There really is too much to say about Pocahontas so I’m splitting this review into 2 or 3 parts, and I’ll give it a score when I reach the end. Still working on the rest of it.
I loved Pocahontas as a kid. So much that my mom allowed me to name our first cat (who is still alive at like, 17, and female, but that’s okay) Percy after the dog in the movie.
But at the same time, it’s a movie that I can’t watch without inwardly wincing. I won’t say that Disney didn’t try- from what I read about it, they did try. Just not hard enough, and probably it was too big/historical a topic in the first place for them to be attempting to “Disnify.” Just in terms of Pocahontas, herself:
There’s no room in this article [or this movie critique!] to list all the inaccuracies in this 1995 film. Suffice it to say that Disney’s buckskin Barbie bears little resemblance to the pre-pubescent girl who first met John Smith. Her real name was Matoaka and her ‘saving’ of Smith from ‘execution’ was probably nothing more than a tribal adoption ceremony. There was no romance between the two. She called him ‘father’ when she met him again, years later. from New Internationalist: Disney’s Dolls
I’ll start with the easy stuff and then ease into the more complicated.
First of all, the portrayal of evil guys in this movies: so Disney! I feel like I’ve written the same thing over and over about how problematic their “villain coding” is. In this movie, the main evildoer, Ratcliffe, is a jumble of culturally negative attributes. He is a fat, effeminate man (the purple outfit and bows in his long hair, eyes that are hooded/almost appear to have eyeshadow on them), with a hooked nose and dark facial/long hair that the other characters lack (both things are typical cartoon physical cues for Jewish/Arab/non-white).
He reminds me a lot of Jafar from Aladdin, in fact. Portrayal like this is a problem because, first of all, it’s unnecessary. Everything Ratcliffe does and says clearly says “villain.” But by giving him all these characteristics traditionally considered culturally inferior, it further embeds in the audience’s mind that these are not characteristics of a hero, and are signs of general “badness.”
Which leaks back into culture to further reinforce ideas such as “effemininate men are not as good/manly/likeable as “macho” men.” This is also shown through Radcliffe’s sidekick, who is made out to be very very stereotypically/obviously gay (appearance, mannerisms, having jobs where he gives the dog a lavish bath, trims the hedges into cute shapes, etc).
So we move then from villians to our heroes. Pocahontas is the embodiment of female beauty. I was often very taken aback watching her. It’s a big contrast to princesses like Tiana or Rapunzel, who are much more girllike and young in both appearance and manner, while Pocahontas looks and moves like a woman.
I think as a character in general (ignoring the native tie ins for now), she is indeed a strong feminist-friendly character. She is strong, she moves the plot forward on her own terms, she is curious, she is thoughtful, she is proud of her culture, and she risks her own life to save John Smiths’ (not that he doesn’t go and save her too, but at least it’s really not “a damsel in distress” scenario).
When it comes to her appearance:
Disney’s design of Pocahontas, which includes big eyes, lots of hair, and an unrealistic figure, reveals a male fantasy. Because Pocahontas is billed as the heroine, the sexual image sends the message that “good” girls and women are characterized by looks as well as deeds. Smith, too, is drawn as a macho, swaggering, blong with handsome features and a fit body. His proportions, however, are not as unrealistic or impractical as Pocahontas’s…
Paula Gunn Allen, a Sioux tribe member and a professor of literature, finds Disney’s description of Pocahontas disturbing. She is “troubled that Hollywood’s sexual stereotyping eclipses much of the power women held in native cultures.”
Both are excerpts from Mouse Morality.
It is important to remember that Pocahontas is not a stand alone movie but operates within a larger cultural framework of films about Native American life, that are aimed at (and usually created by) an audience that is largely unfamiliar with Native American culture. These movies, then, help form how our society views Native women.
The note about sexual stereotyping is not one to overlook: Remember that in real life, right now, Native American women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault in America, at 34%, compared to white women (and the average for all women, happens to be the same) at 18%. This is not an accidental statistic, but probably in part a result of negative stereotyping of native women as hyper sexual.
And just in general, it does come back to that subconscious message that “good girls are also what our culture considers to be very beautiful.” To be revered by society, you must not only act right, but look right for them.
This will be followed, I believe, with sections that tackle history, and Native American culture as it is represented in this movie, or something like that. Edit: Read part 2 here
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