Every Friday, we boarded our burgundy Ford Taurus on a weekly pilgrimage to the local suburban Blockbuster. We didn’t go to rent DVDs or purchase a past decade’s VHS tapes — we came to browse the small selection of Lilo and Stitch memorabilia that was tucked right next to Kill Bill action figures (it was not until years later that Blockbuster discovered product placement matters, both physically and virtually). Obsession does not begin to describe our infatuation with the 2002 Disney film. Much to my mother’s chagrin, the film’s theme song, Elvis Presley’s “Hounddog”, regularly drowned out her telephone conversations — it was not uncommon to have three back-to-back screenings of the film on three summer consecutive days. Once, when the local Disney store had a holiday-clearance sale, we amassed thirty Stitch stuffed animals in felt Santa outfits. While departing the mall, we passed our evangelical pastor, soft pretzel and blue frosty in hand, who, upon seeing our loaded bags, gave a fiery sermon on charitable giving the following Sunday. If you haven’t seen the classic Disney animation, Lilo and Stitch centers on a lonely adolescent named Lilo who accidentally adopts an escaped extraterrestrial creation, Stitch, in search of his maker a la Mary Shelley. Like his literary predecessor, Stitch is hell-bent on destruction but eventually finds belonging in Lilo and her sister’s dysfunctional family on the island of Hawaii.
Lilo is a completely unique female Disney lead. Unlike her animated peers, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Snow White, and Cinderella whose faces pops on every strap-breaking Kindergarten backpack, Lilo is the only fem-protagonist who has neither been sexualized or subjected to patriarchal gender stereotypes. With a pudgy stomach, flat hair that doesn’t look like a thousand-dollar sew-in, and thighs that probably clap as she runs, there were no dolls for her. This is why we kept dragging my mother to Blockbuster week after week — to look for Lilo. Ten years later, she still remains absent from the Disney female universe. Her absence points to the misconstruction of feminism.
I recently rewatched Lilo and Stitch in 2016. That same year, Disney’s blockbuster Moana came out and generic Polynesian-ish, appropriated-ish, island-theme merchandise cluttered the aisles of Target — beachwear, Pua pigs, singing necklaces, and the now infamous Polynesian bodysuit. A decade ago, we could not find a single Lilo doll — but now there was a Moana Barbie, Moana plush, Moana plush with an attached pig, Moana adventures dolls, and even an occasional non-sinking Moana aquatic doll. With the tagline of “find your own way”, Moana was the second of a new breed of female protagonists in succession to Frozen. Unable to turn misogynistic princess need-of-male-rescue-tales for profit, Disney had created a new palatable feminist “modern fairytale” progressive enough for Ta-Nehisi Coates-skimming parents everywhere. Subverting the traditional Disney feminine troupe of helplessness and pink pagentry by centering on a young girl who fights to find her identity and save her people by fulfilling the ancient quest of her ancestors through ancient Polynesian Tahiti and Tonga, Moana grossed more than 600 million at the worldwide box office. Disney had invented a new pop-feminism protagonist whose happiness and profit high margins no longer necessitated pink, ruffley, male saviorhood. To many, the blockbuster seemed like the beginning of a new era for Disney. For me, it was reminder of the unfeigned feminine hero that I couldn’t find.
There is a reason that Moana makes a great doll — with flowing thick, black curly hair, the equivalent of a 1.5-foot thigh gap, chiseled arms, and big eyelashes that you could comb with a pick — she’s oddly reminiscent of Disney’s female protagonists before her. Praised for being stripped of the pageantry of tulle of Disney women before her, she’s royalty and like the Elsas, the Annes, Little Mermaids, embodied a royal elitism that positionally separated her from the rest of her animated society. It was not her purity of “heart” that saved her people but the agency of genetic lineage that enabled her to affect change. This privilege echoes the positionality of the Giselles, the Cinderellas, and the Snow Whites that came before her — living a fairy tale. It is as if the takeaway message of Moana is possess the perfect balance of beauty standards and genetic social privilege and you can emblematize feminism.
There is a scene in Lilo and Stitch where 9-year old Lilo is escorted into a government-issued black sedan by a DHS worker voiced by Ving Rhames. I can vividly recall watching the scene for the first time — I was 11 and two weeks prior, a DHS worker had driven in a similar nondescript compact took away my foster brother. Lilo was not created to be a princess or the modern-day equivalent 47-million dollar animated-grossing “feminist film” like Moana. She was not created to be an elementary lesson in feminism 101, female empowerment, or Frozen’s sisterhood. Traumatized, foster, impoverished, socially isolated, and chubby adolescent who wears a mu mu, she just was. Nevertheless, she is the only Disney fem-protagonist able save not only save her island, as the case of Moana but the whole world — albeit, from an alien invasion (keep in mind, we are still talking Disney). Yet, I could not find her doll.
Lost in Target’s new store configuration, I recently passed the doll section and a Moana doll was standing tall next to all the beautiful and problematic female protagonists of the last decade — Cinderella who taught us to stay in abusive settings, Sleeping Beauty who taught us that true love’s kiss will awaken us from consciousness, the Little Mermaid who sacrificed family for infatuation, and Jasmine who embodies the entertainment industry’s tradition of hyper-sexualization of brown women. Our pop-feminist constructions seem to be taking cues from the myths of our childhoods.
We are quick to create Moanas, physically beautiful and idealized versions of women to fit in the doll box of our diluted, commodified feminism. Much like a Brothers Grimm fairytale, our Moanas are fabricated half-truths about imaginary beings — not reflective of the woman at all, but a subversive embodiment of our lingering ideals of physical beauty, class, and the resulting ability to live a folkloric life under the cover of “feminism”. These half truths are evident in our Instagram feed — it is why we follow the beautiful, chiseled influencer from an elite family with an Dior “Everyone Should Be a Feminist” t-shirt. It is why we have an obsession with Beyonce over Bell Hooks. It is why every god-damn female entrepreneur blog special (you know the one) features a “girl boss” (of course someone in the creative sector) with tips about “effortless beauty” and her recent inspirational road-trip to Marfa (Thoughts while reading — Would a road trip to Marfa prepare me for sweltering August school days with no air conditioning?). Just like Moana, these fictions have become our role models for consumption.
We have overlooked the Lilos, women who kick ass — women who never will fit the metaphorical doll box of commodified feminism because it is too narrow for her experience. As I write this, I am reminded of my mother who overcame rural Appalachian poverty to send her daughter to university. I am reminded of my husband’s mother and grandmother who taught him how to love and support women. I am reminded of Bell Hooks whose lines taught me what love is. I am reminded of many of my remarkable fellow teachers in Philadelphia who move mountains for their students every day despite inequitable resources and structural injustices. I am reminded of many of my students throughout North Philadelphia. Mothers, daughters, and intellectuals whose relentless strength, character, and grace will transform our city. I am reminded of my own reckless strength and stubbornness — the times that I spoke up against oppression or spent months in 90-degree urban classrooms, emerging witty, gritty, and wiser. Looking for Lilo reminds me to go looking for the hidden strong women, the ones who don’t spend their time emblematizing feminism but embodying it — may we be them, may we know them, may we raise them.