Racism in Pocahontas
The film Pocahontas, produced by Walt Disney films, portrays the tension between the Powhatan tribe and English settlers during the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the "New World." In examining this film using the article "Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism," it quickly becomes apparent that although there are forms of racism as described in the article (what will be referred to as traditional media racism'), the crux of the film's racism is beyond blatant stereotyping and marginalization. While the white settlers clearly have a conquering ideology laced with ideas of racial superiority, this attitude is offset by Powhatan's steadfast adherence to their culture and traditions. While the film Pocahontas has several incidents of stereotypes and tokenizing of characters, which I will describe later, the heart of the films racism lies in the scriptwriter's historical revision, which has implications in many aspects of American society. This paper will analyze racist aspects of the film, the Powhatan Tribe's response to the Anglo settlers, Disney's version of the British conquest in what is now the United States, and its political implications.
Traditional media racism is found at several points in Pocahontas. The film begins by showing British sailors at port, ready to sail for what they call the "New World." This portrayal of America's "beginning" reinforces a Euro-centric perspective on history that a child (age of viewing is assumed to be pre-Kindergarten) would be receiving at his/her age. The notion of all characters identifying with whiteness by default, another form of traditional media racism, bears its head at another point in the story, when John Smith and Pocahontas meet for the first time. John Smith is standing on a rock, and the film places no particular emphasis on any aspect of his body. By contrast, Pocahontas is standing in the midst of swirling fog, and the scene contratres on her dark, and comparatively exotic eyes. The juxtaposition of these two main characters established John Smith as the default, normal character, while Pocahontas is the exotic, new "Indian." Pocahontas' exoticism is only so from the frame of reference of a European viewpoint. The third traditional form of racism in this film is the exaggerated importance of spirit' to the Powhatan tribe. While the concept of spirit is important to Powhatan culture, it is the only aspect of culture portrayed in Pocahontas. Within the context of lingering American media stereotypes of hyper-spiritual Native Americans (for example, in the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), the film's emphasis on supernatural spiritualism (found in Grandmother Willow) in Pocahontas' life is a form of racism.
However, while there are isolated incidents of racism in the film, there fails to be an obvious overall message of Native American inferiority to the audience (children) viewing the film. While the British settlers are lucidly racist and ethno centric, Pocahontas potrays this as attitude as wrong, as evidenced by their role as the film's antagonists. The settlers are obviously racist, but also possess other undesirable
characteristics, such as greed and cowardice. The governor of the settlers, Governor Ratcliffe, also champions the vices of lust, envy, laziness, and gluttony. The portrayal of the settlers with many deplorable characteristics, including racism, would make their stance to children very undesirable. Furthermore, while the hopeful colonizers carry philosophies infused with bigotry, no members of the Powhatan tribe internalized these ideas. Rather, they actively asserted their ownership of the land, as shown by their preparation for war with the settlers. The Powhatan opposition to the settlers' racism is signified during the scene in which John Smith and Pocahontas first meet. Smith discusses his opinions of the "new" land...
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