Reading this confession over and over got me to thinking about how character design does affect the way we view characters as well as shape our opinions and views. I’m going to talk about character design, specifically Pocahontas’ since there’s a truck-ton of issues with it.
WARNING: MOD IS GOING TO LEARN YOU TURKEYS A THING OR TWO ABOUT CHARACTER DESIGN AND HOW PURPOSEFUL DECISIONS AFFECT MEDIA AND HOW THE AUDIENCE PERCEIVES IT
Of all of the characters in the Disney princess line, Pocahontas probably has the most problematic character design. I say this because as we know, Pocahontas is based off of the colonizing of Jamestown and the life of Matoaka, a young Powhatan woman who encountered English settlers in the 1600s.
Here’s an image of what Matoaka (or Rebecca Rolfe) most likely looked like.
Now, during the settlement of Jamestown and her famous meeting with John Smith, Matoaka is said to have been between 10 and twelve. At one point, the Disney film looked like it was actually going to go with history for a second and make her the appropriate age:
(art by Glen Keane)
But as we know, the production turned it into a love story, so obviously, they had to age up Pocahontas to sell the romance. Here are some intermediary designs, possibly in the middle of the production.
I personally prefer these to her final model: her eyes are much more expressive and I just love her nose.
But as the production progressed, Pocahontas’ design changed more and more until we have the majestic lady we all know:
Some of the issues that come with the final model result from her look being inspired by several people. She’s partially based off of her voice actress, Irene Bedard, who is Native American. Now, this is nothing new: animators a lot of times will base their character’s features off of that of the voice actors to help make the performance more believable. But, she is also based off of Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. The designers seemed to cherry pick the most attractive traits from these women for Pocahontas rather than basing her off her real-life counterpart or at the very least, more than one Native American woman. Seeing as the character was designed by men and is based off of two super models (neither of which are Native American), particularly the lips and eyes, it makes her design a bit more dubious.
The other things that marks Pocahontas’ design is her figure. She is describes by Laura Shapiro as a “Native American Barbie”. This is no exaggeration, seeing as Pocahontas’s waist in smaller than her head, not to mention her rather ample bosom along with shapely legs and arms.
Now, you may be thinking why this matters. Pocahontas’ design matters for many reasons, most of them having to do with how native women are seen through the Western lens (particularly that of the Western male). Pocahontas as a character plays into several stereotypes and tropes that have shaped attitudes towards native groups in general, not just Native Americans.
Pocahontas’ design goes hand in hand with the "Nubile Savage" trope. Considering the time period and environment, it would have been impossible for any women to look like Pocahontas. Don’t think that I am suggesting that there couldn’t have been any attractive Powhatan woman at the time; far from it. I just doubt that a Powhatan women in the 1600s would have the figure and features of a super model from the 20th/21st century.
Along with enforcing the trope of the Nubile Savage, Pocahontas’ design also plays into preconceived notions of native women/women of color. Native women have been stereotyped as overtly and openly sexual or “exotically alluring”; especially as it’s been used to cater to the white male gaze (as well as being a facilitation to the rape and abuse of native women). In the case of the colonization of Jamestown, texts had already been written to entice settlers with the thought of wanton, willing native women.
Pocahontas’ design, is very much informed by the white male gaze. She’s been given features that have been widely regarded as conventionally attractive/sexually inviting: full lips, thin waist, ample breasts, wide hips, long legs, etc… While not an overtly sexual character in her actions or desires, Pocahontas is still posed in relation to John Smith as an object of beauty and desire.
Think about the scene where John Smith first encounters Pocahontas: he’s ready to shoot her, but he stops when he sees how beautiful she is. For seconds, he just gazes at her, her hair flowing majestically through the wind. He cannot help but move toward her, drawn by her stoic beauty. This is probably the most gratuitous example of the male gaze that Disney has ever produced (especially considering that Pocahontas follows him around for minutes of the film and we never see him through her point of view in the same way). We only see an appraisal Pocahontas’ beauty through John Smith’s eyes: never through that of a Powhatan man (which is sort of strange seeing Kocuom did desire her in some way, but hey, we never get a chance to know the guy so who cares?)
There’s also a comment from Glen Keane regarding her design:
"Jeffery Katzenberg told me to make her the finest creature the human race has to offer"
I think that that comment alone sums up why the design is as grossly problematic as it is
and yet another reason why Katzenberg is trash.
TL;DR: Pocahontas’ design has issues: it’s specifically tailored for the white male gaze not only in the context of her creation, but also in the context of them film’s narrative. These decisions have colonialist undertones as well as helping facilitate the outdated rumor that she and John Smith had a love affair, which is far from the truth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a movie and at the end of the day, movies are there to entertain. But never forget that movies are made by people; people who have their own ideas, prejudices, agendas that they bring to the production. Don’t forget that this is a million dollar industry that also helps to condition us in many ways, ways we’re not even aware of. Remember and don’t take it for granted that along with telling us a story, filmmakers are also some of the world’s best manipulators.