HOUSTON – As humans, we tend to gloss over the darkest parts of our history. No one wants to shatter the sterling silver picture we project onto the rest of the world.
But when serious issues are stifled and the voices of the oppressed are continuously suppressed, it can have lasting impacts on society. This is why we must work to record history with the utmost accuracy.
Should we be made to face the same level of accountability when it comes to entertainment? How closely do we need to preserve the origins of a “story” when we are essentially crafting a new one?
Transnational corporations in the entertainment industry, such as Disney, have wrestled with this question for numerous years. At times, they’ve even had to war with the media over the cultural validity of their stories and the implications of utilizing story/character tropes that could be deemed offensive.
On this Thanksgiving holiday, I felt it was important to revisit an American classic that’s been under scrutiny for this exact reason: Pocahontas.
In 1995 Walt Disney Studios released the highly acclaimed, major motion picture, Pocahontas. The heartwarming film featured the exploits of an inquisitive Indigenous woman, Pocahontas, after the arrival of a ship filled with European colonizers.
In the film, Pocahontas is a wandering spirit desperate to escape the bondage of her fated marriage to the future “heir” of her tribe, and she ends up falling in love with one of the Europeans, Captain John Smith. The premise of the rest of the film is that the two share a love that transcends all boundaries and can ease the growing tensions between their people.
From a historical perspective, it is a blatant ornamentation of the struggles of Indigenous people in the Americas.
While inaccuracies – such as Pocahontas miraculously being able to speak English – can be swept aside as mere plot devices, other inconsistencies can’t be as easily dismissed.
John Smith was not a debonaire ship captain, scouring the earth to forge a new frontier. He’d had a violent past, according to biographical information published by the History Channel.
Pocahontas was 11 years old when the events of this story took place, according to information on Historic Jamestowne published by the National Park Service, and there’s no evidence of any actual love between them.
Disney likely realized that a relationship with this kind of age gap would spotlight the dark, abusive undertones of colonization, and chose to package it in a more digestible way.
Then there is Disney’s most obvious deviation from the historical script – the “Happily Ever After” ending. While I won’t go into the specifics of the film’s conclusion to avoid spoilers, it is fairly obvious to anyone who has ever interacted with another human being that deep-rooted conflicts cannot be solved with such ease.
Trust is one of humanity’s most elusive phenomena.
Despite all this, many are still inclined to ask why any of this matters. “It’s just a kid’s film! Right?”
I do acknowledge that Disney did a superb job of creating a touching film full of mystifying visuals and songs, but they are still responsible for the movie’s implications.
Based on the fact that Pocohantas and Smith were never even in love, it is apparent that Disney didn’t intend to rigidly adhere to facts and evidence. But by utilizing the names of real people to identify the characters they created – rather than create fictional characters – it misinformed many into thinking that the movie had more legitimacy than it did.
Decisions like this are vital when handling narratives that will be as widely distributed as a film like Pocahontas.
In a world where people can absorb media from various sources, we must ensure that we establish fact and fiction from the beginning to keep misinformation from running rampant.
Truth is our responsibility, and we shouldn’t take it lightly.
Christine Marinho is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.
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