Moana: The Triumphs & Failures of A Quintessential Millennial

Note: BE AWARE, THERE ARE SPOILERS as themes are discussed.

Moana, is an animated film about the coming of age process and navigating through the world as a young person. There were so many times when I, as a female-identified person, beamed with pride as Moana traverses her way across the world and fought against the expectations set for her by her family and village. I’ve watched Moana ten times and I’m a bit ashamed to say, each time I’ve watched it, I’ve cried. During my tenth viewing with a group of friends in San Francisco, I realized that unlike many of my peers, it was not Moana’s feminine strength that resonated with me. Instead, Moana’s story was a direct reflection of my adult life and the lives of many of my millennial peers. The power of the film stems from it’s relevancy, discussing topics such as resiliency, familial expectation, gender norms, coming of age, friendship, impostor syndrome and pursuing one’s dreams and destiny.

Moana (in front) ; Maui (Demi-God of the Wind and Sea, behind)
Throughout the movie, Moana like many millennials, struggles with the tension between familial expectation and pursuing her passion for wayfaring` (sailing). The movie begins with the young girl being molded to be her island’s next leader, amid tragedy, the death of her grandmother and the rapid deterioration of the island’s resources. She is a natural leader. But, something is missing deep within her. My first bond with Moana was when she picks up her oar in the middle of the night, deciding to leave her tribe and family behind, to pursue her dreams and to find a way to heal her island. Her plan, listen to her grandmother’s stories about the history of the island. Sail beyond her safe reef and find Maui, the mischievous Demi-God that stole the heart of Tafiti and make him return it to the source. Moana’s millennial flag flew brightly with her pursuit for innovation and her refusal to settle, even for a job that came easily to her.

Moana receiving her crown.

Have you ever been in a conversation with your parents or grandparents, or read one of those articles that blame millennials for the destruction of one thing or another: the end of the hotel industry, fast food, the list goes on? Well, even millennial Moana in her animated world cannot escape the blame game from her parents for trying to embrace change and find innovative ways to save her island. She defies her father and runs away from her own island to challenge the existing paradigms of leadership and survivorship. She breaks borders by leaving the reef to restore the heart of Tafiti which she alone believes would save the island from destruction.

Moana- Deciding on starting a new coconut grove and clearing the deceased one.

We might not all be future village chiefs but each one of us must break free of our parents’ or social expectations to discover what makes us tick and fills our soul. We too must face our fears; our fears of failure, fear of not living up to our peers, fear of being second best, and our fears of getting stuck.

When I speak to peers or mentees after they’ve gotten their first or second job, they express to me a drive to work hard, to never make mistakes and to get everything right the first time around. I challenge you though, “What will actually happen if you take on a project that is new to you and you royally screw it up? Is it possible you’ll get fired? Yes, of course but is that likely? On your first or second big mistake, probably not. I’ve sat on quite a few hiring committees and one thing I’ve learned from having to read all those boring cover-letters and resumes is that, it is much more expensive to hire and woo a new person then to deal with the current mess of an employee that the company already. Take some comfort in that.

Moana’s lesson in wayfaying across the sea was not free of setbacks and failures. There are many moments of defeat that she could have easily used as an excuse to turn her boat around and head back home. She falls asleep during her lessons with Maui, she gets lost more than once, her boat capsizes, and she is even tricked by Maui and left boatless on the island he had been stranded on for years. None of theses scenes were her shiniest moments. Lucky for her, she was on the water, mostly alone for miles, so there was no one to be a testament to her many screw-ups. Regardless of the magnitude of her mistakes, each time, she dries herself off and continues to pursue her mission.

We can learn resilience and bravery from Moana. She was told repeatedly, that she would not be able to sail across the sea and return the heart of Tafiti. But, time and time again, she faces her fears, even jumping into the realm of monsters to help Maui get his magic hook back. There’s nothing scarier than that except perhaps being in an interview room with ten interviewers at once.

Moana begging the ocean to choose someone else.

There were times that Maona questioned her own legitimacy and mission, which is quintessentially millennial. At one point she begs the ocean, with tears in her eyes, to take back the heart of Tafiti and to choose another person to fulfill the mission. Like Moana, it is 100% normal to question your calling, especially as a young professional. Passions grow, they change, they evolve. The evolution can be difficult, even painful. When you’ve been pursuing one path for as long as you can remember and you suddenly realize that path no longer revs your engine, what do you do then? Do you wallow in self pity? No! Instead, try some self-exploration, some in-depth self-research. I guarantee that when you start to pay attention to yourself outside of social and familial expectation, you’ll find your path, that career that will bring you peace.

Another moment that felt particularly millennial, was Moana’s perceived greatest moment of failure. At this point in the movie, she’s fought through impostor syndrome and many bumps along the way, big and small. She finally makes it to Te-Ka, the monster that is blocking her way to restoring Tafiti’s heart. This scene was supposed to be her big, shiny, moment. You know the one. The moment equivalent to getting that big promotion, getting into grad school or starting your first company. Instead of restoring the heart, two of the traits that double as strengths leads to her failure: her pride and her stubbornness. Maui, who is older and wiser and more importantly has faced Te-Ka in combat previously, assesses the situation and urges her to re-evaluate their strategy. Instead of heeding Maui’s warning, she listens to her pride and her fear and drives the boat onward. My mom always did say: “If you do not hear, you will feel” and feel she did. Her inability to cast her pride aside in that moment resulted in a broken magic hook and her boat being hurtled halfway back across the sea.

Can any of you relate to this moment? When you would not heed the lesson of a parent, or mentor and ended up back at the beginning or losing out on an opportunity? It’s familiar to me. I can’t count the amount of times when I’ve overheard an older person complaining about the stubbornness of millennials and our inability to hear. I usually laugh because seeing situations through unique lenses makes us millennials amazing. The world would not be where it is today in terms of technology and redefining social norms without us. However, are bright octagon shaped lenses can be our biggest enemy if we are unable to reason or listen to compromise. As philosopher George Santayana once said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Like Maona had to learn, there has to be balance between forging ahead, challenging the status quo and also taking advice from lived experience into consideration.

In the end, with the help of her grandmother’s ancestral spirit, she verbally re-defines who she is and what the mission means to her both on a personal level and as the leader of her tribe. She stares impostor syndrome down reminding herself that she is a bad ass singing:

“I am a girl who loves my island. I’m the girl who loves the sea… I am the daughter of the village chief. We are descended from voyagers…”

She reminds herself of the importance of trusting her instincts and listening to her heart. She sings:

I’ve delivered us to where we are. I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more…The call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising.

That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!

Sometimes we all need to encourage ourselves a little, even if that means singing out loud, alone in the middle of the ocean, about who we are and what are purpose is.

Moana got up, turned her ship around, sailed all the way back to Tafiti and this time was able to restore the heart to it’s rightful owner.

After her successful mission, she returns home triumphant, to claim her throne. In her tribe’s tradition, to formally claim the throne, you must place a stone on top of the leadership stone; each stone placed by the chiefs before her. In true millennial form, she accepts her role but alters the tradition to better fit her style, instead of an ugly stone, she places a conch shell instead. I personally think she might need to rethink her choice of declaration, as it will make it harder for the next leader to place their stone on the leadership structure. But all in all, loved the spunk and the integration of old and new tradition.

Moral of the story, to hell with those people and the little voice inside that tell you that you can’t do something. You can do anything you set your mind to doing, even if that is finding your passion and sticking to it.

Moana places her stone on the leadership structure

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