Pocahontas, the 1995 Disney movie, is an animated drama film, told as a musical. It is a romance, between Pocahontas, a young woman of the American tribe of Powhatan, and the Captain of a ship, Susan Constant, John Smith, who has journeyed to the New World to start his lives afresh, after getting caught in a deadly storm with a bunch of other people. The story involves a series of conflicts including the disapproval of Pocahontas’s father, the Chief of Powhatan for the relationship, and the fact that Smith’s companions wish to rob the Powhatan Tribe of their gold and property. Although Pocahontas and Smith do not end up living together happily ever after, Smith leaves with Powhatan’s blessing, and a promise to return in the future.
Through his movie, Disney tried to bring in the theme of “getting along”, where it showed people of different cultures coming together, learning to live together and eventually falling in love with each other.
The character of Pocahontas is derived from the life of the 15th Century American Indian Princess of the same name, who falls in love with Captain James Smith, the first British to come to America. Smith’s fellow British men tried to claim the tribe’s land and territory as their own, and eventually established Jamestown, the first British settlement of Northern America.
In contrast to Aladdin, the plot of Pocahontas is accurate to the lives of the actual characters and follows the settings of places and events to a great deal of accuracy to the ‘real world’, probably because Disney had a wide range of historical text to fall back on while planning the movie. However, what blurs the perspective is the fact that most of the historical records available are not those written by a Native American. This increases the chances of the depiction to become, to an extent, a film-ic realization of the lives of the tribe.
Right from the beginning of the movie, it has been tried to establish that Pocahontas is not a typical Disney Princess. Instead, she is a character with her own poise and personality. She is told to have her mother’s spirit and goes wherever the wind takes her. She is also shown to share a special relationship with the forces of nature, thus stereotyping the relationship between Native Americans and the Earth.
Further, the British who come to Virginia is represented as conquerors. They are shown to possess shiny armor and weapons, whereas the Powhatan Tribe is shown to be wearing leather and hides, reinstating that they are “backward”. This instills the idea of White Supremacy into the minds of the audience.
In the initial scenes, Pocahontas is introduced as something that is almost animal-like, who is in tune with nature, and accustomed to the outside world. It is later that she is revealed as a human. From there, it is established that she is the protagonist of the movie, courtesy her physical attributes of being tall, slender, and having long flowing hair. However, just like in Aladdin, Pocahontas is shown to be fluent in English, with a perfectly American accent.
Throughout the movie, Smith tells Pocahontas about London, and how advanced and developed it is. He tells her about the carriages, bridges and the solid houses they have. He directly calls the Native American way of living as uncivilized, thus bringing into notice how the ‘White’ are better, as they have a more developed way of life.
Another similarity to Aladdin which is seen in this movie is that only Pocahontas is shown to have Caucasian features and a contoured body of the European ideals. All the other females have a darker complexion and rounder faces than Pocahontas.
The other details of the movie which point to the stereotypical characteristics of Native American culture include the clothes the tribals wear, their chants and whoops, the references made to the ‘Great Spirit’.
Also, the song ‘Savages’ in the movie has been deemed extremely racist by the critics, who argue that the song tends to encourage the audience to ‘dehumanise’ the Native American culture. Savage, by definition, means a force of nature which is fierce, violent and uncontrolled and is usually used while talking of the wildlife. Hence, the song has been described as especially unsettling and brutal and perpetuates the idea that the American Indians are not human.
Although it expresses various racial stereotypes, Pocahontas is one of the first Disney movies to defy the typical gender roles of the society. The female protagonist is shown to possess qualities of leadership, and often questions male authority.
However, the male lead, John Smith, possesses all characteristics which reinforce masculine stereotypes. He is showcased as the ideal man, through his physical appearance and personality. He is muscular and has blonde hair, which compliments his role as brave and authoritative.
Although Pocahontas is given a personality which is different from the typical Disney Princess, she is given their characteristics in her physical attributes. She has a perfect hourglass figure, long wavy hair, and small feet. She is shown to be wearing tight, short and revealing outfits.
This reinforces the notion that it is important for the men to be strong and to possess leadership qualities, whereas women are expected to be beautiful and visually attractive, and that their personality is secondary to their appearance.
Also, Smith’s troop only consists of men, saying that the men are responsible for the dangerous and adventurous roles, while a woman needs to focus on the domestic duties. All men in the Powhatan Tribe are given powerful roles and are allowed to leave the village. The women, however, do not get the same privileges.