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‘This is not who you are:’ Disney Transforms the Female Monster

Partners, 1993 copper statue by Blaine Gibson depicting Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse

Writing about Disney’s 2016 Moana, Slate’s Chinen notes, “There is no grand nefarious villain” in the film, a sentiment echoed by several other critics who instead focus their attention elsewhere.1 Yet there is, at least temporarily, a real villain in the film: Te Kā, the demon who must be overcome in order for the title character to save the world. Huge, furious, and formidable, Te Kā appears almost unstoppable. The film’s big revelation—that Te Kā is actually a transformed Te Fiti, the benevolent island goddess transformed into a lava demon—might explain why critics have been slow to label the monstrous incarnation a villain. She defies easy categorization and eludes simple labels. After all, Te Fiti/Te Kā is unique among Disney villains, particularly female villains, in her transformation from benevolent to monstrous and back again. The film allows her an unprecedented return to an earlier form, sparing her the fate of so many of her predecessors. Viewers, so well-versed in the familiar tropes Disney has long employed—especially those involving the evil woman who is ultimately destroyed—might have a hard time recognizing such an innovation in Moana.

In this essay, we begin with a discussion of the angel/monster trope in general, illustrating how this patriarchal shorthand offers limited options for female characters and reaffirms the idea that women whose behavior transgresses traditional gender roles deserve punishment. Next, we analyze Disney villainesses specifically, focusing on those films with female protagonists and antagonists, women set up in binary opposition to each other. We pay special attention to those villainesses whose evil ultimately manifests in physical monstrosity, showing how these films always end with their deaths. Finally, we show how Moana breaks this convention, letting its monstrous woman not only live, but return to her earlier form and save the world. Moreover, the film allows its heroic titular character to play a key role in this transformation back, making what could have been a story about how one (good) woman defeats another (monstrous) woman instead a story of feminist empathy and sisterhood. In this way, Moana, already noteworthy for its embrace of a Polynesian heroine, also deserves attention for its progressive rewriting of what is possible for unconventional women in these films.

“[L]ook in that mirror”: Evil Women versus Innocent Heroines

In order to understand how Disney villainesses have been scripted historically and how Moana sets a new precedent, we must first understand the angel/monster trope more fully, particularly how it manifests in art. As Lois Tyson reminds us, there are only two roles for women in a patriarchal culture: they are “‘good girls’ (gentle, submissive, virginal, angelic) or ‘bad girls’ (violent, aggressive, worldly, monstrous).”2 While the good girl is rewarded for her virtue, the woman who rebels or pushes back finds one label left for her: “that of a monster.” Such labels work, of course, to control women and affirm male dominance, encouraging behavior that strengthens the patriarchy and punishing actions that threaten it, holding up as natural and timeless ideas that are in fact constructions serving to perpetuate oppression. In their groundbreaking work The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar show how these limiting female roles find expression in art and literature, writing of “those mystic masks male artists have fastened over [a woman’s] face both to lessen their dread of her ‘inconstancy’ and—by identifying her with the ‘eternal types’ they have themselves invented—to possess her more thoroughly.”3 Explaining how both creators and audiences are nevertheless drawn to the female monster/villain, Gilbert and Gubar note that she is “a magical creature of the lower world who is a kind of antithetical mirror image of the angel,” and carries “mysterious power.”4 Indeed, in her “very freakishness [she] possess[es] unhealthy energies, powerful and dangerous arts.”5 In other words, both artists and their audiences are fascinated by the monstrous female and the potential she possesses, even if ultimately, the patriarchal ideology demands her defeat, silence, and punishment.

As a substantial body of scholarship on Disney illustrates, the precise tropes that Gilbert, Gubar, and Tyson identify are reflected in these popular and influential films. Disney Animation Studios has produced fifty-six films, nine of which have female antagonists in conflict with female protagonists and which perpetuate the binaries described above. Lisa Rowe Fraustino shows how, even today, early Disney movies influence viewers as they “ideal[ize] the dream of romance that leads to the making of the traditional patriarchal family” and “continue to seduce girls toward their own erasure and disempowerment.”6 Though, as we discuss below, some progress has been made in depictions of heroines (good girls/angels) in recent Disney films, until Moana, Disney could not seem to imagine any other option but punishment and (often) death for the bad girl who becomes truly monstrous.

Disney villainesses have long fascinated audiences and critics, especially when compared to the virtuous women they oppose. Using language that echoes Gilbert and Gubar, Elizabeth Bell notes that in contrast to the good girls in these films, Disney’s “wicked women harbor depths of power that are ultimately unknowable but bespeak a cultural trepidation for unchecked femininity.”7 Similarly, Davis writes of the price Disney villainesses must pay (especially in the early films), noting “evil never goes unpunished.”8 mportantly, Jill Birnie Henke, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith contend, “In Disney’s versions of these tales, women are more often pitted against one another than supportive of one another.”9 Yet these evil women still dazzle with their power and agency. Sometimes embracing transformation and monstrosity, “[t]hey change themselves into other things when functioning in their usual form is not working for them. They actively seek to control not only their lives but also their circumstances. They are strong, fearless, and often very creative. They are mature, powerful, and independent. In short, they are everything that their female victims are not.”10 So, too, do Henke et al. write of “Disney’s evil females” who are “magnificent in their strength, presence, and rage.”11 Similarly, Stacy L. Smith and Amy D. Granados examine children’s films with heroines, including Snow White, and find “an often repulsive,” “older, power hungry hag” seeking power who “may be threatened by the good virgin.”12 Tactics past villainesses employed are extreme, and often made even more horrifying by juxtaposing either a sneering and unattractive adult woman or, conversely, a beautiful femme fatale with a lovely, young, innocent female.

In large part because there are so few biological mothers present in these films, Disney also frequently includes villainesses who reject or abuse their surrogate mother roles, accentuating their non-nurturing behaviors and atrocities toward children and adolescents. Litsa Renee Tanner, Shelley A. Haddock, Toni Schindler Zimmerman, and Lori K. Lund contend that while there has been a positive trend in Disney films featuring quality fathering, these roles have supplanted quality mothering roles.13 Suzan G. Brydon agrees, stating that Disney mothers are often nonexistent in the films or they are killed in early scenes. While she celebrates positive fathering roles in films such as Finding Nemo, she argues that “much could be gained if Disney chose to position a father engaged in significant ‘mothering’ or nurture while the mother is still alive and well and in the home.”14 Without a biological mother around, the female antagonist may assume the role, but her lack of normative nurturing qualities only contributes to her vilification. Similarly, Davis explains that “particularly in the cases of Snow White and Cinderella, what is left for the main character is a ‘maternal’ figure in the form of a stepmother who is openly against the young girl in her care, doing everything she can to oppress the girl and keep her from finding love.”15

Beginning in 1937 with Disney’s first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and continuing through 2010’s Tangled, older women who cannot accept aging see younger heroines as adversaries. Like the Evil Queen, most of the earlier villains are clearly identified as evil when they first appear on screen, in large part because they transgressed their nurturing, care-giving gender role and lack any redeeming qualities. Additionally, these villains often value appearance over intelligence, a theme Mia Adessa Towbin , Shelley A. Haddock , Toni Schindler Zimmerman , Lori K.Lund, and Litsa Renee Tanner find in their analysis.16 The envious Evil Queen is immediately pitted against her beautiful nemesis when she directs the Huntsman to “Take [Snow White] far into the forest. Find some secluded glade where she can pick wildflowers. And there…you will kill her!” The narcissistic Queen is obsessed with being the most attractive woman in the land, as she asks the mirror, “Who is the fairest one of all?” When she does not receive personal validation, she sets out to destroy the woman who was deemed fairer. When the Huntsman fails to return with Snow White’s Heart, she takes matters into her own hands and creates a poisoned apple, one bite of which will close the victim’s eyes “forever in the sleeping death.”17 The impetus for this narcissism is unexplained, and her selfishness is juxtaposed with the virginal Snow White who lovingly cares for a home and seven male dwarfs.

Mother Gothel in Tangled, much like the Evil Queen, is focused on her own beauty and youth. While standing with Rapunzel, gazing into a mirror, she quips, “Rapunzel, look in that mirror. You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you’re here, too.”18 Her joke—that she looks just as good if not better than her daughter—also calls to mind Gilbert and Gubar’s concept of the monstrous transgressive woman as the “antithetical mirror image of the angel.”19 Audiences can see that though Gothel is physically attractive, she is Rapunzel’s opposite, a kind of dark double whose attempts to pass as the angel are grotesque. Jeana DelRosso explains that Gothel kidnaps the child solely for “the magical qualities of the girl’s hair, of which Gothel requires regular doses, like a drug addiction, to maintain her youth.”20 She keeps Rapunzel in the tower, singing “Mother Knows Best” while she “paints a world of terror.”21 DelRosso adds, “The only purpose served by Gothel’s quest for eternal youth is, indeed, youth—and its accompanying beauty.”[^fn 22] She denies Rapunzel freedom and relationships for her own physical self-preservation. Both the Evil Queen and Gothel’s monstrosity manifests in their obsession with youth and vitality, an obsession depicted as evil and unnatural in light of their age and competition with their daughter figures.

Similarly, the villainess in Sleeping Beauty embodies traits that set her in sharp contrast to the movie’s title character. Maleficent apparates uninvited at Aurora’s christening and, noting the various attendees, states, “I really felt quite distressed at not receiving an invitation.” When a fairy tells her she is not wanted, she replies, “Oh dear, what an awkward situation. I had hoped it was merely due to some oversight.” She then curses the child, stating, “Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.” Unlike previous villains with evident, albeit deviant, motivations, what drives Maleficent is unknown, making her even more treacherous. It is unclear what Maleficent had done in the past to warrant the rejection, and it is also unclear whether simply not being invited drives her to curse the child.22 Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas write, “Her aloofness and treachery made it difficult to understand her motives much of the time…[S]he was so domineering in both attitude and design that no one even thought of questioning what she was doing.”23 As the christening is the first scene in the film, she is immediately established as the villain, and her first action—cursing a newborn baby, the epitome of evil—shows how fundamentally unfeminine and monstrous she is.

Ursula the Sea Witch demonstrates a different kind of monstrosity focused on self-gratification and power. She manipulates Ariel into signing a contract in The Little Mermaid. She then sabotages all chances the girl has to meet its terms. Ursula seeks to claim King Triton’s power, arguing, “In my day, we had fantastical feasts when I lived in the palace. And now, look at me—wasted away to practically nothing—banished and exiled and practically starving, while he and his flimsy fish-folk celebrate.” Determined to bring the king down, she focuses on his beloved daughter, seeing her as the potential “key to Triton’s undoing.” After King Triton sacrifices himself and his crown to save his daughter, Ursula shows that she is willing to use her power to terrify and rule as a tyrant, exclaiming, “You pitiful, insignificant fools! Now I am the ruler of all the ocean! The waves obey my every whim! The sea and all its spoils bow to my power!”24 As the brutish villain, Ursula seeks to dominate by controlling the beautiful mermaid who seeks love and marriage. In this way, Ursula interrupts Ariel’s attempts to fit into patriarchal ideas; as such, as we discuss below, she draws a gruesome and definitive punishment.

As this brief analysis shows, in films with female protagonists, Disney villainesses have not been well-rounded characters. Whether their motivations are unexplained or they are driven by financial greed, a desire for power, or vanity, they have been unsympathetic, vile bullies. What put them on these deviant paths is rarely explained, at least not in any way that stands up to close examination; in other words, we have not witnessed their initial transformation from good to evil. Rather the stories these movies tell consistently have been tales of preexisting malevolence disrupting the peaceful lives of the innocents—evil versus good, and good must win. These women garner little sympathy, in large part because their motivations are either selfish or unclear. They are, rather simply, just bad, rejecting their proper roles and behaving poorly. Moreover, they demonstrate a kind of monomania, so focused on their evil goals that their utter defeat appears to be the only possible resolution. Johnston and Thomas write, “While greed undoubtedly motivates many dark characters, several of our classic female villains wanted only one thing and were so obsessed with attaining this that their whole lives revolved around the prize. They would kill anyone who confronted them, fight with anything in their power to get what they wanted.”25 These villainesses not only direct their ire at the innocent, young females, but they are often depicted controlling men, a blatant transgression of their gender role. The Evil Queen makes demands on the Huntsman and Mother Gothel directs the Stabbington Brothers, while Maleficent and Ursula make the kings appear weak. Thus, with their (sometimes) masculine looks, their obsession with self-gratification and vanity, or their unreasonable demands of men, they transgress gender roles and become monsters. As we discuss below, TeKā is not driven by such greed or quests for power; she reacts to having been violated. This, perhaps for the first time in Disney animation history, opens up the possibility of compassion for the villain.

“All the powers of hell!”: Villainesses’ Physical Transformations

Each of the four villainesses discussed above literally transforms into a more vile form immediately before her particularly gruesome end. In this way, the transformations function as a point of no return for these villainesses and a clear sign that their ugly and monstrous exteriors reflect the ugliness inside of them. In fact, their transformations highlight more than ever the stark difference between them and the films’ protagonists, the “good girls.” So, too, does a man (or group of men), defending the film’s heroine, play a key role in the villainess’s demise, allowing the patriarchy to strike back against these transgressive women. The message in each of these films is clear: for the truly monstrous female, especially the woman who attacks the film’s heroine, there can be no redemption.

As discussed above, the Evil Queen transforms into an old, haggard witch, yet she has had the power of witchcraft all along; it is only with her outward transformation—right down to the wart on her nose and her cackling laugh—that the truth about her inner nature is fully revealed and sealed. Though she calls her transformation a “disguise so complete no one will ever suspect” that it is her, audiences are led to believe that, deep down at least, this version of her is the truest. The ingredients in her transformation spell further distance her from her “good girl” victim: in contrast to Snow White’s youth, goodness, and gentleness, the Queen drinks a concoction of symbols of age and decay (“mummy dust”), fear (“a scream of fright”), and scorn (“a blast of wind to fan my hate”). So good and pure is Snow White, though, that she still reaches out to the Queen in her disguise, treating her like a poor old woman in need. Thus, the Queen is further able to manipulate Snow White by exploiting her “good girl” behavior, tricking her into letting the old woman into the house and eventually eating the apple. Significantly, viewers do not see Snow White as she sickens and collapses, but rather watch as the Queen observes her doing so, smiling in delight at each stage of the girl’s decline: “Her breath will still….her blood congeal. Now I’ll be the fairest in the land!” At this point, there can be no return—no going back. The Queen must pay not only for her vanity, but for her monstrous assault on an innocent girl, especially egregious because of the stepmother’s betrayal of her maternal role. Pursued by the dwarfs and various woodland creatures, she climbs a rocky mountainside and finds herself trapped on a ledge. In her attempts to release a boulder to topple the dwarfs, she falls backward, and the loosened boulder rolls back and follows her over the cliff. Adding a particularly gruesome touch, the vultures fly down towards the unseen corpse.26 Bell has noted that this scene, like many others in films where the evil woman meets her demise (including Sleeping Beauty), is marked by two events: “the collective and unified effort of all the other characters in the films, and the upheaval of natural forces—rock slides, ocean storms, and cliff precipices. Together they reestablish the control and stability of the cultural and natural order and the destruction of the transgressive feminine.”27 Thus the Evil Queen, a monster inside and outside, meets what the patriarchy would see as a just punishment for her misbehavior.

Tangled’s Mother Gothel, the other mother figure/villainess who allows selfish vanity to overpower any maternal impulses, also pays the ultimate price for her transgressions. Furious that Rapunzel might leave her, she stabs Flynn when he arrives at the tower. She then begins to drag Rapunzel away in chains. Rapunzel makes a deal to stop resisting and obey, provided Gothel will allow her to use the healing powers of her hair to save Flynn. Placing her own vanity above her adopted daughter’s happiness, she represents a clear threat to the patriarchy’s emphasis on marriage. Thus it is appropriate that Flynn takes the action that leads to Gothel’s transformation and demise, cutting Rapunzel’s hair. The hair turns brown, releasing all magical powers, and Gothel instantly begins to change. Her hair goes white, her skin wrinkles, and she screams and writhes in pain. Pascal, the chameleon, trips her with Rapunzel’s hair and she plummets out of the tower. Before she can hit the ground, all traces of her have disappeared, except her clothing. Once she has completely vanished from the film, Rapunzel can be united not only with Flynn, but also with her biological parents, including her (completely silent) mother, the antithesis of Gothel.28

The two transforming villainesses with less clear motives—Maleficent and Ursula—also meet their demise after becoming outwardly the monsters that they clearly are on the inside. Both, too, die at the hands of princes determined to save and avenge rather helpless princesses. In Sleeping Beauty, as Prince Phillip arrives at the castle to rescue Aurora, Maleficent screams, “Now shall you deal with me, oh prince! And all the powers of hell!” Her language here, including a direct reference to hell, indicates just how evil she is. Next she transforms into a fire-breathing dragon. A battle ensues, culminating in the dragon being stabbed in the chest and plummeting over the cliff. Her death is especially graphic, as the wound from the sword drips blood and she not only falls from the cliff, but falls through fire. When Phillip looks down, only ashes remain.29 Similarly, Ursula, upon assuming King Triton’s powers and donning his crown, transforms into a giant version of herself. Her trident creates a whirlpool that raises an old ship from the bottom of the ocean. Prince Eric boards the ship and, while Ursula is distracted by her attempts to kill Ariel, drives the ship’s bowsprit into Ursula’s abdomen. She is electrified and then dragged under by the ship’s weight, disappearing into the depths of the sea.30 Her death allows those she has imprisoned—including the king—to transform back, symbolically setting everything “right” again.31

“[O]ne who was both hero and villain”: The “Bad Girls” Who Live

As Aisha Harris, Davis, and others have noted, recently Disney has made some progress in depicting more fully defined female characters or at least female characters with more agency and nuance.32 In fact, female characters in two recent films—Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014)—share traits with Te-Fiti/Te Kā, providing if not outright predecessors, indications nonetheless of shifting attitudes about what women who resist the “good girl” label can do in these movies. Writing about these two films, Benjamin Justice memorably explains, “The signs have been unmistakable: Disney’s fairy-tale view of gender has finally reached puberty,” implying that while there is still work to do, these movies show that some progress has been made.33 Significantly, both films feature women who are victimized by others and take a temporary turn towards villainy in response to their pain. This addition to the plot—a motivation for their actions that goes beyond greed, ambition, envy, or pure malevolence—opens up the possibility of change. Thus, so too do both films depict the villainess’s shift back towards goodness, a redemption facilitated by love and empathy from another woman.

Frozen’s Elsa, one of the film’s two female protagonists, is a reluctant and almost accidental villain, driven to destruction and isolation not by her own desires for wealth or power, but by rejection from others, a rejection stemming from her inability to conform to others’ expectations. In her most memorable scene, as she sings “Let It Go,” she explains that she will no longer be the “good girl [she’s] always [had] to be,” and finds power and freedom in her defiance of the “rules” that held her back before: “It’s time to see what I can do/ To test the limits and break through /No right, no wrong, no rules for me, / I’m free!” Here what could be read as a “bad girl” song is actually a song of liberation, breaking free from unfair restrictions. Yet despite this embrace of rule-breaking, ultimately, Elsa returns to her community, drawn back in by the love of her sister, who is willing to die to save her. This sisterly bond between the two women is, the film explains, “An act of true love [that] will thaw a frozen heart.”34 In a move we will see repeated in both Maleficent and Moana, the love that saves is reimagined not as romantic, but sisterly.35 As Justice notes, such moves allow for female characters who “are capable and complex people,” while romantic love tropes “are left in tatters.”36 In this way, Frozen shows viewers that Disney films are beginning to rewrite ideas about female power, friendship, and agency.

Similarly, the title character in Maleficent, a rewriting of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, begins the film as loving and benevolent, only becoming the iconic villainess audiences recognize in response to a grotesque violation from the man she once loved, who cuts off her wings for his own power and advancement. Because it is inherently about rewriting the story of someone once thought of as a villainess, Maleficent is much more explicit in stating its revisionary goals, as its narrator explains that the story is not one of a “hero or a villain,” but “one who was both hero and villain.”37 Justice writes of how this “fully feminist retelling…dispenses utterly with every major sexist element of the original,” giving us a protagonist who is “a full person, good and evil, powerful and vulnerable, vengeful and loving.”38 The film carefully traces Maleficent’s journey back to goodness—how, in the narrator’s words, “her heart was made bright again”—facilitated almost entirely by her affection for Aurora, the child she cursed in anger and who, even when she learns the truth, stands by the woman who she sees as a mother figure. Just as significant, the “true love’s kiss” that wakes the sleeping Aurora comes not from a prince, but from Maleficent herself, a bold refiguring of the well-known trope, allowing women to see each other as allies and not rivals.39

Importantly, unlike Te Kā, even at their most villainous, neither Elsa nor the 2014 Maleficent is truly evil—and neither film wants viewers to see the characters this way. Viewers are reminded that these women are first and foremost the protagonists of their stories, wronged and misguided, but understandable, with what made them good still there, if deeply concealed. Justice’s contradictory language is telling, as he calls Maleficent an “antagonist-hero” at one point, but also refers to her as the film’s protagonist.40 Similarly, in a review of Frozen, Fallon writes that despite her destructive actions, “she’s never the antagonist.”41 Moreover, because viewers know the Disney formula well, they expect the eventual change back to good behavior, simply because protagonists in these films are good people who win. In contrast, Moana holds back this information—and Te Kā’s original identity—until the film’s climax. And, significantly, except for some new clothes, neither Maleficent nor Elsa transform physically, least of all into monstrous figures. Thus, both films indicate the beginnings of a shift towards more possibilities for female characters who defy conventions, but it is not until Moana that a Disney film includes a female character who transforms into a villainous monster yet escapes death.

“You know who you are”: Moana’s Villain Changes Back

Moana opened to widespread critical acclaim, embraced not just for its animation and music, but also for its Pacific Islander setting, characters, and voice cast. In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Rechtshaffen calls the film “contemporary Disney at its finest.”42 In The Atlantic, Christopher Orr writes that it is an “absolute delight, a lush, exuberant quest fable full of big musical numbers and featuring perhaps the most stunning visuals of any Disney film to date.”43 Similarly, Harris argues that the movie proves that Disney has entered a “third golden age, one in which progressivism and a commitment to inclusion are not only powerful artistic decisions but profitable business ones.” She further links Moana to three recent predecessors—Frozen, Zootopia, and Big Hero 6—arguing that these films “have managed to sidestep a lot of the issues of female and racial representation to which previous Disney films have fallen victim, at a time when audience demand for diversity in its storytelling is keener than ever.”44 These reviews demonstrate a recognition that Moana serves as another step forward for Disney’s handling of social issues, including gender.

Virtually absent from these discussions, though, is an acknowledgement of perhaps a more subtle step forward: the film’s reimagining of the monstrous female villain. By and large, critics are mostly silent on the character who represents Moana’s most formidable opponent: Te Kā. For instance, in another article, Harris creates a chart illustrating certain Moana character’s predecessors in other Disney films. She refers to the giant crab, Tamatoa, as “the closest thing Moana has to a villain,” but completely leaves out Te Fiti/Te Kā.45 Chinen, quoted above as claiming there is “no grand…villain” in the movie, does address Te Fiti/Te Kā, but calls the revelation that they are one in the same a “flimsy plot contrivance” which nevertheless raises “some intriguing questions about cause and effect,” specifically regarding “premonitions” of Western contact and its role in “ecological blight.”46 Perhaps these critics do not have much to say about Te Fiti/Te Kā because she is unlike any character in Disney’s history. We argue, in fact, that Te Fiti/Te Kā indeed plays the role of the antagonist/villain, but also the role of benevolent mother, and even the woman in need of rescue. Because she fills all of these roles and in fact moves between them, even transforming physically into something truly monstrous, she presents a challenge to confining binaries and a recognition that women are capable of embodying more than one kind of identity. Moreover, Moana’s actions at the end of the film, chiefly her embrace of Te Kā even in her most monstrous form, invites viewers to imagine new possibilities for reconciliation between the heroine and the transformed villain.

Key to understanding why Te Fiti/Te Kā confounds easy definition is her initial role as a force for good. She is, on the surface, in many ways a traditional Disney “good” mother, recalling for instance, Mrs. Jumbo from Dumbo, Rapunzel’s biological mother in Tangled, Sarabi in The Lion King, or the mother in Bambi. In her initial incarnation, Te Fiti is pure and powerful, creating life itself. As the opening narration, delivered by Gramma Tala, explains, “In the beginning there was only ocean. Until the Mother Island emerged: Te Fiti. Her heart held the greatest power ever known. It could create life itself. And Te Fiti shared it with the world.” The language and imagery here is that of the classic maternal figure, praised for her fertility, though Te Fiti has even more power than the mother figures named above.47 So, too, does the film echo the heart imagery from Frozen and Maleficent, indicating the continued importance of this symbol of goodness and love, especially for female characters. Depicted as beautiful, green, and smiling, with outspread arms, she gives generously, creating lush islands all around her. So impressive is her power, though, that others seek it out for themselves.

As she settles into a slumber, she takes on a new role: that of the victim. Like the 2014 Maleficent, she is violated by a man who, in pursuit of his own goals, seeks the part of her that gives her strength. The demigod Maui, a shape-shifting trickster figure, steals her heart, the source of her benevolent power, a theft with immediate and disastrous results. Robbed of her heart and the source of her power, her very body—the entire island—suffers and transforms. Immediately, black smoke envelops the now-crumbling island. From here, Te Fiti symbolically moves into another variation of the virtuous woman: an innocent in need of rescue. Such salvation, though, will come from abroad and, as the film switches to focus on Moana, Te Fiti must wait for her champion to arrive. “One day,” Gramma tells the children gathered around her, “the heart will be found by someone who will journey beyond our reef, find Maui, deliver him across the ocean to restore Te Fiti’s heart, and save us all.”48 Like the sleeping or imprisoned princesses before her, Te Fiti awaits help. Thus, in the first five minutes of the film, she actually epitomizes all the aspects of Disney’s good female characters: loving mother, innocent victim, and seemingly helpless damsel in distress.

When viewers next encounter Te Fiti, so dramatic is her transformation that they are at first unaware that it is actually her. Unlike the villains who precede her or the good-girls-turned-temporary-bad-girls in Maleficent and Frozen, viewers are given no indication that Te Fiti is Te-Kā. Yet the true implication of her violation actually has been revealed in the film’s prologue, as Gramma Tala explains, “without her heart, Te Fiti began to crumble, giving birth to a terrible darkness.”49 The language here is revealing, as Te Fiti’s maternity becomes “terrible” and destructive. When Moana finally arrives at her destination, she witnesses the effects of that “birth” of darkness. All that appears to remain of the original Mother Island is a shadow of her form, visible under the surface of the ocean, and a lifeless rocky landscape. In Te Fiti’s place, Te Kā, the rage-filled creature whose very body contains fire, crawls and lunges like a beast. Recalling angry, betrayed women like Jane Eyre’s (1847) Bertha Mason (right down to a predilection for fire), barely a trace remains of what she once was. Te Kā is as ugly and terrifying as Te Fiti is beautiful and benevolent. While Te Fiti’s open arms created islands full of life, Te Kā throws fireballs at Moana and Maui, aiming to destroy them. In marked contrast to Te Fiti’s silence, Te Kā screams and roars, though she cannot or will not articulate any specific words. Pure rage—without pause or reason—drives her forward as even her lopped-off hands regrow in her unrelenting drive to annihilate. As our analysis of previous dramatic transformations into monstrosity demonstrates, there is no precedent for any possibility other than death for such a female villain, especially as she stands directly in the way of the heroine’s quest.

Thus what happens next—Te Kā’s transformation back to Te Fiti—is an extraordinary event in a Disney film, one catalyzed by a moment of female recognition, empathy, and empowerment, foreshadowed by similar moments in Frozen and Maleficent. Moana notices the one trace of Te Kā’s former identity—the mark where her heart once was—and realizes just who she is facing. “Let her come to me,” she tells the Ocean, which separates to clear a path. Moana walks towards Te Kā, who screams as she crawls towards her. Moana’s unflinching gesture of acceptance and reconciliation signals a further imagining of a new kind of resolution and an awareness that women need not be permanently defined by rigid roles of good or bad, beautiful or monstrous. Transformation back is possible. As Te Kā gets closer, Moana sings a song affirming this realization. She begins, “I have crossed the horizon to find you. / I know your name. / They have stolen the heart from inside you, / But this does not define you.” Significantly, she understands the source of Te Kā’s rage—she has been robbed and violated—but Moana points out that her response need not define her ultimate destiny. She adds, “This is not who you are. / You know who you are. / Who you truly are.” As the two come face to face and Moana whispers the last two lines, she presses her forehead to Te Kā’s and returns the heart. Instantly, the monster’s rocky and fiery exterior breaks away, revealing the green goddess within. While Gilbert and Gubar write of the monster that is concealed “behind” or even “within” the angel,50 here it is the angel who lives inside the monster, thus making possible re-transformation. Just as quickly, Te Fiti’s touch begins to restore life to the land. A moment of empathy and compassion from one woman to another, therefore, saves both of them, and opens up the possibility of another ending for a transformed and monstrous female villain: the possibility of redemption and transformation back. The film ends not with punishment or vengeance from or towards Te Kā, but instead with renewal, empathy, and celebration.51

Importantly, even as Moana signals steps forward in Disney’s treatment of the monstrous female villain, Te Fiti is not a fully realized character and her original form is, in many ways, still quite traditional. Her identifying feature is, after all, her heart. Plus, she is still silent and in fact less expressive than Te Kā, giving weight to the trope of the silent “good girl.” Moreover, after her initial burst of benevolent re-creation of the island (and her gifts of a new hook for Maui and a boat for Moana), she settles back into a slumber, her agency seemingly giving way to passivity. Equally important, at least symbolically, some of what is potentially transgressive about the monstrous is more or less shut down with TeFiti’s return to her peaceful self. She is, in the end, back to being just and only the “good girl.”

Yet it is important to remember that she does not exist in isolation. As many critics have pointed out, the film has at its center a daring and adventurous heroine whose agency and bravery save her world. Peter Travers argues that the minutiae of the film’s plot does not matter nearly as much as Moana herself, a new kind of Disney heroine: “The point here is Moana’s growing independence, her lack of a love interest and the quietly revolutionary way her body differs from the skinny-Barbie image of most Disney princesses.”52 Beyond this, her gender itself never presents an obstacle for Moana. As Andrew Lapin notes, “the matter-of-fact way the film gets to treat its female protagonist is especially heartening. Her adversaries doubt her not because of her gender, but merely because of her youth.”53 Unlike previous heroines including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, who sleep through their own rescues, or The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, who watches as Eric battles Ursula, Moana plays an active role in rescuing not just herself, but her people—and the monster. Also of note are the other female characters in the film, including Moana’s mother and grandmother, who support and even encourage her quest when her father attempts to hold her back. Thus, in a film filled with strong, dynamic, and supportive women, Te Fiti’s silence and ultimate passivity is less striking and disappointing than it might be in a film with fewer kinds of women. After all, though she is ultimately passive, she does live and her life enables those around her, including dynamic women like Moana, to thrive.

“But this does not define you”: Conclusion

In his Atlantic review, though he admits to greatly admiring the film, Orr is somewhat dismissive of Moana’s plot and characterization, calling it “a conventional story featuring just enough innovation to feel current.”54 Orr’s focus here is mostly on Moana herself, as he calls her a “princess by another name,” while acknowledging the “cunning wink” Disney uses to “inculcate itself against the charge that it is yet another of the studio’s unwoke princess movies.”55 Yet, as we have shown, such a dismissal of the film’s novelty ignores a key innovation in a well-worn formula: giving viewers for the first time a transformed female monster who escapes death. For most of Disney Animation Studios’ ninety-plus-year history, women who transgress too far—who turn physically monstrous—were offered no fate other than punishing death. Following in the careful gender-progressive footsteps of other recent Disney films, though, Moana writes a new kind of ending for the villainous female monster: she lives and even thrives. Such a move might seem minor, especially given the limitations implicit in TeFiti’s transformation back to the “good girl,” as discussed above. And, as we have shown, the innovation is so new as to be almost unrecognizable; most critics and viewers have not picked up on it. But as Justice argues, it is vital to analyze and critique these films precisely because they are so influential, particularly as they employ familiar gender tropes. He reminds us that the kinds of stories that Disney tells “are told for a purpose. They are a form of social education…They imagine dilemmas and offer a range of permissible solutions, labeling socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior, demarcating good and evil, exploring existential questions, binding the teller and the audience into a common understanding of community identity.”56 In other words, these films help shape how viewers imagine themselves and how they think about identity, agency, and morality. Te Fiti/Te Kā’s journey, though imperfect in its depiction, sends a clear message to viewers that they can and should imagine new possibilities for women who transgress.


  1. Nate Chinen, “Consider the Coconut,” Slate, November 22, 2016, . ↩︎

  2. Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (New York: Routledge, 2015), 85. ↩︎

  3. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 16-17. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., 28. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 29. ↩︎

  6. Lisa Rowe Fraustino, “‘Nearly everybody gets twitterpated’: The Disney Version of Mothering,” Children’s Literature in Education 46, no. 2 (2015): 127. doi:10.1007/s10583-015-9250-6. ↩︎

  7. Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at Disney Shops: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies,” in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Hass, and Laura Sells (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 121. ↩︎

  8. Amy Davis, Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 107. ↩︎

  9. Jill Birnie Henke, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith, “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine,” Women’s Studies in Communication 19, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 245. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 107. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 244. ↩︎

  12. Stacy L. Smith and Amy D. Granados, “Content Patterns and Effects Surrounding Sex-Role Stereotyping on Television and Film,” in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, ed. Jennings Bryant and Mary B. Oliver (New York: Routledge, 2009), 343, 345. ↩︎

  13. Litsa Renee Tanner, Shelley A. Haddock, Toni Schindler Zimmerman, and Lori K. Lund, “Images of Couples and Families in Disney Feature-length Animated Films,” American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 5 (2003): 355. doi:1080/01926180390223987. ↩︎

  14. Suzan G. Brydon, “Men at the Heart of Mothering: Finding Mother in Finding Nemo,” Journal of Gender Studies 18, no. 2 (2009): 142. doi:10.1080/09589230902812448. ↩︎

  15. Davis, Good Girls and Wicked Witches, 103. Interestingly, Fraustino applies Freudian psychology to these fairy tale depictions of bad mother versus innocent child: “The good mother [that is, the dead biological mother] is protected from all anger and resentment, but the child cannot remain attached to this mother or she will never separate. The bad mother takes all of the negative emotion and forces the daughter to seek independence. The problem with the Disney version of this binary is the exaggerated emphasis on the bad mother; we don’t ever get to see the good mother in the same kind of depth and we never get to see the whole mother integrated realistically. The bad mother gets killed off, leaving an undifferentiated good mother not recognizably human. She’s a cardboard stand-in…” See Fraustino, “Nearly everybody,’” 141. ↩︎

  16. Mia Adessa Towbin, Shelley A. Haddock, Toni Schindler Zimmerman, Lori K Lund, and Litsa Renee Tanner, “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-length Animated Films,” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 15, no. 4 (2004): 30. doi: 10.1300/J086v15n04_02. ↩︎

  17. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, directed by David Hand (1937; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios), DVD. ↩︎

  18. Tangled, directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (2010; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios), DVD. ↩︎

  19. Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 28. ↩︎

  20. Jeana DelRosso, “De-tangling Motherhood: Adoption Narratives in Disney’s Tangled,” Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 3 (2015): 524. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12281. ↩︎

  21. Ibid., 525. ↩︎

  22. Sleeping Beauty, directed by Clyde Geronimi (1959; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios), DVD. ↩︎

  23. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, The Disney Villain (New York: Hyperion, 1993). ↩︎

  24. The Little Mermaid, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (1989; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios), DVD. In their analysis of Disney’s feature-length films, Towbin et al. note that Ursula’s depiction also perpetuates a Disney pattern of portraying overweight women as “ugly, unpleasant and unmarried” (30). So too does Putnam describe certain representations of Disney villains that suggest transgender associations, arguing that women such as Ursula and the Stepmother are shown “with either strong masculine qualities or as strangely defeminized.” See Amanda Putnam, “Mean Ladies: Transgendered Villains in Disney Films,” in Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Disability, ed. Johnson Cheu (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), 147. Andreea Coca adds that these antagonists are often “accurate representations of drag” with “unconventional gender performances” which are ultimately “ridiculed, stigmatized and labeled as ‘wrong.’” See Andreea Coca, “A Reflection on the Development of Gender Construction in ‘Classic’ Disney Films,” Amsterdam Social Science 3, no. 1 (2000): 16. ↩︎

  25. Johnston and Thomas, The Disney Villain, 19. ↩︎

  26. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. ↩︎

  27. Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” 118. ↩︎

  28. Tangled↩︎

  29. Sleeping Beauty↩︎

  30. The Little Mermaid↩︎

  31. Most male villains who die in Disney films do not transform into more monstrous creatures before their deaths, as if their maleness is formidable enough. In the rare cases where the male villain’s body does transform, it does so only as he dies, not as a sign of his increasing or true wickedness. For example, the Horned King in The Black Cauldron is dragged into the cauldron that burns his green, decayed flesh, leaving only a skeleton before exploding. Lyle Tiberius Rourke, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, is cut with a shard from the heart of Atlantis, turns to crystal form, and then shatters when he is hit by a propeller. One exception may be the diminutive King Candy’s transformation into a Cy-Bug in Wreck-It-Ralph before battling the title character, but this transformation led to his attraction to the electrified light which ultimately, and somewhat comically, fries him. Thus, past Disney films have rarely ratcheted up the male villain’s physical monstrosity, seeming to save that for wicked women alone. ↩︎

  32. Aisha Harris, “Moana Makes It Official: Disney Has Entered a Progressive, Inclusive Third Golden Age,” Slate, November 21, 2016, . ↩︎

  33. Benjamin Justice, “Maleficent Reborn: Disney’s Fairytale View of Gender Reaches Puberty,” Social Education 78, no. 4 (2014): 196. ↩︎

  34. Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (2013; Burbank, CA: Disney Animation Studio), DVD. ↩︎

  35. Interestingly, in an interview with The Daily Beast, Linda Woolverton, Maleficent’s screenwriter, claims that she was unaware of how clearly her film echoed Frozen in including a moment of redemption and reconciliation based on sisterly love. She adds, “But it’s in the zeitgeist, isn’t it, then?…In our movie, we really wanted to show that there are many aspects of love, not just romantic love. Obviously, that’s something then that we’re all embracing at this moment in time, since it’s in Frozen, too.” See Kevin Fallon, “The Maleficent Screenwriter Also Wrote The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast,” The Daily Beast, June 1, 2014, . ↩︎

  36. Justice, “Maleficent Reborn,” 196. ↩︎

  37. Maleficent, directed by Robert Stromberg (2014; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Pictures), DVD. ↩︎

  38. Ibid., 195. ↩︎

  39. Maleficent↩︎

  40. Ibid., 195. ↩︎

  41. Kevin Fallon, “Frozen is the Best Disney Film Since The Lion King,” The Daily Beast, November 25, 2013, . ↩︎

  42. Michael Rechtshaffen, “Moana: Film Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 7, 2016, . ↩︎

  43. Christopher Orr, “Moana Is a Big, Beautiful Disney Smash,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2016, . ↩︎

  44. Harris, “Moana Makes It Official.” ↩︎

  45. Aisha Harris, “All the Disney Predecessors Behind the Characters in Moana, in One Chart,” Slate, December 7, 2016, . ↩︎

  46. Chinen, “Consider the Coconut.” ↩︎

  47. Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (2016; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios), DVD. ↩︎

  48. Moana↩︎

  49. Moana↩︎

  50. Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 29. ↩︎

  51. Moana↩︎

  52. Peter Travers, “Moana Review: Disney’s Animated Polynesian Musical Is a Feminist Delight,” Rolling Stone, November 23, 2016, . ↩︎

  53. Andrew Lapin. “Disney’s Moana Needs No Prince, Just The Land And Sea.” NPR, November 23, 2016, . ↩︎

  54. Orr, “Moana is a Big, Beautiful Disney Smash.” ↩︎

  55. Ibid. ↩︎

  56. Justice, “Maleficent Reborn,” 194. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Amy L. DeWitt is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Shepherd University. She received her Ph.D. in sociology with an emphasis on marriage and family from the University of North Texas. Her research focuses on gender and parental roles, particularly as they are portrayed in children’s media. Her work has appeared in journals including Sex Roles and Feminist Teacher.

Heidi M. Hanrahan is a Professor of English at Shepherd University. She earned her doctorate in American Literature before 1900 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her articles have appeared in The New England Quarterly, Poe Studies, MELUS, Studies in American Humor, The Watchung Review, Feminist Teacher and the collections Narratives of Community and Liminality, Hybridity, and American Women’s Literature.

Volume 3, Issue 2

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