Disney's Pocahontas reconsidered

Fifteen years ago when Walt Disney’s Pocahontas was released, it was the Princess movie everyone loved to hate:  feminists were appalled by the buxom babe makeover of the title protagonist, who was in fact only a little girl when John Smith was part of the Jamestowne settlement.  Conservatives saw a disturbing anti-growth environmental message with the simplistic contrast of ecologically harmonious Indian villages versus rapacious English despoilers of the North American environment.  Historians were appalled that John Smith’s self-serving fictions were spun once again into a historical romance with Pocahontas. 

I was in graduate school in 1995 when the movie was first released, and since I didn’t have any young children in my life, I never got around to watching it until about five years ago.  I like the movie a lot, and find a lot of the criticism of the movie at the time it was released too literal-minded.  I’ve even used clips of it to illustrate points I want to make in my undergraduate classes at both the introductory level and in upper-division classes.  The movie’s distortions are mostly in the service of fitting the Pocahontas legend into the Disney Princess mold–for example, the romance with Smith (we have to have a handsome prince, right?), the rebellion against her father (think about the wicked Queen or stepmothers, or King Triton in The Little Mermaid), the supernatural Mother Willow (fairy godmother, anyone?) and the adorably mischievous raccoon and hummingbird companions (Snow White’s forest friends, or the mice in Cinderella).  And although Pocahontas looks like she might have had breast implants, her costume is no more revealing than Ariel’s clamshell bra. 

In fact, when viewed against the other Disney Princess movies, the 80s and 90s versions–particularly Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid–what strikes me is that everyone has a (yes) cartoonishly improbable body.  Many of the women have enormous canteloupe boobs atop stick bodies–a body type not found in nature, needless to say–and the men look like they’re all on steroids.  Seriously–Disney’s John Smith looks like Mark McGwire.  I’m willing to believe that the Indian men were reasonably buff, but there’s no way that the hapless Jamestowne settlers all had Barry Bonds-like muscles.  (They were starving!)  But at least the 1980s and 90s Princesses are permitted to be more independent and courageous than the drippy Snow White of 1937 or the oddly passive Cinderella of 1950:  Ariel rescues the mulleted Prince Eric from drowning, Pocahontas provides valuable information to John Smith, Belle loves reading more than anything and swoons when she sees the Beast’s library, and Mulan transvests to go to war as a soldier.

In any case–physical and historical distortions nothwithstanding, here’s what I like about Pocahontas:

  1. In its portrayal of the Powhatan Indians and the English, it emphasizes the similarities among the cultures rather than the differences.  This is a key point in a lot of the new scholarship on Anglo-Indian relations.  (See for example “Savages,” below.)
  2. The eco-messaging is far too simplistic, but I think the portrayal of English rapacity isn’t overdone at all for the early Virginia settlers.  My favorite song and dance number is the “Mine, mine, mine” number, below.
  3. In the end, Smith is injured and returns to England–he doesn’t marry Pocahontas in the movie.  (There was a pretty abysmal follow-up produced a few years later, Pocahontas II:  Journey to a New Word, with vastly inferior production values, that portrays her marriage to John Rolfe and her trip to England.  Utterly forgettable compared to the original!)
  4. The songs, choreography, and drawings are brilliant.  And what more do we really want to get out of a Disney Princess movie?  I don’t think David Ogden Stiers ever got the credit he deserved for his zesty portrayal of the bad English guy Ratcliffe.

26 thoughts on “Disney's Pocahontas reconsidered

  1. This is timely. Just yesterday I slapped the Golden Book version of the Disney version on the document cam to talk about Jamestown, mostly as a foil, I have to admit. Ratcliffe was o.k., I guess, but I would have preferred to see a bit more of Capt. Newport (the real and perfect foil for Smith), and Opechancanough, a prototype for the American security nightmare right down to Osama Bin Laden in certain constructions of the tale. And how ’bout Geo. Kendall, the supposed Spanish spy? But these are just small quibbles, as we say in book reviews. As for Smitty, I knew that dude was juicing when the guy next to me said “Wow, that ball would have gone out of any park I know of, including Great Smoky!!” A Balco customer if there ever was one!


  2. Sure. Well, my book is one that argues that there are at least as many important similarities between English and Indian peoples, but here are others. (Interestingly, it’s the women’s and gender historians who seem to have led the way on this.)

    Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004)

    Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America (2004)

    R. Todd Romero, Making War and Minting Christians: Masculinity, Religion, and Colonialism in Early New England (forthcoming, U. Mass. Press)

    Michelle LeMaster, Gendered Contacts: Men, Women and the Family in Anglo-Indian Relations in the Colonial Southeast (forthcoming, U. Virginia Press)


  3. I just got off the phone with Superdean with an idea that this gave me for a Freshman Seminar: Women and the Other in the animated films of Disney Studios. He asked how it would get across the global component — Mulan? Jasmine? Tiger Lily and Pocahontas? The Emperor’s New Groove? Esmeralda in Hunchback? I am so doing this!


  4. Love it!!!

    Don’t forget that Beauty and the Beast is set in 17th or 18th C France. The other Disney princessapalities are indeterminate European countries (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella). The Little Mermaid is also a kind of cross-cultural love story too, much like Pocahontas.


  5. Hmmm. Maybe I should see the movie?
    I remember the discussion on H-Women when this came out — very intense, and I think representing some of the complications you note.


  6. I just about lost my shit in a Disney Store a couple of weeks ago. I was wandering through, shopping for a princess obsessed 6 year old’s birthday, when I saw what they’re doing to Mulan. They’ve princess-ified her. In the dress up section for girls, along with all the princess dresses for Snow White and Cinderella etc ad nauseum…the only Mulan clothes they had was her outfit from the aborted attempt to turn her into a proper bride from the very beginning of the movie. A dress. And makeup. And heels. *sigh*

    I couldn’t figure out whether to laugh or cry and go on a homicidal rampage. Instead, I just told the salesperson that I wouldn’t be buying any of their merchandise until I could get my niece an official Disney certified Mulan rocket launcher. Like the one she used in the movie. When she was wearing pants. And fighting a freakin’ war.

    They were not amused.

    Probably a little off topic, but I felt like if I didn’t rant about this somewhere, I would probably explode.


  7. Instead, I just told the salesperson that I wouldn’t be buying any of their merchandise until I could get my niece an official Disney certified Mulan rocket launcher. Like the one she used in the movie. When she was wearing pants. And fighting a freakin’ war.

    Heh heh heh. I’m with you, DarthVelma! I really like Mulan, but I’m not surprised that they don’t sell the costume of her transvesting. (That is, the costume she wears for most of the movie.) That movie is almost too subversive to be a Disney princess movie–after all, this is the movie that features a song-and-dance number called “I’ll Make a Man out of You,” which Mulan’s C.O. Li Shang sings to her and 3 dorky/out of shape men, one of whom is voiced by Harvey Firestein! (Talk about gender as a performance. And you’ll even see the Mulan Rocket Launcher in the clip I’ve linked!)

    And, just a personal opinion, but Li Shang is the hunkiest “prince” of all of the Princess movies. I’m just sayin’. (And Donny Osmond did his singing voice!)


  8. Too contribute a Middle Atlantic strand to the regional diversity and interactive complexity of the booklist that Historiann offered above, one could also add:

    People of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians. By Amy C. Schutt. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 250 pp.); A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters among the Delaware Indians. By Gunlög Fur. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 280 pp.); and Laura Keenan Spero’s just-completed and ultimately to be revised dissertation on the “Shawnee diaspora” in early America (U. of Pennsylvania, 2010). To say nothing of a wealth of studies on the Iroquois.


  9. Being an old fart I actually kinda like Snow White, which I’m old enough to have seen in an actual movie theatre during one of its many rereleases. When I get up in the morning surrounded by my many cats (I am nothing if not a cultural stereotype) I feel just like SW when all the little forest animals hovered around her.

    Of course, I also admit to having been entirely traumatized by the sorcerer’s apprentice segment of Fantasia and still am ambivalent about brooms….


  10. Oh, princesses. A colleague here who is, it must be said, not the least bit princess-y, has a pre-K daughter who seeks out the princess wear like an oppression-seeking missile. The mother swears up and down that this affinity sprang fully formed from the child, with no external influence. “I don’t know where this comes from, not from me,” she says with what looks suspiciously like pleasure at her child’s “independence.” Oy.


  11. Truffula–I know a lot of parents who are traumatized by their daughters’ princess phase. It seems to pass really quickly for most girls, around the time they go to school and are introduced to whole new worlds of ideas and information. (And they get interested in something other than kiddie-sized ballgown fashion.)


  12. arents who are traumatized by their daughters’ princess phase

    But in this case, I’m the one who is traumatized by the child’s princess phase, not her mother. Her mother seems not-so-secretly pleased while at the same time denies responsibility for it. It’s not what I’d expect. Probably good for the child though, to have a mother who says okay kiddo, whatever.


  13. She may just be bemused by it all, or she may really enjoy it. I have friends in their 40s who are more into Disney stuff than their kids are. And if it’s not her only child, she may know that it’s a fleeting stage after all, and just want to enjoy it. As Western Dave suggests, there are other interests after Princesses that may make parents nostalgic for the days of dress-up ballgowns.

    (Most parents think whatever their kids do or are into is pretty special, even when it’s not really!)


  14. My youngest, a 3 year-old boy, frequently gets in fights with his older sisters about who gets to wear the red Snow White princess shoes. We also have pictures of him (on multiple occasions) in a Wonder Woman costume. We’re saving those for his prom night.


  15. I was only 11 when Pocahontas came out, but I remember looking down, in my 11 year-old way, on all the silly adults who just didn’t get that John Smith and Pocahontas fell in love in the movie because that’s the way Disney movies go, duh! And so forth.

    Really, it seems like Disney’s animated films need to be dealt with as a group. At this point they have years of not history so much as past practice, and they fit all new films into the older oeuvre. I wrote about how you can see that in <a href="http://takingitoutside.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/the-princess-and-the-frog-for-martin-luther-king-jr-day/&quot;The Princess and the Frog on my blog awhile back. I’m very interested in seeing what the next film looks like, and I’m worried that Disney will stop making them. For all their problems, I hope not.


  16. I grew up loving Disney movies. And I still do! So for all their faults on women’s body images, racism, etc I just can’t help but be rooting for Disney. I really hope they continue making animated feature lengths. I consider how far they’ve come with the “Indians/Savages” in Peter Pan to the Native Americans in Pocahontas. Yes there’s always progress to be made, but you always know what you’re going to get with a Disney movie. I don’t see anything wrong with a Princess phase as long as little girls are also taking on ideas of independence and confidence. I think what makes a disney “princess” has really changed. And I love how diverse the princesses have gotten. It may seem kind of silly, but I just tear up knowing that little girls of various ethnic backgrounds now have their own princesses who look just like them. And we need more of that.


  17. Fow what it’s worth, some preschool boys have a princess phase too. I have adorable pictures of my older son wearing the pink “princess dress” from the dress up box at his preschool. It was his favorite. He never watched the Disney princess movies that I can recall, but he loved that dress. Now he’s 9, and it’s all cars, machines, and things that explode all the time. I sort of miss the dress.


  18. Pingback: Perceptions and Assumptions « sparker10

  19. As a Native American and a mother I find it ludicrous that nobody has a problem with the kidnapping & raping of Pocahontas. Nor that she supposedly had a love relationship at approx the age of 10 yrs old with a man in his 30s. So much for feminine power eh?


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