(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:
— Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) September 1, 2015
“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:
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…):
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!!
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.