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Representation matters: A mother talks about what Moana means to her and her daughter

Disney’s Moana has had sold-out screenings across New Zealand since its Boxing Day release. Emmaline Matagi writes about what it was like to watch the film as the mother of a child of the Pacific.

I am a woman born in the Pacific Islands, raised in the Pacific Islands, a migrant to Aotearoa and a mother to New Zealand-born Pacific babies – three of them! My children are a beautiful mix of their mother, father, and all who came before us. They are a beautiful mix of the Pacific: Fijian, Samoan, Māori, and Tuvaluan. Much like Moana.

Emmaline Matagi and her whānau.

Emmaline Matagi and her whānau.

Moana was visually stunning. I want to address this because it has some of the best 3D animation I have ever seen. I absolutely adored the film. However, I am under no illusions as to where this movie has come from and how it was presented to us. It is the brain child of a white male and his readings into Polynesian history and Māui, a God shared by the entire Pacific. It is a film which mixes a lot of our different cultures together into one culture for the purpose of entertainment and sharing with the world. While I am not a fan of this, I understand the need for it. And I also understand that we are many cultures, each with our own strengths, weaknesses, uniqueness and beauty. We do however share a beautiful part of the globe – the Pacific Ocean – and the way Disney, through Moana, have presented our part of the world is just stunning. The colours and details of the village, ocean, clothing, and even the canoes and their sails were just amazing.

As a mother to a six-year-old daughter of the Pacific I can honestly say that this film will stay with my child. She won’t ever forget it. Nor will I let her. Moana is a young brown girl, with long, thick black hair, thick brown lips, big brown eyes, thick black eyebrows and a love for the ocean and her family. I see my daughter in Moana. More importantly however, is that my daughter sees herself in Moana! Why is that important? Because never before in her short six years of life or my longer 30 years have we Pacific people ever been able to say we truly see ourselves as the hero of an animated movie – EVER. Moana represented her, her family, her people, her ocean and her story. The history of our ancestors (albeit a tiny glimpse into our amazing history) is our history nonetheless and it’s on the big screen now. My children, like many others, adore Disney movies. They love watching the animation, love the stories, and they love getting dressed up like the characters and pretending they are in those fantasy worlds. Moana is different for them. This time they got to see themselves and they don’t have to dress up, they don’t have to pretend they are in a fantasy world, this is their world.

They are Moana.

A lot of people are probably thinking what on earth is the big deal since there are lots of princesses out there for my girl to love and dress up as and play pretend with. There may be a lot of princesses – but there are none like Moana.

Representation matters.

My daughter now sees her ancestors history affirmed (not that she needed it affirmed but man it is pretty special) on the silver screen. All of the stories we tell her about how amazing our ancestors are aren’t just stories anymore. It’s a tangible thing for her now because a company as powerful as Disney have shown it in this way. I am in no way saying that she didn’t have a sense of who she was before that or that we need Disney to affirm our history (we can do this ourselves and do a million times better than a company who have no idea who we really are) but there is something magical about seeing a part of you displayed in a movie all of your friends are watching when you are six years old.

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There is also a magic that comes with seeing a young brown woman winning! That’s basically what it comes down to for myself to be completely honest. A young brown woman WINS! She fights to save her family and her homeland and wins, she has a tug of war with a brown male cousin-like figure and wins (yeeeeeah the girls!) She takes on the entire ocean exactly how her ancestors did and wins and most importantly she takes her fear, anxiety and doubts on and WINS!

Let’s be honest here – when have we ever had a Pacific hero (let alone a female hero) with no male love interest and no female competitor in a kids animated movie? Part of the magic of a first world childhood these days is seeing a Disney film and loving it. Whether we agree with the way Disney works and the way the world works is something completely different. As a mother from the Pacific with Pacific brown babies I am so happy that my babies get to see themselves on the big screen! I am happy that I got to see my daughter gasp, squeal and giggle with absolute delight when she watched Moana. I am happy she walked out singing “AUE AUEEEEE!” and asking me if we could look up the ‘Aue’ song and the ‘I am Moana’ song on YouTube so she could learn the words.

 Auli'i Cravalho the star of Disney's Moana

Auli’i Cravalho the star of Disney’s Moana

Children don’t have all of the bias or pain that we as adults do in terms of how the world works – capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and appropriation. Of course this is important to teach them and I am all for making sure our babies know that there is a lot we have to overcome and a lot we still have to fight for.

It’s ok to love Moana and it’s ok to not love Moana! But for now I am letting my beautiful brown babies bask in the love they have for Disney’s first Polynesian princess. When they are old enough I will explain some of the problematic bits and pieces, why we should be sharing our own narratives and not relying on a white male with no connections to our history to make that happen. In the meantime, vinaka Disney, who’ve created some pretty cool new brown dolls with long curly black hair and features just like ours, and vinaka vaka levu to Opetaia Foa’i and Te Vaka for their amazing songwriting and singing skills, because we are happily singing “AUE AUEEEEEEE” loud and proud at our place!

Emmaline Matagi is a beautiful goddess from the land of palm trees, sugar cane and kava A.KA. FIJI! She lives in West Auckland with her husband, three kids, sister, brother in law, dad…the list goes on. She’s a teacher with a BEd currently doing her MA in Education. She is editor of The Native Collective. A new website whose purpose is: “to provide a space for our Pacific people to share their stories, opinions, work, struggles and success”.

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