U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Pocahontas and the Modern Woman

On Thursday, we discussed “Pocahontas” and all of the aspects that Disney got wrong or right in the making of the film. While Prof McClurken very obviously is not a fan of Disney, I’ve always been firmly on its side. Growing up in the 1990s meant that Disney princesses and I grew up together — I even remember seeing “Pocahontas” in the theater with my mom. It is my roommate’s favorite Disney movie, and I bought it for her 20th birthday.

One of the biggest criticisms of Disney, and especially the princesses, is that it gives young women exactly the wrong ideas about themselves and how they should behave. I know a lot of girls my age who saw these movies and have grown up to be strong women. Are we still missing something? Is it enough of a risk that we should bar our daughters from seeing them? Of course, growing up to be a strong woman has as much to do with personality and upbringing – including our parent’s responses to these movies – regardless of the movies that we watch. How could we trace a subservient personality to watching these movies, any more than we could trace a love of flowy dresses or breaking into song?

One cannot argue that these movies can be simply for entertainment value when they are aimed at toddlers who haven’t been exposed to other entertainment, much less other people. But there is definitely a thin line between teaching mysogyny and giving little girls dreams of being princesses. It is our earliest exposure to escapism and dreaming of a better/different life, which.. let’s face it, we all have to accept that our real parents, the king and queen, aren’t coming to get us after all.

In this movie in particular, we are exposed to ideas about gender, but also race and revisionist history. Pocahontas is arguably quite white looking compared to the others in her tribe, with a more English accent, and a kickin’ Barbie body. When taking into consideration that she would have spent a lot of time outside, and that there would have been little to no racial mixing at this point, one would think she would be a lot darker. Darker like the other members of her tribe, for example. This small change serves tons of roles for Disney, but it can easily be summed up by saying that little white girls can’t identify with a Native American woman nearly as easily as they can to a white “teenager.”

On the issue of history, Disney is definitely reprehensible. It is important to remember that no matter how many consultants they bring in, the final decisions are up to them, and they can make all of the informed poor decisions that they want. The idea that the Jamestown settlers just packed up and happily left after being told that there was no gold is beyond laughable; it is an irresponsible portrayal. As we discussed, part of this portrayal is meant to assuage American guilt and to show an openness to other cultures (this was hardly the only movie of the mid-1990s to feature Native American main or supporting characters).

I can’t argue that Disney is an educational experience for little girls and boys. Unfortunately, this discussion lands in the gray area of entertainment vs. reality, and each person decides which they want more for themselves. People should be more cognizant of what their children are absorbing, but the ideas of female subservience cannot be blocked out just by a Disney boycott.

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