How We Can Learn From Disney’s Pocahontas

I remember being in elementary school the first time I saw the movie, Pocahontas. My teacher played it in class the week before Thanksgiving as a way to introduce the idea of the First Thanksgiving and the history that surrounds it. At the time, most of us were just excited to watch cartoons at school and were too young to think that maybe there was more to the story than we could get from a Disney movie.

 

Disney movies are far from perfect and definitely not considered a reliable source for the history of anything but there are certain things that we can learn from movies such as Pocahontas, one of the main points being that history is often romanticized.

While often the word “romanticized” does not literally refer to romance, in the context of Disney’s Pocahontas, it actually does. The movie itself is grounded in the historical context of the colonization of the “New World.” Many of the characters are based on real people that were involved in this moment of history but their true stories aren’t quite as beautiful as their animated counterparts. The movie Pocahontas in its simplest definition is a love story between a Native American girl and an English Colonist. While Captain John Smith and Pocahontas were both real people who did interact with each other, their love story was fabricated for the silver screen. 

 

 

As the movie continues to age, it has come under scrutiny time and time again. The main points of conflict are in the way that Disney “changed history.” The real Pocahontas, at the time of her encounters with John Smith, was said to have been only a child. This has made many people uncomfortable with the fact that they wrote a child into a love story with a grown man, though in the film itself Pocahontas is portrayed of similar age to John Smith. 

According to History.com, John Smith’s accounts of what happened show that in his perception at least, Pocahontas saved his life on a few occasions but there is never a mention of romance. The inclusion of a love story begs you to root for John Smith and the idea of forbidden love and pulls focus from some of the very real things that happened during the colonization of the New World. 

While it is doubtful it was Disney’s intention to make light of such a controversial moment in history with the use of talking animals and catchy tunes, it is hard not to see it that way. The colonists sing over and over again about pillaging the “savages” and stripping the land for all that its worth. The Native Americans are meant to be the bad guys; the uncultured and uneducated who only kidnap and kill. Though it is true that the colonists of the time may have truly thought that way, continuing to depict them as such will only grow a culture of hate and ignorance. There are many stories to tell of different races and ethnicities but it is not right to take them and turn them into kid-friendly fluff pieces because the real story is not as happy.

It is definitely unreasonable to criticize an animated film for not being real enough and it is okay to enjoy movies just for what they are. I don’t think that people need to stop watching movies like Pocahontas or that kids need to be told that the world is not a fairytale. I just think that movies like this can be used to teach a lesson, not one of history, but of the way that not everything is what it may seem to be and that there is more than one side to every story. Ultimately, the only way to have an understanding of anything is to educate yourself with everything available to you.