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Disney's Pocahontas: Didn't They Know Not to Mix Fact with Fiction?

Robin Pertusi

[1] When most people think of Disney their minds flash to princesses, palaces, and all fantasy-filled things. If there were a story about distress, it resulted in happiness, as with all the best Hollywood endings. It was as if Disney could do no wrong. That is, of course, until their 1995 release of Pocahontas, their first animated film to be based on an actual person, let alone a Native American one. Didn't Disney know not to mix business with pleasure? Apparently not, since their transformation of Pocahontas not only re-imagined more than a few things, it also practically rewrote everything. In its "Disneyfication" of Native American culture, the film recreated the once chaste and innocent eleven-year-old Pocahontas to be a twenty-year-old seductress. With an entirely invented romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith, Disney exploited her physical appearance in an explicitly sexualized way. Not to mention the racially slurred subordination of all Native Americans that sits among the backdrop of inaccurate retellings of history. Did Disney really think that mixing fact with fiction would go over smoothly? Well, maybe it would have if they hadn't placed Pocahontas in the body of a Barbie waiting to be wanted by a white man.

[2] In the eyes of Native Americans, the physical appearance of Disney's transformed Pocahontas was not only shocking but also disturbing. It seemed that Disney forgot to account for the implications that would result from distorting the facts, since both Pocahontas and John Smith appear to be twenty in the film instead of eleven and thirty accordingly. Rightly so, those familiar with the historical accuracies of the real story could envision nothing other than a pedophile in Smith's supposed courting of a far too young Pocahontas. Perhaps their reaction would not have been so strong if Disney had not chosen to overtly sexualize Pocahontas within the backdrop of "a culture where a woman is evaluated only on her appearance and lives only for the approval from men" (Whelshula). The clearly "soft" and "seductive" temptress-tone that Pocahontas spoke in and "very short dress" that clung to "her large, sexy bosom and round buttocks" were not observations exclusively made by Native Americans; these were apparent to everyone (Whelshula).

[3] Why did Disney decide to shape Pocahontas's image in this way? Well, many would argue that this is simply the "Disney-style" or, rather, the Barbie style of imagining the idealized woman. This wouldn't have been as controversial had Pocahontas not been a real person, unlike every other Disney princess. The reshaping of her once real image suddenly submersed Pocahontas in "Barbie's culture – a culture that relies on sexism, capitalism, and lookism" – all of which completely clash with that of Native Americans (Whelshula). In Native America, "Pocahontas would have been undoubtedly banished from her tribe if she showed up in a fringed minidress . . . modesty was, and continues to be, a value among Native American people" (Whelshula). Furthermore, Native Americans would argue that their "people are not built like Disney's Pocahontas . . . they do not, as a rule, have tiny waists and big buttocks" (Whelshula). Cue the offended reaction spurring from "Disney advocating that not only should Indian people behave like white Americans, they must also be shaped like them" (Whelshula).

[4] While the offended response may have stemmed from the physical appearance of Pocahontas, it extends to the larger offense that the "entertainment industry has continued to define and imply" what the Native American's "value system is about" (Whelshula). In this particular case, their "main concern is that Indian youth" are aware that they "do not promote the exploitation of body images for the sake of romance," as in Disney's Pocahontas (Whelshula). The film's implication that young Native Americans who are "often powerless" can "paradoxically gain power through sexuality" is downright wrong (Whelshula). Consequently, the film's representation or, shall we say, misrepresentation of Pocahontas left Native American women feeling like they had no choice other than to "stand up and say" that they "will no longer allow the white males in this society to define our body image" (Whelshula).

[5] Yet, the film didn't stop there with the threatening imprint it left on the morale of Native Americans. Instead, Disney's "savage"-filled Pocahontas left them wondering whether or not "any movie made today would have a theme song that referred to African Americans as niggers" (Giago). While we instinctively shudder at such an inhumane thought, the comparison of "savages" to "niggers" is not far off, since the words are equally demeaning. Aside from the fact that an entire song is entitled "savages," the film is flooded with such racist language as "heathens," "pagans," "primitive," and "uncivilized" (Pewewardy). The "Savages, Savages" song itself lyrically misconstrues Native Americans as being characteristically capricious. With that, they are depicted as being uncivilized and uncontrollable. They are even insulted on a religious front for their ideological beliefs that differ from the Christian English settlers. In fact, the entire song only serves to further perpetuate their differences, as the "dueling lyrics possess all of the force of the childish taunt "I know you are but what am I?" -- an endless tautological circle that avoids the truth of power imbalance in this situation" (Berglund 53). Dueling it is, as the song is structured so that the offensive language comes from both races with the tribesman referring to the English as "pale faced demons."

[6] It is not without reason that the tactically constructed film filled the entire Native American community with aversion, resentment, and deep insult upon its release, particularly because the societal effects linger with each new generation that watches it. Further amplifying this misunderstanding of Native American culture is the media, as "People magazine displayed its special brand of ignorance with a cutline under the photo of Pocahontas that read 'Pocahontas: the squaw that stirs the drink: at last, a heroine who knows the ways of nature and the art of belting show tunes'" (Giago). Little did the media know (or did they?) that "there is not an American Indian woman alive in this land who is not immediately repulsed by the word 'squaw' . . . it is the literal translation of an Algonquin word referring to a woman's private parts which settlers brought with them as they moved west and used it to describe all Indian women, relegating them to nothing more than whores" (Giago).

[7] This kind of language and the actual language used in the film implies a "value judgment of white superiority" that subjugates "Indian tribes by so-called 'advanced' cultures in the name of progress" (Pewewardy). Disney constructed a "monolithic notion of national identity" that falsely shaped our cultural understanding of Native Americans for the almost two decades since the film's release (Giroux 74). Instead of being central to the understanding of American history, Native Americans are represented as being "either exotic or irrelevant" (Giroux 74). The film has had a tremendous "influence on children" in its "attracting of their attention" and "shaping of their values" (Giroux 68). This shaping of values touches on every issue from "the construction of gender, race, class, caste" to include "other aspects of self-identity and collective identity" (Giroux 74). Disney's "scripted view of childhood and society" creates roles and narratives that are "constructed to define American life" (Giroux 68). As a result, children are positioned "pedagogically to learn what subject positions are and are not open to them as citizens," as the Native Americans feared with the film's staging of empowerment through sexuality (Giroux 74).

[8] While Disney's Pocahontas is partially based in fact, historians argue that it's predominately based in fiction; but this is more than just fiction – it is the "Disneyfication" or what some would call fabrication that "shapes children's experiences" (Giroux 67). Deemed more than merely a "corporate giant," Disney is "also a cultural institution that fiercely struggles to protect its mythical status as a purveyor of American innocence and moral virtue" (Giroux 66). With that, the "Disney ideology" produces a rather "narrow view" of society, as seen with the "rigid roles" assigned "to women and people of color" in Pocahontas (Giroux 68, 74). This view, however, is not only narrow – it is also the result of the "Disneyfication" that lured millions "into thinking they're watching a love story, a multicultural adventure story set during the time of the nation's founding in seventeenth-century Virginia" (Berglund 50).

[9] The mixing of fact with fiction was probably the greatest error in judgment here, as Disney opened a Pandora's box of offensive yet believable cultural falsehoods. The enticing elements of the film are undeniably quality entertainment "filled with pretty images, a motherless heroine, cute animal sidekicks, comic relief, a raving mad villain, gorgeous vistas, catchy, and inspiring songs" (Berglund 50). Yet, their effects should be seen as anything but quality, as Disney "undercuts the emotional heft of numerous scenes, diverting attention from serious issues, such as the killing of Kocoum, the only Native person, and the only person at all to die during the film's eighty-eight minutes" (Berglund 51). Much to the horror of Native Americans, Disney claims to have upheld "authenticity" in regard to "indigenous aspects of the film," such as the "meticulously researched historical story, representations of clothing, language, and culture of the Powhatan people" (Berglund 51). The falsity of such claims was apparent to more than just Native Americans, as Pocahontas's morphing "from a girl of twelve into a fully developed woman, scantily clad in clothing reminiscent of Barbarella, and the male characters that resembled Jersey Shore meatheads with long hair" were most certainly not "authentic" (Berglund 51).

[10] Instead, Disney's Pocahontas can be seen as a "distortion and sanitization of the past" (Mintz 364). "To sentimentalize and romanticize Pocahontas's rescue of John Smith is to misunderstand its true cultural meaning," from any perspective, Native American or not (Mintz 369). Historically, the entirety of the film is "misleading . . . it omits the larger context of colonial expansion and violent resistance" (Mintz 370). For one, it doesn't so much as touch upon the fact that "Pocahontas's future husband, John Rolfe, was the first Englishman to grow tobacco in Virginia – which stimulated a rush for Indian land" (Mintz 370). The film also fails to mention the assault that "Pocahontas's brother led in 1622 that killed a third of the English settlers, including Pocahontas's English husband" (Mintz 370). Similar to the way in which Disney wrongfully used the word "savage" to create a theme song, they wrongfully used the tragic story of Pocahontas "to create a heartwarming cartoon musical" (Mintz 370). Again, this "inconceivable" happening left Native Americans wondering why Disney didn't just base a film on the equally tragic "story of Anne Frank" (Mintz 370). Each and every "present-day concern about ethnic relations, tolerance, and environmentalism is projected into the distant past, obscuring the difference between the past and the present" in the film (Mintz 369). As "Chief Roy Crazy Horse" said, "It is unfortunate that in 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" (Golden 23).

[11] In the words of "an American Indian journalist who detests seeing Indians denigrated in cartoons and history distorted by the Disney folks: I'll just fade into the darkness as the Virginia Company sings, 'I'll kill myself an Indian, maybe two or three'" (Giago). Notably recognizing the incomprehensible truth that "if the words were changed to, 'I'll just kill myself a white man, maybe two or three,' the mass media would raise a stink" (Giago). It is sad to realize that the "Disneyfication" of Pocahontas is in essence the suppression of an entire race, stripping them of more than just their identity, but also their voice. Native Americans have been forced to endure the retelling of history amid the transforming of their cultural values for years. Yet, Pocahontas was no exception. Her figure, attire, and age were all carefully crafted according to the Barbie standards of Disney's idealized woman. The exploitation of the female body and savage-like representation of the Indian people was quite frankly an unacceptable distortion of reality. Indian societies were "misrepresented and undermined" by the film's decision to "make the chief the sole authority when, in reality," Native Americans "had very complex and democratic structures of governing in place" (Talaiake Alfred). The heroic quality of Pocahontas's rescue was completely overshadowed by Disney's romanticized relationship between her and Smith. Are we surprised that Native Americans feel threatened by this film? Wouldn't we be defensive if the representation of our entire race was subject to the fictionalized retelling of one woman's story? These questions should not be difficult to answer, but the difficult answer is that white men may never have to ask them so long as Disney is doing the telling.

Works Cited:

Whelshula, Martina. "'Pocahontas' Rates an F in Indian Country." Indian Country Today 6 July 1995: n. pag. Print.

Giago, Tim. "Cartoon Pocahontas Is An Insult." Indian Country Today 28 July 1995: n. pag. Print.

Pewewardy, Dr. Cornel. ""Pocahontas": The White Man's Indian." Indian Country Today 6 July 1995: n. pag. Print.

Berglund, Jeff. "Pocahontas." Seeing Red: Hollywood's Pixeled Skins. Ed. LeAnne Howe, Harvey Markowitz, and Denise K. Cummings. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2013.

Giroux, Henry A. "Animating Youth: The Disneyfication of Children's Culture." Socialist Review 94.3 (1994): 65-79. Pre-Pocahontas but relevant.

Mintz, Steven. "Movies, History, and the Disneyfication of the Past: The Case of Pocahontas." Hollywood's America: Twentieth-Century America through Film. Ed. Steven Mintz and Randy W. Roberts. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Golden, Margaret. "Pocahontas: Comparing the Disney Image with Historical Evidence." Social Studies and the Young Learner 18.4 (2006): 19-23.

Alfred Talaiake, Dr. Gerald. "Reaction." Indian Country Today 6 July 1995: n. pag. Print.