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.