POCAHONTAS (1995)

Issue Essay

THE POCAHONTAS CONSPIRACY
by
Lynn Dukette and Dani Frisbie

"Instead of progress in depicting Native Americans, this film takes a step backwards – a very dangerous step because it is so carefully glossed as 'authentic' and 'respectful.' " – Jacquelyn Kilpatrick

Introduction

[1]    Disney’s first attempt to relay the Pocahontas story was filled with blatant falsities.  The producers, who claimed to eradicate politically incorrect statements found in past films with the highly anticipated 1995 Pocahontas, found themselves at the center of criticisms from many vocal activist groups.  Feminists, Native Americans, and religiously based Christian groups found the movie to completely overlook the true essence and spirit of the Powhatan Indian princess.  In an attempt to curb many of its criticisms and appease angry minorities, Disney produced a sequel.  Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998) picks up on Pocahontas’ life in Jamestown and transports her to London.  Here Disney hoped to give more accuracy to the historical figure’s life and continue to teach society the lessons of tolerance and good triumphing over evil.  However, this second film does little but add even more criticisms to an already long list of complaints from interest groups.  History continues to be romanticized and distorted beyond recognition, and, consequently, a fallacious version of the Pocahontas story survives.

Feminist Criticisms

[2]    Many feminists attacked the 1995 Pocahontas for its mythical portrayal of a young Native American girl.  She was created by the animators as an exotic creature capable of jumping off extremely high waterfalls.  She also uses the “colors of the wind” to allow her the ability to fly, to immediately comprehend a foreign language, and to solve practically impossible problems. Pocahontas also has the capacity to converse with four-hundred-year-old trees, talk with wild animals, and leap effortlessly through the forest.  This depiction of Pocahontas immediately causes the audience to view her as a fairytale character rather than a historically prominent figure.  Feminists argue that if the story were about a fictional heroine as found in all previous Disney films, there would be less concern.  However, Pocahontas was a “real woman who lived during a pivotal time of first contact” (Kilpatrick 2).  The movie encourages children to perform similar “Wonder-woman”-like feats, rather than being a strong and realistic woman in today’s world (Rosenzweig).  (For an audio clip by Dani Frisbie about Lydia H. Sigourney, a feminist poet who wrote about Pocahontas in the 19th century, click here.)

[3]    One of the most significant discrepancies in the movie for the feminists was the Barbie-like figure given to Pocahontas.  Not only is her chest size capable of toppling her over, but the remainder of her physical dimensions are also completely impractical.  The supervising animator of the film, Glen Keane, worked hard hours in the studio envisioning “an animated beauty-formula for a sexy, muscular model.  The Pocahontas of the 90’s makes Cinderella pale in comparison” (Rosenzweig 1).  Feminists argue that Pocahontas should have been depicted as she really appeared in the seventeenth century.  Since her death in 1617, a vast number of different images of her figure have been created (see the "potpourri").  Yet Disney’s representation is definitely the least accurate of them all.  Pocahontas certainly did not seductively slither across the Virginia forest in a tight buckskin miniskirt, and a tight, cleavage-enhancing top.

[4]    Furthermore, Pocahontas is portrayed as a young, twenty-year-old woman; however, records show that she was closer to ten or eleven at the time of her first encounter with John Smith.  Disney attempted to create a more socially responsible relationship between Smith and Pocahontas by making her an older character.  Regardless of the age discrepancy, Disney fails in this venture, because there is no evidence that there ever was a romantic relationship between Smith and Pocahontas (contrary to the passion Peggy Lee sings in "Fever"!).   Also, Rosenzweig emphatically states that “the older she is, the better she fills out her clingy deerskin dress” (82).  This quote obviously demonstrates Disney’s objective in creating a timeless and unrealistic beauty in this film, as well as other previous animated classics.

[5]    Native American feminists particularly personalize Disney’s portrayal of Pocahontas.  Powhatan women are not known to have “super hair,” as Keane calls it, “fluttering like a black cape in the wind” (83).  Disney also reinforces the old Native American stereotype that the women fall for the first white man they see.  In the movie, Pocahontas appears to have been emancipated by Smith, the stereotypical and civilized white man.  This justifies a historically negative colonizing period towards Native American women.  Lastly, Disney relates Pocahontas to nature in many ways.  She’s depicted as being a bird that swan dives off a cliff and a human who can converse with animals.  This close relationship with her natural surroundings makes her, like nature, a possession of the white explorers.

[6]    Disney attempts to solve many unanswered questions and criticisms by producing a sequel to Pocahontas.  The second movie, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), is just as inaccurate and mythical as the first.  The problems that the feminists raised with Pocahontas are not addressed in the sequel.  Pocahontas proves to still be a “super-woman” as she boldly stops the Natives and colonists from fighting at the beginning of the film.  She also convinces the King of England to cancel the armada that was headed towards the New World.  Even before tackling these feats, she volunteers to board the ship with John Rolfe and head back to England to meet the King.

[7]    In addition, the sequel does little to change her appearance. She still appears as a Barbie-like doll throughout the film.  It seems as though Disney was trying to cover her up at the beginning of the film by creating a winter scene in the New World. The mini-skirt disappears and is replaced by a long sleeve and long skirt outfit.  Yet, once the boat reaches England, Pocahontas shows off her long legs and large chest to the English as she parades around the town in the same outfit as the first movie.  It’s even more ironic when you realize that she is the only one wearing summer clothes, and all the English have on their winter clothes.  Also, many feminists believe that this movie is even more detrimental towards women as Disney attempts to squeeze a Native American into an English ball gown.  Pocahontas gets invited to a ball so that she can demonstrate how “civilized” she can be to the King.  The fashionable dress, fancy hair-do, and white powder reinforce the idea in children that one must change her appearance with accessories in order to be accepted by others.

Native American Criticisms

[8]    Beyond feminist complaints, Native Americans especially find Pocahontas to be detrimental to their culture.  Throughout the movie, the word savage is used to characterize the Powhatan people.  According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of this word describes an uncivilized, uncultivated, ferocious, and barbarous person.  Disney attempts to downplay the negative perception behind the word by referring to the English colonists as savages as well.  However, today this word is typically used against Native Americans in a particularly degrading way and really does not apply to other races.   Similarly, calling a Hispanic woman a JAP (Jewish-American Princess) or a Japanese person a Guinea would not demonstrate how dehumanizing the hateful epithets truly are.

[9]    Disney did attempt to incorporate Native Americans into the film by using their voices for many of the Native roles.  However, this was not an adequate representation of the Pocahontas story.  Simply giving professional Native American actors a script and having them perform does not justify all the other falsities within the film.  Russell Means, a Native American and the voice of Powhatan, admits that Disney did take his advice about the father calling Pocahontas “Daughter” instead of her name.  However, they were “unwilling to change important aspects of the image of the Indians as warlike, as established by the return from war at the beginning of the film” (Kilpatrick 3).

[10]    Native Americans are also offended by the historical inaccuracy of the film in general.  As Custalow-Mcgowan said, “History is history.  You’re not honoring a nation of people when you change their history” (Kilpatrick 4).  When you create a Disney animated feature, you know you’re going to be affecting entire generations of human minds.  In this case, the effect is one more misconception advertised in the guise of authenticity and respect for Native American values.  It does not teach the children of today’s society what really happened in the American past.  By Disney giving a false description of the Powhatan people and the events that occurred among the English settlers, they almost glorify the atrocities done to the Native people.  According to Buescher and Ono, “Disney helps audiences unlearn the infamous history of mass slaughter by replacing it with a cute, cuddly one, a memorable exception to the typical colonization narrative."  (For further elaboration on this quote, refer to Lynn Dukette's audio clip.)  In a close examination of the historical facts surrounding Pocahontas, 99% of the story told in the film is wrong.  For example, Disney did not portray the Natives daily life or culture accurately.  The filmmakers only briefly show the cornfields and their village and only reflect on the Powhatan’s desire to wage war.  Their culture, including the art, music, and other rituals, failed to make the script.

[11]    One of the greatest criticisms made by the Native Americans is their appearance in Pocahontas.  All of the Natives depicted in the movie look very similar and seemingly blend together.  The Powhatans all possess the same skin color, except for Pocahontas who is a few shades lighter.  All the men are tall and well built, with chiseled and well-defined facial features.  However, in reality the men differ in size and shape like all people.  The women are also depicted as being very similar to one another and have very few accurate facial features.  However, in reality Native Americans are a mix of many ethnicities and represent a culture far different from that of the Powhatan people in the movie.  Pocahontas especially has a very “adjusted” face.  Besides her beautiful “more Asian” eyes and nose, she has a curved African face and a Caucasian body.

[12]    As if Pocahontas did not anger the Powhatan people enough, the sequel provides even more falsities and distortions. The 1998 movie begins in the New World, where the Natives are experiencing the cold winter months.  Their winter dress blends in with their skin and the audience can hardly tell whether they are even wearing any clothes.  Their facial features are even paler, and they all still appear to look the same, especially the men.  The one attempt by Disney to incorporate some Native tradition was by creating a tribal dance.  However, the dance proves to be of little importance as John Rolfe prances in and interrupts the ceremony.  As the audience becomes more engulfed in the sequel, the appearance of the Natives diminish, as Pocahontas and her bodyguard head for England with Rolfe.

[13]    One of the most humiliating aspects of the sequel is Pocahontas’s bodyguard.  Not only did Disney make this character “big and dumb,” but they make him run foolishly behind the chariot and unable to really speak.  He is sent along with Pocahontas in order to protect her and to discover how many white men the Powhatan Nation would be up against if a war ever occurred.  Also, Pocahontas embarrasses the Natives in this film because she surrenders to the English culture.  Rolfe dresses her up into a ball gown and supposedly teaches her how to act “civilized."

[14]    Lastly, the Powhatan Nation brought to attention the continued historical inaccuracy of Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.  The movie allows the audience to believe that Pocahontas volunteered herself to be taken back to England.  However, in reality, she was taken prisoner by the English and held hostage at Jamestown for over a year.  Furthermore, Pocahontas never returned to the New World with Rolfe, as happens at the end of movie.  She died at age twenty-two in England probably from pneumonia and/or tuberculosis.  Because of all these historical facts that have been left out of the movie, many Powhatans are once again outraged.  As Chief Roy Crazy Horse stated, “It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes 'entertainment' and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation” (“Pocahontas Myth").

Church Criticisms

[15]    Religious-affiliated organizations also find many reasons to criticize Disney’s
Pocahontas.  The absence of the influence of Christianity on Pocahontas in the film
particularly angers many people.  Actual history has records of the Anglican faith being
introduced to the Powhatan people.  In fact, Pocahontas was the first Native in Virginia to be
baptized into the faith, and a painting of the "Baptism of Pocahontas" by John Gadsby
Chapman hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.  John Rolfe, the actual man she
fell in love with, only agreed to marry her after her conversion.  It is thought that Pocahontas
was baptized in the city of Henricus, Virginia, in 1613.  There, she was given the biblical name of Rebecca and was then considered worthy of marrying Rolfe, a very religious tobacco
farmer.  Peace between the Native Americans and the English settlers resulted from this
arrangement for a few ensuing years (Faery 41-46).

[16]    Other considerations for criticism from the religious perspective occurred because of the
lustful and seductive behavior of Pocahontas and John Smith in the film.  Pocahontas flaunts
her desirable body and teases Smith with her pouty lips, flirtatious eyes, and long, beautiful,
black hair.  She also exhibits a wild and free and arousing persona, rather than a tame and
typically pure and proper Christian attitude.  These traits contribute to a shared romantic
longing between Pocahontas and Smith, which remains evident throughout the entire movie.
Thus, religious groups find this conduct negative, especially considering that children are the
main audience and are easily influenced by what they view on film (Thomas 4).  They believe the main focus of the movie should have concentrated more on Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity and her newly “saved” and noble presence.  Though sex sells, Disney’s movies should find other ways to reach fans, according to religious critics.

[17]    Another reproach of the film is the extensive use of pagan beliefs and spirituality.
Pocahontas identifies herself with talking trees, the voices of the wind, blowing leaves, and
anthropomorphic animals.  Disney attempts to show a close bond between the Powhatans and
nature but instead distorts history and removes all Christianity.  Religious people do not believe
that having artificial relationships with natural spirits promotes positive experiences (Thomas 6).  Children start to view their real connections with their surroundings as if they too were in a movie rather than in a monotheistic, Christian world.  Furthermore, religious men and women believe that it is a dishonor to God’s creation of the world to personify nature and completely blend the lines between reality and make-believe (Morenus 1).  Lastly, Pocahontas II also does little to show the influence of Christianity in any aspects of the lives of Pocahontas or the residents of London.

Conclusion

[18]    Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World are two movies that are based upon historical facts.  However, it is obvious that Disney has changed many aspects of reality by altering the Pocahontas story into a lustful and colorful fairy tale.  Feminists, Native Americans, and religious organizations have all criticized Disney for failing in its duty to teach history to its young audience.  Yet Keane believes that “because it is an animated film, there is no reason to expect the story told to be accurate” (Buescher and Ono).  If this is the case, then Disney should never have considered using Pocahontas as a basis for an animated children’s movie.  Most adults who view this film won’t even have the background to judge whether it is accurate or not, since the story is not mentioned in detail in history books.

[19]    Disney may have had good intentions in presenting a strong Native character that represents cultural integration, peace, and feminine strength.  However, in their attempt to do right, they overlooked many of the issues that have led to criticism.  Many argue that “this film tries to expiate a little of the guilt that might be felt by one of the West’s most successful capitalistic organizations” (Felperin 58).  Disney argues back that they are attempting to demonstrate racial tolerance by creating a character that can be appreciated worldwide by many different cultures.  The animators try to excuse the feminist criticisms by stating that “Pocahontas is much more reality-based than any other Disney girl, and her gifts go well beyond her measurements” (Rosenzweig).  Yet we all know that excuses don’t mean much in the eyes of children and that it is the visual reality of the movie that will be absorbed as the truth.

Works Cited

Abrams, Ann Uhry.  The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths Of American Origin.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.

Buckland, Carol.  “Walt Disney’s ‘Pocahontas.’” http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/Pocahontas/index.html.  June 1995.

Buescher, Derek T., and Kent A. Ono.  "Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric."  Women's Studies in Communication 19.2 (1996): 127-53.

Edgerton, Gary, and Kathy Jackson.  “Redesigning Pocahontas."  Journal of Popular Film and Television (June 1996):  90-98.

Faery, Rebecca B.  Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation.  Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.

Felperin, Leslie.  “Pocahontas."  Sight and Sound  ???? (1995):  57-58.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn.  “Disney’s ‘Politically Correct’ Pocahontas (Race in Contemporary American Cinema: Part 5).”  Cineaste 21.4 (1995): 36.

Henke, Jill, Diane Umble, and Nancy Smith.  “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine."  Women’s Studies in Communication 19 (Summer 1996):  229-49.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  “Pocahontas: Savior or Savage?”
http://theweboftime.Com/Poca.POCAHO~1.html.  Summer 1998.

Morenus, David.  “The Real Pocahontas."  http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/1001/poca_main.html.

Morton, Charlene.  “Pocahontas Film Review.”  net@uicvm.uic.edu

Mossiker, Frances.  Pocahontas: the Life and the Legend.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

“Movie Reviews."  The Journal of American History.  ???? (1995): 1302-5.

“Pocahontas Myth."   http://www.powhatan.org.pocc.html.

Rosenzweig, Illene.  “And Disney Created Woman." Allure (June 1995): 81-83.

Thomas, Rick.  History of Christianity in North America.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986: 1-16.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2001 by Lynn Dukette and Dani Frisbie, Undergraduates at Lehigh University.

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