Alright, this is one of the big ones. I’ve been putting it off for a few weeks, but I’m ready to tackle one of the major Disney movies from the ’90s.
I’m just not going to tackle one of the good ones.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Pocahontas is a beautiful movie. Its visuals are just gorgeous. The palette’s really rich and the characters are all animated beautifully (and the CGI used on the canoes and Grandmother Willow could honestly look much worse nearly twenty years later).
Too bad the sexism, racism, and historical inaccuracies get in the way of all that.
For anyone who might not be familiar with Disney’s Pocahontas (I’m not sure how that could be possible, but it’s better not to assume), this movie’s the story of the meeting and conflict between the Powhatan tribe and settlers from the Virginia Company who arrive from England to found Jamestown. Tons of artistic liberties are taken from the original account including, but not limited to, John Smith as a handsome blonde explorer who regularly puts himself at risk for the sake of his men, Pocahontas as an adult woman who has magical powers to commune with the spirits of the earth, and a whirlwind romance between the two leads that’s more reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet.
You know how Disney has kind of a mixed record on the whole “faithful adaptation” thing? Yeah, this movie’s very squarely on the poor end of the spectrum (especially since this isn’t an adaptation of a fictional story, but historic events). John Smith, by all accounts, was a lying self-aggrandizer who was notorious for blowing his own contributions to Jamestown’s establishment out of proportion (also, he was an older dude with bushy brown hair, not the dreamboat with the soft blue eyes depicted in the film). Pocahontas (more likely a nickname than her given name) was a child when she and John Smith encountered one another. There definitely wouldn’t have been any sort of attraction between them.
“But the clash of two worlds! The critique of European colonialism! The colors of the wind!” you may say. Yeah, there’s some good stuff to pick apart, but none of that requires the love story angle (apparently Disney was just really keyed up on doing something in the vein of Romeo & Juliet when they conceived Pocahontas; I guess that means think of this movie as Disney’s Romeo & Juliet). Also, let’s be clear that Disney didn’t do a whole lot to critique the settlers. They cross the ocean looking for gold, find out there isn’t any, and then they decide to hang out anyway. We’ll just ignore the fact that the peace that John Smith wrought with the Powhatan was short-lived and basically disintegrated as soon as he returned to England (which is how the movie ends; by the way, saying that a four month voyage across the ocean is Smith’s only chance of surviving a gunshot wound is incredibly stupid; if they couldn’t stabilize him with local supplies, the trip wouldn’t do him any favors).
Let’s turn away from the historical problems, because there are just too many, and other things should be pointed out and considered.
Disney made a pretty big deal out of their attempts to accurately reflect the culture of the Algonquians (the Powhatan are a subset of that tribe) in this movie. They said that they consulted with members of the Algonquian nation to help ensure accuracy, but then there are also reports from the Powhatan nation that they offered to help Disney but were rejected. I’m not sure how accurate the depiction actually is, especially since this is a fictionalization that includes some overt magical aspects (think about the shaman’s perfectly accurate soothsaying, complete with smoke images, and Pocahontas’s miraculous ability to understand English just because she “listens with her heart”). Setting aside the fantastic bits, which are pretty standard for Disney (even if I think it’s problematic that the magic only relates to the Powhatan, thus feeding into the stereotype of the mystical brown person), I still have a problem with one particular scene that just gets on my nerves.
So, the setup is that the Powhatan send some scouts to see what the Englishmen are doing, and when they get spotted, a firefight breaks out (because Ratcliffe panics and tells his men to start firing even though they’ve not seen any aggressive behavior). One of the Powhatan scouts gets shot in the leg, and they all retreat back to the village to tell everyone about what’s happened. Now, here’s the bit that bothers me. The Powhatan shaman is shown chanting over the wounded scout, and then he turns to Chief Powhatan and says, “This wound is strange to me.”
Okay, let’s back up and consider what we know, just based on what we’re shown in the movie. The Powhatan are a very strong tribe whose warriors have just returned from a successful war with some neighbors. They know how to fight. Also, we see that they have bows and arrows. Now, the difference between a musket and a bow and arrow comes down to a matter of size and speed of the projectile. If they’re accustomed to treating arrow wounds (they should be), then there’s no reason they should be astounded by a bullet wound. Yes, the bullet may not be easily visible, but it’s still the basic principle of a foreign object in the human body that needs to be removed. Then you just clean and dress it. There is literally no reason for the shaman to say he has no idea how to treat the wounded scout; that one line does nothing but reinforce the idea that the Powhatan are an unsophisticated people who lack a basic understanding of how to treat wounds that they likely encounter all the time.
Then there’s the sexism. Oh my gosh, the sexism. So you have Pocahontas. She’s confident, athletic, and she has magical perception powers (branding the ability to listen as a superpower is pretty telling about what traits the writers value in our heroine). It’s a very middle-of-the-road package of characteristics as far as strong female characters go. On the whole, I’d probably say that there’s enough in the way Pocahontas is written that she shouldn’t be too infuriating. Then you get to her “I want more” song.
The “I want more” song is a long tradition in Disney movies. It’s typically the second song in the film (following the introductory song that sets up the situation), and it serves to let the audience get to know the protagonist and their goals. Since our protagonist is the central character for the film, it’s usually a good song to use as a gauge for what the themes of the movie will be.
So Pocahontas sings “Just Around the River Bend.” It’s not a bad song, and throughout most of it, there’s a focus on the tension between her father’s expectations and her own desires. But then, at the end, we get to the last verse where Pocahontas represents what her father wants her to do in the form of choosing to marry Kocoum (a pretty typical scenario where marriage to a suitor chosen by the father represents adherence to tradition for a female protagonist). I’m cool with that setup; it’s clearly not the choice Pocahontas wants to make. My problem comes in the next verse where she pines away for her “dreamgiver,” whoever it is that’s the cause of some strange prophetic dream she’s been having. Given we understand implicitly that the dreamgiver is John Smith, whom Pocahontas is going to meet and fall in love with, we’re left with a serious problem. Pocahontas wants “more,” but that “more” is apparently just a strapping white Englishman instead of a strapping brown Powhatan warrior.
What the heck, Disney? This is how you characterize the ambitions of the first female protagonist since Belle, whose ambitions revolved around adventure and companionship, not a dilemma of which suitor to choose (just ignore the fact that Pocahontas doesn’t end up with either Kocoum or John Smith; the former dies from his gunshot, and the latter gets shipped back to England). It’s pretty crappy to build Pocahontas up as a strong character and then undermine that by boiling her problems down to which man she should accept.
So to recap, Disney set out to make a movie about the interaction between two cultures centered on a historic event, and in the process they butchered the history, caricatured one of the cultures involved, and took a potentially compelling heroine and reduced her to trying to decide how to resolve her weird love triangle. It’s no wonder the best drawn characters in the whole movie are the white men; that’s all Disney apparently cared to get right.