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.”