In 1938, Walt Disney released the first-ever feature-length animated movie, a project that had been labeled “Disney’s folly” thanks to the industry’s belief that its outsized ambitions would prove catastrophic. Instead, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves became the most successful film of the year, grossing $8 million and launching a new cultural phenomenon into the world: the Disney princess.
Snow White may have blazed a trail for animation, but it took a while for Disney to acknowledge the potential for anchoring ambitious projects around female characters. It was 12 years before the studio would base another full-length picture on a heroine with the release of Cinderella in 1950. Beauty and the Beast (1991) came more than half a century after Snow White scored Disney seven miniature honorary Oscars at the 1939 Academy Awards, but it was only the sixth Disney film out of 32 to focus primarily on the story of a female character. However it was also a colossal hit, grossing $425 million on a $25 million budget, and the movie’s success inspired the studio to look for another ambitious romance with a bold and compelling heroine. The result was Pocahontas, a dramatic retelling of one of the earliest American stories about a Native American woman and her encounter with an English sailor named John Smith.
When Pocahontas was released on June 23, 1995, the criticism it received for taking historical liberties with Pocahontas’s age and relationship with Smith largely overshadowed the fact that Disney 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 movie might have fudged some facts to allow for a compelling romantic story, but it had a progressive attitude when it came to interpreting history, depicting the English settlers as plunderers searching for non-existent gold who were intent upon murdering the “savages” they encountered in the process.
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, and amid the controversy that arose at the time thanks to the subject matter, many of the film’s best qualities have been forgotten. But 20 years later, its impact can be seen in the new wave of animated Disney films like Brave and Frozen, while Pocahontas remains a well-intentioned entry in the Disney canon.
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Prior to the The Little Mermaid’s release in 1989, the ‘70s and ‘80s were lean times for Disney. The two decades before had seen some of the studio’s most iconic pictures, but films like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981) were forgettable, while 1985’s The Black Cauldron was a box-office bomb. From 1961 through 1988, Walt Disney Studios largely focused on stories about talking animals, from The Rescuers (1977) to The Great Mouse Detective (1986), as well as Robin Hood (1973), which reinvented the archetypal English characters as anthropomorphized foxes and bears. In 1984, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, launched a campaign called “SaveDisney” in which he argued that the studio was losing its magic. After the catastrophic release of The Black Cauldron, Roy Disney was put in charge of Disney’s animation department in 1985, and he helped spearhead the company’s creative and financial renaissance of the 1990s.
The Little Mermaid, the 1989 story of a princess named Ariel who falls in love with a human and decides to trade her voice for the ability to live on land, was a film very much in the old Disney mold—a romantic fairytale with child-friendly humor and compelling supporting characters. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast trod similar ground, while 1994’s The Lion King was an animal story given a more epic scope, with the Africa savanna framed as a kingdom and the cub Simba depicted as a young Prince Hamlet whose father had been murdered by his uncle.
Pocahontas was something different entirely. The success of Beauty and the Beast spurred studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to push for another romance, and directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg wanted to pursue a story that had its origins in early American history, while also incorporating the Romeo and Juliet-esque elements of two people from very different backgrounds falling in love. But unlike the naive and uncertain Ariel and Belle, Pocahontas would be far more confident—“a woman instead of a teenager,” as supervising animator Glen Keane put it. As the producer Jim Pentacost says in Disney’s 1995 documentary about the making of the feature, “Pocahontas is the strongest heroine we’ve ever had in a Disney film.”
The main problem with Pocahontas—as expressed by several Native American groups, including the Powhatan Nation, which traces its origins back to Pocahontas herself—is that over time, she’s come to embody the trope of the “Good Indian,” or one who offers her own life to help save a white settler. “Her offer of sacrifice, her curvaceous figure, and her virginal stature have come to symbolize America’s Indian heroine,” wrote Angela Aleiss in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times. Aleiss goes on to criticize how female Indian characters are defined by their male relationships, are “tossed aside by the white man” for a woman of his own race, and have nothing in their appeal beyond their “on-screen pulchritude.”
But Pocahontas as a character is more complex than Aleiss allows. She does throw herself on John Smith as he’s about to be executed, emphasizing the value of human life and the destructive nature of war, but her move is reciprocated minutes later, when Smith then positions himself between Pocahontas’s father and the furious head of the English settlers, Governor Ratcliffe, and gets shot in the process. The injured Smith decides to return home, and begs Pocahontas to go with him, but she chooses to stay with her tribe in her homeland. Instead of sacrificing something for love (like Ariel giving up her voice, or Belle her freedom), Pocahontas puts her identity and heritage first. It’s a bold ending, and one that deliberately subverts real history, which saw the real Pocahontas marry a different Englishman, John Rolfe, and travel to London with him, where she was feted as an example of the “civilized savage” before dying at the age of 21 shortly before her husband was due to sail back to Virginia.
Powhatan Nation has a page on its website in which it also criticizes Disney for propagating the “Good Indian/Bad Indian” theme and basing a movie on what is largely believed to be a lie told by John Smith to enhance his own mystique. “Euro-Americans must ask themselves why it has been so important to elevate Smith’s fibbing to status as a national myth worthy of being recycled again by Disney,” the page says. “Disney even improves upon it by changing Pocahontas from a little girl into a young woman.” But an animated feature about the relationship between a 10-year-old (as Pocahontas is believed to have been at the time she met John Smith) and an adult male would presumably have horrified audiences. “We had the choice of being historically accurate or socially responsible,” Glen Keane said.
The animator Tom Sito has written about the efforts the creative team went to to try and accurately portray Native American culture, saying, “Contrary to the popular verdict that we ignored history on the film, we tried hard to be historically correct and to accurately portray the culture of the Virginia Algonquins. We consulted with the Smithsonian Institution, a number of Native American experts, Pocahontas’s descendants, the surviving Virginia tribes, and even took several trips to Jamestown itself.” The lyricist, Stephen Schwartz (best-known for his Broadway smash, Wicked!) also traveled to Jamestown to research Native American music and history while working on the movie’s songs.
When asked about whether he thought the movie accurately portrayed history, the Native American actor Russell Means, who gave his voice to Pocahontas’s father, said he was shocked by how revolutionary the plot was: “The Eurocentric males are admitting why they came here—to kill Indians and to rob and pillage. That’s never been done before. This is also the first time, other than on Northern Exposure, that a human face has been put on an Indian female.”
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While its interpretation of history attracted considerable criticism, less was written about the fact that Disney had, for the first time, provided an independent and fearless heroine with a strong sense of self. Pocahontas, whose marriage has been arranged by her father to a warrior named Kocoum, expresses doubt that he’ll be a good match for her, stating that he’s “so … serious.” She seeks guidance from her elders, but also knows herself well enough to intuit that she’s too unconventional for such a husband. Compared to Belle, who’s imprisoned by the Beast before eventually seeing his good side, or Ariel, who falls in love with Prince Eric at first sight, or Cinderella and Aurora and Snow White, all of whom seem to accept that their marriages are pre-ordained, Pocahontas has a remarkable amount of acuity when it comes to choosing a romantic partner—to the point where she’s able to let him go rather than sacrifice her happiness.
Her strength and bravery are traits that Disney also gave to the character of Mulan, who disguises herself as a man so that she can go to war in place of her elderly father. But after the release of that movie in 1998, Disney wouldn’t produce a movie about a female hero until 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the success of which spurred a new series of stories about gutsy heroines: 2010’s Tangled, 2012’s Brave, and 2013’s Frozen, which took over a billion dollars at the box office and became the highest-grossing animated film of all time.
It’s maybe overstating things to say that there would be no Elsa or Rapunzel or Merida without Pocahontas, but to overlook her status as the first truly empowered Disney heroine is to miss a real turning point for female characters in the 20th century. In an essay for Highbrow Magazine, Kaitlin Ebersol aligns the phases of Disney heroines with the various waves of feminism in the 20th century and beyond. “By the 1990s, a third wave of feminism, which dealt specifically with feminine sexuality, had arisen in response to failures of the second wave,” she writes. “The third wave began destabilizing former contracts of body, gender, and sexuality, and encouraged every woman to define femininity, beauty, and orientation for herself ... These newer princesses reflected society’s drastically altered beliefs about who women are and how they should act.”
Not only was Pocahontas a radical reimagining of the Disney heroine, the movie she starred in was itself attempting to both re-explore history and to encourage empathy as a guiding quality for young viewers. If The Lion King was its generation’s Bambi when it comes to thinking about the treatment of animals, Means has said, “Pocahontas teaches that pigmentation and bone structure have no place in human relations. It’s the finest feature film on American Indians Hollywood has turned out.”