Em Lampard breaks down the colonialist mess at the heart of the beloved Disney tale.
My memories of the Disney films I watched as a child are condensed into a blur of vivid animations and heart-warming plotlines, where adorable animals provide the greatest of friendships and the unnaturally radiant ‘good’ characters always prevail. But of all their delightful depths, Pocahontas has always resonated with me the most. Aside from the fact that she and Jasmine were the only two Disney characters I felt I could identify with in terms of appearance, I also admired her defiant free spirit and her seemingly care-free lifestyle; dashing through idyllic landscapes, befriending small animals and talking to trees. Despite the endless hours of excruciating combing and tedious plaiting, my sister and I persisted in having hair down to our bums for almost the entirety of our childhood. Any time I’ve cut or dyed it, once the novelty wears off, I always pine for my long, black locks so I can “be like Pocahontas” again. But should this film really be idolised?
Delve deeper into the film’s love story widely thought to resemble the truth, and you will find that at the time of John Smith’s intrusive arrival, Pocahontas meaning ‘naughty one’, was, in reality a 10 year old child named Matoaka. Dig deeper still and we find that the story Disney has chosen to base its film around was fabricated by Smith- a self-promoting mercenary soldier whose initial encounter with the Powhatan people was one of friendship and comfort. In the final scenes of the film, the peaceful advice of Pocahontas is heard and accepted, and a resolute understanding is achieved – however these events are also shamelessly falsified. Matoaka was kidnapped at the age of 17 to be used as a ransom, yet when Chief Powhatan obliged, still she was not released. Whilst captive, John Rolfe (‘credited’ as a pioneer of the tobacco trade…) took a shine to the young Matoaka and switched her role from prisoner to wife. She was later paraded around England as the perfect example of a civilised savage- a momentary use of propaganda before her death in Gravesend, aged 21, at the start of her journey back to Virginia.
As the standalone, completely fictional tale then, yes: Disney’s film is still admirable. Men constantly try to belittle Pocahontas; her father in regards to marriage, Kocoum in authority, and of course John Smith – because what great lover doesn’t question everything from your greeting and comprehension to your inherent morals and beliefs? Yet she stands up to the continuous stream of masculine assertion thrown not only at her personal being but also that of her people and her planet. Yet, similarly to all other Disney ‘princesses’ and most commercialised representations of ‘beauty’, her proportions are completely contrived – as is that of Smith; a triangular physique with blonde hair, blue eyes and the voice of Mel Gibson. In this way she is an unrepresentative, unrealistic idol who falls for the obnoxious blonde triangle.
All that being said, again Pocahontas is not completely fictional. It is a Disney fairytale based on the lies of an English man about a Powhatan girl who was torn from her people and used to fuel the self-righteousness and ignorance of one cruel nation, and many more to follow. In the film Ratcliffe’s men sail away having come to a respectable understanding of their errors; the two sides seem almost equal, but Pocahontas is left heartbroken having lost both Kocoum and John Smith despite her efforts and input. In reality, the ‘new world’ was treated with intolerable brutality and spite; not all, but many of the new settlers were helped by the native people, who taught them the lay of the land and the food sources available. In return the settlers raped the local women, children and land, and hunted and killed many of the men. Matoaka was given no voice; she had gone to the English settlement in good will and with good intentions where she was disrespected, sexualised and stuffed into an uncomfortable mould. To romanticise such an inhumane exploit is simply unacceptable.
Illustration by Jess Baxter