Disney has a few long-standing traditions for its princess movies, and Moana breaks nearly all of them. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) isn’t white, isn’t getting married, and isn’t even really a princess. Moana comes after Disney and Pixar struggled to create female leads that are satisfying and without gender or race based criticism; in 2010, Tangled featured Rapunzel, a squeaky-but-ultimately-badass teen who saved the kingdom with a frying pan, but even she didn’t break any of these stereotypes. To follow this the companies popped out Merida, Elsa, and Anna–all of whom were still white, and whose stories arguably made racist assumptions about their respective societies. (Plus, even though they didn’t actually get married at the end of their films, Merida and Anna’s stories were about the idea of marriage anyways. What’s up with that.)
Moana is refreshingly different, with a hero whose story line never even mentions a love interest and is about finding the power of purpose within oneself. She isn’t white, she doesn’t get married, and her story, for the most part, is a thorough (if modernized) retelling of a Polynesian legend. The cultural research is evident, unlike other films with non-white leads. The world feels complete, with three dimensional characters of multiple genders. The movie passes the Bechdel test and the spin off of the Bechdel test, which examines race. Could I sing my praises louder?
However, there’s one thing that stops this movie from being an absolute 10/10 for me: In addition to Disney’s long history of white and/or marriage-destined princesses, it also has an unfortunate legacy of queer-coding its villains.
A quick note for those who don’t know: Queer-coding is a process by which filmmakers will heavily imply characters to be LGBT using mannerisms, stereotypes, or real-life examples at their disposal. When a character is queer-coded, they aren’t explicitly queer, but rather are assigned characteristics typically associated with queer people in order to convey something about the character. Queer-coding has a long and complicated history in Hollywood, extending all the way back to the silent film era, where queer-coded characters functioned as the flamboyant clowns straight audiences could laugh at while still appreciating their lead’s totally heterosexual gender performances. When more laws were imposed on the film industry, and queer characters were basically banned from being on screen, queer-coding became a way that writers could “sneak” representation past the gatekeepers… but unfortunately, that “representation” was still usually assigned to villains. That’s how we end up with Disney.
After Moana finds the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and convinces him to help her, they journey to the Realm of Monsters to find Maui’s god-forged hook, which allows him to shape-shift and perform other supernatural tasks. They open the door to the Realm, dive down an impossibly deep cavern, and end up all the way on the other side of the ocean, in a magical bubble where all variety of monsters great and small lurk and wait for prey. The particular monster they seek is called Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a treasure-collector who inhabits the depths.
Tamatoa turns out to be a giant crab who decorates his own shell with his collection. His musical number, sung while he snaps at Moana and Maui with his massive purple claws, is called “Shiny,” and is about his lust for the fabulous look.
Tamatoa is a classic example of Disney’s queer-coding tendencies. He’s a combination of the Sissy Villain (an effeminate male villain with stereotypical homosexual signals, usually there to underscore the leading male’s masculinity) and the Fashion-Victim Villain (a villain with a particularly flamboyant fashion sense). Tamatoa is made effeminate in multiple ways: he’s obsessed with outer appearances, and considers himself “glam” in a way that echoes stereotypes of gay men who are “fab-u-lous!”; he’s given gay mannerisms, talking with his hands and at one point calling Moana “babe” without an ounce of heterosexuality; he joins the long line of Disney villains cloaked in the color purple, when purple has been culturally associated with gay pride, along with wealth, materialism, and falsehood.
Reportedly, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “Shiny” shortly after David Bowie’s death and intended it as an homage to the famous musician. At different periods in his life, Bowie identified as bisexual, gay, and straight, but is generally understood as an icon to the queer community, particularly the bisexual community. This isn’t the first time a Disney villain has been made in homage to a real-life queer icon; Ursula was modeled almost directly after the legendary drag queen Divine, and she has also been discussed as one of Disney’s most heavily queer-coded villains, with a butch haircut and an over-the-top expression of femininity.
A transgression of gender norms is common among Disney villains, usually to emphasize the “purity” of our leads’ gender performance. Ariel is sweet, carefree, and devoted to love; Ursula is aggressive, fat, short-haired, and pure evil. Aladdin is stocky, charming, and brave; Jafar is lithe, has lengthy eyelashes and groomed facial hair, and doesn’t care about anybody but himself.
So it’s unusual, then, that in a movie where our lead female character breaks such a vast amount of gender norms, that Moana opposes a villain so heavily punished for his gender transgressions. Granted, Tamatoa isn’t the Big Bad of the whole movie, but rather one of the many obstacles standing in our heroes’ way path to the end. The narrative doesn’t position Moana opposite him, but rather positions him as a puzzle to solve and a challenge to overcome. What Tamatoa teaches us with regards to theme more directly parallels Maui’s story. Abandoned as a child until he was saved by the gods, Maui spends his demigod life trying to make humans happy because he craves the love his parents didn’t give him. Maui is muscular and arrogant, but ultimately a good teacher and friend to Moana. In the midst of “Shiny,” Tamatoa compliments Maui’s tattoos and draws a comparison between his glittery shell; they both made themselves more attractive from the outside, because the outside is what matters. The difference is, of course, Maui’s tough tattooed shell hides a lonely interior, while Tamatoa is seemingly empty beyond his vanity.
Tamatoa’s presence is timed perfectly in the film; we needed a cool action sequence and world-building effect to kick off the second act, and we got it. And though his song is one of the catchier ones on the track list, and though the Bowie homage hits immediately, Tamatoa doesn’t break any stereotypes. In a movie that’s gotten so much buzz for how it breaks down gender norms, Moana leaves this one long-standing pillar of tradition intact.