An aura of excitement is emanating from Moana, who is running towards a hill that overlooks the milky white sand beaches and turquoise ocean. From there, she bolts towards the shore while singing her heart out. She reaches her raft, pushes it into the sea, and pulls the sail ropes down. As the wind propels the vessel away from the beach, she belts out: "If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me / One day I'll know, how far I'll go."
That is the iconic scene of the animated film Moana, where the titular character sets sail to find a mystical relic. Frankie Fan has watched the movie three times in two months—she's analyzing its content for her Extended Essay.
"How Far I'll Go" has been on repeat in Frankie's music player, and she has lost count of the times she's heard it. But the more it plays, the louder and clearer its message reverberates. Frankie interprets the anthem’s message as carrying on the dream and responsibilities that one is entitled to.
Just like the Disney heroine and her great escapade on the waters of Polynesia, Frankie has ventured out on a journey of her own in China to break free from the expectations of everyone.
Frankie began the journey at her home in Hebei Province, where she grew up in a patriarchal family. She faced certain gender stereotypes in her early years, but she tackled them head-on. It was not always an easy road for Frankie.
She joined an inline skating club when she was eight, becoming the group’s only female skater. For years, Frankie had the desire to win against the boys, especially in the race track. In one tournament, she remembered how she cried while flying past other skaters.
While resting, she overheard a faint yet commanding voice: "She's in front of you? You can’t lose to her." Frankie realized the speaker was the father of a male player, who lagged behind her place.
Frankie joined a long-distance speed skating tournament when she was ten. In one race, she dashed on a seven-kilometer track and finished in twelfth place.
“It didn’t feel good and I felt sad,” Frankie said as she recalled the experience. She reckoned she became their “target” because of her gender.
Frankie finished the competition in third place for the girls' category. She continued her skating hobby, but it came to a screeching halt in her middle school years.
Frankie entered a private middle school as part of its "honor class," where a race was also taking place. Students had to sustain their "good" grades because their teachers considered the honor class the school's "greatest hope" for the province-wide zhōnɡkǎo (middle school exam) leaderboard.
She maintained her good academic ranking because of pressure. And this would go on until the eighth grade, when her father realized Frankie was in an unhealthy situation. Mr. Fan asked her if she wanted to explore studying at an international school or abroad.
“I want to provide you with a platform and I want you to see a bigger world,” Frankie recalled her father as saying, “But you have to consider this matter yourself.”
They began applying to schools in the second semester of that year, eventually making their way to Keystone Academy. The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed girl entered Keystone in the following year, bringing with her an adrenaline rush to the classrooms, residential halls, and the volleyball court of her new school.
The newcomer Frankie joined a volleyball training session at Keystone sometime in the fall of 2016, armed with only an inkling of interest in the sport and the motivation to meet new people. She was welcomed by the juniors, who had taught her the basics of the game. A month into the training, Frankie had formed a sisterhood bond with her older peers quickly.
Frankie (fourth from left), together with her volleyball teammates
Frankie’s previous inline skating experience already made her agile, but her overall constitution still needed more conditioning for the demands of a team sport. Frankie advanced from the trainings and joined the Keystone volleyball team in various inter-school and inter-city tournaments, stretching her physical and mental limits.
In her first games, Frankie the novice would double as a cheerleader to teammates who flinch at opponents because for her "moving forward is much more important than staying in those mistakes." In the 2019-2020 athletic season during her senior year at Keystone, Frankie, now a much more tenacious and strong-minded player, became the volleyball team captain.
The team's coach, Science teacher Brad Gibbs, noted Frankie's dedication to the success of the team throughout the years and her greatest asset: keeping the team focused on the next point.
"She understood the value of always looking ahead instead of dwelling on past mistakes," Mr. Gibbs said. "In volleyball, the mental stamina of each player is even more important than the skill of each player. A powerful team is one that has players who trust each other and one that can perform well even in the face of missed opportunities. Frankie never judged or blamed other players for mistakes. She encouraged other members, including herself, by demonstrating that she understood the power of having a unified team."
For volleyball coach Brad Gibbs, Frankie's attitude in the court encourages her team members greatly
She would maintain this attitude to lead her team to many championships, including the divisional tournaments hosted by the Beijing Area Sports Exchange (BASE) and The International Schools Athletic Conference (ISAC) in the past three years.
Frankie saw volleyball as a sport of cooperation, in stark contrast to the "intense" inline skating where she could only rely on herself. Her standing in the Keystone team also allowed her to relish the winning and losing together with her volleyball sisters. For her, the results—championships or otherwise—did not matter; it was enjoying the process and trusting that "my efforts are worth it."
Frankie was preparing for a regular team training sometime in the fall of 2019, when a ninth grader asked her help for a science assignment. Frankie's response was short and encouraging.
"Don't worry. If you can wait after an hour, I can help you. I have a book that I can pass to you."
Even in the volleyball court, boarding students seek Frankie's guidance. She has lived in the Keystone dorms since her ninth-grade year, and became a student proctor the following year. This position, she said, has shown her the "beauty of small things" and allowed her to "touch the hearts of others," especially when she can assist her peers in any way. Frankie looked up to her "older sisters"—or the juniors who preceded her and helped her navigate dorm life—for continuing this culture in Keystone's residential program.
Frankie usually co-organize dorm meet-ups with her co-proctors. These are female student boarders and the dorm parents living on the third floor of Keystone's east dormitory.
Director of Residential Life and Math teacher Amanda Shen saw a level of maturity in Frankie when she applied for being a dorm floor proctor. Besides Frankie's excellent time management skills and academic brilliance, especially in Math, Ms. Shen felt the student's inclination to care for other people.
This has manifested, eventually, through the activities Frankie co-organized with other proctors, such as movie watching or dorm meet-ups where they usually discussed teenage life. In one meeting, Frankie initiated a topic on fostering a healthy relationship between boys and girls, eliciting so many viewpoints from boarders. The female ninth graders, she said, truly enjoyed the conversation that every single one of them spoke at length about their own experiences.
Frankie (standing, rightmost), together with her dorm buddies during a meeting
Even Frankie had so much to talk about. Outside of dorm gatherings, she would speak to a few buddies about her middle school experience of being a "good" student in a class of the "best." She remembered how one male student excelled in all academic areas, shooting him straight to the top 50 of the school's 1,800 student population. Frankie, who then belonged in the top 100, studied so hard just to crack the magic 50 because her placement was simply not enough for her teachers. She ended up crying and feeling numb after realizing those teachers considered boys as "gods."
Her perspective on gender inequality issues deepened at Keystone. Frankie is a member of the Girls LEAD (Leadership Excellence Acceptance Diversity) club, a Keystone Activities Program (KAP) for students who support feminist ideas and activities that spark conversations on gender equality.
Girls LEAD club members
One of its projects that created a lot of buzz was the Biased Bake Sale, in which members sold baked goods to male customers at a higher price. The club aimed to inform the students of the gender pay gap and the unfair job market for women. In the first sale, Frankie noticed boys who "did not take it seriously" and argued that it was only for show. For her, the activity proved that many young men do not realize the different treatment women receive from society.
Outside the Girls LEAD club, Frankie has continued her service work in her home province by volunteering for Hongfo Children's Home, one of the biggest orphanages in the city of Shijiazhuang, that also provides some form of education to abandoned children, mostly girls. The institution’s classrooms are perched on a hill, while the dorms are sitting at its foot.
Frankie has been joining student teaching initiatives. Here, she traveled to the town of Wang'an to teach primary schoolers
After several visits, Frankie found the orphans were trying to act confident or happy so visitors would not pity them. She even saw some girls crying on their way back to their dorms.
A usual activity that Frankie and her young orphan friends would do was to recite Chinese poems, and that's enough to bring them joy. What made them visibly happier, she said, was getting their weekly "reward": watching TV once a week, when they got good grades in school.
When Frankie was much younger, she spent her afternoons watching Disney animations—or the "highlight of our childhoods." Among the many films she saw were Cinderella and Peter Pan. She remembered how Peter Pan's escapades had engrossed her seven-year-old self so much that she intensely desired to go to Neverland, or have one of her own.
The regular movie afternoons, however, became occasional viewings. Frankie's schedule was always about studying, especially during her middle school years. But the allure of Disney films was so strong that they could pull her out of the demands of studying and bring her back to the classroom with stories full of sparkle and smiles. Frankie was bought by the compelling storylines of those films and quickly picked up their themes of bravery, hope, and peace. But she never thought about their subliminal messages until recently, when she realized that Disney animations have a strong recall value and impact on children.
Now, informed by her experiences and observations of gender inequality since her younger years, the seventeen-year-old Frankie launched an investigation into the stereotypes of women in several Disney animations. She dedicated an Extended Essay (EE) for that, comparing the portrayal of the female leads of Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Moana. She watched the latter film only for her investigation, but was still swept away by its adventure story that was oceans away from the fairy tale-settings of the other animations. She loved all, anyway.
Frankie looked into different social eras to strengthen her arguments about the portrayal of women in Disney films in her Extended Essay
After watching the three films thrice and examining their script and imagery, Frankie was taken aback by her initial findings and admitted she was clueless about the stereotypical identity shared by female leads in Disney animations: that they follow a certain beauty standard, and that they should be accommodating to "[fulfill] the demand of the whole family."
In her final analysis, Frankie argued that women representation in the three films is influenced by the time and social environment during their time of release, but the portrayals have improved since, citing Moana’s attributes and social behavior that are unconventional of a classic Disney heroine such as Cinderella or Wendy.
Her EE supervisor, English teacher and Director of Residential Life Nehemiah Olwande, was not surprised that Frankie took up that topic. Mr. Olwande, who has taught Frankie since her arrival at Keystone, has seen how this student staunchly advocated equality for all genders in various academic and residential activities and openly spoke about the issues faced by women and socially disadvantaged groups in classroom discussions.
"Disney movies become our childhood highlight for a reason," Frankie said. "I was trying to find the good in the movies and be fair because I previously critiqued them from a feminist perspective. But I don't want to be overly sensitive and I don't want to frame myself in that."
Frankie wanted to move away from conventional feminist thoughts, as she feels these tend people to "picture a world in a way that someone always conveys a different message." The depth and breadth of her classes at Keystone, she said, widened her worldviews and became integral components of her analysis. For example, her English, World Civilization, and Economics classes allowed her to think in different aspects, while her Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course guided her arguments to ensure they remain objective.
Her TOK teacher, Director of Libraries Kacy Song, provided her with a deeper take on the binary representation of heroines and villains in the pre-classic and classic Disney films. This further stimulated Frankie's insight into women representation in animation, although she did not include this in her essay.
Both teachers spoke highly of Frankie's open-mindedness, curiosity, and perceptiveness in the classroom, with Mr. Olwande likening her to a diplomat who sought peace within groups during conflict resolution activities. Meanwhile, Ms. Song, Frankie’s dorm parent, developed a special bond with the student after engaging in "evening talks" about seemingly strange and purposeless topics that they would seamlessly connect to their TOK discussions.
"I am always happy at Keystone," Frankie exclaimed. She has so much to celebrate during her tenure at Keystone. She excelled in the Diploma Programme (DP), where she chose a high-level course in Mathematics and Biology. In addition, she joined many academic and athletic tournaments, bringing home medals and championships. But Frankie has moved on from getting her happiness from others or accolades. It is the simple things, she said, that bring her immense joy.
Frankie has already gone far from her starting ground in Hebei, and now she's continuing that journey towards her goals. She aims to keep her service work to empower more economically disadvantaged girls in her home province through cooperating with local NGOs in China. She will take a pit stop at Smith College, a small and special liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts, attracted by its diverse curriculum and sophisticated academic atmosphere. As of publishing time, Frankie has yet to decide the subject to major in, although she plans to take that alongside a minor in gender studies.
"At Keystone, I learned to think from others' perspectives and to be in other's shoes. I feel so privileged studying here. I've learned and grown a lot, and that helped me in the different ways that I interact with the world."
Her beginnings may be rough, but Frankie used that to find her footing to move in a more meaningful direction. But no matter how far she goes, Frankie will always enjoy the journey and take on newer paths to make positive change in the world.