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Still a Girl: The Disney Princess I Needed

My father grew up poor in rural Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1940s. At the same time, my mother’s cousins were growing up middle class in a more central Kansas City suburb. One year in the 1990s, after Thanksgiving dinner at my great-aunt and -uncle’s house, my great-uncle C.B. set up the screen to show us some home movies from when my mom’s cousins were little. Later, my dad told us how surprised he was, upon seeing the cousins’ delight at opening the same toys he had coveted from the Sears catalog and never received, to feel a stab of envy as keen as though he were still that little boy.

I’m not the sort of person who regularly mentions my “inner child,” but how else can I explain how moved I was by Moana, Disney’s most recent “princess movie”?

“Which was your favorite Disney princess when you were a little girl?” my daughter asked me shortly after we watched Moana.

Pause. “Well, it was the seventies. Disney princesses weren’t really A Thing for girls in the seventies.” Humans make sense of our lives through stories and metaphors and heroes, and I had no stories to help me know what to do with my ambition—certainly no Disney princess who existed in the 1970s could have helped me with any idea beyond finding a prince. There were two narratives in my mind to contain future possibilities: Childless Career Woman and Selfless Mother. Mostly, as a teenager, I gravitated toward the CCW model, because, until I was eighteen and some sort of biological switch got flicked within me, I wasn’t that interested in having children.

But once I had decided that yes, I wanted to have children, ambition became a problem, and although I didn’t think of it at the time, this conflict likely had a lot to do with my renunciation of ambition a little over a year later. I was in one of the study carrels hidden in the stacks of the enormous library at the University of Kansas, writing a sort of journal entry on lined paper. I don’t remember my words, but the conclusion I reached that day was that everyone thinks they’re special, and therefore the fact that I thought I was special and could do great things was in fact proof of my utter and complete ordinariness. For the next fifteen years, despite the fact that I spent ten of those years diligently furthering my education, I gave no quarter in my mind to ambition. “I’m doing the work because I like the work,” was how I explained my pursuit of a PhD.

And I didn’t call the thing I was avoiding “ambition.” I called it “the yearning,” because it was bigger and wider and stronger than what I would have called “ambition” (a word “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). Sometimes music would trigger it, sometimes nature, sometimes art, often fiction. In the three years I was out of graduate school, renouncing academia forever, I thought, I avoided reading literary fiction, because I didn’t want to yearn to go back to grad school.

So when I took my daughter to see Moana, I recognized a story that the girl that I was needed then and didn’t have. Moana is daughter of the village chief on the island Motunui, and the ocean calls to her. She yearns to go beyond the reef and to sail on the open ocean, and she doesn’t understand why. All she knows is that it is forbidden for anyone to go beyond the reef and that her people need her. But the ocean keeps calling her—she wants to know what is beyond the horizon, she wants to experience the hugeness and endlessness of the ocean instead of the boundedness of her island life.


Simple stories are the best stories for guiding humans—I can’t think of another story that captures so well for me “the yearning.” She wants what she wants just because, and she can’t stop wanting it just because no one around her wants her to want that. In the end, of course, because it’s a Disney story for children, she gets what she wants, and it helps, not harms, her family.

I learned this past week that my promotion dossier has been approved at all levels, and so I will be promoted to full professor as of July 1. To be honest, though, it doesn’t even feel like an island rest place, because of the turmoil at my university. The split between Indiana University and Purdue University in Fort Wayne, which will make the part that I belong to fully a branch campus of Purdue, means a 100% change in our library access, which until now has been entirely through Indiana University. The uncertainty about everything this past academic year—Will we still be supported as researchers? Will we still have access to a research library’s materials? Will I quit academia altogether?—kept me from mentally committing to my book project on allegory.

But over the past month I have steeled myself to commit to the next book, to continue to work on my research even though really no one except me actually cares that much . . . and though it feels pretty dumb and childish to say it, Moana has been my heroine for the past month. In the song where she makes her final commitment to her vocation, her final decision not to give up but to keep trying, she sings, “the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me.” I wish I had had this story when I was a little girl; it’s good that I have it now, because I still clearly need someone to tell me that “the yearning” itself isn’t foolish or ego-driven or worthless but is simply who I am.


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