Pocahontas: Disney Does It (To Us) Again

by Kathi Maio

 



The Disney Company can be accused of many things, but incompetence in
the promotion of an animated feature film is not one of them. It helps
that they've been making full-length cartoons longer that anyone, and
can boast one of the best animation teams in the world.
	But their success has less to do with tradition and art than
with a corporate synergy. The Disney studio is a part of a business
empire that includes worldwide theme parks, a cable broadcasting
channel and network TV production companies (they own TV's #1
endearing dad show "Home Improvement"), publishing interests, and an
ever-growing chain of retail stores.
	All of these entities can be brought in to promote and support
the latest animated Disney feature. The case in point, this summer, is
Disney's thirty-third full-length cartoon, Pocahontas. Although the
movie is certainly doing very well (as I write this, it has earned
over $90 million in its first month), it is unlikely to equal the
phenomenal success of its predecessor from last summer, The Lion King.
	Little Simba's coming of age tale earned well over $300
million in domestic box office and this year became the biggest new
video release of all time. With world box-office and video sales and a
mountain of merchandise purchases, the movie is estimated to have
earned $2 billion!
	Pocahontas isn't looking like that kind of money-maker. But if
our "Indian Princess" doesn’t do as well as the lion cub, it
won’t be for lack of fanfare. Disney publicized Pocahontas with a
lengthy trailer (featuring a complete musical number) attached to both
the theatrical and video releases of Lion King. It sent a big exhibit
on a 24-city tour of America’s malls. And it’s gotten a whopper
of a boost from Burger King with tie-in toys, glasses, and
advertising. (Not to mention the fact that every retailer from your
local discount drugstore to Payless Shoes is hawking Pocahontas
merchandise.)
	And let's not forget the totally absurd premiere of the movie
in New York’s Central Park (in which tens of thousands of people
trampled what little greenery was left in New York so as to watch a
movie that preached respect for nature).
	But then, Disney has never minded creating a little cultural
dissonance in pursuit of the almighty dollar. In fact, mixed messages
are their stock and trade. That has always been my greatest misgiving
about the enormous social impact their supposedly wholesome animated
family features have on the minds of America's (nay, the world’s)
young.
	I'm willing to forgive and forget Disney’s old cartoon
classics, like Snow White, in which other women were always the
heroine’s mortal enemy, but a smooch from a good-looking guy could
solve any problem she might have...even a coma. After all, the world
was younger then, and you could argue that Disney didn’t know any
better.
	But by the time The Little Mermaid, Ariel, swam onto screens
in 1989, I was feeling less indulgent. That particular heroine had a
flipper instead of feet, but was otherwise the spittin' image of her
all-for-love predecessors. Again, in The Little Mermaid, the lead
villain was an older woman. And this time the dastardly "Sea Witch,"
Ursula, was white-haired and fat-a nice lookist, ageist, anti-Wiccan
twist to Disney’s standard misogyny.
	And sweet, perky Ariel was willing to give up all she
possessed-her voice, even her mortal soul—for the chance of being
kissed by a bland, good-looking guy. And, in the end, had to abandon
her society and her family forever to become the human consort of
Prince Eric.
	Disney took some flack from feminists for that one, so they
pointedly promoted their next fairy tale heroine, Belle, in Beauty and
The Beast (1991) as "active" and “liberated.” The most liberated
thing she does is read romance novels, as far as I could ever
tell. But that wasn't what disturbed me about Disney’s re-telling
of the classic tale.
	It was the change in the "Beast's" character that was most
chilling. In the original story, and in all adaptations I had ever
seen until the House of Mouse got hold of it, the monster was
portrayed as a sweet creature who treated the heroine with tenderness
and respect, as well as self-sacrificing love. (Moral: Don’t judge
a book by it s cover.)
	But Disney's version features a Beast who looks ugly and acts
even uglier. He is so filled with rage that his servants tremble at
the thought of approaching him. He is, Disney implies, a brute. So
what is the message to little girls when Belle manages to transform
this Beast into the requisite bland, good-looking prince? The film
seems to tell them that women are responsible for male anger and
violence. If they are pretty enough, and sweet enough, any mean and
nasty man will magically mend his ways -as well as his looks.
	What a heart-warming fable! Why, it's a regular training film
for the battered women of tomorrow!
	The heroine, Princess Jasmine, in Disney's next feature,
Aladdin (1992), is hardly worth mentioning at all. She is little more
than a sexual trophy to be fought over by the evil vizier, Jafar, and
the dashing young hero with a big blue genie friend, Aladdin.
	What's more interesting, in this musical comedy cartoon, is
the not-so-subtle reinforcement of anti-Arab stereotypes. Yes, you
might say, but what’s the big deal when the hero is an Arab, just
like all the other evil, dishonest, and stupid characters? The thing
is that Disney’s character of Aladdin isn’t played Arabic. He is
portrayed as a youthful, enthusiastic, All-American good guy. ("Call
me Al!" he exclaims.) So his Americanized heroism never really
counteracts anti-Arab sentiment like the song lyric that described the
Middle East as a place where “they cut off your ear if they
don’t like your face-It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
	Disney caught even more flack about Aladdin (and in an
unprecedented move, did slightly change the above mentioned lyric for
the video release). Then, with their eyes still on the prize of the
new multicultural marketplace, they tried again with the
pseudo-African trappings of The Lion King-and struck gold. Certainly
the animation in The Lion King is very good. And there are some fairly
universal themes here: fear of disappointing your parents and
community and loss of father. But, once again, Disney seemed to be
pushing a social agenda that was at odds with that stated in their
press. For there is a serious undercurrent of sexism, elitism, and
racism in Disney's brand of diversity myth.
	There are men (and I do mean men) who are born to rule and
control others, The Lion King tells us. Such men cannot be effeminate
(as is Scar, the crypto-gay villain voiced by Jeremy Irons). And as
for the females, they may be strong and smart and brave but they are
still incapable of leadership. All they can do is obey bad male
rulers, and pray for a better fellow to come along and take over. And
power must never be given to lazy scavenger types like the film's
hyena characters who-no surprise—are portrayed as jive-talking
urban minorities (as voiced by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech
Marin).
	No, The Lion King is far from my idea of a model of
multiculturalism. But when such nasty propaganda is tucked away in a
pretty cartoon that encourages its audience to greet every problem
with a refrain of "Hukuna Matata (No Worry)," those who condemn it
come off looking like “p.c.” spoilsports. (Or so Disney wants
everyone who continues to buy those Mufasa bookbags and Simba stuffed
toys to think.)
	I remember seeing a segment on Entertainment Tonight last
summer in which a Disney spokesperson answered some criticism much
milder than mine. "These people need to get a life," Mickey's
mouthpiece sneered. “It’s only a story!”
	Which brings this poor life-lacking critic to this year's
animated feature. But, guess what, Pocahontas, unlike all the Disney
animated features that came before it, is not just a story. By their
own admission, this is the studio’s first feature cartoon based on
a real person’s life. As Disney professes in their promotional kit:
"The extraordinary life and indomitable spirit of a truly remarkable
Native American heroine is celebrated through the artistry and
story-telling magic of animation...."
	But is it? Disney would obviously like us to accept that they
are doing right by their title character. ''With its trademark
meticulousness, Disney has thoroughly researched the story of
Pocahontas," they assert. And that may be true. But if they did do
meticulous research, they ended up ignoring it For their screenplay,
credited to three writers, is 80 percent florid fabrication.
	Admittedly, Disney's writers aren’t the only ones to have
romanticized this particular woman’s life. The "legend" of
Pocahontas (with its elements so suspiciously close to olden folk
ballads of the “Lord Bateman”/”Young Beichen” type) is one
that generations of American schoolchildren have been told. As it
usually goes: A sweet Indian Princess called Pocahontas takes a fancy
to a British settler from the nascent Jamestown colony named John
Smith. When the maiden’s father, the chief, decides to kill the
settler, Pocahontas throws herself between the club and the white
boy’s head, saving his life.
	Nice story. Too bad it's probably untrue. But it’s no
wonder why this particular tale has resounded in the American
imagination for so long. Like the story of Sacagawea leading the Lewis
and Clarke expedition to safety or the tale of Squanto helping the
pilgrims to farm corn and fish and celebrate Thanksgiving, it is a
legend about a "good" Indian protecting white men and promoting their
interests, and there by (inadvertently) facilitating the vanquishment
of her own native peoples.
	Although there is no doubt that a woman called Pocahontas was
born in what is now called Virginia about 400 years ago, we know, for
certain, very little about all but the last months of her life. And
what little we know comes not from Powhatan culture, but from the
written memoirs and histories of the white men who "settled" her
homeland for God and England. Primary among these documents are the
writings of John Smith, himself.
	Smith and his contemporaries weren't exactly producing
impartial documents. In fact, their writings-full of uncomprehending
observations about the local "savages"—are precisely the kind of
White Male HisStory “multiculturalism” was intended to
counteract. But Disney gets to have it both ways, with their
Pocahontas. They claim a careful, respectful approach that celebrates
Native American history, all the while pushing a romantic folklore
that they have heightened to such an extent that even John Smith
wouldn’t lay claim to it.
	The distortion level is so intense in Pocahontas that it would
be impossible to name all the inaccuracies. Start, if you like, with
the very terrain of the film's setting. Jamestown and the tribal lands
of the Powhatan Confederacy are in Tidewater, Virginia. A tidewater is
a coastal plain-a low-lying area. Disney gives it magnificent
mountains with spectacular waterfalls and breath-taking cliffs. (And,
for an added touch, they have Pocahontas take what her animator, Glen
Keane, admits is a 300-foot dive off of one such cliff, as if she were
a tourist attraction in some tropical resort.)
	Which brings us to the more damnable fallacies, those
concerning the woman the film is named after. When Pocahontas first
encountered white people in 1607, she was somewhere between the ages
of ten and thirteen. Judging from one Jamestown historian's stories
about the playful young girl who used to have cartwheeling contests
with the boys of the settlement, eleven is probably about
right. Especially since, in these stories, Pocahontas is naked-a
shocker for the straight-laced Brits, but a common practice among
pre-pubescent native children in that area.
	Yes, unlike Disney's adult heroine, in her one shouldered,
form-fitting buckskin sheath dress (to show off her stacked physique
of what looks to be 36-14-30 measurements on a six-foot supermodel
frame), the real Pocahontas-even after puberty—would probably have
worn only an animal-skin apron. And as for the most notable thing
about her, her Barbie-style long, long tresses, that’s probably
Glen Keane’s fantasy, too.
	And a powerful media-induced fantasy it is! When a feminist
friend surveyed a group of young girls, asking them what they most
admired about Pocahontas, she hoped to hear something about her
dedication to peace or her bravery. Instead, the universal response
was "her hair... her beautiful long hair!"
	Sorry, girls. The women of the Powhatan tribes sported
extremely short (think: Ann DiPranco) hairdos, which were much more
practical for their muggy climate and water-friendly culture.
	Mr. Keane's visual transformation of a brave, adventurous
young girl (who would have made an incredible role model for the
female children in the movie’s target audience) into a hot babe who
looks like she’s ready for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is
bad enough. But then Disney felt the need to propel their buckskin
Barbie with romantic impulses.
	According to Uncle Walt's boys, Pocahontas did what she did
because of her death-defying love for John Smith. (And watching the
film, you could hardly blame her if it were true. The animated Smith
looks like Malibu Ken and sounds like Mel Gibson. In reality, he was
more than twice the age of Pocahontas and was short, dark, and hairy,
with an elaborate mustache and beard that made him look like the
progenitor of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame.)
	But no, this chieftain's daughter wasn’t motivated by
romance. Like her father, the fierce, brilliant Powhatan (who shared
his name with the confederacy of tribes he ruled), young Pocahontas
was motivated more by the needs of her people than by any attraction
she felt for these strange new visitors.
	The "execution" scenario, which Smith admitted took place
after two days of feasting in his honor, was very probably a tribal
adoption ritual, a ceremony by which the women of a tribe selected
which captives would be absorbed into their community. It may well
have been an important event for Pocahontas, but not because she was
so hot for a white man that she was willing to risk her life. Rather,
it might have been one of her rites of passage as a woman of power
amongst her clan. And, certainly, it might even have been orchestrated
by her politically astute father.
	After the aborted head bashing incident, the real Powhatan
called Smith "son," and hoped to use his new kinship as a means of
peaceful coexistence with the armed but hapless whites. (The colonists
thought they were in charge, but couldn't even manage to keep
themselves from starving without regular food gifts from Pocahontas
and her tribe.) Alas, a lasting peace, implied by the end of
Disney’s fable, was not to be.
	In his Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, Smith
would later quote Powhatan's moving speech (of 1609) in which he asks
his adopted son: "What will it availe you to take that by force what
you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you
food?"
	It is a question that has an answer, but only an ugly and
shameful one. And Disney certainly isn't in the shame business. So as
to give the most romantic and upbeat ending to a story that is
essentially one of genocide, the film has John Smith become wounded
shielding Powhatan from a gunshot in a brave stand for love and
peace. That of course never happened.
	Smith was burned in a freak gunpowder explosion caused by the
carelessness of his own men. And when he went home to England, he
didn't tarry for a tender lover’s farewell with young
Pocahontas. In fact, he never said goodbye. Never even dropped her a
line or sent her a message. Until she met him again, several years
later, in England (whereupon, she significantly insisted on reclaiming
their kinship by calling Smith Father) Pocahontas believed him to be
dead.
	Which isn't to say that she pined away on the river
bank. Before she died-at the approximate age of 20—she continued
her (misguided) sponsorship of the white settlers, who repaid her
kindness by kidnapping and holding her for ransom, refusing to release
her and dressing her up in English clothes, converting her to
Christianity, renaming her Lady Rebecca, and marrying her off to a
colonist.
	Upon the birth of her only child. a son, she was packed off to
England where she impressed the royal court with how well the
colonists could civilize a "savage" perceived to be of noble
birth. While there, she sickened, died, and was buried a world away
from her home.
	It's an amazing biography, but Disney won’t tell you any of
it in their Pocahontas. They’d like us to think of this courageous
princess simply, John Smith’s long-lost girlfriend and they’d
like to reduce her short, intense life into a make-believe romance
between a "copper-skinned" beauty and blond, good-looking guy.
	Moreover, Disney certainly doesn't want to tell you how this
woman’s people were decimated after her death. Oh, the studio knows
enough-"call us politically correct," they invited the Boston
Globe—to admit that the British colonies were no friends of the
natives. They have Governor Ratcliffe lead a chorus in a ditty about
greed called “Mine, Mine, Mine,” and another about racial
intolerance called “Savages.”
	But John Ratcliffe was only one of the council of leaders
(including our adventurous good guy John Smith) who jockeyed for power
at Jamestown. He wasn't the only honcho-and he certainly wasn’t the
worst. But it was convenient for Disney to lay all of the rapacious
villainy of the British colonists on one man’s head. Then they
could have him deposed for wounding Smith (this, of course, never
happened), then pack him off to England at the end of the movie.
	This leaves Disney's Jamestown as an egalitarian village of
good-hearted, working-class (?!) blokes who welcomed the chance to
live in peace and harmony with their Indian neighbors. It’s a
bald-faced lie, all of it. But it’s also another brilliant example
of Disney double-think. (Go ahead, call imperialism bad... but comfort
Americans by telling them that the stout-hearted lads that founded
Jamestown had nothing to do with that nasty old imperialism!)
	Disney calls this "political correctness"? (They are obviously
following the Newt Gingrich model.) But their self-annointment
worked. Many reviewers have indeed called the film “p.c.” and
all the stories about Pocahontas have been careful to quote
A.I.M. activist (and Oglala Lakota Sioux) Russell Means on the
film. In an astute tactical move, Disney cast Means, a budding actor,
as the voice of Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan. They also got him
to bluster at anyone who might criticize the project. “I think
Pocahontas is the single finest work ever done on American Indians by
Hollywood” he has repeatedly said.
	(Excuse me, Russell, how much did Disney pay you?)
	Perhaps it is silly of me to get this upset about an animated
feature. "It's only a story," the Disney spokesperson snickers in my
ear. But it’s not! This is a real woman’s life. And now, the
cultural event that is a Disney blockbuster has coopted that life.
	Little Dove Custolow, a tribal storyteller, and herself, the
daughter of a Powhatan chief, was quoted in the Washington Post as
saying that she wished Disney "would take the name of Pocahontas off
that movie." I couldn't agree more. But it’s not going to
happen. Because Disney has emblazoned the name Pocahontas on more than
a summer hit movie. They’ve put that name on everything from tee
shirts to Mattel dolls (with beautiful long, long hair) to
“Powhatan Village Playsets” available at a Disney mall outlet or
discount department store near you.
	It's a corporate tidal wave that no one can stop. All I can do
is mourn the fact that this cartoon biography-with all its lies,
half-truths, and distortions—is destined to be many children’s
only exposure to this particular piece of history. Of all the
betrayals Pocahontas endured in the last 400 years, this could well be
the worst of all.

This article first appeared in the August 1995 issue of Sojourner: The
Women's Forum. Reprinted with permission.  

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