First Theatrical Release: June 24, 1995
First Home Viewing Release: February 28, 1996
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: My Big Box o’ Disney Love (10th Anniversary Edition)
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Pocahontas, Nakoma, and Grandmother Willow. Nakoma and Pocahontas talk about a dream Pocahontas had. Later, Pocahontas describes the dream in more detail to Grandmother Willow (although it turns out the dream is more or less about a man.)
I just finished reading about all the intentional “buzz” Disney built up for this film in its marketing stages, and boy did that buzz work on me. Still deep in the throes of my Disney obsession, I was ravenous for this movie. I was also somewhat afraid of it. John Smith’s and Pocahontas’s relationship was so hyped in all the advertising, and the idea of a “forbidden romance” spanning race and culture was so appealing to me, that I worried the film would displace the special place Aladdin held in my heart.
It turned out I needn’t have worried. Much like Beauty & the Beast, the entire movie is built around Pocahontas’s and John Smith’s love affair, and it is arguably the most sexually charged human romance in Disney’s canon (not counting Frollo’s overwhelming lust for Esmeralda, of course, coming up next week!). Although I saw the movie three times in theaters, the romance still did not move me the way Aladdin‘s did — I was more drawn to the intensity of the conflict between the Native Americans and the white settlers. Although I did not analyze it at the time, now I can see why the romance in this film did not ignite the same “spark” in me. Jasmine may not have been a “prize to be won,” but John Smith just isn’t any prize, period.
In Which Disney Gets the Brain Chemistry All Right
When I watched this as a 14-year-old, I did not know what happens to our brains when we fall in love. But the short version is that falling in love is such a risk that our hormones high-jack our brains to make sure we do it anyway. The main mechanism through which this happens is the shutting down of our “critical thinking” (love is blind) and our “consequences” departments. This is why, when we are newly in love, we will stay up far too late smooching our beloved on work nights, or why we’ll disregard other important relationships in our lives at the risk of compromising or losing relationships that have been far more dependable than the one with our brand new beloved.
This plays itself out so clearly in the romance between Pocahontas and John Smith — it drives them to behave in ways their respective communities consider foolhardy, reckless, and irresponsible. John Smith, despite being the captain of the ship and seemingly the only one aboard with past experience exploring “new worlds”, is hardly ever at camp to offer guidance. Pocahontas repeatedly sneaks away from her village at a time of heightened insecurity for her trysts with John. And John barges into Native American territory, where he is seen by Nakoma and eventually attacked by Kocoum, just for the chance to glimpse his lady love.
So, okay, we get it, love makes people do risky things, and both John Smith and Pocahontas are already established risk-takers before they meet each other (Pocahontas dives off a suicide-worthy cliff, John Smith crosses dangerous seas seeking adventure), but without realizing what love does to the brain, it’s easy to believe that John Smith and Pocahontas’s love is just that big.
But WHY is it so big?
That’s a question that I was not really able to answer on my adult viewing of the movie, and I think that’s why the romance didn’t live on in my imagination once it was off the screen. Disney released the “Colors of the Wind” sequence months before the movie premiered, so viewers knew before even seeing the film what John Smith is getting out of this relationship: Pocahontas shows him the wonder of nature a la Dances with Wolves or Fern Gulley, and through her eyes he sees the world in a whole new way. But what does he bring to the table for Pocahontas?
Well, not much, it turns out, which pretty much stands in for what his people bring in general. After he spends his first conversation with Pocahontas essentially “mansplaining” things to her, she is understandably peeved. But she falls head over heels for him as soon as he shows signs of a change of heart — even though that change of heart does not play out in any real way for her people. Not to mention that she does not have the context for John Smith that the viewer has — the viewer knows that he has seen “hundreds” of “new worlds” and that he is experienced dealing with “savages.” One can assume he has exploited, killed, and/or oppressed the native people of other lands he has visited — that he does not want to do the same to Pocahontas’s people still doesn’t make him an upstanding guy — especially since the main motivation for his change of heart seems to be this gorgeous goddess-like babe who emerges from the mist before him (while he points a gun at her.)
Back when I was a teen, I was Team Kocoum, and perhaps that’s why Pocahontas’s and John Smith’s relationship could never “stick” for me. We know that Pocahontas isn’t just a girl lookin’ for love because she spurns Kocoum’s offer of marriage, her main complaint being that he is too “serious” (although John Smith isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs) and that she wants more than a “handsome sturdy husband who builds handsome sturdy walls” (which seem like pretty good qualities in a husband to me). Her biggest fear seems to be that marriage to Kocoum will be too predictable, and that if she chooses him her dreaming will be “at an end.”
This is a valid concern at last, and gives us the best clue into why Pocahontas falls for John Smith: he is “other,” and thus, he is unpredictable. He is from a land far away and brings all the mystery that goes along with foreign-ness. He satisfies her need to keep dreaming and not to know what will come next.
So John Smith’s and Pocahontas’s love seems to be built around the mutual exoticizing of one another, and perhaps Pocahontas was prescient enough to know that such “exoticness” eventually melts away in long-term relationships, and the best way to keep her feelings for Smith strong is to let him go while he still remains mostly a mystery to her.
In Which Disney Gets Racial Relations … Close Enough?
I am relieved that Disney considered Native American input in multiple stages while producing this film, including while writing and storyboarding, and that it sought out Native voice actors. It seems some of the criticism the studio received for racial issues in Aladdin trickled into practice with Pocahontas. While not totally free of stereotypes or bias, it’s clear that Pocahontas is meant to be a respectful and warm portrayal of Native people.
On some level, I also feel the movie must be commended for addressing racism in an overt way rather than leaving it all to subtext. This is weighty subject matter, and it contributes to my surprising discovery that this movie remained an emotionally intense viewing experience even as an adult. While my adult re-watch of many of the films have allowed me to concede, yes, this is a movie made for kids that has something relevant to say to adults, Pocahontas did not feel like a movie made for kids. From the breathlessness of John Smith’s and Pocahontas’s encounters to the non-talking sidekicks who were truly relegated to the sidelines to the settlers’ usage of offensive epithets such as “Injuns,” “Indians,” and “Savages” to describe the tribe they encounter.
I admire the film for its willingness to show the absolute ignorance under which the white settlers were operating, their unquestioning belief that they had a “right” to the land already inhabited by others. They are not portrayed as bad people, with the exception of Ratcliffe, but nor are they very critical thinkers. Even John Smith is portrayed as sharing their prejudices, and voices them directly to Pocahontas in their first real conversation (isn’t it nice that she learned to “listen with her heart” so she could hear what a jerk this guy is?)
The Native Americans, on the other hand, approach the white settlers with more caution; they do not react with knee-jerk violence; and even when they decide they must go to war, they do so in self-defense. A child watching this would clearly see that the Native Americans are not the “bad guys.”
But perhaps the film goes too far in ensuring that the whites are not perceived as the “bad guys,” either. By placing the mantel of villainy firmly upon the shoulders of Ratcliffe, the film avoids looking at the inherent injustice of the settlers’ presence on the shores of Virginia at all. There is a brief nod to this reality when Ratcliffe asks, rhetorically, why the Native Americans are attacking, and Wiggins answers, “Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?”
The rest of the white settlers are allowed off the hook due to simple “misunderstanding,” which surely could have been cleared up if each of them had an exotic Native lover of their own. The tide also turns much too easily at the end of the film, wherein the whole crew, upon seeing that Powhatan does not intend to murder John Smith, automatically lets go of their prejudice, as a lot, with Ratcliffe the sole remaining racist among them. If change happened this quickly and smoothly, we would not still be battling with ongoing tension between Native and white people today (and in no place is that more obvious than in South Dakota, where our reservations are the poorest in the nation and whites have both interfered with Native Americans’ voting rights AND totally disregarded the Indian Child Welfare Act).
While I appreciate the movie’s message about tolerance, in its portrayal of Native Americans as peaceful and forgiving, it ultimately lets white folks — arguably the movie’s intended audience — off the hook WAY too easily. There is no loss of white life in this movie; the only character to die is Native, as if it’s somehow more palatable to sacrifice a brown-skinned character for the sake of plot than a white one. And even then, his killer is not portrayed as someone villainous who has committed an atrocity, but as someone who is misguided, vulnerable, and confused.
In the final scene, I just kept asking myself, But what have the white settlers REALLY brought that is of value to the Native Americans that would justify their newfound friendship? We see Pocahontas’s people emerging from the mist bearing baskets full of food and other gifts for the settlers, an offering of peace and presumably forgiveness. The white settlers offer them nothing in return. So in the end, while the Native Americans may be portrayed as morally superior to the white folks, they are ultimately still subservient to them, offering up their bounty without receiving anything in return except, hopefully, a tacit agreement that all those little boys running around with guns will stop shooting them.
If only that were really the way this story would end.
For Further Reading …
- Stuff Mom Never Told You did a great podcast examining the “Myth of the Indian Princess” in Pocahontas.
- A comparison of Pocahontas and The New World, with some history thrown in there.
- And for some levity, apparently my main man Kocoum got some love in the world of Internet memes this summer.