By Amy Saunders and Johanna Strong
**Please note that this post includes discussion of racial slurs, including historical terms our followers may find offensive.**
Disney has long been synonymous with princesses, but rarely have their films meaningfully approached the topic of female rule as a theme. When they do, in films such as Pocahontas (1995) and Moana (2016), the title characters still lack a rounded identity. Despite the progress made in society between the 1990s and the 2010s in terms of racial awareness – and the fact that some audiences perceived both films as progressive at the time of their release – Pocahontas and Moana perpetuate harmful and offensive visual depictions of the cultures they portray and fail to take into account the historical contexts of the real events and cultural myths they narrate.
Rewatching Pocahontas as an adult over 20 years after first engaging with it was an experience which demonstrated how far the world has come in terms of racial and women’s equality in that time, how much there still is to do, and how ingrained racial and gendered stereotypes continue to be for many, even those born in recent decades. The film contains an unrelenting barrage of negative stereotypes, perpetuating harmful beliefs about the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘good colonialist’, ideas about ‘inevitable’ and ‘positive progress’ towards ‘civilisation’, and reducing over 400 years of colonialism, oppression, and racism into an hour and twenty minute film for children to ‘enjoy’.
These negative attitudes are reflected in a mural found in Gravesend, Kent, which was commissioned in 1994. The mural depicts three specific aspects of Pocahontas’ narrative; her intercession on behalf of John Smith, her meeting with James VI & I and Anna of Denmark, and her final days, accompanied by John Wolfe. This mural, seen below, similarly white-washes Pocahontas, which is most starkly seen between the two depictions of her, the one of the left where her skin tone is darker where she is framed as the ‘noble savage’ and the central panel where she is distinctly lighter in skin tone and dressed in European fashions. The mural helps contextualise the creation of Disney’s Pocahontas, demonstrating that whilst Pocahontas could be seen to be celebrated in both the film and the mural, she was still being shown as a ‘savage’ and ‘cared’ for by White colonists, and to be ‘civilised’ so that she could be ‘found’ a ‘suitable’ place within a European narrative. These attitudes are reflected in seventeenth- to nineteenth-century portraits of Indigenous peoples and its presence in an animated film aimed at children is inappropriate.
Building on the nuance which a decade of increased awareness of issues of race brought, Moana had the potential to challenge stereotypes about Polynesian culture. Based on a Polynesian cultural myth, Moana tells the story of the titular character – in line to be chief – who leaves her island home to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti in the hopes of stopping the ongoing climate disaster. Where Pocahontas had oversimplified Indigenous culture and presented racial stereotypes without challenging them, Moana’s creators attempted to include Polynesian and Pacific Islander voices into the film’s creative process and succeeded in some areas, such as the representation of Moana’s fale (a Samoan house), the pe’a (body tattoos), and the canoes used.
Despite this, many have pointed out the failings of the film. One such failing, Doug Herman notes, is Disney’s portrayal of Polynesian male figures, particularly the demigod Maui. Traditionally portrayed in Polynesian representations as a lithe teenager, Disney’s Maui is overweight, thus perpetuating a harmful (and wrong) popular image of Polynesian men. The desire for the fictional character to physically resemble the voice actor (Dwayne Johnson) extends beyond muscularity into potbellied obesity.
Historical Context of the Films
Along with its negative imagery, Pocahontas and Pocahontas II, unlike the majority of the Disney Princess films, are based on historical fact, whilst others are largely based on fairy tales, myths, and legends. This adds another problematic layer to the narrative. The historical narrative around Pocahontas and her encounter with John Smith largely came from Smith himself, and this is the story recreated in the film. Both films end with Pocahontas having found love and having forged peace between two peoples. This removes both impressive and difficult truths about Pocahontas’ life; on the one hand it is likely that she often acted as a translator, whilst on the other she was likely much younger than the Disney movie would have us believe.
In the same way that Pocahontas failed to provide the historical facts behind the film’s narrative, Moana, too, misrepresents a historical past. The Kakamora people, a traditional opponent from the modern-day Solomon Islands, are included in the film as one of the obstacles which Moana and Maui must overcome in order to succeed in their mission. Though the Kakamora are not explicitly named, they likely serve, in Herman’s opinion, as the inspiration for the film’s pirates. This plotline had potential for respecting Polynesian and Pacific Island history, until the pirate ship comes into view in the film and the pirates are coconuts. This may seem harmless given the prior establishment of the significance of coconuts to Moana’s people, but this is in fact the perpetuation of a stereotype and an allusion to the racial slur ‘coconut’ as a derogatory term for Pacific Islanders.
Though neither Pocahontas nor Moana were created to serve as educational tools for history, it nevertheless remains a societal responsibility to provide nuance for the simplistic narratives Disney presents. Whereas Pocahontas fails to introduce its viewers to the realities of colonialism, Moana firmly roots itself in a perception of Pacific Island culture which is nevertheless white-washed and rendered stereotypical. What, then, is Disney’s responsibility to provide accurate tales for its princesses? At what point is this responsibility left to educators and/or parents/guardians to educate Disney’s audience?
In 2022, when white settlers are again being forced to confront their role in colonisation throughout the world and when Disney films are aimed not only at children but at adults, too, it is no longer good enough to include token depictions of female rule. It is time to properly and meaningfully confront what global queenship means and how we can teach it to the next generation.