115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Feminism’s Influence on Gender Roles in Disney’s Moana

Chelsea Strabala, Metropolitan State University of Denver

This essay discusses gender roles in Disney’s Moana and explores how feminism guided the evolution of Disney princess films by comparing and contrasting Moana with previous Disney films. The bulk of the paper focuses on Moana’s ungendered role in society versus Maui’s toxic masculinity.


Each wave of feminism has helped shape society’s behavior and expectations, and Disney has attempted to keep up with these changes with their princess films. The Disney Renaissance era of the 1990’s gave us more diverse, strong-willed princesses whose personalities and attitudes were a far cry from the demure, submissive damsels of the 1950’s. However, in the following decades, with the rise of mainstream intersectional feminism, dozens of articles have cropped up on the Internet to criticize the princess films of the 90’s, and Disney is clearly paying attention. In the current Revival Era, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog gave us our first African American princess, Frozen and Brave subverted romance tropes, and with 2016’s Moana, Disney has created their most feminist film yet, all wrapped up in a fun, heartwarming package.

The feminism of Moana centers around the fact that through almost the entire movie, her gender is a non-issue. From her infancy, Moana’s father, the chief of the island Motunui, says she will be the future chief of their people. There is no pressure or desire to have a male heir, and everyone on her island accepts this without question. Furthermore, Moana is the very first Disney princess film to have no romantic subplot whatsoever. Moana is not sexualized like many Disney princesses before her, and is given a more realistic body type and hair. The film also features multiple strong relationships between other women; there is no evil stepmother or witch character and women and men alike support and respect one another. Moana’s strength of character is in her unselfish rebellion. Unlike other princesses who rebelled for love or simply for the sake of being free, Moana rebels so that she can save her people, despite the great danger she faces by doing so.

By contrast, the character of Maui, demigod of the wind and sea, starts out as a perfect representation of toxic masculinity. When he is first introduced, his entire sense of self revolves around his enormous ego and the idea that everyone should be thanking and praising him, despite the fact that his ego caused the destruction of the world when he stole the magical heart of the Mother Island, Te Fiti. He constantly underestimates Moana, telling her she will never be a wayfinder because she is just a princess in a dress. Eventually, after Moana comes to his rescue multiple times, he realizes that the only way to save the world and right his wrongs is to humble himself and step aside to allow Moana to save the day. He finally understands that the world does not revolve around him and that men and women can work together and help one another, as equals.

This essay will also discuss the gender roles and relationship dynamics of other minor characters, with a focus on intersectional feminism in regard to cultural and queer roles in the film. We will conclude with an analysis on how Disney has changed from its previous attempts at diversity in princess films, as well as what this might mean for the future of Disney princesses.