Does Disney's Pocahontas Do More Harm Than Good? Your Thoughts

Sophie Gilbert found the film progressive and feminist. Readers feel it whitewashes a horrific past. Perhaps it’s both.


For the 20th anniversary of the movie, my colleague Sophie Gilbert made the case that Pocahontas is “Disney’s most radical heroine”:

[The studio] had, for the first time, based an entire picture around an adult female, let alone a woman of color. It was also the first time the studio had produced a film about a real person. [...] The film also seemed to embrace an environmentalist message, with Pocahontas showing Smith the absurdity of relentlessly taking things from the Earth instead of seeing its potential. It was a radical story about female agency and empathy disguised as a rather sappy romance [...]

JamesAllen provides a reality check:

Engraving of Pocahontas, 1616 (Wiki)

The real Pocahontas was married off to a white man old enough to be her father when she was a teenager. She was then trotted around as a “noble savage” for a few years before she got sick and died. Her culture was destroyed and her relatives murdered.

The Disney movie itself might have been okay, I guess, and the commenters saying it was made with good intentions may be correct. But the actual story of Pocahontas was grim and brutal. Turning a story like that into something fluffy and “empowering” is just uncomfortable.

TonyChen4 goes further:

This movie never should have been made. European conquest of the Americas is not children’s entertainment.

For the record, Sophie did acknowledge the movie’s “historical liberties,” “fudging some facts,” and the “controversy that arose at the time,” as well as “depicting the English settlers as plunderers searching for non-existent gold who were intent upon murdering the ‘savages,’” but many readers felt she didn’t go far enough. Another one is the curiously named Crud Bonemeal:

Pocahontas was a clunky attempt at the sort of watered-down corporate ‘inclusivity’—seen everywhere in the 1990s—that downplays differences of background and opinion, and completely ignores the grim wheel of history in favor of a fuzzy, feel-good narrative that viewers never have to really ponder afterwards.

A key scene from the movie, so you can see for yourself:

Sooner Davenport’s take on the heroine:

Consider the cohort of Disney females that “Pocahontas” supposedly belongs to: a group of young women who are IMAGINARY or based on MYTH. The reason why the indigenous communities are unhappy about the film and this article is because they are fed up that Western culture only wants to interact with our narratives if they are heavily romanticized and fictitious.

Another Native American woman, Kenzie Allen, a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, emails her response:

I’ve struggled with Disney’s Pocahontas as a source of pain and stereotype. Both Pocahontas and Sacagawea are often held up as heroines in the Western perspective, their stories reduced to kinder details rather than serving the interest of the dominant culture. Yes, there is visibility in telling their stories, but it is a tainted visibility, a false reality rendered through the dominant culture, which seeks to ameliorate, always, the horrific methods by which they came to occupy an entire nation’s worth of landmass.

Nobody wants to feel like a settler. Disney’s Pocahontas gives just enough of a flogging to the “real” bad guys to leave the non-native viewers coming away feeling as though they’ve done the good work of recognizing their own faults, while the pain of forced assimilation and erasure continues for the Powhatan Nation and others.

It is the Western lens that sees a progressive narrative in the way the settlers of Disney’s movie are mocked (but eventually befriended), the way Pocahontas rejects a voyage overseas (but was in reality kidnapped—and in the sequel, even this part of the story is made family-friendly and song-worthy), and the way she chooses family over love (when in reality her “choice” was anything but). [A scene from the sequel:

Disney goes so far as to try to turn the narrative around by having the Powhatans call the settlers the “savages,” but it’s only done half-way. Much like coverage of mascot issues often features white voices in the interest of “fair and balanced coverage,” the movie ends with the two groups considered even, with no indication of the devastation yet to come.

If Disney’s choice was between being “accurate” or “socially responsible,” my question would be: socially responsible to whom?

Or as Jason KL puts it, “It’s as if the Titanic movie had ended right before the ship sank.” Sophie responds to her critics:

The idea for the piece came about because I was rewatching the movie after many, many years and I was struck by how original it was in a number of ways. The Disney character of Pocahontas seemed to be different from many other cartoon heroines of the time, and it made me want to explore her place in the canon, and how it might have influenced Disney heroines to come.

Then, after doing some research, I learned that Pocahontas was only the seventh animated Disney film based on a female heroine in more than half a century, and the first film based on a character of color, which I thought was intriguing. My piece was intended primarily to look at how that came about. I find it hard to imagine a major children’s entertainment corporation could make a film like that today—one that promotes an environmentalist agenda and focuses on a strong female character considering her independence—without sparking outrage in some circles.

“Pocahontas Saving John Smith” (Wiki)

I did research into how the film was received at the time, and found two critiques of it from a Native American perspective—the statement from Powhatan Nation, and the op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, both of which I quoted in the piece. What I didn’t read so much about, and what I understand now is felt by many people still, is the anger at the fact that this movie was ever made.

I’ve learned from so many of the responses that many people feel it was egregious for Disney to take Pocahontas, a real person who was treated shamefully by the English settlers, kidnapped, and forced into marriage, and fictionalize her story to the point where it became a romance and a tale ostensibly promoting equality between races. I can absolutely understand this and I’m truly sorry if my piece caused anger or sadness by neglecting this point. My intention was never to do this, and I’m so grateful for the thoughtful discourse that’s followed and the opportunity to learn more. I’m hoping to work with some of the people I’ve heard from on an essay that explores the objections to the movie in more detail.

Commenter jeff_14 comes to Sophie’s defense:

The purpose of great fiction is to tell great truths. Shakespeare’s plays and Mel Gibson’s films are wildly inaccurate historically, yet they tell powerful stories. (Ironically Gibson was the voice of John Smith in Pocahontas which was released the same year as Braveheart.) A little fudging is acceptable if done for a good purpose. Pocahontas was not a traditional damsel in distress/princess love story. It showed a strong woman making her own choices.

Tariray points to a strong character who debuted three years before Pocahontas:

Sophie Gilbert forgot Jasmine—a princess who outright refuses an arranged marriage and falls in love with a street rat. She’s a princess who fights for herself and is intelligent enough to manipulate Jafar when required. She also wears friggin' pants. Oh, and in the cartoon series, Jasmine kicks some major ass because she actually knows how to fight.

I think it’s more of an evolution of more independent and heroic female main characters—and I think it began with Ariel. She may have been dumb enough to give up her voice for a dude, but remember that it was also out of her own curiosity to be human. Even the lyrics of "Part of Your World" are empowering:

Bet you on land, they understand
Bet they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimmin', ready to stand.

Rather than pointing Pocahontas out as the strongliest of strong women, she is just one in a huge line of increasingly more assertive and inspirational women that Disney has been churning out. They all have their flaws, but they all have a seed of strength that Snow White, Cinderella and Princess Aurora didn't have.

One more reader, IrishEyes2787, and one more princess:

I understand that you’re trying to make a point about the strength of Pocahontas as a character (and I don't disagree with you entirely), but I have to stand up for my girl Belle. Far from being "uncertain and naive," Belle has a very strong will, an equally strong sense of herself, and an impressive set of wits to boot.

Belle is the first truly proactive Disney heroine; she’s the one steering the story from the beginning. And when she does give up her freedom it is not, as you say, for romantic love, but rather to ensure the protection of her father. What’s more, when she learns that her father’s health has deteriorated and that he’s in trouble, she makes the choice to leave the Beast with hardly a second thought, and with no plan to return, regardless of the love she has come to feel for him, choosing her family and her duty above her heart.