Now that Moana has been released and Lindsey Ellis, formally known as the Nostalgia Chick, did a video essay comparing it to Pocahontas and talking about cultural appropriation, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Disney’s 1995 Pocahontas movie. I absolutely don’t want to defend Pocahontas because, well… it’s bad. It’s really bad and racist, but this movie did have a lot of positive effects on me and my understanding of the genocide white people waged on Native Americans. And even nowadays, over twenty years later, it once again indirectly managed to help me come to terms with a personal trauma. Lindsey Ellis’s video does a really good job deconstructing everything that’s wrong with this movie and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone watch it, because Pocahontas is on the whole a really awful movie. Despite my love for it and the positive influence it had on my life, those things do not erase the negatives.
The first thing to know about feminism is that it’s concerned with women’s well-being, and the well-being of all. The second thing to know about feminism is that it’s incredibly complicated. There are many, many forms of feminism, including ones that directly conflict with one another. One of the things that all feminists can agree on is that we need good role models for young girls. But what kinds of role models are we talking about? Disney Princesses are a source of love and contention for many feminists. We can’t seem to agree on which princesses are the best; these two different rankings both claim to be done through a feminist lens, yet they’re completely different. In one, Mulan is at the top, the other she’s near the bottom.
On one hand, we see lots of little girls so excited (excited is putting it mildly) to watch Disney Princess movies, wear Disney Princess costumes, meet Disney Princesses at theme parks, and pretend to be Disney Princesses. Many of the popular Disney Princesses exemplify traditional Western standards of feminine perfection, and what’s wrong with wanting to be feminine? On the other hand, some of the Princesses are treated like objects instead of people; their agency is limited to going about their lives until a man (usually a Prince, but not always) swoops in to rescue them. They’re also drawn as unrealistically skinny, and I’m certain that barring a few height differences, every single one could swap outfits with each other. It’s a bad message to send to girls who are already subjected to a lot of body image issues. Other more modern Disney Princesses do have strong personalities and dreams of their own, and send good messages to kids. So which ones really are the good princesses, and are there any redeeming qualities to the seemingly not-so-feminist ones?
Lately I’ve noticed a lot more of those Native American memes as I scroll through my various web feeds (maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is coming up?). You know what I’m talking about—pretty little pictures of serene and wise (and sad) Native Americans with some kind of superimposed message about listening to your elders and/or being one with the Earth. For some reason, a significant number of people really love spreading those around (I’m looking at you, elderly relatives). I’m not really sure why—maybe it’s something to do with looking for meaning in an increasingly post-Christian world. There are so many problems with those little memes; I won’t go into them all here. But some filmmakers have taken on a similar attitude. How do film versions of Native American religious beliefs match up to the real thing?