“Did your granny say listen to your heart
Be who you are on the inside
I need three words to tear her argument apart
Your granny lied!
I’d rather be…Shiny.”
Tomotoa’s harsh, snide, admirably nasty truth telling interrupts the good-feelings mood of the marvelous film Moana. He, a giant crab adorned with all kinds of glam on his shell, has no patience for heartfelt advice or sincerity. Tomotoa is a crab whose greatest pride is his vanity. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina’s verses are heartfelt in their celebration of their villain’s superficiality — Tomotoa’s joy, pride, and overweening narcissism is his power.
And in the greatest of 1970s musical traditions, from David Bowie’s 1972’s Ziggy Stardust to Tim Curry’s 1975 Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror, Tomotoa the Giant Crab is a shiny, demonic presence, taunting our innocent, well-meaning heroine with his overwhelming…. shininess.
Miranda and Mancina’s lyrics for Shiny, Tomotoa’s anthem, reflect a persistent undercurrent in American popular culture since the early 1970s — the stereotype of the shiny artificiality of gay male culture, rendered in popular culture as resistance, empowerment, and a brave refusal to don drab gray suits, buffed leather shoes, and sensible shirts. It’s silliness cloaking extraordinary braveness; it’s glam that tatters over time but never really dies out. It’s the power of resistance made to shine in the darkness.
When Moana meets Tamotoa, he admits that
“Well, Tamatoa hasn’t always been this glam
I was a drab little crab once
Now I know I can be happy as a clam
Because I’m beautiful, baby.”
And guess what? Tomotoa, throwing over the drab little crabby-cakes he was, has gained in power, strength, and size, all because he’s shiny. Like Maui, the fallen demi-god bearing the ink patterns of his many deeds, Tomotoa has “tattoed” his outer self, decorated his shell with his adventures — and now, he’s lost his camouflage, but that doesn’t matter– he’s all the stronger for his shiny-ness (and his experiences). As he sneeringly sings,
“Yet I have to give you credit for my start
And your tattoos on the outside
For just like you I made myself a work of art
I’ll never hide; I can’t, I’m too…
Watch me dazzle like a diamond in the rough
Strut my stuff; my stuff is so…
Send your armies but they’ll never be enough
My shell’s too tough.”
Self-creation is the theme here, among all three shiny characters. Ziggy is the messenger of the alien gods and bears hope in his presence; Dr. Frank-N-Furter is evil in his goals and methods but intent of creating a brand new (blonde and tan) man; and Tomotoa might be a huge, monster crab able to battle demi-gods but he’s made himself into what he is: the most shiny, bioluminescent crab there ever was. There’s one big — and most major — difference between Maui and Tomotoa. Maui eventually learns from his mistakes, becoming a better demi-god by letting himself become vulnerable, but Tomotoa, shiny crab that he is, never becomes better for his adventures, he just gets bigger and shinier. He’s invulnerable, and in classic Disney style (and life, perhaps) that makes him weaker in the end — although that’s hard to see as he sings his wonderfully nasty song and tosses Maui and Moana about. But really, Tomotoa has a lot to learn.
This shininess, gayness, and maleness has its roots in long-standing stereotypical characterizations of homosexual men, dating back to roughly the late 1800s in Europe (especially England) and the U.S. The blossoming of these particular shiny males (Ziggy, Frank-N-Furter, Tomotoa) has its roots in the late 1960s, when twentieth-century men, gay or not, popped out with a mainstream “peacock” fashion. And that fashion had its roots in underground theater and the hippie movement in California, as well as gay nightclubs and east coast dance clubs.
In 1969, even as the San Francisco/ Haight Ashbury scene was dwindling down to some acid heads and potheads nodding off in the streets, the genuine artistry of the hippie-dippy movement persisted and even blossomed. The Cockettes, born on New Year’s Eve in 1969 and alive as a theater group until 1972, birthed themselves in a flurry of glitter, brocade, polyester, and glam. They were shiny as hell. Gender-bending (hence the name), neither male nor female, the actors presented themselves as simultaneously conformist male or female, and as none of the above. Wearing drag of all kinds, the men, women, and gender-fluid persons spawned a very specific kind of theatre: one that cemented the stereotype of the “glittery gay man” but injected that stereotype with the revolutionary, confrontational refusal to adhere to gender norms. And members of the troupe made inroads in popular music, theater, and Broadway.
One Cockette, a marginal player partly because he was the only African American in the all-white group, was the diva Sylvester. Sylvester’s video for his 1978 hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” presented him/her as male and female. Feeling Mighty Real was as non-essentialist as you could get. As Tomotoa said, “Be who you are on the inside” might be what grannies with good intentions said, but watch what happens when you let your “inside self” out!
Sylvester was, as is Tomotoa, armored in honesty, in his willingness to wear his self on his sleeve, in his devotion to costuming and disguise that was, in fact, the real. As Tamotoa sings in Moana, “Send your armies but they’ll never be enough…I’m too tough.” The difference is, of course, Sylvester, a very real person, allows vulnerability and even weakness in, and becomes the stronger for it.
I don’t think that Disney deliberately created a gay anthem in Moana but I do think that as creative artists and as a creative team armed with the vitality of progressivism and tolerance, Tamotoa’s anthem of the power of being Shiny rings true. Far better to be one’s self — whether that be Maui learning to accept his upbringing and failings, Moana learning to live out her mission, or Tamotoa celebrating his rise from drab crabdom…Like Sylvester they can be “Mighty Real” in their own true selves. And like Miss Alaska in her wonderful version of Elsa in Frozen, you can just let it go.