight to be strong

The princess we need right now.
The princess we need right now.
Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios via YouTube
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The following article contains spoilers for Moana.

I’ve been listening to Moana’s Lin Manuel Miranda-composed soundtrack nonstop since I saw Disney’s latest princess flick. But there’s one lyric I always get wrong. In the climactic song “I Am Moana (Song Of The Ancestors),” Moana sings, “I am the daughter of the village chief / We are descended from voyagers.” But instead of “voyagers” I always say “warriors.” And I know why. When a movie or TV show wants to prove that a female character is strong, it almost always makes her a fighter. From Merida to Mulan, Katniss to Tauriel, Xena to Buffy, pop culture is filled with female warriors. As Sophia McDougall notes in her excellent New Statesman essay on “strong female characters,” all princesses seem to know kung fu these days.

Given this precedent, I went into Moana anticipating another story about a female warrior. What I got was surprisingly less combative—and much more unique. As Moana celebrates in her song, she’s an explorer who longs to travel the sea. But first and foremost, she’s a leader.

Moana is the first Disney princess to really grapple with the idea of leadership. She’s motivated not by a desire to rebel against the limitations of the monarchy (like, say, Ariel, Jasmine, or Elsa), but by a genuine desire to do right by her people. The film even goes out of its way to show scenes in which Moana is being trained for leadership by her parents. Measured and intelligent, she dispenses advice wisely and purposefully. And although she feels an innate pull to explore the ocean, she’s willing to sacrifice that personal dream to fulfill her political duty.

In fact, when Moana does eventually venture out onto the sea, it’s specifically to help her people, not to run from her responsibilities. Her goal is to return the lost heart of Te Fiti, a goddess who maintains balance over island life, to her people. Without Te Fiti, their world has begun to deteriorate, robbing the community of their food supply. While her father, Chief Tui, is a strict isolationist who believes the island will always provide for their people, Moana realizes the bigger ecological threat. When she can’t make her stubborn father listen to her, she sets out on the ocean alone. Once there, she’s able to put her feminine leadership style to good use.

It’s worth pausing here to acknowledge that gendered personality traits are largely socially constructed. There are plenty of men and women who don’t fit into traditional molds of masculinity and femininity. But there’s no doubt that those molds still exist in our cultural consciousness, and the ways in which fictional characters conform to or reject them shapes how we view those characters. One of the main reasons we have so many fictional female warriors is because audiences instinctively view masculine traits as powerful and impressive, much as they instinctively dismiss things that are too “girly,” as Anne Thériault writes in her essay on femininity for Ravishly. There’s nothing particularly wrong with female warrior tropes: Mulan, Katniss, and Xena are some of my all-time favorite characters. But it’s notable how often we keep telling that same story over and over again.

In contrast, Moana radically reframes the connection between strength and masculinity. Although Moana isn’t exactly “girly,” her greatest assets are traits we generally associate with women: Empathy, humility, and a keen sense of observation. As Ezra Klein frequently said of Hillary Clinton, Moana is incredibly good at listening and observing. Unlike the demigod Maui (delightfully voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who’s all macho posturing and bravado, Moana continually picks up on small details and then uses her newfound knowledge strategically. She breaks down Maui’s walls by spotting a meaningful tattoo on his back and using it as a point of connection. Maui’s impressed by Moana’s physical prowess, but it’s her compassion that forges a real partnership between the two.

As Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway once explained, “I came into most of my power as a filmmaker when I realized that all I needed to do was make a safe space for people to have feelings… No more imitating men’s style or competing with them on their terms. Instead, reinvent at every turn.” That idea applies both to Moana and to her grandmother Tala, the self-proclaimed village crazy lady whose spirit comforts Moana at the lowest point in her journey.

Tala tells Moana it’s okay to fail. She takes the pressure off her granddaughter and encourages her to take the path that is right for her, even if that means returning home without completing her goal. And rather than see Tala’s compassion as a weakness, the movie presents it as a smart leadership approach, much as Soloway does. Freed from the pressure to be perfect, Moana finds the internal motivation to continue forward.

All of these ideas come to a head beautifully in the film’s finale. Whereas most movies in the Disney princess vein end with the villain being forcefully defeated by the protagonist (or the protagonist’s love interest), Moana subverts that traditional climax. Instead of using weapons or fists, Moana achieves her goal through empathy and observation. Moana realizes that the angry lava demon Te Kā is actually the goddess Te Fiti, who has been transformed into a monster after losing her heart. And as she did with Maui, she reaches out with empathy. She calls the monstrous Te Kā to her with an emotional plea, not a threat. Moana sings, “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.”

In facing down the lava demon Te Kā, Moana displays as much bravery as Simba battling Scar or Mulan taking down Shan Yu. But hers is a ultimately a courage rooted in healing, not violence. And as a result, Te Fiti—a female leader in her own right—is able to bring balance back to the ocean world. Moana then creates a similar balance when she returns home and launches a new seafaring era for her people. And she does all that without picking up a single sword or a bow and arrow.

In many ways, Moana builds on archetypes of previous Disney heroines. She has Ariel’s independence, Belle’s intelligence, Pocahontas’ sense of duty, and Mulan’s strategic mind. But she weaves those threads together better than any of her predecessors. And in doing so, Moana argues that leadership doesn’t just have to look like aggressive men giving forceful commands. It can also look like a young woman reaching out with compassion.