The trailer for the new Disney film, Moana, recently came out. I am stoked.
Moana is the first Polynesian Disney Princess. I have seen some internet discussion questioning whether it is appropriate for the demigod Maui (the Hawai’ian superman) to dominate Princess Moana’s movie trailer.
I thought it was, since Maui seems to have a similar role in this movie as the genie did in Aladdin, which is one of my favorite Disney movies. Nobody got too upset about Robin Williams upstaging whatshisname in that movie, but then, there wasn’t a princess dynamic occurring.
Historical footnote: Hawai’i – and I spell it with the ‘okina thank you very much – actually had Princesses, as well as Queens. Such as Ka’iulani, who was attending school in London when her country was overthrown by US businessmen; they made a decent movie about her. Or Liliuokalani, who wrote the song Aloha Oe while imprisoned inside her own palace. Or Ka’ahumanu, who challenged the gods by eating bananas, among other things. It was Ka’ahumanu, in fact, who got me to reconsider simplistic ideas I’d once had about European contact filling in for the fall from paradise. She grew up in a brutal pagan warrior culture with a strict and stratified caste system that forbade delicacies like pork and bananas to all but men of the elite class, who could kill peasants at whim while telling them living this way was what the gods demanded. Ka’ahumanu dared the old pagan gods to strike her down for violating their taboos, and converting to Christianity. She made me reconsider some of the memes that used to circulate around the Bay Area nerd community about how pre-Christian cultures were all a bunch of matriarchal life-affirming vegan utopias before the wicked Europeans arrived with their mean sky god. Which isn’t to say that Christianity didn’t have a frequent detrimental effect on island cultures – but it did go to efforts to preserve the language and certain aspects of the culture in a way rather different than what Christian cultures had done upon encountering South and Central American cultures.
For instance, writing things down. The Polynesians had a remarkably consistent language over thousands of nautical miles, especially impressive compared to Europeans with their multiplicity of languages packed into a small geographic space. Different clerics introduced spelling variants, such as “fah-fee-nay” versus “va-fee-nay”versus “va-hee-nay”, all of which translate to “woman.”
I lived on the islands of Maui and Oahu until I was about ten, at which point my family moved back to the mainland and I didn’t get back to the islands for another twenty years. I happened to be present in the islands due to the decisions of four people:
My biological mother, S, decided she wanted to be Margaret Mead but her daddy refused to pay for her anthro degree, so she decided to pay for it herself by working as a dental hygienist – in Hawai'i.
My biological father, Jimmie Gooseman, decided to be an engineer sailing around on submarines carrying nuclear weapons, just in case of World War III, while marrying and seducing as many women as possible. And drinking heavily, due to regret regarding these other decisions. He and S had a fling, she tried to dump him after she found out the depths of no good to which he was, and then they ran into each other at a party in Honolulu at which both of them were drunk, and here I am. I didn’t discover that I somehow managed to name myself after his boat (the USS Charr) until he’d been dead twenty years, and I’m told I resemble him. He’s the only one of the four I’ve never met, so I’m mentioning his name. I’m told he fathered quite a few people ranging from California through Asia all along the South Pacific, and perhaps someday I’ll find some of the others.
My adoptive mother, L, decided to adopt because her family carries Huntington’s Disease, and she didn’t want to give birth to her own children and watch them die from it.
And my adoptive father, C, decided he wanted to live in Shangri La. That’s a magical fantasy town in an old book and movie called Lost Horizon, somewhere in an inaccessible location in Asia. It’s full of peaceful, lovely people who dance and sing and treat the intrepid white explorer who discovers them like a king. Since Shangri La isn’t real, he moved to Maui instead, taking along his shy and submissive bride who wasn’t too keen on the idea. But she wanted to please her hubby, so she followed him to one of the last remaining outposts of manifest destiny. He managed various five and dime stores, and combinations of them, while trying to convince us, and himself, that he was a wise respected white patriarch in a faraway land, instead of a guy who dropped out of college to run off to the territories and feed his ego bossing non-white people around.
I grew up kind of spoiled, and therefore I was bullied, and then I got in trouble for fighting back, and as a result of all that I changed schools a lot. My childhood memories are mostly about beaches and banyan trees and playing in the sprinklers on hot days, with occasional vague faces passing through, so I can’t say I have any personal connections in the island, other than with the sand and sea and sky.
When I was ten we returned to the mainland, where I fell in with a bunch of other nerds, many of whom were into Eurocentric things that seem to fascinate a lot of mainland people – medieval recreation, and morris dancing, and stonehenge, and Celtic harps. I learned about the ancient mystic lands of the white people and their history, and I got to see the culture where I grew up exoticized through their eyes. A mysterious land full of hot ladies shaking their booties, and jungle drums, and cannibals, and surfers, and grass skirts. And I almost fell for the peaceful-matriarchies-of-the-distant-past thing, before Ka’ahumanu flung the banana peel of common sense in my direction.
I made my first trip back in my thirties. Back to the tourist trap full of superficial jocks, instead of visiting someplace with castles like a proper nerd. I found a lot of things had changed. The colonialism was being thoroughly dissected, for one thing. I fell in love with my homeland, and I read about its history, voraciously, and educated myself about Queen Ka’ahumanu, among others.
Some of it I had learned in school. I already knew about the boats navigating across the South Pacific, carrying people who trained themselves to subsist on low rations in the direct sunlight for extended periods, following vague maps woven from seashells. I knew about ‘Iolani Palace, and what had happened there. I wasn’t quite sure when the Civil War had happened, but I knew exactly why America had thrown in for World War II, as I had stood over the corpse of the USS Arizona, watching oil continue to leak out.
I’ve found that I need to go back every few years, for some kind of inarticulable spirit nourishing that happens whenever I’m in contact with the sea and the sky and the food and the smells and the sounds, and the way the sun sets, and the way the stars glitter in the sky. In Hawai'i, these things happen in a way aligned with my personal version of normal … and like that. (Which, in the islands is pronounced “anlidat.”)
I fantasize about moving back, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable living there. There are already way too many transplanted haoles, and I’d just be another one, working long hours and spending my weekends trying to find a beach where there aren’t too many homeless people camped out to throw me stink eye as I paddle around in the surf. So I get my air and hotel packages and schedule my vacations, and I wander around re-exploring coastlines. One time when I was doing that I wound up hanging around talking story with a lady a little older than me who was another island-born haole, and she mentioned that while she was a United States citizen, she was not an American. And that resonated with me, in that North America is my adopted land mass but I find its customs and mannerisms deeply weird in certain ways.
One of these weirdnesses has to do with how Polynesia is coded as Adventureland – a male place, for guys sailing to Shangri La. A land where women shake their grass skirts in enticing ways. A respite for battleweary soldiers, headed back and forth from Vietnam. Pirates, and Indiana Jones, and cannibals bopping to the beat of their jungle drums. Fierce warrior cultures, venerating Kukailimoku with generous blood sacrifice. A place for the brave, the athletic, and the scantily dressed. Not really a place for ladies, let alone girls.
Lilo and Stich, believe it or not, was one of the first movies I can recall that dealt with female adventures in paradise, while refusing to turn the islands into a slice of cartoonishsly sexy danger as seen through the eyes of some intrepid white adventurer. I trust Disney to do Moana right in that respect.
I’m planning to visit Hawai'i in a few months, and I’m quivering with anticipation. Until then, here’s my list of
Ten Other Movies About Hawai'i and/or Polynesia to Watch Until Moana Comes Out (That Aren’t Too Bad)
- Lilo and Stich – I had to wait many years to see my own personal saga of being the worst hula student at the halau depicted on the screen, but it was well worth it.
- Blue Hawai'i – Elvis shakes his pelvis all over Oahu and Kauai, and sings a heavenly steel-guitar infused version of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” to a sweet older Hawai’ian lady.
- Jurassic Park – what if there were dinosaurs on Kauai?
- The Descendants – George Clooney as a Hawai'i-born haole trying to live Aloha.
- James Michener’s Hawai'I – this extremely fat and enjoyable book was made into two films. In the first one, a New England preacher has his faith rearranged while ministering to Lahaina. In the second, a local comes down with leprosy and is sent to the notorious colony at Kalaupapa.
- Princess Kaiulani – I linked the IMDB for this picture up there somewhere. I recommend it because it’s a portrait of an intelligent Polynesian lady, in European-style clothes, getting a London education, reminding you that there’s a little more to islanders than grass skirts and babytalk.
- Picture Bride – this is the tale of a Japanese woman who goes to marry a Maui sugar cane worker, sight unseen, back in the plantation days.
- Whale Rider – this is a movie about Maoris, who are very different from Hawai'ians, but they’re also Polynesians. It’s a story about a little girl and her relationship with her father.
- Kon-Tiki – on the surface, this is a movie about whether people could sail across the South Pacific on flimsy little boats and survive. If you start digging for deeper context and read other material about Kon Tiki and Polynesian navigation, you’ll find all kinds of craziness about “Aryan Polynesians” and you might even come across the fascinating tale of the Hōkūleʻa.
- The Quiet Earth – this is also on my list of Best Science Fiction Films Of All Time. Again, it’s set in New Zealand and not Hawai'i, and has to do with a haole contemplating colonialism, among other things.