Feminist Disney, Pocahontas: Disney attempts to commodify culture and history part 2 (of 3?)
Pocahontas: Disney attempts to commodify culture and history part 2 (of 3?)

So in the last Feminist Disney Pocahontas Critique (part 1), I explained the ways in which Pocahontas could be interpreted as a very feminist friendly character.

On the other hand, extend feminism to examine how this movie treats native american culture, and Pocahontas moves back into the realm of not-so-friendly-to-feminism.    Remember: she is a character, created and crafted by people.   So this critique is not saying “Pocahontas is a bad person it’s her fault for being this way!”    The way she is portrayed in the movie isn’t real.   

So, I have to say, in terms of native representation, it was problematic.    First, examine the ways in which she interacts with her father.    On the surface, respectful.    But in reality, she is disrespecting him in a way that just isn’t true to the culture she supposedly belongs to.     A lot of what we consider to be “superior” feelings/emotions/thoughts are a result, in part, of deeply embedded European/American views on the importance of independence from those around us.    In this way she’s a lot like  Aladdin: supposed to represent to us a view from another culture, but in many ways she is just mirroring our own most basic, culturally rooted moral principles.   This is sometimes the most difficult premise to accept: that our societal, non-universal moral code is not necessarily superior to all others just because we feel it is right. 

In the movie, Pocahontas disobeys her father and goes out to meet Captain John Smith. This most likely would not have happened during the time period in the movie, as it was a cultural norm for all tribal members to adhere to any strict directive from a parent.   In contrast, Disney has created a marketable “New Age” Pocahontas to embody our millennial dreams for wholeness and harmony, while banishing our nightmares of savagery and emptiness (Strong, 1995). In this regard, how Indian women are portrayed in the movies is an extension of white America’s attempt to cope with a sense of cultural guilt. It is too bad that these portrayals do not reflect real American Indian women of today, such as those found by Yellow Bird & Snipp (1994), who describe how Indian women have assumed, and continue to take on, great authority and status within Indian family structures.

-from The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, Journal of Navajo Education

The problem with the setup of the father v. Pocahontas is that it is positioned to the viewer as an obvious moral injustice.    But who is making this a necessary standoff of wills to begin with?    She never argued about John Smith with her father as a real person, and even if she had, Disney would not have felt obligated to historical accuracy (clearly, they never do).    So Disney, not history, has created this plotline to make native culture seem oppressive of personal choice and women’s choice.

Grandma Willow’s advice to ‘follow your heart’ takes over tradition.   Given the individualism in American society and its emphasis on romantic love, this seems like a logical option.”  (Mouse Morality: the Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film, by Ward).

Along with this is a necessary discussion of the way in which violence and war is portrayed in the movie.    In the movie, violence and fighting is seen as wrong/something we should talk out.   Which, on the one hand, seems to be a pretty good message.   On the other hand, it’s like a slap in the face to our collective American history.     Sometimes the Native Americans did fight back- but sometimes they did not.   Sometimes they tried to get along with the white men.     Sometimes they did accept treaties and tried to get along rather than fight.    It set up a choice that doesn’t/didn’t really exist.   Many times native americans attempted to sign treaties with the white europeans- many if not all times, they redacted on these treaties. The end result of “trying to talk it out” always ended up with the white europeans/eventually the new american government redacting their promises and forcing the native americans into less and less usable land.    Disney re-writes history as if to say that, "If those Natives had been more cooperative, misunderstandings/war might not have happened so often."

Standing up and fighting someone who is coming to invade your country and way of life is not ultimately equivalent to the violence of the invading/conquering/decimating forces, and yet the movie was trying to place guilt for fighting on both sides, as if each were equally responsible for misunderstanding the other.   In reality, the invading Europeans definitely, by far, committed the worst offenses 1000 times over.

"The Indian Romance" states, "Disney’s writers have merely traded one stereotype for a new polar opposite.   The native peoples of America weren’t quite the peace-loving, environmentally enlightened sages of cartoon fame… In real life, Pocahontas’ father Chief Powhatan conquered and tyrannized 20 other tribes."   Kilpatrick cites Disney consultant Shirley Custalow McGowan (Little Dove): "History is history.   You’re not honoring a nation of people when you change their history."  

-Mouse Morality
[FemDisney note: Wahunsonacock was actually the father’s name, Powhatan was a tribal confederacy name.]

Obviously a big problem in the film, aside from the above nuances, is that it represents native americans as if they are one large conglomerate group, even though hundreds of tribes/languages/traditions/etc. existed in pre-European America.   So much of how we treat and think about native peoples is still rooted in the imperialistic impressions of those first settlers.    Who decided they all seemed the same?    The invaders.    How long has that mindset lasted for?   Forever.    They used a few tribe specific cues in the movie, such as the occasional “hello/goodbye” translation, but on the whole the movie shied away from referring to a specific group- they didn’t want it to.    Pocahontas will simply say “My people” and “our people.”    Very few people who watch this film will identify Pocahontas and her people as something more specific than just “Native Americans.”

The thing people often strongly identify with in Pocahontas is the emphasis on the importance of nature and a relationship with nature.   This, again, is an extension of American imperialist attitude in seeing a lot of complex relationships with the world and other people, etc. as a more generic “we love the earth” mentality.    Obviously, to have such deep rooted love with nature is more movie-created than real.    Natives as a whole may have not always treated the earth with as little regard as the white europeans did, but sometimes they killed animals or, from the European perspective, mistreated them, and this also is a part of reality.    

The movie decided to convey spirituality- a vague perspective of a belief system- rather than any particular religion, there again reducing the characters to stand ins for all native americans rather than establishing them as native americans of a particular group.    Rather than conveying specific religious traditions, the Disney animators reduced a rich, cultural, and complex religion to what outsiders often see when they examine Native American life: Magical nature natives.   The magic in this movie was also conveyed by relating it to well known cultural imagery- it is common for “magical characters” in all sorts of movies to appear out of seemingly no where, and almost everytime Pocahontas came up to John Smith in the movie, it involves walking out of a great deal of mist so that her arrival was inherently magical in appearance (the same thing goes for the magical swirling colored leaves that always conveyed when something “spiritual” was happening).  The use of “magic” in this film to convey general spirituality is misleading and also serves the purpose of seeming to offer native religion on a platter to everyone else. 

White interest in the American Indian surges and ebbs with the tides of United States history. While white fascination with things Indian never entirely fades, it has fluctuated throughout history, forever linking Indians with the untamed forests, fields and streams.

-from The Pocahontas Paradox

   It seems to serve as a guide when really, it is a highly simplified, white majority society perspective of native religion.   If you think that maybe I’m being dramatic and that “no one takes Pocahontas as a guide,” just google a few different permutations of this.   Multiple top asks about Pocahontas’s religion- just Pocahontas in general, no reference made to Disney- will give you a generic “She believes in connecting with nature” Disney answer.    You might also see this video that kept coming up in my searches: here

The video is titled “My religion is Pocahontas,” and around 3:00 in comes the lines,

I guess if I had to pick a religion, It would have something along the lines of Pocahontas, and it would be made up.   By me.  And ah, Pocahontas would be my leader. 

She isn’t intending to be offensive- this wasn’t, by far, the main point of her video.   I watched the video to get to this point, and she seems like a fairly well educated person who shares many of my own beliefs about religion in America.   And yet she still managed to convey the viewpoint of countless Americans: that anyone can assume a native religion, that it can be “made up,” that Pocahontas in the Disney movie can be seen as a spiritual leader.

In the end, as non-Natives living in a land that our culture had stolen from those who came earlier, we need to accept that we are not entitled to “having things” just because we like them, or are interested in them.    Accepting and understanding Native Culture doesn’t give you an inherent right to adopt their religion or define Native religion on your own terms.   When our culture has already taken so much- content yourself with allowing them to keep the rest away from us, and giving it out on their own terms.

I have heard from many people that I, as a critiquer, and Native Americans, as a group, should appreciate Pocahontas because it replaced a lot of earlier, more jarring stereotypes of Natives as “stupid heathens” et cetera, of the “Cowboy v. Indian” type.   But replacing one stereotype with another is not something we should celebrate, or feel entitled to adopt as a viewpoint simply because it is less outrightly offensive.    Such misplaced beliefs are a favor to no one.

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