A deep read of Netflix descriptions: Pocahontas edition

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.22 Comments

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(TW: mentions of sexual violence) Last night I went on a mini Twitter-rant when I discovered that Pocahontas was on Netflix. It wasn’t the fact that the move was just on the site, it was the description that they had assigned it. Oh the description:

“An American Indian woman is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she yearns for something more–and soon meets Capt. John Smith.”

Apologies for those of you who already heard this on twitter, but let’s talk about this. So, in theory, yes, that is the plot of the movie. Well, part of it. But I want you to compare that description to the descriptions for a few other Disney films on Netflix, and then I want to talk about the context in which this porno sounding BS is situated:

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame: “Inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, this Disney film follows a gentle, crippled bell ringer as he faces prejudice and tries to save the city he loves.”

The Emperor’s New Groove: “In this animated Disney adventure, a South American emperor experiences a reversal of fortune when his power-hungry adviser turns him into a llama.”

Tarzan: After being shipwrecked off the African coast, a lone child grows up in the wild and is destined to become lord of the jungle.”

Hercules: “The heavenly Hercules is stripped of his immortality and raised on earth instead of Olympus, where he’s forced to take on Hades and assorted monsters.”

I picked these four because they have male protagonists, and with the exception of Emperor’s New Groove which has a “South American” lead (who spends the vast, vast majority of the movie as a llama), the rest of white males. I have problems with the “gentle, crippled” descriptor…but the point is, these movies all have well developed romance plot lines, but their (white, male) protagonists get to save things, fight people, have adventures, and be ‘lord of the jungle’–they are not defined by their romantic relationships in the film. Ah, misogyny.

So let’s go back to Pocahontas. I hate the film. It’s a stereotypical historically inaccurate mess, and I’ve said many times on this blog: remember that Pocahontas was a prepubescent (9-12 year old) girl, and John Rolfe was a grown man. It solidifies the “good Indian” trope, that “good Indians” help white people. To help the point, comedian Solomon Georgio (who has a really bad joke about all Natives being dead right before this that might be worthy of another post…):

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But the description reads like a porn or a bad romance novel–“An American Indian woman is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she yearns for something more–and soon meets Capt. John Smith.” The use of “woman” and “yearns” is so…gross. Shudder. The problem? It overly sexualizes the film, and only positions Pocahontas in relation to her romantic options, not as a human being, you know, doing things.

ETA 9/2: I also want to make explicit the colonial white supremacy embedded in this description as well–of course Pocahontas wouldn’t be content with her backwards Native ways with her Native man…she yearns for something more. SPOILER ALERT: It’s a white dude. Of course. It’s perpetuating the idea that white colonizers are better, more than, and the solution to Native savagery. To quote Deray Mckesson, whose retweet was responsible for this getting so much visibility: watch whiteness work.

 We could easily write it more like the male-led films above: “A young Native woman fights to save her people and land with the arrival of gold-hungry colonists.” Or switch up some of the other descriptions: “A gentle hearted bell ringer is supposed to spend his life alone, but he yearns for something more–and soon meets Esmerelda.

But the thing is, we cannot divorce this Pocahontas description from it’s context. We live in a society that sexualizes Native women, that paints us as sexually available, free for the taking, and conquerable–an extension of the lands that we occupy. The statistics for violence against Native women are staggeringly high, and this is all connected.

Yesterday NPR Codeswitch posted a piece about how psychological research demonstrates that watching positive representations of “others” (LGBT, POC) on TV leads to more positive associations with the group overall, and can reduce prejudice and racism. This is awesome, but what about when the only representations are not positive? In the case of Native peoples, I argue over and over that the reverse is true–seeing stereotypical imagery, or in the case of Native women, overly sexualized imagery, contributes to the racism and sexual violence we experience. The research shows that these seemingly benign, “funny” shows on TV deeply effect real life outcomes, so I think we can safely say that a Disney movie (and its description) matters.

So this is not a post railing against the film Pocahontas, which I can save for another time, but a discussion of the importance of the words we use, and the ways that insidious stereotypes and harmful representations sneak in to our everyday lives. When we have very few other representations of Native women on Netflix–this is what we’re left with.

UPDATE: Before I even published, I went to get a new screengrab, and they changed it!!

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UPDATE #2: Apparently the old/other description is still showing on iOS (phones), but I can only see the new one on my computer–so, I’m not sure what’s going on. It might be there are nested descriptions on each film? I’m going to investigate.

UPDATE #3: It appears that there are multiple descriptions on each film, and the problematic one is still there. Sigh.

  • Mary Lame Bull

    I checked Netflix upon reading your article and it hasn’t changed.

    • Penandsword


  • Kari Collins

    Netflix seems to have shorter and longer descriptions depending on where you’re looking at the movie. I see the longer “American Indian woman” version when I search directly for the movie. I found it with theshorter “Greed. Distrust.” one when I looked under the related films toMulan and hovered to get the movie’s description.

    The DVD half of the site has an even longer version: “History comes to life in Disney’s animated tale about love and adventurein the New World. Pocahontas, an American Indian woman, is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she yearns for something more — and soon meets Capt. John Smith.” (Screenshot here: https://gyazo.com/772ecc1f790f3b14e9b6feb4887a4b94 )

  • Netflix DVD has old description

  • djmc993150

    a. it sounds like you are obsessed with sex. I read her “yearn” as having to want to be more than just a wife.
    b. you are obsessed with being offended. this is a cartoon.
    c. you are obsessed with victimization. the indians that helped the english werent “good” because they helped the “white man”, they were “good” because they helped their fellow “human beings”. a point obviously lost on you as you are too busy being a racist.
    d. these events happend almost 400 years ago. Get over it. 400 years ago whites were being sold as slaves in north africa and the middle east. whole villages were being wiped out by barbary corsairs and sold into slavery. whole cities in germany were wiped out in the 30 years war, etc. it was a BRUTAL period. pretending your racist view that only so called “native americans” (not native, just first here) were somehow unique is a joke and based on your ignorance of history.

  • Human

    You PC bro?

    • Revealer

      PCP – all the way. Rodney King style.

  • Kyle

    Sounds like somebody that WANTS to be offended.

    • Sydnie

      nobody “wants to be offended” we are being offended, and when that happens, you actively search for the source, because it needs to stop. of course we don’t like the movie, because of the way it appropriates the culture, therefore we find ways to reach out to other races and cultures who don’t know, or don’t care, that they are in fact appropriating the culture. we do it to raise the awareness, not bring down the other cultures. so, if you don’t have anything t say that isn’t negative or more offensive, why are you on the site looking for an argument? I’m sure you have better things to do.

      • Chris Rogers

        “we are being offended” actively, every day, every second, offense positively follows you everywhere, right? Hashtag First World Probs, right?

        Why are YOU on a site looking for an argument, miss ‘i finish my offended comments with a snarky remark’. Obviously none of us have better things to do. How about owning up to it instead of pretending to stand on a high horse.

  • Kyle

    The doctor after reading the Pocahontas description

    • Penandsword

      And she’s not even an Indian.

  • Marc Paradis

    People are offended over nothing these days. Wow.

  • Anna Langford

    I am so shocked a bunch of men believe there is nothing wrong with this. When you are treated like an object that gets to be passed around for the pleasure of women, then you get to compare women’s, especially POC women’s victimization.

    • Penandsword

      You just described one of my fantasies.

    • Revealer

      Has your shocked worn off sweetie pie?

  • hardresetamericadotcom


  • Penandsword

    Geez, don’t you hens have anything better to do?

  • Rafal

    Are you freaking kidding me, this is what you do in life, look for Disney movies that offend you and complain, no wonder every country in the world hates us, yes every cartoon is porn, and every kids book is porn, we should just stop having kids

  • Revealer

    I looked under Merriam Webster’s definition of “useless”, “bored” and “idle”, “victim” and lo’ and behold, a picture of Adrienne K showed up under all three! A miracle! And then under “doormat”, I saw a picture of Greed Hastings. How is that possible??

    • Mistletoe

      Did you look up “irony” while you were at it? Because “person who goes out of their way to comment on something they find ‘useless’ and ‘idle'” has got to be under at least one of the definitions there.

      • Revealer

        irony my ass…. she meant every word.