This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ Pocahontas is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Pocahontas (1995): A parent-child discussion guide
by Annalyssa Gypsy Murphy, Ph.D.
Dr. Murphy is a Native American professor who specializes in Native American women and is the mother of three daughters. As a visiting faculty she has created and taught a class called “Pocahontas: Native American Women from Myth-Reality” that she has offered at several universities in the Midwest and New England.
Common Sense Media recommends Pocahontas for children ages 6 and up, largely due to violence and scariness.
In Disney’s Pocahontas, the two central characters are Pocahontas, after whom the film is named and John Smith, an Englishman who arrived to seek gold. Pocahontas is depicted as a comely free spirited Native American girl who is the daughter of her tribe’s chief. The film starts with the departure from Europe, of a ship full of white men who depart with the words, “You can’t fight Indians without John Smith” to which he responds “Do you think I would let you guys have all the fun?” as he boards the ship. Thus setting the tone of violence that echoes throughout the film. Our first view of the Native population is immediately pre-arrival of the English and shows them farming and the return of Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, from a battle. The Chief tells Pocahontas that he has plans for her to marry but she is resistant to the idea. Pocahontas has a best friend named Nakoma and this friendship is spirited and playful but also marked by a bit of jealousy as Nakoma likes the man Pocahontas’ father wants her to marry.
Soon after the arrival of the English ship, John Smith and Pocahontas meet and seem to fall in love instantly as she magically learns English and they are able to communicate. He shares his views of her people and she is offended and begins to sing “Colors of the Wind” to show him how wrong he was about Native people. She also can communicate with trees and her animal friends and is shown as intimately connected to nature throughout the film.
The English are shown perpetually engaged in violence with the Natives throughout, resulting in the murder of the Native man who had wished to marry Pocahontas. The Chief initially blames Smith, but Pocahontas saves him. The film ends with Pocahontas standing on a cliff, hair blowing in the wind and leaves flowing from her and out to sea as a wounded and weak John Smith returns home to England to save his life.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
Pocahontas offers a princess figure that is non-European and that is itself positive. You can offer a critique of The Pretty Princess Mandate in that she is depicted as beautiful but is not shown wearing western gowns and typically fancy clothes. She is however shown as very thin with extraordinarily long hair.
With children ages 4 and 5, co-view the movie and talk back to the screen to model critical viewing. Your child will listen to what you say. Consider comments such as the following :
- “Pocahontas and her friend Nakoma both seems like very strong girls!”
- “Look at how Pocahontas is a hard worker, picking corn. Did you know that early Native Americans were the first American farmers?”
- “Do you have a friend like Nakoma who you enjoy doing things with?”
- “Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to be barefoot so much like Pocahontas and Nakoma?”
- “Pocahontas must be very smart to know so much about Nature!”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these points while co-viewing, but later—perhaps over dinner or while in the car running errands—you can expand upon them and work towards a dialogue. Try something along these lines—questions that call for answers more robust than only “yes” or “no”:
- “I noticed that people seemed to focus a lot on Pocahontas as a future wife and not so much on what she wanted for her life. Why do you think that was? How would you feel about that if you were Pocahontas?”
- “It seemed that people thought Pocahontas and Nakoma were very pretty girls and that is true, but I found their friendship to be the most interesting thing they both shared. Do you have a friend you trust like they trusted one another?”
Make it real: This would be a good time to talk about real Native Americans who are alive today! Some great resources can be found online at cradleboard.org and oyate.org.
- The Gender Stereotypes
The gender stereotypes shown throughout this film are extremely harmful for boys and girls, but of specific cause for concern is the ongoing warrior narrative and the effect that would have on boys viewing this film and internalizing that idea. Both English and Native men are seen killing over and over and over and it is shown that is the way they perform or display their manhood. In one scene, in fact, a young English man who does not want to kill and was shown hiding behind a log after a battle is told, “A man is not a man unless he knows how to shoot!”
Pocahontas is shown as a strong and smart woman with her own agenda who does not accept the fate assigned to her. She is a good friend to Nakoma and the girls keep one another’s secrets and though they do not agree on everything they offer one another support and empathy. They are also both great farmers and know how to navigate their canoes in the water too. With children ages 4 and 5, be specific about these problems as possible, and note the connection to Pocahontas and her friend Nakoma as it is unfolding on screen. Note also when she stands up to her father,defying gender stereotypes about females as passive and subservient to male authority figures. For example, it is important that Pocahontas chooses her own fate for marriage after telling her father of her recent dreams—as in this exchange:
Powhatan: My daughter, Kocoum will make a fine husband. He is loyal and strong, and will build you a good house, with sturdy walls. With him, you will be safe from harm.
Pocahontas: Father, I think my dream is pointing me down another path.
Powhatan: This is the right path for you.
With children ages 6 to 8, you can bring these things up as they happen, but you could also connect these dots in a later conversation. Try something like this:
- “I think there are a lot of different ways to be a man, and none of them have to do with shooting or violence. What different ways can you think of?”
- “Pocahontas really is a peacemaker, can you think of any other women in the world today or in the past who were like that?”
- “Friendships like the one between Nakoma and Pocahontas are really important. Can you tell me who your most trusted friend is? What are some qualities that you think a good friend should have?”
Make it real: Offer some examples of other historic Native women who have made a difference, for example, the first Native American woman pilot, Bessie Coleman or the first modern Native American woman Chief, Wilma Mankiller.
- The Romance Narrative
Pocahontas throwing herself in front of John Smith, to save his life, is one of the most enduring narratives in US history. The Disney take on this lays it out thus:
Pocahontas: [as she throws herself over John Smith, who is about to be executed] No!
Pocahontas: If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too.
Powhatan: Daughter, stand back.
Pocahontas: I won’t! I love him, Father.
Pocahontas: Look around you. This is where the path of hatred has brought us.
Pocahontas: This is the path I choose, Father. What will yours be?
Ultimately, Chief Powhatan gives a brief speech in response to his daughter’s inquiry that cements him as a peacemaker figure:
“My daughter speaks with the wisdom beyond her years. We’ve all come here with anger in our hearts, but she comes with courage and understanding. From this day forward, if there is to be more killing, it will not start with me.”
On a further positive note, Pocahontas rejects the idea that she has to marry the man her father approves of, or that she has to marry at all. That is until she meets John Smith. The fact that they are an interracial couple is a positive, the fact that they fall seemingly in love instantly is a negative. In the end their worlds are shown to be too different, her Native intended is killed by a companion of Smith’s and he returns to his “world” (England) and she stays in her home.
With children ages 4 to 5, offer concrete points of criticism to let them know that you disagree. For example:
- “I don’t like how Pocahontas’ father thinks he can decide who she marries.”
- “I don’t think it makes sense that Pocahontas and John Smith would fall in love as soon as they meet.”
- “I don’t think that love or getting married has to be anyone’s idea of what ‘Happily Ever After’ means.”
With children ages 6 to 8, feel free to make these same observations while co-viewing, but plan a conversation about healthy relationships later on, when you’re not in front of the screen. For example, you might say:
“Most normal adult relationships are built on mutual respect and trust. I did not like the way that in the Pocahontas, John Smith and Pocahontas fell in love immediately, especially after he said such awful things to her about her culture and had such awful ideas about Native American people. It did not make any sense to me. What did you think of that? Do you think relationships have to respect cultural difference? What are some aspects of our family culture that are important to you?”
Make it real: Talk to your children about who the real Pocahontas was, explain that she was only about 11 years old when she met John Smith, that they were never romantically involved and when she did marry a white English man years later and moved to England, she was very unhappy by all accounts and felt very separated from her own culture.
Click here to read one of the more detailed and credible accounts of the real Pocahontas.
- The Race Representation and Race Stereotypes
Pocahontas is the first Disney film to be based on a real story. This is particularly problematic in that as it is a story about Native American people. Historically the stories of Native people have either been erased altogether or, as is the case here, taken over and viewed through a white cultural lens—as in the song “Savages.”
Talk to your children about how Native American people, though traditionally raised to respect the land, did not talk to trees or animals as depicted in this film. Talk to them about respecting cultural difference and how Native American people still exist today. Talk to them about the narratives that position the Natives as the enemy or aggressor and ask them how they would feel if someone tried to take over their home or neighborhood?
Some books that might offer Native-centered views of Native people for children are:
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
- Powwow Summer by Marcie Rendon
- On This Long Journey: The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy, the Trail of Tears, 1838 by Joseph Bruchac
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
As our children’s pop culture coaches, we can help them become media literate by always reminding them that media are created by other people—people who are making choices about what to depict on screen. You might ask:
“Did you notice how the Native women covered their breasts? Did you know that actual women and girls in Pocahontas’ tribe did not cover their chests anymore than the men did? Why do you think the producers of Pocahontas thought it would be important to draw them covered and gave the girls and women more European sorts of clothing?”
You can also note that because Pocahontas was a departure of the usual fully fictional Disney model, and because the target audience was children, Disney created the raccoon called “Meeko” and the hummingbird called “Flit” to join the familiar legion of marketable Disney animals. These cartoon animals have nothing to do with the original Pocahontas story, and everything with fitting the Pocahontas story into the existing Disney brand.
For more information on marketing and this specific film, visit http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/money/pocahontas-market-stampede-article-1.689257
Find more parent-child discussion guides from RebeccaHains.com here.
I wish I had had this when our family watched this movie when it was first released. Thank you —
So helpful! I will rewatch the movie with my daughter to be able to coach her through this.