Her quiet singing voice drifts from the backseat:
“I’ve been staring at the edge of the water
‘long as I can remember, never really knowing why.
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
but I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try.”
Moana’s theme song about identity has hit my three-year-old in ways that Frozen’s “Let It Go” never did. For reasons probably due to her stage of development, my daughter has taken it upon herself to memorize all the lyrics of Moana’s songs–which means I memorize them too. “What comes next, Mommy?”
When I hear her sing about wishing to be the perfect daughter, about what is wrong with her, my stomach clenches. There is nothing wrong with her. She is the perfect daughter. (Both of my daughters are the perfect daughters.) I delight in my kids so much that I feel physical pain at the idea of them feeling that something is wrong with who they are.
Yet I also know that this search for identity is part of the human experience.
The more I listen to Moana’s songs, the more I see that the movie is about identity–and not just Moana’s identity: she also has the ability to see the truth in the identities of the people around her. At the beginning of the movie, she is on an island, and her father tries to tell her that she belongs on the island with her people, that everyone has a place in the island culture. But Moana is entranced by the sea, and she wants to sail beyond the reef–something her father has forbidden. Moana wants to be a water girl.
In the process of discovering who she is, she discovers that her people are not just island people–they are voyagers who seek the horizon and new islands. In her search for her own identity, she rediscovers the original identity of her community, and her father’s exploring identity too.
She also helps Maui refind his identity as a true hero of the people, helps him right his wrong of stealing the heart of Tafisi. She is also the one who sees Te Fiti under the disguise of Te Ka.
The movie is ALL about identity.
I wonder about my daughter, the girl whose identity formation is in my care, and about how she sings “I am the girl who loves my island / I am the girl who loves the sea / it caaaallls me.” What do these words mean to her? What does Moana’s journey to identity mean to her?
Who will she be?
When I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she usually says “Princess.” My heart dies a little each time, and I wonder about the wisdom of growing up on Disney. But then I look at Moana–a movie without a romantic theme, a movie where Moana is an independent young woman, strong enough to find a path and call out the good in those around her, and I realize that Disney has come a long ways since Sleeping Beauty.
Sometimes she says “dentist.” Sometimes “sheriff.” She’s three. She has a long time.
I think Moana resonates with her–and with me–because it is about identity. Identity isn’t just a small child theme–it’s an every age theme. Disney is good at tapping into those heart-desires and capitalizing on them in story form. “Who am I?” was the question I asked in my journals over and over immediately after graduating from college. I still ask it.
I still wonder at who I am and the roles that I play as mother, spouse, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, student, colleague, writer. I still wonder about where I’ve been and where I’m going. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. In this particular season of my life, I’m wrestling with these questions a lot, actually.
And I see identity forming in this little girl. One day, I saw her struggling to lift something I knew she could lift, and I said, “You are strong, you can do it!” My words became her refrain, even when the object was something that she really couldn’t lift: “But I’m strong, Mommy!”
When I say something to her about who she is, she reflects it back. I am watching her internalize these words.
“I’m not very good at playing ball.”
“I’m not going to use the potty until I’m as big as you.”
I hear the negative beliefs, and I work to turn them around. To reflect back: “You’re really good at trying again. You are practicing.”
“You are loved.”
To give her words for her experience. To give her words for her understanding of who she is–and of whose she is. That she belongs. That she was created. That she is loved. That so many people delight in her. That God delights in her.
These are truths of my own identity that I am still learning too.
Who knows what of this she understands, what gives her internal strength, or what she’ll need therapy for in the future. All I know is that right now I’m humbled to be a part of this process, to have this little girl in my care, to know that she’s not mine, and to help her grow.
Someday, she’ll have her own version of an identity song:
“I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me”