I am a strong advocate for greater LGBT representation in mainstream media. And while there is great progress being made, I will continue to make do with what I have and pull meaningful plot lines out of mainstream movies and relate them to the LGBT narrative.
Moana is a beautiful story of a girl divided. After a magical experience as a young child in the ocean surrounding her tropical island home, she feels an internal magnetism to the water’s edge. Despite her parent’s concern for her safety, she sings “I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try”.
Moana’s internal conflict is the soul of this story. Sure, her quest to restore the Heart of Te Fiti is what drives her forward but the pull to explore the sea, to be a voyager into the great unknown, is restrained by her responsibilities to her people and the very culture of her home village of Motonui. The opening number, sung by her father and village chief, sells the idea that all that “you need… is right where you are.” The scene shows various dimensions of her island life as she grows and matures, showing how the people live off of the land and subsist on what the island and nearby bay provides them. Throughout the song, Moana is seen scurrying off to be by the water’s edge but is at times literally dragged back to the village to fulfill her role as a future chief of her people. She is cautioned by her father that the ocean is dangerous and safety can only be found on land.
Such is the narrative presented to LGBT members of the LDS church. The Church is our island of safety in a sea filled with the dangers and temptations of the world. It is only here that “everybody…has a role on this island”, where “everybody… seems so happy” and “everything is by design”. President Boyd K. Packer used similar imagery of a tempestuous, dangerous sea of the world and a place of safety when he wrote “as we fix our gaze on [Christ’s] teachings, we will be guided to the harbor of spiritual safety”. Indeed, all we need spiritually is found within the Church. Or so we are told.
In Moana’s case, and certainly for many LGBT members of the church, that’s not enough. There are fundamental pieces missing from what is given to us and we can’t abide by that. She laments:
Every turn I take, every trail I track
Every path I make, every road leads back
To the place I know where I cannot go
Where I long to be
She knows that there is more out there, more to be discovered. Her grandmother, Tala, seems to know this as well as she pushes Moana to be open to new truth, even if the villagers call her “crazy”.
Moana discovers that her people used to be voyagers, great explorers of the sea where they found new islands and peoples that shared their truth with them. The LDS church’s very history and fundamental doctrines are based in progression, in developing further knowledge and truth from a God who continues to speak with His children.
While Moana’s journey of self-discovery out into the ocean is fueled by a hero’s quest to restore the Heart of Te Fiti and save her island, a gay or trans kid’s decision to seek further truth beyond the safety of the bay is, at best, labeled unfaithful or prideful or even selfish. At worst, it’s apostate.
Nonetheless, Moana sets out into the horizon in the film’s most memorable song, “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me.” Throughout this beautiful piece of music, it is repeated that the great beyond calls to her; the unknown sings a song that cannot be ignored as “it seems like it’s calling out me”. She recognizes she has sailed passed a boundary that hasn’t been crossed which is something inherently exciting and alluring as “no one knows… how far it goes”. But only if she keeps going will she find what she is looking for–if the “wind in my sail… stays behind me, one day I’ll know, how far I’ll go”.
Of course, the sea is dangerous. During her journey, she encounters ship wreck, tropical storms, strange marauding gremlin-pirates, a creepy giant crab who sings an awful song about hoarding, all leading up to the confrontation of Te Ka, the shadowy lava monster who “guards” Moana’s goal. But as she goes, she becomes stronger, more resilient, more knowledgeable, and more determined.
The story hinges on a moment of discouragement. Rebuffed by Te Ka and abandoned by her friend, Moana prepares to return to Motonui, to safety. The spirit of her grandmother appears and asks her why she hesitates to set her oar into the water to return home. And all Moana can say is “I don’t know”. Even then, she holds herself back from returning to her island. Not because she hates it or cannot return, but because she still has not found what she is looking for.
Her grandmother begins to sing of “a girl who loves the sea and her people” though “she stands apart from the crowd”. Despite her differences, “she makes her whole family proud”. Gramma Tala then alludes to the great coming shift in Moana’s understanding of self-discovery, singing that “nothing on earth can silence the quiet voice still inside you”. Tala then poses the Big Question: “Do you know who you are?”
Moana walks through the basic cores of her identity that before seemed mutually exclusive, at odds with one another. She is “the girl who loves my island and the girl who loves the sea; it calls me”. She sings about being “descended from voyagers who found their way across the world; they call me” and then later “I am everything I’ve learned and more; still it calls me”.
And here, the shift. In one of the greatest lyrical progressions I’ve heard in a long while, Moana realizes what her grandmother has known all along.
And the call isn’t out there at all
It’s inside me
This draw, this allure to branch down “forbidden paths”, to leave safe waters that was vilified and externalized wasn’t ever coming from “out there”. It was an internal urge to discover more, to voyage beyond what was known, and therein find greater light and knowledge. Was this not the pattern of her ancestors? Was this not the way of Joseph Smith, who pushed beyond the boundaries he was presented with?
With this knowledge, comes confidence in what she is doing and in her own abilities, “that come what may, I know the way” and she issues a bold declaration of her entire identity: “I am Moana!”
Of course, in this gorgeous scene where Moana reconnects with the spirits of her voyaging ancestors, she returns to Te Ka and uncovers the truth to bring back life and light to her island. She returns to Motonui with all that she has learned and restores the voyaging tradition to her people, guiding them as their chief to continue their progression and exploration of truth.
Where would we be without those who push boundaries? Who explore past the outer limits? Who are not merely satisfied with what they know and thirst for more knowledge? Who are willing to defy convention, tradition, and safety to satisfy that thirst beyond the frontier? Where are we without these pioneers?
Nowhere that is good.
In a church where personal communication between deity and the individual is not only acknowledged, but celebrated, let us not cast stones or derision at those who venture out to explore. Let us not hold them back. Even if we are not ready to take such journeys ourselves, we can still be glad for those who set out with the wind in their sails to find nuggets of truth beyond what we currently know. And should we muster up the courage to follow, let us remember a little rhyme I was taught when I was discovering the need to learn more:
All the water in the world,
However hard it tried,
Could never sink the smallest ship
Unless it [gets] inside.
Voyage on. And for a shift in metaphor, let us remember.
The sky is the limit.