The film Pocahontas continues to generate controversy for its treatment of a sensitive historical topic
Over the years, the world of Disney has offered us memorable productions that have marked the childhoods of many. However, nearly 30 years after its release, Pocahontas remains the most discussed Disney princess film due to its inaccurate portrayal and the criticism it received from Native American organizations.
The problem behind the film
The animated adaptation of the life of Pocahontas differs considerably of true historical history. This deviation not only impacts public perception, but also invalidates the rich history of the Native American nation, particularly the Powhatan Renape Nation.
The film’s release evokes nostalgia in many Disney fans who grew up in the ’90s. However, the film received mixed reviews, with a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, and faced negative reactions from historians and the Native community itself. Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan, who participated as a consultant, regretted having her name associated with the project. The few multicultural representations the film attempts to project they seem boring for these criticisms.
Before its release in 1995, expectations were high. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio president, hoped the film would be a commercial success and earn Oscar nominations, similar to Beauty and the Beast. Contrary to expectations, the film narrowly beat Batman Forever at the box office and won only two Oscars.
The choice to adapt A real, complex story in a watered-down animated style has resulted in a film that, while presenting the historical context of the early days of colonization in America, simplifies and romanticizes the events that dramatically affected Native American populations. The true story goes that the English colonizers posed a grave threat to the tribe, with many girls attacked and kidnapped. Therefore, the decision to divert the main story and the offer of a more “friendly” version was not well received.
Where does the narrative deviate?
The real protagonist was between 12 and 13 years old in the period covered by the film. However, in the film he appears at the age of 18-19, the situation changes some believe The intention was to sexualize her, as is the case with many princesses in the Mouse House films. Also, although addressed in the sequel, the native actually married John Rolfe and not John Smith. It is speculated that this marriage was the result of a kidnapping and that she was subsequently taken to Europe against her will, where she died of pneumonia.
Pocahontas, whose real name was Amonute and was known privately as Matoaka, was portrayed without proper consultation with the Powhatan Renape Nation, according to Chief Roy Crazy Horse. This ignorance and simplification of history without considering the opinions of those affected by it, has generated a version that ignores the struggles and glorifies colonization.
Disney has been criticized in the past for their adaptations and this film is no exception. Despite everything, the film still has a loyal following, like many other studio productions. While it is still available on platforms like Disney+, it carries a warning label for “depictions of tobacco.” Some fans argue that its historical adaptation is so free that it can be enjoyed as a fantasy. However, the problem persists and Pocahontas remains the most talked about Disney film.
The problem of its representation
The figure of Pocahontas has transcended popular culture thanks, in large part, to Disney’s interpretation of her. However, it is essential understand its true impact and how it relates to historical and cultural reality.
The true story
Before the arrival of European settlers, Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, already had a significant role within her tribe, the Powhatans. She was the daughter of the Powhatan leader and, despite popular narratives of her, she did not have a romance with John Smith. Their relationship, according to historical records, was based more on friendship and collaboration, although this is still a matter of debate.
Moreover, his tragic fate in real history contrasts starkly with the gentler portrayal offered in popular culture. After marrying John Rolfe, she was taken to England and presented as a “civilized savage,” demonstrating European dominance over native cultures. She died at the age of 21, far from her homeland.
Representation in popular culture
While the cartoon version proposes a love story between the native and John Smith, ignore the realities and suffering of native peoples during colonization. This narrative, while appealing to audiences, omits the challenges and traumas faced by native tribes.
Although the movie studio has attempted to correct some of its mistakes with more recent films, presenting cultures with greater accuracy and respect, the shadow of Pocahontas’s problematic portrayal remains a reminder of the importance of approaching stories carefully, especially when they involve profound cultural implications and historical realities.
It is essential that, as viewers, we are critical and research understand the real story behind popular stories, to honor and respect the traditions and legacy of the cultures represented on the big screen.