The 2017 Academy Awards have officially come and gone. Winners were crowned (and, in some cases, de-throned moments later), speeches were made, and everybody cried for Viola Davis. And, while there weren't many surprises, there was one loss that hit me, even though I was expecting it, and that's Moana. Moana didn't win either of two Oscars it was up for Sunday night, one for Best Original Song for "How Far I'll Go" and the other for Best Animated Film. As unsurprising as it was, it was still a blow to see a film that puts a young, teenage girl front and center be forgotten in the awards show madness. Moana's Oscar snub sends a painful message to young girls that their stories are invalid.
My five year old niece loves Moana. She sings "How Far I'll Go" any chance she gets and knows every song by heart (her favorite is "I Am Moana"). Singing along to the soundtrack with her, it's impossible not to see the impact Moana has on young audiences. In Moana, the teenage protagonist of the film, my niece sees a girl not much older than her who is a leader in her community, who is valued for her intelligence and spirit. When Moana lost the award for Best Animated Film, my niece cried (she was exaggerating a bit, but the sentiment was real). For young girls, Moana is more than just a movie. It's a part of them, just like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, or Mulan was a part of many of the women of my generation.
Zootopia, the winner of Best Animated Film, for as great as it is, is about a cartoon rabbit. In a way this makes her story more universal, as she has no race, no hair color, no human appearance that could make her more or less relatable to certain audience members. But it's still hard for little girls to see Zootopia as possible in their world, a world of humans, not animals. There's something to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media's slogan "If she can see it, she can be it." Moana gives girls like my niece a chance to see their potential literally reflected back at them.
The Academy Awards has never been all that welcoming to teenage girls. In Hollywood, films about young girls tend to be seen as frivolous. We see this when a film is marketed specifically towards women, or every time a movie is referred to as a "chick flick." To the film industry, movies about girls are for female audiences, and therefore not to be taken seriously. Even movies that are taken seriously have caveats. Inside Out, 2016's Best Animated Film winner, is about a young girl's emotions, but it's the emotions, not the girl, that are the stars.
It's a pretty widely accepted fact that female protagonists are viewed as less valuable in Hollywood at this point. Just look at the films nominated for Best Picture in the past ten years — a majority of them are about men. There are many factors that contribute to the lack of female stories at the Oscars, not the least of which is the very real sexism in the industry and the lack of female writers, producers and directors. But, it's also partly because of the fact that female protagonists are seen as alienating to male audiences. "Boys are never encouraged to imagine what it is like to be female," Meryl Streep said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times.
Need proof? Occasionally, there will be a few films about young women sprinkled through the Oscar pool, like Precious or An Education, both nominated for Best Picture in 2010. But, for the most part, films about young girls, like 2016's exceptional The Edge of Seventeen, are ignored. And intentional or not, that lack of attention sends a message to women and young girls. It tells them that their stories don't matter; that the characters they identify with on-screen, the characters they aspire to be, aren't taken seriously.
But young girls' stories do matter. Their stories are serious. And if Moana had received even a sliver of its Oscar due, that sneaky, painful whisper to the contrary might have become just a little less loud.