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Pocahontas: Branded into Popular Culture

Gaelyn Rosenberg

[1] Pocahontas reached her selling point in 1995—after, of course, her life was mercilessly translated into the popular Disney Pocahontas. She was calculatedly packaged into videotape, sold across the world, commodified, all the while perpetuating an unlikely image that remains -- undoubtedly -- far from the truth. Pocahontas is no longer the real historical figure, Matoaka, as we once knew her to be. The film characterizes Pocahontas as a "wise," "spirited," Native American princess, whose "courageous" disposition is worn upon her sleeve, tattooed across her delicate yet prominent features.

[2] Pocahontas falls in love with John Smith, an English settler—who, with the assistance of others, comes to the New World "in search of riches," in search of natives who are "in possession of those riches." Battles inevitably ensue, swallowing members of both "tribes" whole—mercilessly, inhumanely. This romantic twist, though, is absent from her original narrative. Pocahontas was, as best we can tell, a young girl of about eleven-years-old and, according to some Native American accounts, not even present at the community gathering that would have enabled her to prevent Smith's death. Why, then, does Disney feel entitled to infuse her story with romance — to, arguably, uproot Pocahontas from her native heritage and toss her into a different role, one that is both unfitting and unfaithful to her roots? Following the mass-production of this film, markets, hungry for our dear Pocahontas, hungry for the money she would reap as a romantic, American hero, made way for products as well as popular cultural discourses pertaining to her core being. She became a "cipher," a late-capitalist commodity form. And everyone wanted a piece of her (Edgerton and Jackson 90).

[3] Ranging from picture books to life-size poster boards, from food products to clothing, and from plates to cups, Pocahontas has become a staple item on the market. While her presence in stores and in magazines has dwindled down over the past decade or so, the remnants of our commodified Indian princess have remained intact (Ono and Buescher 26). For the most part, though, these artifacts are far from the truth. Who is the "real" Pocahontas, then? Why is she hidden behind consumer products that have permeated the market? Pocahontas's name and image alone have drawn in billions of dollars, dollars that slowly but surely have shrouded the "true" Pocahontas in a heap of economic profitability—and, nothing more.

[4] In "Redesigning Pocahontas," Gary Edgerton and Kathy Merlock Jackson express their disdain for Disney: Disney is arguably the "film industry's exemplar for creating blockbuster motion pictures, refueling the releases with highly sophisticated advertising . . . [and] maximizing profit by licensing literally hundreds of ancillary products" (90). Pocahontas has already "generated over $1 billion in revenues on an $80 million investment (a $55 million production budget and $25 million for advertising and marketing), and its total earnings" keep on growing. Edgerton and Jackson don't stop here. And they shouldn't. They go on to explain how Disney's campaign to sell Pocahontas commenced on February 3, 1995—with a "24-city mall display, complete with an animation kiosk where shoppers could electronically paint a cel from the film." Additionally, shoppers could view a "26-foot model of John Smith's ship"—one of the many promotional "juggernaut[s]" that continued well into the spring with "dozens of tie-ins" (92). And so it began—the perpetuation of our "genetically modified" Pocahontas, so-to-speak—the Pocahontas that Disney recreated in an effort to pursue its own agenda, the image of Pocahontas that we ignorantly cherish today.

[5] Pocahontas put the "p" in profitability. Pocahontas earned $91 million in her first "four weeks of domestic release. . . . [she] became a certifiable blockbuster by reaping more than $300 million at film theaters worldwide during the remainder of 1995" (92). Consequently, the characters in the film were adapted into "other media," providing "the basis for an assortment of other widely retailed products, generating additional sales." As Edgerton and Jackson bring to readers' attentions, "Pocahontas, the 400-year-old legend, was expertly redesigned to Disney's usual specifications—meaning a full-length animated feature with a host of commodity tie-ins—thus becoming the version of the Pocahontas story that most people recognize today" (93). For Disney, it was all about the money. It still is. Even today [2014], Pocahontas's image frequents children's bookstores or toy stores, reminding us of Disney's incredible hold on various companies—of Disney's choking grip on Pocahontas's image—all for one primary purpose: money.

[6] Burger King, for instance, "distributed" nearly 55 million "toy replicas of the film's characters with kids' meals. Marketing didn't stop there, though. Payless Shoes went as far as featuring a "line of moccasins," which the public took to the idea of relatively quickly. Mattel marketed our Indian princess as a "Barbie-like Pocahontas doll." Among the most effective techniques was "attaching a Pocahontas trailer to the March release of The Lion King on home video, one which retailed 20 million units in just six days . . . with more than 50 million tapes sold by year's end (92). Remarkably so, promotional activities for Pocahontas did not cease. At all. The film "peaked with a highly publicized 10 June premiere in New York's Central Park on four, eight-story-high screens, before 110,000 spectators" (92). Statistically speaking, the Disney Corporation "profited more from the sale of Pocahontas products . . . than it did from the sale of theater tickets" (Ono and Buescher 24). Coincidence? I think not.

[7] Pocahontas, no longer just a character in a Disney film, has been replicated, sold across the nation. As Kent A. Ono and Derek T. Buescher point out in "Deciphering Pocahontas," Pocahontas has been turned into a "product," marketed to the world, all at the expense of Native American women in particular, whose image, as a whole, has been jeopardized as a result. Let's first start with that previously mentioned Burger King employment of Pocahontas. Burger King, presumably unaware of the repercussions of using Pocahontas in their advertising, not only sold their "brightly-colored fast-food packaging," but they also sold Pocahontas, "even in trash form," after consumers mindlessly threw her away. When the authors happened upon the "unusable waste material" featuring a Burger King Pocahontas drink cup at their doorstep, Pocahontas, by default, embodied a piece of trash. Disney's licensing agreement with "other companies to package Pocahontas promised the company ‘unprecedented ubiquity' . . . repeated chance (yet unavoidable) encounters with different pieces of advertising trash" (Ono and Buescher 24).

[8] Furthermore, Pocahontas has been transcribed to text—she has become a staple in children's bookstores that boast of her presence on their shelves. Her display, alone, is enough to draw in curious readers. It was as if, by chance, Pocahontas herself would emerge from the text in all her glory. Arguably, bookstores display books about Pocahontas for their own monetary interests; surely, Pocahontas is a dependable source of revenue. And, what's more, Pocahontas can be read aloud through "read-along cassette books," which reverberate her memory for children everywhere to hear. She's in coloring books, conventional reading books— she has appeared, virtually, in libraries across the nation at one time or another. Do bookstores, then, really boast of their books' "accuracy" of Pocahontas? Are they concerned with the "factual melodrama of Pocahontas"? Is the children's book Meeko's Busy Day all that "busy" with relevant information? Certainly, a "flip picture" book must struggle to convey a valid image of our Indian princess (Ono and Buescher 28). So, then, why do bookstores take such pride in Pocahontas? Perhaps because her image portrays a reliable product, perhaps because Pocahontas has been marketed so frequently that all of her products sell all too quickly. The only book that seems to be left from the shelves is the one that has not been created yet for children—that is, of course, the real story of Pocahontas, the true story that may not sell. Sometimes the truth is far less profitable than fiction, propaganda (29).

[9] Under this umbrella, around the year 1995 fell the life-sized "cardboard cut-outs" of Pocahontas that were "sported" in the windows of several stores. Marketers did not stop here with their "materials"; in fact, they forced themselves into local record stores—not only stocking the "film soundtrack" as well as a "version of songs sung by Vanessa Williams which played on video channels," but they also "sold sing-along soundtracks for children." From the book industry to the record industry, Pocahontas's image was tailored to fit the needs of marketers, hungry for a piece of her name, her career. Still, as a commodity, she continues to rake in money, despite the ethical question this seems to elicit (Ono and Buescher 29).

[10] Pocahontas was uprooted from her Native American heritage; she was modified, transformed to fit into the glossy pages of magazines. One of these magazines, Disney Adventures, is "chock full of ads for Disney products" along with their "tie-ins"—such as a "‘sneak-preview' of scenes from the movie, discussions with voice-over actors . . . a discussion of the ‘real' history . . . an article/ad for Pocahontas cards . . . 'Powhatan Puzzlers'"(29). Undoubtedly, this magazine company used Pocahontas as a means by which it could launch new products, commodities. The voice-over actors have no allegiance to the real Pocahontas, the Pocahontas whose presence is obliterated from the film. All traces of her are left behind in history, along with ethical standards regarding historical figures. Even The Disney Catalogue, a catalogue containing Disney goods (including apparel) "aimed more at adults than children," "advertises a vested dress; a lunch tote; baby clothes; a pants set; a half-shirt with a fringe; a sweater with Pocahontas, Meeko . . . a‘Powhatan pencil case' with pencils . . . a ‘suede leather premier jacket' . . . a ‘family fleece' shirt" (29).

[11] But that's not all. Items ranging from plastic cups to plastic plates, from dolls to stuffed animals, as well as from tie-dye tee-shirts to Pocahontas hair, all appeared on the market in Disney stores shortly after the production of Pocahontas. These items were considered to be more artificial, more contrived than the "several ‘natural' items, such as paper desk pads with fake wood cases," which simultaneously sprung into being (Ono and Buescher 29). What do these items say about Pocahontas? — About the woman behind the product? Quite frankly, nothing. Pocahontas has been left out of these products; she has been stored away on dusty storage shelves, packaged into items that, in no way, shape, or form, define her. Disney has produced a market out of an inexistent one. Disney, along with other purveyors of consumer goods, has built a market for Pocahontas primarily driven by monetary objectives. If this were not the case, then Disney could have simply avoided the production of ensuing items that seemed to, ironically, itemize Pocahontas.

[12] Pocahontas was not only marketed to fulfill Disney's aspirations, but she was also distributed into other companies—without her consent. Unjustly, Pocahontas's voice was muted, silenced by the "$125 million" Disney "spent" "cross-marketing Pocahontas to other companies," shipping her off to markets motivated by profit. Her story didn't matter. What did, though, was her image. And it was molded, sculpted, transformed, as well as modified to satisfy the wishes of other vendors, vendors who may continue to collect money from selling her image (29).

[13] Nestlé's "Cool Creations" cups of ice cream, for instance, featured several scenes from the Disney Pocahontas film on the exterior of the cups. Likewise, the 1995 commercial claims: "Nestlé ice cream celebrates the magic of Disney's Pocahontas now in theaters." Pocahontas, in the meantime, is dancing in a ring of leaves that seem to be mesmerized by her beauty, held in place by her willpower alone. Furthermore, the delicious treat features "wild berry sprinkles on vanilla or chocolate ice cream." Then, just when children are ready to sing with gluttony, the voice of the commercial announces: "you can relive the magic of Disney's Pocahontas in every creamy bit" (Ono and Buescher 29). The motivations behind this commercial are overt, undeniable. Obviously, Nestlé wanted to create a natural feel for their dessert that was, inherently, far from healthy. By associating ice cream with Pocahontas the character, parents would feel more inclined to purchase this product for their children. Not because of the product itself, per se, but rather because of the image associated with it. What parent wouldn't want to buy their child a dessert that features "wild berry sprinkles"? What's so unhealthy about berries? Disney's ability to dole pieces of Pocahontas out to other companies such as Nestlé was backed by money. Not by truth.

[14] Burger King's "Pocahontas Kids Club" meals as well as Nestlé's "Cool Creations" cups of ice cream were only two of the many "lucrative" connections Disney sought out. While Burger King sold "eight million" of these kids meals a week, nearly "tens of millions" of Nestlé Crunch bars that "had scenes from the movie on them" were sold. Even Payless was responsible for making a variety of Pocahontas-inspired shoes ranging from sandals to moccasins, from athletic shoes to hiking shoes. You can even wear Pocahontas on your feet. Then, there was Marvel Comics. Pocahontas soon embodied a comic book. She was characterized on paper, created into an array of sequential images. Do you want to learn "How to Draw Pocahontas?" Well, then, simply call the number featured at the back of the comic book. It's as simple as that. One, two, three—there you have it—your very own Pocahontas. She's that easy to recreate. Or, at least, she was.

[15] Pocahontas appeared everywhere. "With the right packaging, among many other things," Ono and Buescher argue, the figure of Pocahontas helped market myriad products, social identities . . . histories to consumers. Indeed, within the mainstream commodity world, Pocahontas even appeared as "a meaning system in itself" (25). Department stores -- even grocery stores -- sold Pocahontas "pocket portfolios" as well as Pocahontas "party ware (including plates, cups, napkins, invitations . . . decoration material)." Not surprisingly, Pocahontas was featured on "backpacks, pencils . . . study kits." She was featured on all sorts of linens too, ranging from pillow cases to fitted sheets, as well as on "bedspreads, comforters, blankets, valences, drapes." Pocahontas "plastic bags, cards, balloons, party horns" as well as various other items became commonplace in stores across the nation. They even sold "face-painting sets, a native drum, and a cooking set"—three items that, undoubtedly, stereotyped Native American women.

[16] Mattel caught hold of the idea that Pocahontas, as a famed Indian princess, could, by default, embody a Barbie Doll. Pocahontas became a "reproducible figure," as articles often alluded to. Surely, Mattel was not going to let this opportunity slip from their hands. Mattel "took" the sales figure "quite literally" as an "impetus to create a doll for little girls." As it turns out, "given the overall popular discourse's attempts to diminish the Native American-ness of Pocahontas . . . to homogenize her with regard to mainstream U.S. culture," Pocahontas was no more than a replica of all the other Barbie's—aside from the slight alteration of skin color. Karen Grigsby Bates claims, "Native people will probably sniff at the pneumatic babe (picture a buckskin Barbie) with swinging tresses that the Disney machine chose to portray Pocahontas . . . undeniably, beautiful" (Ono and Buescher 32). As Margaret Whitfield, a toy industry analyst in New York, starkly points out, "Mattel's Pocahontas line is potentially more profitable because "the dolls are made from existing Barbie molds" (33). Betsy Sharkey (1995) makes a bold yet horrifically accurate claim: "Disney turned ‘the 12-year-old Pocahontas into an animated Playboy playmate,' into a ‘fetishized'" item for "consumer culture, further commodifying the Native American woman" (34).

[17] Authors Ono and Buescher claim: we "metaphorically" consume Pocahontas, that although we cannot necessarily purchase what we watch on TV, her image is real, alive. Pocahontas is a "good," she is "marketed in the United States," sold across the nation. Boxed up. Packaged. Stamped for order. You see, "Chrysler," "Burger King," "Nestle," "General Mills," "Payless," "Mattel," "Hallmark," "Tiger," "Timex," "Maui," along with "Sunline" are all companies that have had licenses with Disney"—licenses that enabled them to sell Pocahontas's image (29). Ultimately, these two authors ardently claim, "through the process of appropriation, resignification, and commodification, the refiguration or encipherment of Pocahontas rendered possible a newly constituted figure" (26). So, then, is our Indian Princess merely a "king-sized commercial vehicle" as Edgerton and Jackson claim (95)? Does Disney's Pocahontas send an "abundance of mixed messages, which probably underscore the limits of reconstructing the Native American image" or, "perhaps, any other major Hollywood studio that operates . . . as a marketer of conventional dreams . . . seller of related consumer products" (95)? The real Pocahontas is hidden behind the material goods that have been created to immortalize our Indian princess; instead, however, they have disrupted her image, they have created a Native American figurehead who is ensconced in stereotypes, defined by money-hungry companies that have utilized her image to further their socioeconomic agendas—stripped of her true identity.


Edgerton, Gary, and Kathy Merlock Jackson. "Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the "White

Man's Indian," and the Marketing of Dreams." Journal of Popular Film & Television 24.2 (1996): 90-98. ProQuest. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Nestle Company. "Nestle Cool Creations Pocahontas Ice Cream Cups." Online video clip

commercial. YouTube. YouTube, 1995. Web. 1 December 2013.

Ono, Kent A., and Derek T. Buescher. "Deciphering Pocahontas: Unpackaging the

commodification of a native American woman." Critical Studies in Media Communication 18.1 (2001): 23-42.